Friday, August 28, 2009

Adam: Tender beginnings

Adam (2009) • View trailer for Adam
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.28.09
Buy DVD: Adam

Advocacy cinema takes many forms, the most effective examples often arriving stealthily, as quiet, consciousness-raising little dramas that call attention to disenfranchised members of society.

Writer/director Max Mayer's Adam is just such a film: a sweet, poignant character study about a young man with Asperger's Syndrome  a form of high-functioning autism  and a sympathetic young woman who falls in love with him, and attempts to expand his sheltered, withdrawn lifestyle.
Unless confronted directly, Adam (Hugh Dancy) prefers to ignore other people,
having learned that he frequently misinterprets what they say. This initially
puzzles Beth (Rose Byrne), but she gradually discovers that an honest soul
lurks beneath her neighbor's reserved exterior.

The film is being marketed as a romantic comedy, which seems misleading; although certainly laced with amusing moments  most derived from the title character's tendency to take statements and actions at face value  Mayer's script is rather too serious to be lumped with inconsequential fluff such as The Proposal.

But calling Adam a sensitive "message movie" probably would be the box-office kiss of death, so I can't really fault Fox Searchlight's approach.

For the most part, and especially when he concentrates on his story's two primary characters, Mayer's film is thoughtful, absorbing, poignant and gently informative: a clearly sympathetic portrait of a man trying his best to cope with a condition that makes him utterly helpless in social and interpersonal situations, which the rest of us casually take for granted.

At times, though, Mayer's tone is disrupted by the intrusion of a secondary plot line  and the needlessly over-the-top performance of a supporting actor  that are unnecessary and out of place, and rip us right out of the core narrative.

I find this mis-match surprising for an individual (Mayer) who has directed more than 50 new plays Off-Broadway and around the country, and is a veteran director for TV shows such as Alias and The West Wing. I'd expect Mayer to have a better understanding of balance, and recognize how he damages his otherwise delicate film with occasional "Hollywoodizing" elements.

Fortunately, most everything else pales alongside the excellent work of Hugh Dancy (The Jane Austen Book Club, Confessions of a Shopaholic), who delivers as carefully shaded a performance as I've seen since Cliff Robertson (Charly) or Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Post Grad: Post-mortem

Post Grad (2009) • View trailer for Post Grad
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for brief profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.27.09
Buy DVD: Post Grad• Buy Blu-Ray: Post Grad [Blu-ray]

Much like its central character, this movie undoubtedly thought it knew what it wanted to be when it grew up ... but things didn't work out that way.

Kelly Fremon's "original" screenplay, blatantly derived from the dysfunctional-family sub-genre recently popularized by Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning, apparently transitioned into something else when star Alexis Bledel got involved.
It's that perfect moment -- the posed graduation photo -- when grabbing the
entire world still seems possible to Ryden (Alexis Bledel, second from right)
and her longtime friend Adam (Zach Gilford, far right). Alas, nothing will work
out quite right from this point onward, in part due to the involvement of,
clockwise from left, Ryden's father (Michael Keaton), grandmother (Carol
Burnett), mother (Jane Lynch) and younger brother (Bobby Coleman).

Bledel's strength  demonstrated time and again by TV's Gilmore Girls and both big-screen Traveling Pants adaptations  is as a winsome, mildly vulnerable romantic lead, which is pretty much the approach she takes in Post Grad.

Trouble is, the rest of the cast is making some other movie, and Vicky Jenson  an art department veteran and animation director (Shrek, Shark Tale) making her live-action directorial debut here  hasn't the faintest idea how to blend these two disparate halves.

The result is clumsy and unintentionally funny. Bledel's Ryden Malby reminds me unerringly of the role Beverly Owen played on TV's The Munsters back in 1964, as the conventionally attractive (i.e. "normal") teenage daughter who was such an outcast among her hilariously weird parents, grandfather and younger brother.

But this clearly isn't the tone Post Grad is seeking, as is obvious from the way Fremon's script proceeds.

The disconnect is unfortunate, particularly since Jenson opens the film cleverly, with Bledel's Ryden taking us through her computer-based networking activities to supply the necessary backstory. This quite engaging prologue sets up definite expectations, none of which are met as the film continues.

Ryden, having just graduated from college, is all set to sell herself during an interview for what she has regarded as a dream job her entire life: an entry-level position at a Los Angeles publishing firm, where she'll eventually rise to reader and associate editor, and then make her rep by discovering the world's next hot author.

Alas, the job is snatched by condescending college nemesis Jessica Bard (Catherine Reitman, daughter of Ivan Reitman, one of this film's producers), and Ryden's carefully orchestrated post-grad career path is shattered in an instant.

Friday, August 21, 2009

District 9: An enthusiastic 10

District 9 (2009) • View trailer for District 9
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.21.09
Buy DVD: District 9• Buy Blu-Ray: District 9 [Blu-ray]

This one has it all.

Part scathing social commentary, part eye-popping speculative fiction, part kick-ass action flick, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is a ferociously engaging film: the sort of impressively original work that shapes popular entertainment for years to come.
Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley, left), assigned to serve "eviction
notices" to the unappealing aliens that have been crammed into a slum for 20
years, naively believes that the "virtue" of his task will be enough to ensure
his safety while within the fenced compound known as District 9.

Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch also make excellent use of the "found footage" style of filmmaking that has become so common these days; this drama unfolds as a blend of faux documentary, on-the-street guerrilla footage and  when necessary  "traditional" camerawork that allows us access to scenes that couldn't be obtained any other way.

Point-of-view purists may kick up a fuss, but who cares? Blomkamp and editor Julian Clarke assemble all the pieces brilliantly: You'll be hooked from the very first scenes.

It's important to note that some genuine thought and planning went into this manner of storytelling; it's not just the usual irritating excuse for jiggly camerawork that mars most recent flicks taking this approach. Blomkamp puts us right into this pell-mell saga, and gives it a sense of immediacy that makes District 9 the genius cinematic equivalent of what Orson Welles did so cleverly with radio, back when he frightened the hell out of listeners with his 1938 adaptation of War of the Worlds.

More to the point, this sucker moves.

Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell waste no time in setting the stage, beginning their tale with a series of on-camera interviews apparently being conducted after the fact: This both establishes the necessary back-story, while suggesting that these events  whatever they were  went very badly.

The time is an unspecified point in our near future, the setting Johannesburg, where for 20 years the city's residents have lived uneasily alongside a rather unusual refugee camp. Two decades earlier, a huge extra-terrestrial "mother ship" came to rest above Johannesburg and then ... did nothing. With the world's eyes on this South African metropolis, local forces finally broke into the vessel and discovered countless malnourished aliens, all apparently too helpless to do anything.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ponyo: Style over substance

Ponyo (2008) • View trailer for Ponyo
Three stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.20.09
Buy DVD: Ponyo• Buy Blu-Ray: Ponyo (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Japanese animation impresario Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo is gorgeous, lyrical, poetic and deeply moving at unexpected moments.

It's also slow and very, very strange.
Despite the magical Fujimoto's desperate efforts to "calm" his unusual daughter
back to her normal state, Ponyo -- originally a goldfish -- has tasted the
delights to be experienced as a human being. Then, too, she has made a
land-based friend in the world above: a little boy who already wonders what
has become of his new companion.

To a degree, the latter can be excused by the stylistic disconnect between Western and Japanese fairy tales. Miyazaki, who both wrote and directed this film, relies far more heavily on visual storytelling than narrative exposition; while U.S. directors John Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Peter Sohn clearly tried to clarify details for this English-language version, much remains oblique and only minimally explained ... if, indeed, explained at all.

The broad strokes are easy to discern, though, and other issues can be excused if "magic" is accepted as the reason for various events. Even so, adults likely will emerge with dozens of questions that simply don't have answers.

Children, on the other hand, may be completely satisfied with the core relationship between a 5-year-old boy and the rather unusual goldfish he rescues one day.

The would be Ponyo, introduced as a mute, reddish goldfish: a bit larger than her hundreds of sisters, and all of them carefully sheltered by Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), a wild-haired, undersea mad-scientist type who mutters dire imprecations while carefully pouring various colored potions into the oceans, in an effort to maintain a harmony constantly under attack by pollution from the lands above.

Ponyo, having grown old enough to be curious, hitches a ride to the surface on an obliging jellyfish: an act that very nearly ends her life, when she is scooped up by a massive dredger and gets stuck in a discarded jam jar.

Fortunately, she's spotted by young Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, yes, of that Jonas family), who quickly rescues the little fish and makes her a pet. He does this by filling a bucket with tap water, which might raise eyebrows among viewers savvy enough to understand the distinction between fresh water and sea water ... but this is the first of many, many details we simply must roll with. As far as this story is concerned, water is water; it's magic, remember?

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife: It flies

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009) • View trailer for The Time Traveler's Wife
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, fleeting nudity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.14.09
Buy DVD: The Time Traveler's Wife• Buy Blu-Ray: The Time Traveler's Wife [Blu-ray]

Many patrons will start bawling 15 minutes into director Robert Schwentke's swooningly romantic adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, and they probably won't stop until the lights come up.

If then.
Even though she understands -- has always understood -- the severe problems
resulting from her decision to fall in love with Henry (Eric Bana), sometimes
Clare (Rachel McAdams) finds the situation more than she can endure. Briefly
walking out of a room, to return and find him vanished, is bad enough; having
no idea how long he'll be gone ... ah, that's the crippling part.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin's understated, impressively compact handling of Niffenegger's popular novel is further buoyed by quietly layered performances from stars Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, who credibly sell their characters' highly irregular relationship. The gimmick is presented in such a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner  this is the situation; deal with it  that we can't help embracing it, just as these two tragic protagonists live for the moments when they can embrace each other.

The Time Traveler's Wife is an unapologetic romantic fantasy, very much in the mold of 1943's A Guy Named Joe, remade in 1989 as Always, or 1998's Meet Joe Black. As with those earlier films, this one must be accepted on the story's own terms: If you can't get beyond the premise, then don't bother; audience members who whole-heartedly fall under this film's spell will look unfavorably upon anybody snickering on the sidelines.

Things begin quietly enough, as young Henry enjoys a late-night car ride with his mother. Although seemingly innocuous, Schwentke and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus frame the scene in such a manner that we quickly sense impending disaster. Indeed, the inevitable accident is horrific, but for more than one reason: Henry's mother's last sight is that of her son, inexplicably vanishing  being wiped away from reality, much like sand dissolving through an hourglass  seconds before the crash.

The boy pops back into existence just as unexpectedly, close enough to witness the crash, and tightly hugged by a man who also appears out of nowhere ... and explains that he's Henry's older self. The older man lingers just long enough to assure the boy that everything will work out; he then vanishes as quickly as he materialized.

Leaving his clothes behind.

Young Henry has, for the first time, manifested the ability that will haunt him from this day forward: an uncontrollable "gift" for jumping forward or backward in time. We never see the adolescent Henry again, Rubin's script instead focusing on the man (now Bana) who has come to terms with his "talent" as best he can.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bandslam: Slammin' good fun

Bandslam (2009) • View trailer for Bandslam
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for very mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.13.09
Buy DVD: Bandslam• Buy Blu-Ray: Bandslam [Blu-ray]

Only in the movies can a shy, tongue-tied high school nerd wind up locking lips with both the gorgeous lead from the High School Musical franchise and the hotter, sexier half of the real-world pop duo Aly & AJ.

But hey: That's why we love cinema, right? It's the ultimate in wish-fulfillment.
Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens, left) watches warily as Will (Gaelan Connell) becomes
ever-more attracted to Charlotte (Aly Michalka), who "can't be trusted." The
emotional angst notwithstanding, few high school boys could complain about
being in such close proximity to these two hotties.

Director Todd Graff's Bandslam is a lively, frequently charming underdog saga: the sort of musical fairy tale Hollywood has done superbly since the genre was born in the 1930s.

Although not quite as squeaky-clean as Disney's High School Musical series, I expect this film will play quite successfully to the same audience. The only nod toward being "edgy" is that the music involved here is more rock 'n' reggae, with an occasional glimpse of punk.

It seems to have become something of a cliché for today's geeky high school underdogs to be alt-music savants, and Will Burton (Gaelan Connell) is no exception. As a recent transplant to a New Jersey high school that is obsessed with an annual band competition  Austin, Texas, locations actually stand in for Jersey throughout this film  Will hopes to remain a quiet part of the wallpaper, content to air his starry-eyed hopes and dreams in long, rambling e-mail letters sent to (of all people) David Bowie.

Needless to say, Bowie never answers.

But anonymity isn't in the cards for Will, who winds up the object of attention on two fronts. During his first lunch period, he meets another misfit: a quiet, neglected bookworm (Vanessa Hudgens) who has dubbed herself Sa5m. ("The 5 is silent.") At the same time, some chance remarks about the early alternative music scene prompt "reformed" cheerleader Charlotte Banks (Aly Michalka) to invite Will to critique the efforts of her garage band.

I could make a snide comment about the utter ridiculousness of a gal as adorable as Hudgens being cast as a neglected wallflower, but hey: You gotta go with the flow.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Julie & Julia: Tasty repast

Julie & Julia (2009) • View trailer for Julie & Julia
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather pointlessly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.7.09
Buy DVD: Julie & Julia

Not that this comes as news, but Meryl Streep really is a marvel.

The consummate actress who impressed the world with an amazing body of heavily dramatic work back in the 1980s  The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood and Out of Africa, to name just a few  has, of late, shifted gears and proven herself equally adept at light comedy.
The stature, the cute mannerisms and particularly the signature laugh: Meryl
Streep channels Julia Child with unerring precision in this charming film,
which is an ingredient-perfect recipe for a delightful evening.

The Devil Wears Prada was the eye-opener: proof positive that Streep still owned the screen. Then last year's film adaptation of Mamma Mia! became a surprise summer hit that exceeded even the expectations of faithful ABBA fans ... and Streep deservedly got most of the credit.

Now, with Julie & Julia, Streep has taken celebrity impersonation to a level rarely achieved in the movies: a portrayal so uncannily accurate that artifice essentially replaces reality. Cate Blanchett caught Katharine Hepburn that well in The Aviator; Streep has done the same here.

Her Julia Child is simply astonishing.

It's not just the wincingly shrill voice that wanders all over the upper octaves, or the immediately recognized way that Child punctuated every remark with her hands; Streep has the body language down perfectly. Watching her re-create one of Child's many TV cooking spots, as the famed chef works up the courage to flip some fried dish in its pan  and watches, unruffled, as it flops out of the pan and onto the counter, as happened so often on her show  you'd swear it was an actual episode of TV's ground-breaking The French Chef, which ran from 1963 through '73 and paved the way for Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and the dozens of other imitators who've appeared since.

Consider, as well, how cleverly camera angles are employed to suggest that the much shorter Streep actually is as tall as Child was.

Julie & Julia is director/scripter Nora Ephron's extraordinarily warm and clever love letter to both Child and Julie Powell, the latter a contemporary blogger-turned-author who carved out her own slice of fame by embarking on a 365-day journey through Child's published recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Ephron's delightful charmer, actually two stories woven into one, is adapted from Powell's Julie & Julia and an older book, My Life in France, written by Child and Alex Prud'homme. The resulting split narrative feels so right that one could imagine that the two source books were designed to be blended in this manner, like disparate ingredients unexpectedly helping an already luxurious dessert become even more sumptuous.

And, as was the case with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, in the charming 1987 big-screen adaptation of Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, this film's two protagonists never meet each other.

At least, not in the conventional sense.