Friday, February 27, 2009

I've Loved You So Long: Love hurts

I've Loved You So Long (2008) • View trailer for I've Loved You So Long
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.27.09
Buy DVD: I've Loved You So Long • Buy Blu-Ray: I've Loved You So Long [Blu-ray]

Writer/director Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long makes an intriguing companion piece to Anne Hathaway's Academy Award-nominated performance in Rachel Getting Married ... but I'm not sure anybody could survive such a double-feature.

Both films deal with the attempt to re-knit the frayed threads of an estranged family, while also exploring the notions of redemption and contrition ... and the guilt carried by those who know they're damaged goods, and haven't yet learned how to forgive themselves.
Michael (Laurent Grévill) pays the aloof Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) a
compliment; she wants to believe him, isn't quite sure she can, but nonetheless
smiles in embarrassment and nervously brushes her hair aside. This film is
filled with small moments, all of which bu ild into a compelling stury of one
woman's struggle to move past her pain.

But whereas Rachel is a straightforward study of a fractured family dynamic during the tempestuous weekend revolving around a wedding celebration, I've Loved You So Long is a much quieter picture, with a mystery at its core, that takes place during a much longer period.

Quieter, perhaps, but no less painful.

We first meet Juliette — Kristin Scott Thomas, her impeccable French once again on display — in an airport waiting lounge. She twitches and smokes nervously, the cigarette held almost like a protective weapon, her wary eyes displaying the terrified uncertainty of a forest creature poised to bolt from an as-yet unseen predator.

Outside, a younger woman (Elsa Zylberstein, as Léa) roars up in her car, aware of being late, and races into the terminal. Even without dialogue, we understand that Léa felt it important to be on time, and worries that her tardiness may have consequences.

The two women meet, their faltering greeting suggesting neither intimacy nor familiarity. We therefore blink upon discovering that they're sisters.

The details emerge slowly; some crucial information literally arrives only as the film concludes, and the screen fades to black.

Juliette has just been released from a 15-year prison term. During that time, Léa has grown from a doting teenage younger sister into an accomplished college professor, wife and mother. The crime for which Juliette was sentenced hangs between them, but remains unspoken; it was, however, horrific enough to have made their parents sever all ties with Juliette, and insist that Léa have no contact with her.

But now, as an adult, Léa has found her own voice and obeyed her conscience; she wants to re-establish the sibling relationship. And so — with the reluctant agreement of her husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) — she has invited Juliette to live with them, for as long as it's necessary to regain her bearings, find a job and resume her place in the world.

Luc isn't happy with the arrangement, but he's willing to accept it ... to a point.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic: No account

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) • View trailer for Confessions of a Shopaholic
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.20.09
Buy DVD: Confessions of a Shopaholic • Buy Blu-Ray: Confessions of a Shopaholic (Two-Disc Special Edition + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

I tried to imagine, while leaving the theater with such a rancid taste in my mouth, whether I'd have loathed the heroine of Confessions of a Shopaholic even if the film had been released at a time when the entire U.S. economy weren't tanking.

Oh, yes, I decided.
After indulging in another spending binge, Rebecca (Isla Fisher, center in light
cap) is confronted by "Shopaholics Anonymous" group leader Miss Korch
(Wendie Malick, holding Fisher's arm), who insists on the "tough love"
measure of forcing our heroine to donate everything she just purchased to a
charity outlet. Naturally, this will include a bridesmaid's dress for Rebecca's
best friend's wedding, layering even more "comic tension" into this big-screen
adaptation of Sophia Kinsella's popular book.


That said, I cannot imagine what was going through the minds of everybody at Disney, to have made them believe that filmgoers wouldn't revolt at the very sight of this thumpingly laughless tribute to conspicuous, debt-laden con- sumption.

Intelligent people — those with a shred of perception — understand that some stereotypes wear out their welcomes; some even become offensive over time. Al Jolson's blackface routine in The Jazz Singer would elicit riots today. Dudley Moore's cuddly bazillionaire in 1981's Arthur was pretty much the last "lovable souse" that Hollywood dared put on the big screen.

And, let's face it, now is not the time to expect us to embrace this film's ditzy-but-good-hearted-deep-down Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), who spends herself into multiple calamities during the course of this clumsy, gaspingly ill-conceived attempt at a romantic comedy.

"Desperate" is the word that comes to mind, when scrutinizing this ill-conceived flick. That single word covers Fisher's performance, director P.J. Hogan's efforts to wrest a few giggles from the lifeless script, and Disney's damn-the-torpedos decision to punish us with the wretched result.

Granted, Sophia Kinsella's book — and its sequels — obviously struck a chord with a subset of readers: most specifically those who identified with a financially challenged heroine who couldn't fathom credit card interest penalties if her life depended on it.

But scripters Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert retained only the basic concept while strip-mining Kinsella's novel, and moving it from England to the United States (a serious miscalculation, right off the top).

Somehow, they left all the charm behind. What emerges, under Hogan's ham-fisted guidance, is just this side of a train wreck.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The International: Bad credit risk

The International (2009) • View trailer for The International
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.13.09
Buy DVD: The International • Buy Blu-Ray: The International [Blu-ray]

Given that big-bank CEOs have fallen somewhere south of Nazis and Islamic fanatics, on the scale of villains we love to hate, The International should have had everything going for it as a slick, fast-paced popcorn thriller.
Having almost caught the shadowy assassin responsible for countless clever
murders, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is horrified to see the
fellow roar away in a car, after first having struck one of the good guys.

Indeed, it begins well enough. The global conspiracy is appropriately sinister; the strings are pulled, Illuminati-style, by clandestine, high-powered individuals with the clout or financial control to compromise any legal pursuit; our heroes are fueled by the grimly determined knowledge that they're pursuing a just and noble cause.

Then everything goes to hell in the third act.

I've long been disenchanted by a certain type of thriller that inevitably concludes when a lone-wolf hero triumphantly annihilates his top-dog opponent, having previously mowed down all underlings. But however briefly satisfying such a denouement might be, it comes with a nasty hitch: If all the bad guys have been killed, nobody is left to corroborate our protagonist's version of events.

Depending on the type of story — if, as often is the case, our hero has operated "outside the law" — you couldn't script a worse finale, since only unpleasant options remain for what happens to this character 10 minutes after the film's narrative wraps up.

Well, yes, actually; you could script a worse finale, and Eric Warren Singer did so here. Having reached the final few scenes in The International, one is left with the inescapable realization that nothing has been accomplished. The heroes have wasted their time, and we've wasted our time watching them do it.

Director Tom Tykwer — still well remembered for the verve of his 1998 break-out cult hit, Run, Lola, Run — seems far more involved with a superbly choreographed shoot-'em-up at New York's Guggenheim Museum, than he is with irritating details such as bringing his film to a reasonable conclusion.

Granted, it's a helluva setpiece — with staging, style and tension to burn, not to mention a clever nod toward that old "enemy of my enemy is my friend" mantra — but it's a weak sequence on which to hang an entire movie.

Honestly, Clive Owen was a lot more fun in 2007's utterly ludicrous Shoot 'Em Up. At least that film had the good sense not to take itself seriously.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oscar Shorts 2008: Good things in small packages

Academy Award Shorts (2008)
4.5 stars (out of five). Unrated, with profanity, fleeting nudity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.12.09

I cherish well-crafted short fiction.

Any halfway talented creative typist can clumsily hack through a narrative in a 749-page novel, but genuine talent is required to enchant readers with a 15-page short story. It's an artform too often overlooked ... particular these days, as the markets for short stories — magazines, anthologies — become ever-more- endangered species.
The young star of director Steph Green's New Boy faces the worst fate that
could befall any child: the first day of school in a new classroom, in mid-session
and miles and miles from the home — and way of life — that he knows.
Fortunately, Irish writer Roddy Doyle, on whose story this film is based,
understands that kids have a way of working out their own problems.

In just the same way, short films separate the truly gifted from Hollywood's inept, overpaid and often laughably arrogant names du jour. Economy of storytelling is of paramount importance in a short: Every scene — indeed, every frame — must advance the narrative. Nothing can be superfluous, if the finished product is to achieve the impact desired by its creator.

Once upon a time, way back in the day, short subjects were as much a part of the movie-going experience as the newsreel and a second, full-length B-feature. Patrons entered the theater in the late afternoon or early evening, and were entertained for four or five hours. All for the price of a single ticket.

Recognizing the short subject's place in all this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added two Academy Awards categories — live action and animated — in 1931. And, for the next three-plus decades, that made perfect sense.

But as the 1960s yielded to the '70s, and short subjects went the way of double- features, mainstream Oscar-watchers began to wonder why these two categories remained: Where, after all, could one go to see these nominated mini-movies? And if only a select few get to see them, then why bother with the Academy Awards categories?

Typical short-term thinking.

In the first place, today's talented makers of short films are tomorrow's equally talented makers of feature-length masterpieces.

In the second place, a few years ago the Academy quite wisely began to market the 10 nominated shorts in a road-show package aimed at arthouse theaters; Sacramento's Crest Theater got on board, and now we can see what the fuss is about.

Quite a lot this year, as it turns out.

Friday, February 6, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You: Not that into it

He's Just Not That Into You (2009) • View trailer for He's Just Not That Into You
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and a bit generously, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.6.09
Buy DVD: He's Just Not That Into Youu • Buy Blu-Ray: He's Just Not That Into You [Blu-ray]

As one who, way back in the day, once spent an entire afternoon searching the phone book for the last name of a girl who'd (quite by accident; I wasn't a stalker) given me only her first name and number — thank goodness her surname began with an M! — I can attest that one of the bits of relationship wisdom proffered in He's Just Not That Into You is accurate: If somebody really wants to hook up with you, s/he'll find a way.
Having just obtained a fresh nugget of relationship wisdom from her new "date
mentor," Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin, left) can't wait to share it with Beth (Jennifer
Anniston, center) and Janine (Jennifer Connelly). Unfortunately, like so many
attempts to generalize human behavior, Gigi's flash of "insight" has unintended
consequences for all three.

Conversely, and also as demonstrated throughout this film adaptation of the popular book by Sex and the City scribes Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, if somebody takes your number but then doesn't call within 24 hours, it ain't never gonna happen ... and no amount of wishful thinking or staring at your cell, BlackBerry or e-mail account will make it so.

Director Ken Kwapis obviously wants his film to be a hip American response to British filmmaker Richard Curtis' Love Actually, and at times he almost succeeds. Certainly the films look and sound alike: Both are breezy romantic comedies boasting impressive ensemble casts and the sort of droll, sparkling repartee and comebacks that we'd kill to deliver in real life.

But the recipe doesn't quite come together in the hands of Kwapis and screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein; this film's various characters often seem subordinate to their dialogue and amusingly misguided efforts at self-analysis. A few sound more like Hollywood archetypes of young marrieds and singletons, rather than properly fleshed-out people, and some of them — notably Drew Barrymore's Mary — are little more than stunt casting: too briefly seen, and utterly inconsequential in the grander scheme of things.

Paying proper attention to everybody in a cast of this size is a delicate juggling act; that's one of the many elements that made Love Actually so entertaining. Kwapis hasn't the same skill; his jigsaw puzzle pieces don't fit together nearly as well, despite trying to get it right for a noticeably too-long 127 minutes.

Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin, well recognized from Showtime's Big Love) is both the story's catalyst and by far the most engaging and sympathetic character. She gets the ball rolling by dating Conor (Kevin Connolly), a fairly shallow real-estate agent on the rebound — sort of — because his long-term "friendship with benefits" with Anna (Scarlett Johansson), a sexy, free-spirited singer and yoga instructor, isn't going anywhere.

Sheer chance places Anna in a supermarket check-out line with Ben (Bradley Cooper); they have one of those potentially magical "meet cute" moments that goes awry only when Ben, realizing that he's getting in over his head, backs off and confesses that he's married. That would be with Janine (Jennifer Connelly), a high-strung, uptight and frankly bizarre individual with a hang-up about lying and a weird set of priorities; as we eventually discover, she seems willing to forgive infidelity, but hates the thought of Ben smoking on the sly.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Pink Panther 2: Pale pink

The Pink Panther 2 (2009) • View trailer for The Pink Panther 2
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for cartoonish violence and mild vulgarity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy DVD: The Pink Panther 2 • Buy Blu-Ray: The Pink Panther 2 [Blu-ray]

Following a theatrical run that stalled after two months in the spring of 2006, Steve Martin’s first stab at updating The Pink Panther tallied a rather unspectacular $82.2 million in the United States ... against an estimated cost of $80 million.

Hardly a result likely to make any reasonably savvy studio exec jump for joy.
The dim-witted Inspector Clouseau (Steve Martin, far right), believing that he
has "sol-vedd the case," attempts to apprehend the villain with a customary
lack of restraint; Clouseau's fellow detectives — from left, Pepperidge (Alfred
Molina), Vicenzo (Andy Garcia) and Kenji (Yuki Matsuzaki) — watch
helplessly and hope for the best. As do the rest of us...

Why, then, are we suffering through a sequel?

But yes indeed, Martin’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau is back on the case, this time in alliance with a “dream team” of detectives from various countries, all anxious to apprehend a criminal mastermind who has been stealing the world’s most priceless treasures.

It’s perhaps fair to admit that director Harald Zwart’s film is no worse than its predecessor, which was helmed by other hands; Zwart’s efforts on 2003’s Agent Cody Banks probably gave him all the experience he needed to stage-manage a similarly broad farce involving France’s most notoriously incompetent cop.

Besides, one rather doubts that Zwart controlled his star to any degree; this is Martin’s show — he also shares scripting credit with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — and he obviously wanted another crack at the character made much more famous by Peter Sellers, whose similarly slapstick antics were overseen by a far better filmmaker (Blake Edwards).

The trouble is, Pink Panther 2 also isn’t any better than Martin’s debut shot at this property. Sure, the family-friendly PG rating is valid; nothing here will annoy or offend, and younger viewers will adore the way Martin slams through — and gets slammed by — people, vehicles, buildings and assorted bits of stagecraft. This is elementary destruction-derby filmmaker: the broader the better.

For the old-timers in the audience, think Laurel and Hardy, but with a much bigger budget.

The frustrating part, though, is that at times this film hovers at the outer fringes of being better. Zwart and Martin simply don’t know when to let a potentially great gag exit the stage gracefully; they always push it three steps further, to the point of eye-rolling tedium.

When Clouseau insists on selecting a bottle of wine to match his dinner at a fancy restaurant, for example, the resulting chaos is brilliant: The large wine rack slowly tips, releasing bottle after bottle, which Martin adroitly fields and hurls to helpful waiters and patrons. It’s about a minute of impressively choreographed physical comedy. But then the gag’s giddy delights face, when Clouseau subsequent burns down the restaurant.

That’s not the icing on the cake; it’s a soufflé suddenly gone flat. And it happens again and again in this film.