Friday, June 26, 2009

My Sister's Keeper: Stacked deck

My Sister's Keeper (2009) • View trailer for My Sister's Keeper
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and teen sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.26.09
Buy DVD: My Sister's Keeper• Buy Blu-Ray: My Sister's Keeper [Blu-ray]

Although My Sister's Keeper is laced with intriguing little mysteries and fueled by a thought-provoking legal issue, the big question is whether Cameron Diaz's Sara Fitzgerald is a sympathetic character ... or a monomaniacal monster.

It's a crucial issue, since it likely will determine the degree to which audiences will embrace this film.
Having done the unthinkable, by rebelling against her parents and refusing to
participate in any more medical procedures that might prolong her older
sister's life, Anna (Abigail Breslin) finally finds herself in court with her
compassionate attorney, Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin). What follows
will be a most unusual trial ... even more so than Anna anticipates.

There's very little to admire about Diaz's portrait of Sara, even though considerable latitude must be granted a mother determined to do anything to save the life of a critically ill daughter.

Just what "anything" might encompass, of course, is the heart of the best-selling book by Jodi Picoult, on which this film is based.

Director/co-scripter Nick Cassavetes  working with Jeremy Leven, who adapted The Notebook  has made a contemplative, obviously heartfelt adaptation of Picoult's book, and the film is highlighted by numerous strong, sensitive and impeccably shaded performances.

Diaz's, alas, is not one of them ... which reveals my take on the question posed in the first paragraph.

Diaz simply doesn't have the acting chops for what should be a delicately balanced role. The benefit of getting to know such a character in a book is the time invested: Picoult has ample room to grant Sara Fitzgerald an opportunity to transition from well-balanced woman to a frenzied she-bear.

But we meet Sara only as the latter in this film, and  despite the numerous flashbacks Cassavetes employs  Diaz is a shrill, one-note shrike throughout. She's unpleasant, dictatorial, callous and thoroughly unpleasant, and we therefore can't sympathize with the family catastrophe that may have brought a once kinder woman to this moment. Not at all.

Even the occasional act of nobility  as when Sara shaves her head, in order to show solidarity with her bald elder daughter  emerges more as a gesture of angry spite (absolutely the wrong reading!) than compassion.

I was reminded of Jack Nicholson's equally one-sided interpretation of Jack Torrance, in Stanley Kubrick's ill-advised 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. If Nicholson plays the part as a deranged lunatic from the get-go  which he does  then we have no sense of a good man being converted to evil by the inhabitants of a haunted hotel.

Similarly, Diaz grants us no glimpse of what must have been, at one time, a gentler woman.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen: Monster mash

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) • View trailer for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for smutty dialogue and relentless action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.25.09
Buy DVD: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen • Buy Blu-Ray: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

While certainly no classic of American cinema, 2007's Transformers at least took itself fairly seriously ... or as seriously as any movie about two warring factions of shape-changing extraterrestrial robots could take itself.

The just-released Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in stark contrast, injects so much numbnuts slapstick  devolves to such a clumsy, desperate parody of itself  that the result is neither exciting nor funny. To put it in the story's own terms, it's neither battle-bot nor muscle car.
Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela (Megan Fox) spend a lot of time in this film
running ... running from giant robots, running from explosions, running from
each other. One hopes they were paid by the mile, because they sure don't earn
their paychecks with any sort of acting talent.

Frankly, this film is a mess ... and, at a stultifying 149 minutes, a very long mess.

Back in the day, every time Universal Pictures wanted to squeeze one more entry out of a sagging monster franchise, Abbott and Costello would put a comedy stake through the undead remnants: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and so forth.

Well, this flick feels like Transformers Meets the Three Stooges.

Bad enough that the utterly incomprehensible script  blame Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, although I've no doubt countless uncredited hands helped spoil this soup  stitches together unrelated scenes and half-baked sci-fi clichés so poorly, that the resulting film feels cobbled together from at least half a dozen disparate projects.

Bad enough that these same writers also inject the smarmy humor and coarse dialogue that also plagued the first film in this series, apparently in an effort to secure the more marketable PG-13 rating, and to please the arrested adolescent males who represent the target audience.

I mean, really, aren't scenes of humping dogs  eventually followed by a scene of a little robot humping Megan Fox's leg  the stuff of bad Will Ferrell comedies? This is the height of humor?

What's truly lamentable, though  and what really turns this flick into a brain-paralyzing endurance test  is that director Michael Bay and his editors (no fewer than four of them!) have done sloppy work. The continuity between scenes frequently is absent, as often is the case with the continuity within scenes. Characters shown to be sitting suddenly are standing when the camera angle shifts; characters hiding from bad robots in this spot suddenly are running away from that spot when camera two takes over.

Worse yet, the very soul and essence of the Transformers universe has been subverted by the tiresome insistence on gag humor. Suddenly Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and all the other noble robots have been saddled with comic cut-up robots that spout one-liners as if they're auditioning for a Saturday Night Live stand-up routine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Proposal: Marry, marry, quite contrary

The Proposal (2009) • View trailer for The Proposal
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for nudity, sexual candor and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.09
Buy DVD: The Proposal • Buy Blu-Ray: The Proposal [Blu-ray]

Well, color me surprised.

After a career that has been spotty at best  and more recently threatened to crater completely, in the wake of misfires such as Premonition and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Dangerous  my expectations for Sandra Bullock's newest venture in the romantic comedy genre were, shall we say, minimal.
Fully aware that his much-loathed boss' sham marriage scheme has shifted the
balance of power from its norm in their office environment, the under-
appreciated and oft-abused Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) agrees to participate only
if Margaret (Sandra Bullock) dazzles him with a heartfelt proposal ... delivered
on her knees, of course.

Bullock's bad films can be blamed on a lack of directorial control; much like Will Ferrell, the actress often tries too hard with pathetic material, and winds up looking desperate. Judging by its preview, The Proposal looked like more of the same.

Well, for once the preview undersold the film in question. Thanks to Peter Chiarelli's sharp and witty script, and the firm control of director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses), The Proposal emerges as a deliciously entertaining battle of the sexes. Bullock hasn't been this good in years, and co-star Ryan Reynolds gets ample opportunity to display his deft comic timing. Indeed, he almost steals the film.

The set-up echoes classic 1930s screwball comedies, particularly those that involved bickering couples who suddenly discovered that they weren't actually married, or became estranged for some silly reason, and then spent the rest of the film arguing before deciding to tie the knot for real.

Tart-tongued, high-powered New York book editor Margaret Tate (Bullock) has a well-honed reputation as a soulless control freak whose every move is clocked by employees who scramble to look busier whenever she walks by. Margaret's impressively competent but long-suffering assistant, Andrew Paxton (Reynolds), has put up with horrid hours and weekend sessions for three years, in the hopes of one day being promoted to editor himself.

Chances of that day ever arriving seem awfully remote, until Margaret's failure to address what she perceives as an inconsequential detail  her U.S. citizenship  finally catches up with her. Suddenly threatened with deportation to her native Canada, which of course would mean losing her job, Margaret concocts an unlikely "solution" by fabricating a relationship with Andrew: a supposedly clandestine affair that she'll now be happy to consummate with a public marriage.

Andrew, surprised to say the least, reluctantly goes along with the scheme when Margaret dangles the promise of that long-desired editorship.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Easy Virtue: Let's misbehave!

Easy Virtue (2008) • View trailer for Easy Virtue
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.18.09
Buy DVD: Easy Virtue • Buy Blu-Ray: Easy Virtue [Blu-ray]

Stephan Elliott, the sassy Aussie filmmaker long absent from the screen  and still fondly remembered for his breakout hit, 1994's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert  has returned with a project perfectly suited to his talents: a bubbly re-imagining of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue.

Although the characters and primary plot elements are retained from the play Coward wrote back in 1924, the tone and various relationship dynamics  not to mention Elliott's directorial approach  owe much more to Robert Altman's Gosford Park, the delightful 2001 blend of Agatha Christie and TV's Upstairs, Downstairs.
While trying to build a rapoort with her new mother-in-law, Larita (Jessica
Biel, right) unwittingly gives yet another opening to Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin
Scott Thomas) during their chat in the family's greenhouse ... at which point
the older woman learns that her son's new wife is allergic to flowers. Mrs.
Whittaker's weak spot, in turn, is her dog...

Elliott's take on Easy Virtue has a similar brew of arch one-liners, devastating putdowns and biting observations about condescending British aristocrats who wield their birthrights like blunt instruments. This atmospheric shift  Elliott co-wrote the screenplay with Sheridan Jobbins  results in a film that's more breezily entertaining than Coward's play, which, despite its deliciously scathing social commentary, audiences at the time found as cold and foreboding as Wuthering Heights.

Indeed, the austere play's only previous trip to the big screen came courtesy of no less a talent than Alfred Hitchcock, who made a faithful silent adaptation in 1927. The famed director remained unsatisfied with this film for the rest of his career, no doubt because the absence of sound made it nearly impossible to do justice to Coward's rapier wit and felicity of language. (But since Hitchcock was forced to compensate, he still left several strong impressions with his largely silent scene constructions.)

Elliott gives us modern viewers a heroine to admire in Larita (Jessica Biel), a sexy and avant-garde American introduced as she scandalizes 1930s Britain by winning the race at Monte Carlo, only to be disqualified because she concealed her gender. But all is not lost at that finish line, as she attracts the eye of young John Whittaker (Ben Barnes, appropriately callow); the result is love at first sight, and the two quickly wed.

Her adventurous spirit and scandal-hued lifestyle not-withstanding, Larita recoils from her next test: meeting John's family  and, she hopes, being accepted by them  at their quintessential British ancestral mansion and estate.

John does his best to warn her, and Larita always is up for a challenge ... but even she wilts beneath the contemptuous hauteur of John's mother, the imperious Mrs. Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas).

(Considering Hitchcock's fondness for vicious, domineering mother figures in films such as Rebecca, Notorious, Psycho and Marnie, one can see why he'd have been intrigued by Noel Coward's Mrs. Whittaker.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123: Quite a ride

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) • View trailer for The Taking of Pelham 123
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and considerable profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.12.09
Buy DVD: The Taking of Pelham 123 • Buy Blu-Ray: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 [Blu-ray]

The ground rule for remakes is quite simple: If the new version isn't at least as good  if not better  than the original, then what's the point?

Slavish replication isn't necessary; a solid story concept can support various interpretations, and sometimes a fresh approach is the best choice. Consider the two quite distinct versions of The Thomas Crown Affair: Each is entertaining and clever, and an excellent vehicle for the star of the moment (first Steve McQueen, then Pierce Brosnan).
Having unintentionally endeared himself to the maniac menacing a carload of
people on a hijacked subway, dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is
ordered to deliver the ransom money himself ... an obviously dangerous
assignment that our hero likes even less after a helpful cop presses a gun into
his hand.

The Taking of Pelham 123 remains one of the best 1970s crime thrillers, thanks both to scripter Peter Stone's intelligent adaptation of John Godey's crackerjack novel, and Walter Matthau's wonderfully phlegmatic performance as the dour subway transit officer whose day takes a bad turn when Robert Shaw hijacks a subway car and demands $1 million in a single hour, lest he start killing the passengers, one by one.

Back in the day, director Joseph Sargent delivered a nerve-wracking head game between Matthau and Shaw. Three decades and change later, director Tony Scott  notorious for his bombastic touch and frankly irritating smash-cut editing style  makes the story louder, nastier and much more profane.

But  and this is good news  Scott kept his more aggravating tendencies in check. The self-indulgent, self-styled auteur who made such a disconcerting visual mess out of trash such as Domino and Man on Fire has restrained himself, and with welcome results. Only the deliberately blurred opening credits reflect the behavior of "bad Tony Scott"; once the story begins, he settles down and orchestrates a first-rate thriller.

Credit also goes to screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), who deftly broadens both major characters while maintaining the unexpected  but always welcome  moments of cynical comedy that also punctuated the 1974 original.

Denzel Washington's Walter Garber is introduced as an intelligent and capable New York City subway dispatcher, but the chinks in his armor surface quickly and become ever more troubling. Why, for openers, is such an obviously over-qualified individual wasting his talents at such a mid-level job? And why so much friction with his condescending boss?

Garber, we soon learn, is flawed; for all his resourcefulness and quick thinking, he has shortcomings that didn't infect Matthau's much more morally upright interpretation of the same character. That makes Washington's Garber much more interesting, not to mention a greater acting challenge: Garber is the hero here, and always must be viewed as such.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Life in Ruins: Ruination

My Life in Ruins (2009) • View trailer for My Life in Ruins
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.11.09
Buy DVD: My Life in Ruins • Buy Blu-Ray: My Life in Ruins [Blu-ray]

Back in the day  1969, to be precise  Suzanne Pleshette and Ian McShane starred in If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a routine albeit reasonably charming saga involving Americans being hauled about on a brisk tour of Europe.

This film could be considered a template for an extremely narrow subset of romantic comedies that focus on a mishmash of folks getting dragged into some activity more or less against their wills, and forced to enjoy the experience despite themselves. Notwithstanding complaints, short tempers, lousy hotel accommodations and other low-key problems, everybody winds up being best friends forever when the curtain finally falls.
Georgia (Nia Vaardalos) spends the first half of My Life in Ruins trying to
persuade the members of her hot and tired tour group to embrace her often
stuffy lectures about Greece's magnificent ruins. It could be argued that
Varsalos and the filmmakers spend just as much time trying to get us to like
their movie ... with roughly the same degree of success.

In their own way, such films are as rigorously formulaic as the disaster flicks of the 1970s, in the sense that you could tabulate the two-dimensional stereotypes in your sleep. Tension is minimal, and threats generally are limited to an "unexpected" health crisis that strikes one of the most beloved characters who has come along for the ride.

And, needless to say, the female lead  invariably at a crossroads in her life  Finds Love After All.

Call it movie comfort food.

All that said, some viewers will be delighted to discover that My Life in Ruins hasn't changed the equation a jot in 40 years. All the elements are in place, starting with the frazzled tour guide who can't get her life together; the only nod to the 21st century is the fact that the primarily American tourists of If It's Tuesday have been transformed into a more politically sensitive  although still as stereotyped  gaggle of folks from all over the world.

Honestly, it feels as if scripter Mike Reiss watched If It's Tuesday half a dozen times, modified the recipe only enough to satisfy plagiarism watchdogs, and hoped for the best.

The result will feel awfully familiar to those who regularly watch movies, and that's a problem. I also could apply the ultimate insult, and suggest that My Life in Ruins looks, sounds and plays like a made-for-TV movie with delusions of grandeur. That's a bit harsh, but it accurately describes director Donald Petrie's by-the-numbers approach to a script he seems to have found rather lackluster.

In short, My Life in Ruins feels like a job: a chore to be undertaken with great reluctance by cast and crew, much like the tour being led by this story's Georgia (Nia Vardalos).

Vardalos' presence in this film also is disappointing, in the sense that My Life in Ruins is such a letdown after the star's much greater success with the vibrant My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A lesson can be learned here: Greek Wedding was far from original itself, but Vardalos and all involved injected so much life and spirit that they made a clichéed story fresh all over again.

No doubt the same could have been done with My Life in Ruins, but nobody seems to be trying.