Friday, March 27, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens: Retro giggle

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) • View trailer for Monsters vs. Aliens
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for action violence and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.27.09
Buy DVD: Monsters vs. Aliens • Buy Blu-Ray: Monsters vs. Aliens [Blu-ray]

Curious about the degree to which voice talent can bring additional sizzle to an animated film's steak?

Look no further than Monsters vs. Aliens.

This fast-paced sci-fi comedy probably would have done well regardless; directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon hit the ground running and never let up, and their script  co-authored with four other credited writers  has both a clever premise and plenty of room for sight gags, one-liners and exciting action sequences.
Having blossomed to 1 inch shy of 50 feet, poor Susan Murphy
(voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is horrified to discover that a massive
alien probe wants to capture her; the subsequent chase rages through
most of San Francisco -- the residents having fled -- and threatens to
engulf the Golden Gate Bridge. And this is just the first chaotic

The voice talent, however, really makes the film.

And while I hesitate to single out anybody, Seth Rogen is too funny for words as the bright blue benzoate-ostylezene-bicarbonate blob mercifully known as B.O.B. As the sentient result of an experiment that blended a chemically altered ranch-flavored dessert topping with a genetically altered tomato  an origin story that should bring an additional giggle from Davis viewers  poor Bob was fabricated without a brain.

The character therefore lives truly for the moment, since it can't plan ahead or remember details even a few minutes removed. Needless to say, such a concept gives plenty of ammunition to Rogen, and Bob pretty much steals the film.

Fortunately, the blue blob has plenty of competition.

Monsters vs. Aliens is a deliberately retro take on what might have happened if the frequently silly creatures cobbled together for 1950s monster flicks actually existed. Bob therefore can be viewed as a much funnier cousin of the gelatinous "Blob" that menaced Steve McQueen in the 1958 film of the same title; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, perfectly stuffy and condescending) is a superior result of the trans-matter experiment gone awry in 1958's The Fly.

The preening, half-fish/half-ape known as The Missing Link (Will Arnett) is 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon in all but name, while the 350-foot grub dubbed Insectosaurus stands in for every giant costumed monster that battled Godzilla in a variety of flicks.

The narrative begins sedately, as California gal Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) prepares to marry Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd), a narcissistic weather guy hoping to graduate from his remote-channel Modesto indie station to a more prestigious market. Sadly, when Susan gets clonked by an oddly glowing meteor mere minutes before her wedding, she derails the ceremony by growing until she's 49 feet and 11 inches tall (the tattered remnants of her wedding dress somehow still preserving her modesty).

Next thing she knows, Susan has been whisked to a top-top-top-secret government facility, where she's given the new code name Ginormica and left to fraternize with her fellow monsters.

Because it's Witherspoon, we can't help feeling achingly sorry for the poor woman. The deliberately cartoonish animation style is too far removed from physical reality to take seriously, and yet  thanks to Witherspoon's acting chops  we're deeply moved by her plight. Even though it's utterly absurd.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Duplicity: Untrustworthy

Duplicity (2009) • View trailer for Duplicity
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and mild sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.26.09
Buy DVD: Duplicity • Buy Blu-Ray: Duplicity [Blu-ray]

There's such a thing as being too clever.

Duplicity is a lot of fun to watch; it could hardly be otherwise, since Julia Roberts and Clive Owen illuminate the screen with enough spark and star wattage to power a good-sized city.
With his credibility on the line, Ray (Clive Owen, foreground left) tries to
persuade the rest of his corporate "dirty tricks" team that an accusation by
Claire (Julia Roberts) is without merit; his efforts are, shall we say, an
uphill struggle. But it's also one of dozens of moments when we've no way
of knowing who -- if anybody -- actually is telling the truth.

At the same time, the film also is quite annoying.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy certainly knows the spy genre, having scripted The Bourne Identity and its two sequels. One can imagine, given his total immersion with a character burdened by serious trust issues, that Gilroy saw the light comedy potential of a story that brought together two characters who  as a necessary part of their careers  deal with evasion and false identities ... but who nonetheless fell in love.

How can either one trust the other? Can any exchange of information, or confessions of devotion  no matter how seemingly heartfelt -— be taken at face value?

Therein lies the rub ... not only for the characters, but also for us viewers.

Because just as former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) and former CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Roberts) all too quickly assume the worst of each other, we very quickly discover the same problem. Gilroy's narrative is so twisty  it positively wallows in double- and triple-crosses  that we're unable to believe anything we see or hear, and we therefore cease to care about any of the plot twists.

All we can do is assume that some subset of these characters will wind up gaming the rest of them, no doubt quite cunningly, and hope for a reasonable amount of sense (justice? payback?) as the final credits role.

Meanwhile, we can take pleasure from once again  after too many years  seeing Roberts in the sort of part that perfectly suits her: one that gives ample excuse for her radiant smile and sensuously naughty laugh. Owen, far from chopped liver, matches her beat for beat, his British charm and savoir faire also given considerable exercise.

We hit the ground running, with Ray and Claire somehow mixed up in a ruthless cold war between the CEOs of rival multinational corporations: industry titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and brash upstart Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Tully is the careful strategist and poker player; Garsik is the impatient and opportunistic wild card nipping at the older man's heels.

Both hate each other. With a vengeance.

Both regard industrial espionage  at its core, the bald theft of proprietary ideas and innovations  as a reasonable means to an end.

Ray is part of Garsik's "black ops squad," tasked with uncovering any weak links in Tully's legion of employees: anybody who could be exploited or (better yet) "turned" to advantage. Claire does the same as part of Tully's comparable dirty tricks team ... except that Claire's a double: She actually works for Garsik, and clandestinely routes information to him via her handler, who happens to be Ray.

Still with me?

Don't jump ship yet; it gets much more complicated.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Great Buck Howard: Not so great

The Great Buck Howard (2008) • View trailer for The Great Buck Howard
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild profanity and a fleeting drug reference
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.20.09
Buy DVD: The Great Buck Howard • Buy Blu-Ray: The Great Buck Howard [Blu-ray]

Indie films come in a wild variety of flavors; that's what makes them so interesting. You simply never know what to expect.

Some are ultra-low-budget guerrilla productions, fueled by little more than raw determination and funded by maxed-out credit cards; El Mariachi and The Blair Witch Project would fit into this group. Regardless of the quality of the finished product, you can't help admiring the audacity of all involved, and the fact that their films got made and released at all.
Troy (Colin Hanks, center left) watches with interest as fading stage mentalist
Buck Howard (John Malkovich, center) checks his TV coverage with his agent,
Gil (Ricky Jay), to see whether he might have a chance to claw his way back
into the big time.

Others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, possess the better funding and A-list stars that we'd often expect from a Hollywood studio production. The only real difference seems to be the comparative modesty of the project itself: a generally quiet script and concept that lack the juice liable to attract enough attention in the cinema marketplace.

The Great Buck Howard belongs to the latter group. Once upon a time, this would have been a B-film perched at the bottom half of a double-feature: an opportunity for name talent to try something a little different.

Sean McGinly's little film is impressively mounted, with top-drawer production values. The opening credits sequence is extremely clever: an early indication that a lot of care and love went into what we're about to watch.

Unfortunately, despite its poignant premise, McGinly's film is very, very slow, his directorial hand so gently employed that he risks putting audiences to sleep just as effectively as the title character's hypnotism act. Even when people get annoyed with each other here, they do so placidly, as if everybody had popped a few Valiums before hitting the set each day.

Our young protagonist, Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), is introduced as he bolts from law school, finally compelled to act on the conviction that he'd never be happy as a lawyer. With vague ideas of becoming a writer, but aware of the need for a steady paycheck in the meanwhile, Troy accepts the obviously questionable position of dogsbody for fading mentalist Buck Howard (John Malkovich).

Although something of a celebrity back in the day  Buck repeatedly boasts that he appeared 61 times on TV's The Tonight Show, when Johnny Carson was host  the limelight has dimmed. These days, Buck is reduced to playing dilapidated theaters in cities such as Bakersfield and Akron, Ohio: the stage mentalism equivalent of old-time stand-up comics who once prowled the Borscht Belt.

Oddly enough, though, Buck doesn't seem to mind. He genuinely enjoys interacting with a sparse audience primarily composed of post-retirement fans; they, in turn, tolerate the sidebar portions of his act, as when he sits at the piano, every evening, to croon a wincingly awful rendition of "What the World Needs Now Is Love."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Reader: Mesmerizing page-turner

The Reader (2008) • View trailer for The Reader
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.19.09
Buy DVD: The Reader • Buy Blu-Ray: The Reader [Blu-ray]

Are monsters born ... or made?

And are they readily recognizable as such?

Director Stephen Daldry's compelling adaptation of Berlin law professor and mystery novelist Bernhard Schlink's The Reader is littered with weighty questions, many of which cannot be discussed here at risk of revealing too much to those not yet familiar with the storyline.
Delighted by his having persuaded Hanna (Kate Winslet) to join him for an
all-day bicycle outing in the countryside, Michael (David Kross) couldn't care
less if other people naturally assume that this older woman is his mother. He
knows better, and the delicate nature of this relationship is destined to have a
profound effect on his life and career.

Granted, that's likely very few potential viewers at this late remove, particularly in the wake of Kate Winslet's well-deserved Academy Award for her utterly mesmerizing performance.

But I still maintain that the greatest pleasure  if that's the proper emotion  to be derived from Daldry's film comes with the sense of discovery: particularly since screenwriter David Hare has so carefully and cleverly translated Schlink's highly personal (and deliberately tantalizing) book.

Although this film is set in three different time periods, it never becomes confusing; rather, we gain more insight each time the narrative bumps forward or moves backward.

Part mystery, part coming-of-age saga, at first The Reader feels like a German response to Herman Raucher's Summer of '42 and its 1971 film adaptation. The initial setting even is a close parallel: post-WWII Germany, where we're introduced to teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) as he becomes ill during a bus ride. He stumbles off the vehicle, all but overcome by a sudden wave of nausea, clearly unable to proceed any farther.

Michael's obvious distress catches the eye of Hanna (Winslet), a brusque blue- collar type; she cleans him up and helps him return home ... at which point he collapses from scarlet fever and remains an invalid for a period of time.

Already, though, we've witnessed the fascinating delicacy of Winslet's acting. Hanna's initial response to Michael's plight seems motivated less by compassion and more by a desire to restore order to her carefully balanced life; the young man has, after all, gotten sick all over the front area of the building where she lives. Her behavior is brusque to the point of being chill: more like what we'd expect from a gradeschool teacher who secretly dislikes children.

Time passes; Michael recovers. He retraces his steps out of both curiosity and a desire to thank his benefactor. Hanna is startled to see him again; Winslet's eyes reveal a mixture of surprise and something else ... suspicion? (This odd response becomes clear much later.) But eventually satisfied that the boy's motives are genuine, she relaxes and attempts something in the nature of cordiality.

It's almost more than she can manage.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain: Failed spell

Race to Witch Mountain (2009) • View trailer for Race to Witch Mountain
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite generously, for constant violence and gunfire
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.13.09
Buy DVD: Race to Witch Mountain • Buy Blu-Ray: Race to Witch Mountain (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

You can't merely suspend disbelief while watching Race to Witch Mountain; you have to flush disbelief out the airlock.

Director Andy Fickman's noisy remake of the amiable 1975 Disney fantasy certainly isn't an improvement, which is ironic, considering the enhanced state of special effects in the 21st century. Fickman obviously belongs to the kitchen-sink school of filmmaking: When in doubt, throw in more bullets, more explosions and more car chases.
Having found their way to the super-super-secret military base at the oddly
named Witch Mountain, our heroes — from left, Alex (Carla Gugino), Sara
(AnnaSophia Robb), Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Jack (Dwayne Johnson) —
stare skyward, as if hoping for inspiration to strike. More likely, they're hoping
for fresh, more intelligent script pages, as this flick doesn't allow them to do
more than run, duck and cover.

Maybe, that way, the audience won't notice the lapses of continuity in Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback's clumsy screenplay ... or the plot holes that are large enough to pilot a flying saucer through.

I've long been annoyed by lazy writers who, having accepted a commission to script a family-friendly (read: children's) film, apparently believe that they can be sloppy because kids won't notice. Well, I beg to differ. It's insulting, and kids do notice ... particularly today's kids, who are much more savvy about movie logic.

As competent writers such as Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling would be the first to point out, children's fantasy should be every bit as carefully conceived and meticulously plotted as that for adults. After all, some of the best kid-lit remains an engaging read no matter what our ages, and the best youth-oriented movie fantasies  the adaptation of Gaiman's Coraline immediately comes to mind  are designed to satisfy everybody from young-'uns to their grandparents.

That's the way it should be.

But that certainly isn't the way Lopez and Bomback handled their update/remake of Disney's "Witch Mountain" franchise.

In fairness, yes, Dwayne Johnson is quite engaging as long-suffering Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno, who is trying to put his larcenous past behind him. Johnson's action hero persona has a natural flair for light comedy that Arnold Schwarzenegger never quite managed, while at the same time remaining credibly able to beat up on routine bad guys.

Anyway, Jack's life gets more complicated when he unwisely agrees to drive two somewhat unusual kids  Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig)  to a remote location in the Nevada desert. Aside from speaking an oddly stilted English and behaving strangely, Sara and Seth have no concept of the wad of money they use to engage Jack's services.

Turns out, the kids are being pursued by a veritable army of gun-toting black-ops types led by the determinedly nasty Burke  Ciaran Hinds, at his most malevolent  a vicious swine who gives the U.S. government a truly bad name. (Didn't Disney get the memo? We have a kinder, gentler, science-friendly administration in Washington now!)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

African Adventure — Safari in the Okavango: The ones that got away

African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango (2007)
Three stars (out of five). Rating: suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.12.09

You can't help wanting to swat all the reeds away.

Director Ben Stassen's cleverest touch in his newest giant-screen IMAX production, African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango, was his decision to incorporate a "prow's-eye view" during much of the film.
Take a good look at this photo, because you'll get closer to a hippo here than
at any point in this largely disappointing film, which too frequently fails to
obtain — or provide — the "money shots" that characterize other, much
better nature documentaries.

As South African zoologist Liesl Eichenberger and wildlife filmmaker Tim Liversedge take their tiny craft through the weed- and reed-choked waterways of Botswana's Okavango Delta  a flooded region that can't help making American viewers think of the Florida Everglades  their passage is recorded, in part, by an IMAX 3D camera that has been mounted at the very tip of the boat, right at the waterline.

The resulting effect is akin to slowly swimming through these waters, and having to push aside the flora that sticks up from the water. Indeed, the camera lens itself plunges right into the reeds, which gently part as the boat moves forward.

The feeling of actually being there is beyond tantalizing; it's amazing how much this relatively simple little trick fools our brains as we sit comfortably in the darkened theater.

I wish the rest of the film were equally satisfying.

Granted, African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango is a welcome relief from the seemingly dozens of ocean- and underwater-themed IMAX films that have proliferated of late. It's a (mostly) above-ground excursion through a region of Africa that remains largely unknown to us outsiders. In fact, as the narrator informs us, the Okavango's comparative isolation  the degree to which it remained hidden from the rest of Africa, let alone the world  left it largely unexplored until fairly recently.

It's a fascinating ecological paradise: a flooded 20,000-square-kilometer maze of lagoons, channels and islands ... in the middle of an otherwise arid and inhospitable desert.

Eichenberger and Liversedge are entertaining guides; they know the region but aren't the slightest bit blase about its many wonders. Eichenberger's enthusiastic smile is particularly infectious.

But while Stassen's film is visually opulent and the subject matter quite fascinating, the 41 minutes pass so quickly that we're left hungry. To a degree, that's partly because of what the film doesn't show us.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen: Tick-tock...

Watchmen (2009) • View trailer for Watchmen
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite generously, for nudity, profanity, sexual content and urelenting graphic violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.6.09
Buy DVD: Watchmen • Buy Blu-Ray: Watchmen (Director's Cut + BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

Fans of Alan Moore's Watchmen are in for a ripping good time, because director Zack Snyder's big-screen adaptation of this seminal 1980s graphic novel is geek paradise.

The film is impressive faithful to its source material, and at just shy of three hours, Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have plenty of time and a massive canvas on which to reproduce all the important details, large and small, that made Moore's ground-breaking deconstruction of superheroes so memorably engrossing.
Having decided to defy the government's ban on their activities, the costumed
heroes Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) derive
considerable pleasure from quelling a prison riot while searching for one of
their comrades.

You will not, however, find Moore's name anywhere on this project, which claims simply to have been adapted from the work by Dave Gibbons (the original 12-part comic serial's artist) and "DC Comics." The notoriously eccentric Moore, no fan of the film industry  despite what I'd argue are honorable big-screen renditions of his other works, From Hell and V for Vendetta  refused to allow his name to be used to help sell this film.

Hey, his loss.

Watchmen belongs to the recent trend that reasonably questions whether super-powered beings automatically would be virtuous beacons of integrity. Obviously, they wouldn't all be; a certain percentage of any subset of humanity would include those with opportunistic streaks and even criminal tendencies.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely ... or, to employ one of this story's catch-phrases, Who watches the Watchmen?

Moore's saga, obviously written in a white heat of rage prompted by his perception of where the world was going in the 1980s, takes place in a slightly altered universe where "Masks," as superheroes have been dubbed, began operating in public during the WWII years. Oddly, they're a mostly American phenomenon, which generates considerable nervous tension on the part of other world powers.

When President Nixon later calls on the Masks to help the United States win the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union's perception of American arrogance escalates a nuclear missile build-up that prompts worried scientists to set their "doomsday clock" to scant minutes before the midnight of annihilation.

(In a deliberate nod to Dr. Strangelove, a scene in Nixon's war cabinet shows various generals cheerfully acknowledging the necessity of insane levels of collateral American lives lost, when  not if  this war begins. One can hear the echo of the grinning George C. Scott, as he ruefully admits that we'd "get our hair mussed.")