Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People: Far from amusing

Funny People (2009) • View trailer for Funny People
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexual candor and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.31.09
Buy DVD: Funny People• Buy Blu-Ray: Funny People (2-Disc Unrated Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray]

Wow ... what a tedious, self-indulgent mess.

Filmmakers who decide to become "meaningful" must be regarded with eyebrow-raised skepticism, because it's a sure sign that somebody is taking himself much too seriously. The situation inevitably occurs because the artist in question  often a director  has made buckets of money in the recent past, and therefore has the clout to be green-lighted for what amounts to an insufferable vanity project.
When Clarke (Eric Bana, far right) returns home early from a business trip, his
wife, Laura (Leslie Mann), stumbles to find a reasonable explanation to justify
the presence of long-ago lover George (Adam Sandler, left) and tag-along Ira
(Seth Rogen) in their home. Because Clarke is such an idiot -- a failing that
afflicts every character in this film -- it's not that hard a sell.

Which, in a world where poetic irony rules, flops.

Think back to Steven Spielberg, who stumbled big time with 1941, after having been such a media darling with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Recall James Cameron, parlaying his two Terminator films into the mooningly melodramatic The Abyss. Or Barry Levinson, following Rain Man and Bugsy with the jaw-droppingly dreadful Toys.

Judd Apatow's shtick always has skirted the ragged edge of cruelty, and Funny People is distastefully mean-spirited. This is a sordid little tale of morally compromised troglodytes who are intended, in Apatow's imagination, to be sympathetic protagonists in his interminable, clumsily written narrative.

They are not sympathetic. They do not deserve happiness or anything else that might be construed as a "reward." As a group, they begin this film with the ethics of snake-oil salesmen, and their bad behavior remains consistent until a thoroughly unpersuasive epilogue.

They do not learn; they do not respect even their so-called best friends; they lack sense  common, good or any other kind  and carry on like spoiled children.

All of them. All the time.

Normally, such misanthropic behavior would be held up for low comedy, as was the case with Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, both of which blended hilariously coarse dialogue with a sweet romantic underbelly. We tolerated and laughed at the former because the latter was a satisfying payoff: Steve Carell genuinely fell in love, Katherine Heigl did right by her unborn child.

Funny People, in great contrast, overflows with so much contrived melancholy and faux poignance that it becomes the sort of purple melodrama that Tom Servo and the 'bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have roasted with glee.

Worse yet, this film gives us no satisfaction: nothing to be pleased with, as the lights finally rise after 146 interminable minutes.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

G-Force: Furry frolic

G-Force (2009) • View trailer for G-Force
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild rude humor and cartoon violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.30.09
Buy DVD: G-Force• Buy Blu-Ray: G-Force (Three-Disc DVD/Blu-ray Combo +Digital Copy)

Although little more than a trumped-up Saturday morning TV movie with delusions of big-screen grandeur, G-Force certainly will be loved by the small fry who represent its target audience.

Parents also will appreciate the child-friendly content, although they're likely to doze off a few times themselves. Unlike the family films that come from Pixar, as just one example, adults will find little to embrace here: no clever sight gags, and certainly nothing deep in the storyline.
With their careers on the line, our gadget-laden guinea pig spies -- Juarez, left,
a sexy martial-arts expert, and squad leader Darwin -- infiltrate a sinister
industrialist's home, hoping to access his secret computer files.

After introducing the admittedly hilarious notion of gadget-laden guinea pigs, the screenwriters don't even bother trying for winks and nods by spoofing established spy-flick franchises.

This is strictly simplistic kid stuff.

Mind you, that's not a bad thing; the action set-pieces are colorful and crazed, and the "stars" are cute and cuddly. Young viewers will be kept happily occupied, and they're not likely to worry about the frequently sloppy script's rather glaring lapses of continuity or common sense.

It seems that Dr. Ben Kendall (bearded Zach Galifianakis, also currently on view in The Hangover is a rather amazing scientific genius, having developed the means to communicate with animals  and get them to talk back  while also fabricating way-cool miniature gadgets designed to be used by small furry rodents ... and even houseflies.

For some unfathomable reason, though, this incredible display of intelligence and creativity isn't enough for the FBI, which wants to terminate Kendall's work.

Apparently high-IQ guinea pigs that function as crack espionage agents and manipulate all manner of gizmos isn't impressive enough for Washington. (One wonders what would have caught D.C.'s attention!)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Ugly Truth: Pretty amusing

The Ugly Truth (2009) • View trailer for The Ugly Truth
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for sexual candor and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.24.09
Buy DVD: The Ugly Truth• Buy Blu-Ray: The Ugly Truth [Blu-ray]

Although viewers will be 15 minutes ahead of its predictable plot at all times, The Ugly Truth unapologetically recycles overly familiar material into a crowd-pleasing date flick.

Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler have much to do with this film's pleasures; they bite enthusiastically into the sharp-tongued, often amusingly coarse dialogue as mildly erotic sparks fly between them. Chemistry is everything in a film of this nature, and if Heigl and Butler don't quite channel the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, it's not for lack of effort.
The cheerfully vulgar and chauvinistic Mike (Gerard Butler) is everything Abby
(Katherine Heigl) hates in a man, and she's everything he finds predictably
uptight in a woman. Naturally, they wind up working together; just as
naturally, romantic sparks aren't far behind.

Not that this patchwork script  credited to Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, and feeling as if it has been further "sweetened" by several additional scribes  can lay claim to the rat-a-tat screwball genius of classic 1940s Hollywood romantic comedies. This is derivative material writ large, with a mash-up of The Odd Couple and Cyrano de Bergerac supplemented by 21st century pokes at the Mars/Venus male/female divide.

Even so, Heigl and Butler are quite engaging as (respectively) the Felix and Oscar in this ribald battle of the sexes. Director Robert Luketic has a much easier time whenever his two stars are sniping at each other, and his film noticeably drags when one or the other is absent.

Heigl stars as Abby Richter, the spit-and-polish producer of A.M. Sacramento, a morning talk show struggling for dwindling ratings in the network television market. Abby is old-school; she still believes that viewers are intelligent, and that they want actual news and provocative commentary, Walter Cronkite-style, as opposed to loud-mouthed infotainment delivered in bite-size segments with words of no more than one syllable.

She's something of a control freak as well, but she gets the job done; even her boss acknowledges that. But the product simply isn't getting the necessary ratings, and something needs to spice up the mix.

Off the job, Abby maintains her uptight persona with a succession of failed dates: No surprise, since she micro-manages a restaurant menu order and even brings along pages of "talking points" designed to facilitate a conversation. One wonders how her one-time-only companions manage to last beyond the pre-dinner cocktail.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Hurt Locker: Explosive drama

The Hurt Locker (2009) • View trailer for The Hurt Locker
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for war violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.23.09
Buy DVD: The Hurt Locker• Buy Blu-Ray: The Hurt Locker [Blu-ray]

Although not quite the heart-stopper that its previews would suggest, The Hurt Locker certainly is the most absorbing Iraq-based drama mounted thus far by an American filmmaker.

I suspect its success derives from the curious quality of independent film production that automatically confers a level of authenticity so frequently absent from big-budget Hollywood projects, which also usually arrive with partisan agendas. The Hurt Locker has no political axes to grind, except perhaps the observation that young men die in war zones; director Kathryn Bigelow's muscular film seems content to be an intense character drama that dissects its central protagonist much the way he disarms bombs, in order to learn what makes them tick.
The laws of physics involved with a detonated bomb are remorseless, and if a
man is caught within the expanding diameter of concussive force -- even a man
wearing a special ordnance disposal suit -- mere flesh and blood with turn into
pulp. Small wonder, then, that the members of Bravo Company describe
experiencing an explosion as being put "in the hurt locker."

Honest films draw viewers, even when limited budgets preclude splashy advertising campaigns. Somehow, people just know; their collective interest becomes viral. And, judging by the unusually large crowd at the Tower Theater Monday evening  always the quietest night at a movie house  The Hurt Locker will build an impressive audience as it gathers momentum all summer.

Certainly Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93) play up writer Mark Boal's documentary-style approach, often employing the grainy film stock and hand-held camera work that simulate events as they unfold. (Fortunately, Bigelow is savvy enough to minimize this technique, using it only when appropriate, to spare us attacks of vertigo.)

The unfamiliar faces heading the cast also draw us into their characters in a manner that rarely occurs with name-brand stars; the illusion is so complete that it's actually distracting when (for example) Ralph Fiennes briefly pops up, or David Morse's distinctive voice is recognized in another scene (his features obscured behind battle gear).

The time is the summer of 2004, the setting the streets of Baghdad, as patrolled by the Army's elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squad: the specialized technicians who search for and attempt to disarm the homemade roadside bombs that threaten Americans and Iraqis alike. Obviously, the job is dangerous enough on its face; it becomes exponentially worse  maddeningly suicidal  because these young soldiers are at constant peril from insurgents waiting with rifles or detonators, who hope to blow the bombs at the most inopportune moment.

We meet Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) of Bravo Company during a prologue, which establishes the film's central plotline and demonstrates the armored, spaceman-style suit worn by the man who gets up close and personal with each deadly device.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Grim tidings

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) • View trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.17.09
Buy DVD: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince• Buy Blu-Ray: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Blu-ray]

Steve Kloves is the best thing that ever happened to the Harry Potter film franchise.

The skilled screenwriter was sorely missed on 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the only one of the six films that Kloves didn't script. It was, quite frequently, a narrative muddle that both failed to capture the essential plot elements of Rowling's sprawling novel, and completely perplexed viewers unfamiliar with Harry's universe.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, right) has no idea who previously owned the battered
old textbook that has made him such a whiz in potions class, and he really
doesn't care; Hermione (Emma Watson), on the other hand, is both suspicious
and worried. Ron (Rupert Grint), alas, is too absorbed by sports and an
aggressive new girlfriend to notice such things.

Thankfully, Kloves is back, and this new big-screen adventure  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince  is much the better for his participation.

(The good news continues: Kloves already is working on the two-film adaptation of the series' final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, scheduled for release in 2010 and 2011.)

Despite the enormity of the task, Kloves carefully advances the key plot points involved with the deadly Lord Voldemort's efforts to penetrate the magic-protected walls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, while also devoting plenty of time to the hormones raging within our young protagonists. The characters, 11 when introduced, now are in their sixth year at Hogwarts, which makes them 17 ... and madly, desperately, hopelessly in love.

And not necessarily with the right people.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), his brief fling with Cho Chang now an uncomfortable memory, can appreciate the romantic agony of Hermione (Emma Watson), whose fondness for Ron (Rupert Grint) has grown during the previous two films, and now is blindingly obvious to everybody ... except Ron himself. Vexingly, he has encouraged the romantic overtures of sappy Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave, appropriately smothering).

For his part, Harry is brought up short by the degree to which Ron's younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), has blossomed into a young woman whose former little-kid devotion has become a bit more serious.

Unfortunately, young love is the least of Harry's problems. Half-Blood Prince opens with a nasty prologue, as Voldemort's villainous "Death Eaters"  led by the giggling psychopath, Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter at her seductively sinister best)  boldly assault targets both in Harry's magical world (the shops of Diagon Alley) and in the more public "Muggle" realm of downtown London.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I Love You Beth Cooper: Puppy love

I Love You Beth Cooper (2009) • View trailer for I Love You Beth Cooper
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, smutty content and frequent bad teen behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.16.09
Buy DVD: I Love You Beth Cooper• Buy Blu-Ray: I Love You, Beth Cooper [Blu-ray]

I'm grateful for filmmakers who don't need to hit the ball out of the park every time.

After helming the first two Harry Potter entries and bringing Rent to the big screen, director Chris Columbus must've been exhausted ... and, one suspects, fed up with the sheer size and scope of such projects. No surprise, then, that he'd return to the simpler, gentler style of his younger days  specifically his 1987 directorial debut, Adventures in Babysitting  and renew his acquaintance with "little" pictures.
If Beth (Hayden Panettiere, center) is in sight, then her thuggish boyfriend can't
be far behind ... a realization that prompts delight from Treece (Lauren Storm,
left) and Cammy (Lauren London), and absolute terror from Denis (Paul Rust,
left) and Rich (Jack T. Carpenter).

The result, a charming adaptation of I Love You, Beth Cooper  Larry Doyle wrote the screenplay, from his own 2007 novel  certainly covers no new ground in the teen romantic comedy genre, and in fact feels overly familiar at times. But Columbus and Doyle blend the formulaic ingredients with enough skill to keep us entertained, and the engaging young stars inhabit their roles with enough conviction to sell the material.

Doyle's script is funny, earthy and just gross enough, at random moments, to hold the attention of a young target audience. Sadly, though, that demographic probably will avoid this film like the plague. Beth Cooper feels too much like an adult's perception of the teen scene, which automatically makes it uncool; this film also lacks the up-to-the-minute pop score that made Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist (for example) a more successful teen package.

(I liked it anyway. Sue me.)

This film represents a bid for big-screen stardom by Hayden Panettiere, an ongoing presence as the plucky high school cheerleader on TV's Heroes. She plays a high school cheerleader here as well, which probably won't do much to impress future talent scouts with her range ... but, in fairness, she definitely nails the part.

She and co-star Paul Rust are the primary reasons for this film's success: Both deliver winning, thoroughly sympathetic performances. The premise also is can't-miss, since we've all cast ourselves as hapless geeks in long-ago romantic fantasies about being tongue-tied in the presence of The One Who Got Away ... for the simple reason that we never worked up the courage to say anything to the guy or gal in question.

That's a future memory that Buffalo Grove High School valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Rust) is determined to avoid. Encouraged overmuch by best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), Denis uses his graduation speech as a means to confess his worshiped-from-afar, never-before-revealed love for Beth Cooper (Panettiere), the hottest girl in school ... while also putting names to several other white elephants who stampeded through the senior class.