Thursday, April 30, 2009

Earth: Familiarity breeds disappointment

Earth (2007) • View trailer for Earth
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, but awfully intense and grim for young viewers
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.30.09
Buy DVD: Earth • Buy Blu-Ray: Disney Nature Earth [Blu-ray]

Disney's Earth  the much-ballyhooed first release from DisneyNature, a new studio imprint that will focus on wildlife documentaries  is a bait-and-switch con job.

Nowhere in any of this film's self-congratulatory promotional information  and certainly not in any of the TV spots or movie theater previews  will you learn that this film is little more than "best of" highlights from the sumptuous 2006 Discovery Channel series, Planet Earth.
Even with their mother's care, only 50 percent of new polar bear cubs survive
their first year, and more are lost when they first leave their mother, to make
their way alone. The polar bears followed in Earth were filmed on Kong Karls
Land, a group of islands between the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. In this
land, part of Norway, the "midnight sun" lasts from April 20 until Aug. 23,
and the polar night lasts from Oct. 26 through Feb. 15.

Indeed, this big-screen version was released in the United Kingdom in 2007, with Patrick Stewart replacing Sigourney Weaver as narrator. Here in the States, Stewart has been replaced by James Earl Jones. (That's Hollywood!)

Mind you, the already opulent photography looks even more stunning on the big screen, and directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield are to be congratulated for the magnificence and enormity of their accomplishment.

But I was expecting a new film, thank you very much, and I became increasingly puzzled by the sense of deja vu that accompanied last week's preview screening. Eventually, though, all doubts were erased: the spectacular slow-motion shot of a great white shark chomping into a seal was far too memorable, as was the chilling, disheartening saga of the desperate polar bear that tries unsuccessfully to make a meal of a walrus cub ... and, having failed, sinks onto the polar ice, closes its eyes and prepares to starve to death.

Arbitrary condensations of much larger works run many risks, and that's the first problem plaguing this edit of Earth: It's relentlessly harsh and depressing. Stretched out across 11 episodes and literally scores of individual animal stories, when originally broadcast in 2006, the grimmer aspects of "Nature's design" were easier to endure, as they were bookended by numerous lighter, happier and more triumphant narratives.

Here, though  with a running time of only 96 minutes  it feels like one sad conclusion after another: a white wolf running down a young caribou; a cheetah doing the same with a gazelle; a baby elephant so weakened during a trek with its mother through the inhospitable Kalahari Desert, and so blinded by dust, that it literally walks into a tree stump it can't see; another elephant overwhelmed by a starving pride of lions; the aforementioned shark attack; and, as a finale, the gloomy demise of the hungry polar bear.

Parents intending to bring small children to this film should think long and hard before doing so. The "cuteness factor" of several other scenes  polar bear cubs, Mandarin duck chicks making their first attempt at flight  is seriously undercut by all this trauma. The elephant sequences, in particular, are very hard to watch.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Soloist: Solid duet

The Soloist (2009) • View trailer for The Soloist
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, drug use and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.24.09
Buy DVD: The Soloist • Buy Blu-Ray: The Soloist [Blu-ray]

A high school history professor used weekly current events pop quizzes to encourage his students to read a daily newspaper, a ploy so successful, in my case, that the Los Angeles Times became a faithful and much-enjoyed addiction that continues to this day.

The hard news aside, I've always been drawn to columnists, and therefore noticed immediately when Steve Lopez joined the staff in May 2001, having transitioned to the Times after four years with Time Inc., where his work appeared in Time, Sports Illustrated, Life and Entertainment Weekly.
Happily "parked" in a traffic tunnel, for the setting's open expanse and purity
of sound, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx, left) tentatively tries the cello that
L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) has brought him.

More than any other columnist I had followed before, or have discovered since, Lopez exemplifies an old-style journalistic ombudsman: a sharp-eyed observer of both human nature and civic affairs who rails with intelligence, perception and wit about everything from street potholes and other neighborhood frustrations, to big-ticket issues such as mayoral indifference and the overly cozy inner-circle workings of the Los Angeles City Council.

Above all else, Lopez loathes hypocrisy, and is quick to lash out at elected officials behaving badly; of late, he's been death on L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's deputy mayor of transportation, Jaime de la Vega  who, in his position, should set a good example  because the man drives a Hummer.

Sometimes, though, Lopez just writes about people. I always enjoy his occasional visits to a downtown barber shop, usually as election time rolls around, for the colorful tapestry of opinion that the columnist obtains from the working-class folks who both staff and patronize this business.

In 2005, Lopez began a series of columns about a bedraggled but somehow quite dignified homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers, who poured his soul into a violin having only two strings. Somehow, Lopez realized, Nathaniel found inner calm through music, despite a chatterbox, stream-of-consciousness instability that no doubt had led to the man's life on the streets.

The columns led to mountains of mail and an ongoing relationship between the two men; Lopez had, with his graceful and sympathetic approach, put a face to mental illness. Readers responded; a publisher responded; Hollywood responded. The book  The Soloist  came first, which Lopez expanded from his columns; then he suddenly found himself in the enviable position of being portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in a deeply moving film directed by Joe Wright (Atonement).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Crank High Voltage: Rank prank

Crank: High Voltage (2009) • View trailer for Crank: High Voltage
One star (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity, nudity, strong sexual content, drug use and just about every other depravity one could mention
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.23.09
Buy DVD: Crank: High Voltage • Buy Blu-Ray: Crank 2: High Voltage [Blu-ray]

My list of cinematic guilty pleasures includes Jason Statham's flicks, in great part because of his Transporter series: great car chases (take that, Fast & Furious), cleverly choreographed fight scenes, wonderfully hissable villains and plenty of chances for our action hero to deliver his frequently mordant wisecracks.

I even found 2006's Crank something of a giggle  as did my Constant Companion  because its premise was so insanely over the top: the need for contract hitman Chev Chelios (Statham) to remain in amped-up motion for 24 straight hours, lest his metabolism slow down and permit an injected poison to kill him.
Having rescued girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) from a fate worse than death --
working as a stripper for a club owner played (in a perfect bit of typecasting)
by reality TV misfit Corey Haim -- Chev (Jason Statham) finds that their
problems are only beginning, as several dozen Chinese Triad gangsters burst
into the room. Amazingly, none can shoot straight...

The writing/directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor went dog nuts with that film, mostly because of the ingenious methods poor Chelios employed  including a memorably public shag with surprised but willing girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart)  in an effort to keep his adrenaline going.

Crank cranked in roughly $28 million during its five-week release, not a bad return for a $12 million investment: no surprise, then, that all concerned got together again.

No surprise, as well, that Crank: High Voltage fails to recapture its predecessor's lunatic momentum. Such lightning almost never strikes twice.

This new film isn't merely bad; it's dreadful. I'll give Statham credit for gamely tackling everything Neveldine and Taylor threw at him, but it's impossible to make any other encouraging observations.

Much like Run, Lola, Run, the first Crank earned its rep through the inventive handling of an audacious concept. Neveldine and Taylor also understood the importance of getting off the stage as quickly as possible; Crank clocked in at an economical 87 minutes, and at that had worn out its welcome by the third act. One can take only so much of a film  and storyline  that demands hyperdrive every second.

Crank: High Voltage is a much longer 96 minutes, and I say that not just because of the additional nine minutes, but because this sequel feels like it drones on for years. Decades, even.

It ain't just the length; it's the content. And the content here is relentlessly vulgar, atrociously violent and  here's the important bit  not the slightest bit funny. Not even tastelessly funny. Merely tasteless.

Neveldine and Taylor made no apologies for the fact that the first Crank was little more than a live-action video game with a hero capable of taking punishment like The Roadrunner's Wile E. Coyote. Even when poor Chelios died in the final scene, having successfully gotten his bloody revenge against everybody who poisoned him, he fell from a high-flying helicopter to a city street below, conveniently bouncing off a car before crashing, intact, onto the pavement in order to give the camera a death's-eye stare.

As opposed to fragmenting and spraying like a ripe watermelon, you understand, were we paying the slightest attention to the laws of physics.

"He was dead," this new film's publicity campaign intones, "but he got better."

Friday, April 17, 2009

State of Play: Suspenseful game

State of Play (2009) • View trailer for State of Play
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.17.09
Buy DVD: State of Play • Buy Blu-Ray: State of Play [Blu-ray]

The fire alarm went off as the third act heated up during Tuesday evening's preview screening of State of Play, and the collective moan of disappointment clearly indicated the degree to which the Sacramento-area audience had been wrapped up in the drama.

We all dutifully filed out of the theater, joining other customers departing from their respective movies, and everybody's night out came to a premature conclusion. Full disclosure demands that I acknowledge not yet having seen the final half-hour or so of State of Play (although I certainly intend to catch up with the rest).
The first time Della (Rachel McAdams) seeks help from Cal (Russell Crowe),
he blows her off, not willing to be bothered by an upstart who believes that
self-indulgent blogging is the height of journalism. But as their two
respective stories unexpectedly converge, Cal takes a chance that Della will
get fired up by the hynotic allure of true investigative reporting; his hunch
proves correct, and then this story really kicks into gear.

That said, I'm quite comfortable pronouncing director Kevin MacDonald's film an absorbing thriller, based both on the 90 minutes we did see, and my recognition of the fidelity with which screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray adapted the gripping 2003 British miniseries  Paul Abbott, take a bow  on which this film is based.

As a sidebar, State of Play also reminds me of the degree to which investigative journalists make great movie heroes, and the potential loss we all face, in a world of downsized  or fully shuttered  newspapers no longer able to sic inquisitive reporters on highly placed political and/or corporate figures who are Up To No Good.

Hollywood has produced plenty of great films about newspapers and reporters, from the exaggerated farce of His Girl Friday to more cautionary dramas such as Call Northside 777 and All the President's Men. State of Play belongs with the latter.

And I'm not just saying this because this film's protagonist delivers a few superbly placed shots about the poorly researched, self-indulgent uselessness of most blogs. Although those are great one-liners. And I did want to stand up and cheer.


MacDonald's film hits the ground running, with two seemingly unrelated events: the execution-style killing of a young street punk, and the attempted murder of an unfortunate witness; and the apparent suicide-by-subway of Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer), a Capitol Hill staff assistant and researcher to rising congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck).

Veteran Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) gets the first story, and is intrigued by the marksmanship involved with the double-shooting. The second piece falls to fresh-faced Globe blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who sees little beyond the obvious fact that the very married Collins was having an affair with his assistant.

Thus, in the time-honored fashion of sleazy tabloids  the level to which most so-called "news" bloggers aspire  Della leads the charge to smear the congressman.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Adventureland: Enjoyable ride

Adventureland (2009) • View trailer for Adventureland
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.16.09
Buy DVD: Adventureland • Buy Blu-Ray: Adventureland [Blu-ray]

In the wide spectrum of dead-end summer jobs, few could be more lifeless than getting stuck at a dive amusement park in suburban Pennsylvania.

Writer/director Greg Mottola really captures the setting's scuzzy, dispirited tone  along with an authentic 1987 vibe  in Adventureland, an unexpectedly poignant little flick that successfully rises above the "teen sex comedy" promotional campaign with which it has been saddled.
Although his daytime responsibilities are dispiriting, James (Jesse Eisenberg)
bonds with Em (Kristen Stewart), who helps make the hours pass more
enjoyably. James would love to deepen their relationship, but Em conceals a
major part of her personal life ... and our nerdish hero fears that he'll never be
able to penetrate that wall.

Although not quite as perceptively wired to the 1980s Zeitgeist as American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused were to their respective eras, Mottola's film nonetheless captures the spirit of this time and place, as filtered through the sensibilities of half a dozen young twentysomethings struggling to find their place in the world.

Most notably one twentysomething, actually: recent college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), an uptight and geekily over-educated nice guy who intended to spend his summer touring Europe with a good friend. Alas, parental finances have fallen on hard times, so the overseas excursion is out.

Worse yet, Mom (Wendie Malick) and Dad (Jack Gilpin) no longer can afford to help James with tuition at the Ivy League grad school for which he already has qualified ... so successfully entering that program in the fall will depend on his own ability to cover expenses.

Trouble is, James lacks the skills for any sort of normal job; he even lacks the wherewithal to properly apply for a job. (His choice of "references" during fruitless conversations with prospective employers are a hoot.)

That leaves the woeful, can't-miss opportunities at a tawdry, peeling-paint "funtastic" amusement park dubbed Adventureland, reluctant home of those unable to find work anywhere else. This blend of rattletrap rides and creaky arcade games isn't even honest; the supposed tests of skill are classic carny cons deliberately rigged to prevent unsuspecting marks from ever winning the most delectable prize, a "giant-ass stuffed panda."

James' first clue of the bad news to come should be the fact that his own personal shadow  the lunatic Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), who goes by his last name  is perfectly suited to the Adventureland atmosphere.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hannah Montana, The Movie: Let's do this!

Hannah Montana, The Movie (2009) • View trailer for Hannah Montana, the Movie
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.10.09
Buy DVD: Hannah Montana, The Movie • Buy Blu-Ray: Hannah Montana: The Movie (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

So there I was, one of few adults in the audience to begin with, and probably the only one without a young daughter in tow, surrounded by 549 eager and excited little girls, half of them clutching Hannah Montana posters, the other half wearing Hannah Montana T-shirts, and all of them passing the time by singing Hannah Montana songs or sharing moments from the Disney Channel's Hannah Montana TV series.

Truly, I haven't seen such enthusiasm since the debut of the first Harry Potter movie, back in 2001.
Although initially quite resentful after being dragged back to her whistle-stop
home town, Miley (Miley Cyrus) perks up a bit after bumping into childhood
friend Travis (Lucas Till), who has matured into a strapping young cowboy.
And if you smell a song coming, you're right...

Happily, Hannah Montana: The Movie delivers precisely what its fan base wants ... and, judging by the applause that greeted the end of Tuesday evening's Sacramento preview, the audience had a great time.

Much has been written about the impressive pop-star ascent of Miley Cyrus, thanks to a simple but clever concept that permits plenty of good-natured fun and leaves room for lots of music. The irrepressible Cyrus is both a natural and a good sport: The camera loves her  from the broad, friendly grin to the sparkling eyes and homespun manner  and she's willing to embrace the goofier aspects of plotlines that include the sort of gentle slapstick that Disney has been using since the 1950s, and the original Mickey Mouse Club.

That's part of this big-screen escapade's charm; the other is a similar retro nod to all the dozens of "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" barnyard musicals that Hollywood cranked out in the 1930s and '40s, perhaps best typified by the frequent pairing of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Hannah Montana: The Movie is concocted to permit the canny placement of "12 brand-new songs"  a promotional phrase repeated with delight by Tuesday's young fans  in a storyline that revolves around the teenage star's various performances, rehearsals or songwriting sessions.

The songs rarely interrupt the narrative, because they are the narrative.

For those who've somehow missed out on this pop-culture phenomenon, Miley Cyrus  daughter of country music icon Billy Ray Cyrus  was 13 years old when she debuted in 2006's first season of Hannah Montana, a show that was fashioned, to a degree, around Miley's actual life. She stars as Miley Stewart, a rising young singer whose widowed father, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus), helps shape an ingenious double-life that affords the girl protection from the pressures of public life.

By day she's just Miley, an average kid (who happens to sing a lot); by night  or on weekends, or when a performance calls  she dons a blond wig and hops into colorful, spangled outfits to become the incredibly popular Hannah Montana, whose fame only spread as the TV series continued through subsequent seasons.

And, in a fascinating case of life imitating art, the same thing happened to Miley Cyrus herself.