Friday, May 22, 2009

Terminator Salvation: Big and bad

Terminator Salvation (2009) • View trailer for Terminator Salvation
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.09
Buy DVD: Terminator Salvation • Buy Blu-Ray: Terminator Salvation (Director's Cut) [Blu-ray]

The explosive action in Terminator: Salvation  which is relentless and, frankly, exhausting  comes in two flavors:

• Intimate and often deliciously creepy skirmishes between one or two civilians and a single human-sized robot (think of these as the classic "Schwarzenegger models");
While investigating Skynet's primary production facility, John Connor
(Christian Bale, left) and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) fail to notice a rather
nasty surprise looming just behind them. And that's nothing to the shock Reese
would experience, if Connor were to explain the precise nature of their

• Frankly ludicrous battles between clumps of civilians and massive land-based or airborne killing machines.

The former sequences deliver plenty of suspense and serve as pleasant reminders of what made 1984's Terminator and 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day such great action epics.

The latter, alas, appear to have been snatched from the upcoming Transformers sequel: diverting as live-action cartoon chases, but impossible to take seriously on any level. It's preposterous to believe that our puny and quite vulnerable heroes could outrun, outmaneuver and ultimate destroy any of these behemoths, let alone do so on a fairly regular basis.

To be sure, director McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol) and editor Conrad Buff do their best to prevent us from being bothered by such details. After a quiet and deliberately mysterious prologue, their film kicks into high gear and never lets up. The action scenes are well staged, and they make excellent use of production designer Martin Laing's vision of an apocalyptic, post-nuclear California.

Writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris also deserve credit for adhering so well to the increasingly confused continuity demanded by the time-travel elements of three previous films and a just-canceled TV series. Terminator Salvation expands upon established Terminator lore, while adding some reasonable extrapolations and even setting up the necessary "future" elements that will bring the action "back" to what we've already witnessed in the 1984 franchise-starter.

The downside, of course, is that this new film will be utterly incomprehensible to anybody not exceedingly well-versed in what has come before.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — Exhibits charm

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) • View trailer for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for harmless comedy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.21.09
Buy DVD: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian • Buy Blu-Ray: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Three-Disc Edition + Digital Copy + DVD) [Blu-ray]

Blend a museum of natural history, an uptight night watchman and a magical tablet that brings all the exhibits to life between dusk and dawn each day, and the result was $574 million in worldwide ticket sales.

One does not ignore numbers like that.
Although guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has his hands full, when all sorts
of chaos erupts in the Smithsonian's many galleries, he has the advantage
of resourceful assistance from the plucky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).

Happily, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is every bit as clever, charming and harmlessly exciting as its 2006 predecessor. Indeed, this sequel is even a bit better; the new setting  the many buildings housing the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  allows much freer rein for the already amusing premise.

And for once, all concerned have been content to more or less repeat their winning formula. This sophomore outing for Ben Stiller's high-strung Larry Daley doesn't sacrifice its heart on the altar of more mindless and destructive slapstick, a creatively bankrupt decision that plagues far too many comedy sequels.

No, this romp in the Smithsonian is just as sweet and heartfelt as its predecessor, which means it should make just as much money.

True, the gimmick is just as silly, as well; one cannot apply logic to either of these films. (I never cease to be amazed, for starters, by how many historical figures from various parts of the world return to life spouting flawless English.) You gotta just kick back and go with the flow, and Stiller and returning director Shawn Levy  along with returning scripters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon  make that pretty easy.

Larry, having survived and even profited from the events in the first film, has forsaken his unusual friends at New York's Museum of Natural History for a new career as an infomercial titan (a calling perceptively skewered in a short prologue). With a client list that's soon to include Wal-Mart, Larry hasn't found the time for those late-night visits to play fetch with the dinosaur skeleton, or observe the evolving friendship between the miniature cowboy, Jedediah (Owen Wilson), and the equally diminutive Roman centurion, Octavius (Steve Coogan).

Friday, May 15, 2009

Angels & Demons: Pope-a-dope

Angels & Demons (2009) • View trailer for Angels & Demons
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.09
Buy DVD: Angels & Demons • Buy Blu-Ray: Angels & Demons [Blu-ray]

In Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep  most famously adapted for the big screen in 1946, with Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe  the author rather sloppily left one of the killings unexplained. Owen Taylor, played by Dan Wallace in the movie, is found murdered in a car that has been pushed into the bay.

Chandler was embarrassed to admit, after the fact, that even he had no idea who killed poor Taylor; the film adaptation also fails to clarify this little detail.
And you think you had a bad day? Having arrived just a little too late, historian
Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) look
up in horror as they discover the body of one of four kidnapped cardinals. But
this sick form of "cardinal roulette" is just the prologue to the evening's biggest
threat: the pending annihilation of Vatican City.

About midway through director Ron Howard's adaptation of novelist Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, a rather convoluted attempt is made to snuff Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon. You'll eventually realize, during the story's hyperactive third-act wrap-up, that you have no idea who might have been responsible for that murder attempt.

And that's just one of the many problems plaguing this laughable follow-up to the 2006 film adaptation of Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

In fairness, most of this new film's flaws can be attributed to Brown himself, and his overwrought, thunderously unreadable prose and hackneyed narrative. He's a truly terrible writer, and the success of his books  and the 2006 film version of Da Vinci  derives more from the public's fascination with arcane Catholic Church-themed conspiracy theories, and less from Brown's skill as a storyteller.

Angels and Demons  actually published prior to Da Vinci Code, but treated cinematically as a sequel to that subsequent book  is even more ludicrous than Brown's other best-selling potboiler.

Unacceptably ludicrous, as it turns out.

The willing suspension of disbelief is a delicate thing. Despite the White Queen's insistence, in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, that she can believe in "as many as six impossible things before breakfast," wise writers understand the need to make readers  or viewers  accept no more than one massively impossible concept at a time.

Start then with the Illuminati: the ultra-secret society tagged by Brown as the threat driving the action in Angels and Demons. Fair enough; members of the mysterious Illuminati have been so used by numerous authors, and in all sorts of ways.

Unfortunately, the additional gimmick that propels this film's action also makes it collapse: the fact that everything takes place in a single evening.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sin Nombre: Nothing to Lose

Sin Nombre (2009) • View trailer for Sin Nombre
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.14.09
Buy DVD: Sin Nombre • Buy Blu-Ray: NEW Sin Nombre - Sin Nombre (2009) (Blu-ray)

Sin Nombre (Without Name) is a white-hot wail of anguish from writer/director Cary Fukunaga: an impressively polished feature film debut that took both the directing and cinematography awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Fukunaga's memorable drama is an unapologetic depiction of those existing in extreme poverty: the casual cruelty of gang life, the quiet desperation of illegal immigrants seeking the promise of a better world in the United States.
Having double-crossed his fellow gang members, Willy (Edgar Flores) awaits
an uncertain future while riding the rails -- in the company of scores of hopeful
(and illegal) immigrants -- across Mexico and to the edge of the U.S. border.

It's important to recognize that Fukunaga does not use his film as a bully pulpit; his tone is dispassionate, not strident.

At this time of U.S. economic crisis, when frightened citizens seeking "enemies" are finding them among the millions of illegal immigrants  particularly those from Mexico  who help overwhelm an already overburdened system, Fukunaga puts individual faces to a situation too often dismissed as innumerable and anonymous.

This perhaps noble goal notwithstanding, Sin Nombre also has the grim verisimilitude of Fernando Meirelles' City of God (2003), in terms of its depiction of day-to-day existence on mean inner-city streets. Lives are snuffed with the casual contempt that might be displayed while pulling the wings off flies; gang loyalty demands the rigorous adherence to rules that seem cruelly designed to allow hard-core thugs to indulge in random brutality.

Such is the environment that serves as "home" to teenage Willy (Edgar Flores), a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Mexico. We meet Willy  also known by his gang name of Casper  as he inducts 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) into the gang: an initiation process that involves beating the younger boy to near-unconsciousness.

Quite foolishly, Willy maintains a secret relationship with Martha (Diana Garcia), a girl who appears to live on a better side of the tracks. (We never meet her family.) She knows nothing about his concealed street life, and therefore assumes that Willy might be cheating on her; to that end, she secretly follows him one day, when he attends a gang meeting.

Elsewhere, in Honduras, the teenage Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) has just been reunited with her long-estranged father. He lives in New Jersey with a new wife and family, and has journeyed back to Honduras to collect both Sayra and his brother, and guide them through Mexico and then  illegally  into the United States.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek: Exciting new voyages

Star Trek (2009) • View trailer for Star Trek
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.8.09
Buy DVD: Star Trek • Buy Blu-Ray: Star Trek (Three-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray]

As the camera pulled away from those on the bridge, shifting to an exterior shot of the Enterprise preparing to warp into deep space, Michael Giacchino's operatic underscore segued to those oh-so-familiar soft opening notes of Alexander Courage's main theme from TV's original Star Trek ... and Wednesday evening's Sacramento preview audience erupted in applause, many folks making it a standing ovation.

They spoke for us all: It had been a helluva great ride.
Things may be dire for the Federation, but a youthful A-team is about to
demonstrate its valor: from left, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), James T. Kirk (Chris
Pine), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Cho) and
Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Rest assured, the off-camera Spock also has an important
role to play.

I wish Gene Roddenberry still were around to have witnessed the box-office sensation that this new film is destined to be. He'd have been so proud.

Call this the age of the re-boot: It worked for James Bond, and it certainly works for Star Trek. TV franchise creator J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Fringe), having also demonstrated his big-screen chops by helming Mission: Impossible III, has revived the Trek franchise with a bravura thrill-ride that should please longtime fans while also attracting plenty of newbies.

Considerable credit also goes to screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who've concocted a universe-threatening peril while also finding time for plenty of the character dynamics that made the original 1960s show  and its many successors  so entertaining, for so many people, and for so long.

Orci and Kurtzman obviously studied the 1960s Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate, because  even though these are new and younger actors, speaking entirely different lines  we can close our eyes and imagine, just for a moment, that William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley have returned to the screen. At times, it's positively spooky.

None of which really matters to the film and story at hand, of course; such echoes merely are the cherry on top of a fresh, richly fulfilling confection that viewers will devour.

This new Star Trek answers the speculation surrounding any longtime literary or movie property that began "in the midst," as it were: Where did these characters come from, originally, and how did they meet?

Orci and Kurtzman answer such questions, and quite cleverly, while delivering the best big-screen Trek adventure since 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: A Dickens of a time

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) • View trailer for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.09
Buy DVD: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past • Buy Blu-Ray: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past [Blu-ray]

Roughly halfway into Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Matthew McConaughey's wincingly self-absorbed Connor Mead, having unwisely chosen to attend his younger brother's weekend wedding celebration, flees into the family estate's kitchen in serve of alcoholic solace.

One popped champagne cork later, Connor is desperately trying to save the elaborate wedding cake, because the flying cork dislodged one of the all-important little plastic columns that supports the various layers.
Having taken an express-train trip into his own past, Connor (Matthew
McConaughey, rear right) is forced by the Ghost of Girlfriends Past (Emma
Stone, rear left) to re-experience the life-changing moment when his teenage
self (Logan Miller, foreground left) decides to "study women" by following
the advice of his hedonistic Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas). Nothing good
will come of that: One must take great care when selecting a role model...

McConaughey stands, frozen, one hand balancing the cake, as he s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s a leg in an effort to snag something  anything  with which to replace the missing column.

The tableau holds: We wait, breathlessly, as Connor's panic mounts.

And then director Mark Waters does an amazing thing.

Rather than let the scene reach its inevitable conclusion before our eyes  a moment of gloppy slapstick that would have been typical of the lowest-common-denominator comedy with which Hollywood is plagued these days  Waters cuts to the story's other characters, chatting in an adjacent room. We hear a crash and Connor's strangled moan of frustration ... but the details are left to our imagination.

Which is as it should be.

This example of savvy restraint is typical of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which is a great deal wittier, and much more clever, than one would expect from McConaughey's other recent, similar (and disappointing) romantic comedies. Credit also goes to writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who have riffed Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with a skill that bespeaks considerable awareness of their source material.

Although one is reflexively inclined to dismiss this gimmick as little more than a one-sentence high concept  "Unrepentant babe-hound gets his just desserts while being confronted by his egotistical past and likely future"  Lucas and Moore honor Dickens throughout their screenplay, while updating the central premise in a manner that makes it just as relevant today.

I was impressed, and pleasantly so. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is shrewd and entertaining.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Wolverine: Feral fun

Wolverine (2009) • View trailer for Wolverine
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for considerable action violence and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.09
Buy DVD: Wolverine • Buy Blu-Ray: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Two-Disc Edition + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Some films have teeth. This one has claws.

Whether by design or sheer luck, the X-Men films have been among the more successful of their genre, in terms of the delicate balance between telling a solid dramatic story and providing the explosive action demanded by longtime fans of these comic book characters. While perhaps not as lofty and psychologically layered as The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2, the X-Men entries have been leagues above disappointing misfires such as Daredevil and both Fantastic Four efforts.
Having emerged unscathed after death by firing squad -- that mutant "healing
factor," donchaknow -- Victor (Liev Schreiber, left) and Logan (Hugh Jackman,
center) entertain a somewhat sinister but nonetheless inviting offer made by
Col. Stryker (Danny Huston), who we're certain is up to no good. Whatever
the result, it'll be bad news for Logan.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, while rather predictable, is no exception.

Fueled both by Gavin Hood's muscular direction and an all-stops-out performance from star Hugh Jackman, Wolverine establishes a credible back-story for one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Comics universe. Scripters David Benioff and Skip Woods conform to essential comic book details while adding some reasonable grace notes of their own, and wrap up the title character's considerable angst with generous helpings of snarling ass-whupping.

His silly name and wildly improbable powers notwithstanding, Wolverine has long been one of Marvel's great tragic figures, right up there with Bruce Banner and the Hulk. As a result, fans will not be surprised to discover that Wolverine's origins involve plenty of grim tidings.

Hood displays his directorial chops right out of the gate, with a stylish prologue that economically illustrates Wolverine's 19th century background and reveals the man's ageless qualities during a montage that places him in the fury of first the Civil War, then World Wars I and II, and finally even action in Vietnam. His value as a soldier is obvious; aside from his great strength and primal fury, Logan  as he is known in civilian life  possesses a "healing factor" that makes him all but indestructible.

Logan does not make this unusual journey alone; he lives through the ages with older brother Victor (Liev Schreiber), born with all the same superheroic talents.

Albeit with a slight difference: Logan has claws of bone that erupt from between his knuckles, whereas Victor's fingernails can lengthen into equally lethal claws. Both men tend to lose themselves to blood-lust.

But as the decades pass, Logan somehow retains and even reinforces his hold on humanity, and remains protective of innocent civilians. Victor, in great contrast, grows to enjoy killing for its own sake, and becomes ever more like the feral beast  Sabretooth  that becomes his nickname.