Friday, September 25, 2009

Fame: Rather tame

Fame (2009) • View trailer for Fame
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for teen drinking, mild profanity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.25.09
Buy DVD: Fame• Buy Blu-Ray: Fame (Extended Dance Edition + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Director Kevin Tancharoen's re-boot of Fame is a lot of fun, but it ain't magical.

In that essential respect, it's a shadow of its 1980 predecessor, which was an all-stops-out sensation, copping two Academy Awards (song and score), garnering nominations for four others  including Christopher Gore's screenplay  and leading to a TV series that ran four years, from 1983-87.
Believing herself alone in the performance hall, Denise (Naturi Naughton)
forgoes her classical piano exercise to deliver a mesmerizing rendition of
"Out Here on My Own" -- the power ballad retained from 1980's Fame -- which
is one of the few times this film truly comes alive.

One would have thought, in the wake of Disney's hugely popular High School Musical series, that the time was right to follow another generation of young talents through their four years at the New York City High School of Performing Arts; I've no doubt that's how MGM got sold on the project.

But Tancharoen's handling of this new Fame too frequently lacks the pizzazz of its predecessor, and Allison Burnett's screenplay is an oddly safe and sanitized version of Gore's much edgier storyline. Aside from trying to get a handle on their dance, music and stage skills, Gore's often troubled kids confronted gender issues, teen pregnancy and a few other real-life challenges that made them seem reasonably authentic ... and justified that film's R rating.

Burnett's PG-rated kids, in significant contrast, have been drawn from the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney "Hey, kids, let's put on a show" mold. Fox's Glee, in its fourth glorious week, is much sassier, its scripts moving into moderately "dangerous" territory that makes its characters more interesting, and the show's overall impact much more entertaining.

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with a wholesome look at singing and dancing teens ... but High School Musical owns that end of the street. If Tancharoen and Burnett truly wished to remake Fame, then they should have cut closer to the bone.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Love Happens: Rather charming

Love Happens (2009) • View trailer for Love Happens
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.24.09
Buy DVD: Love Happens• Buy Blu-Ray: Love Happens [Blu-ray]

Given the limited number of ways that two consenting adults can be thrown together in a romantic comedy, the distinction between engaging sparkle and ho-hum familiarity usually depends on the little touches: the extra bits that help define the people with whom we're about to spend an evening.

Director Brandon Camp, who also scripted Love Happens with Mike Thompson, has a nice way with those little touches. This film's characters  and their problems  are believably ordinary, as is the set-up that brings them together. Better still, the subsequent plot developments are reasonably low-key: a meet-cute encounter that blossoms quietly into a friendship that might, in turn, grow into something stronger.
Burke (Aaron Eckhart) is intrigued by the secret collection of floral message
cards that Eloise (Jennifer Aniston) copied and saved, because they touched her
in some manner: little greetings, apologies and shared sorrows that bespeak a
deep connection between giver and recipient. It's a poignant notion, and one of
many nice touches in this film.

No flash, no intrusive slapstick and very little manipulative melodrama. Love Happens often has the intimacy of a stageplay, and its script is much more accomplished than Camp and Thompson's only previous big-screen credit, 2002's hilariously overcooked Dragonfly. I'd like to think Camp and Thompson learned from that mistake, and they also clearly refined their writing chops during their one-year stint on television's John Doe.

Love Happens also marks Camp's feature film directorial debut, and he has a nice touch with character interaction, and with the emotional range demanded by his storyline. Although marketed as a romantic comedy, this film offers more than a little heartbreak, demonstrating that comedy and tragedy often are separated by a very fine line.

Dr. Burke Ryan (Aaron Eckhart), a self-help celebrity vaulted to public acclaim after an extremely successful book, has taken his act on the road. City by city, he leads therapy seminars that encourage participants to confront their pain  usually over the loss of a loved one  as a means of securing closure and then moving on.

The package is slick, down to a signature catch-phrase, and Burke is gangbusters on stage: the sort of charismatic therapist able to turn readers into acolytes. His pop-culture success has not escaped the attention of a media conglomerate anxious to turn Burke into a franchise; best friend and manager Lane Martin (Dan Fogler) has orchestrated a meeting while the doctor conducts a session in Seattle.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!: Tall Tale

The Informant! (2009) • View trailer for The Informant!
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.09
Buy DVD: The Informant!• Buy Blu-Ray: The Informant! [Blu-ray]

The American corporate culture is about to join Nazis and Muslim fanatics on the list of cinema's villains we love to hate, and I couldn't be more delighted.

If we can't find a way to toss rapacious corporate thugs into jail and throw away the keys, then at least we can anticipate the vicarious thrill of seeing them humiliated on the big screen.
FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, left) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale,
center) become increasingly puzzled by the behavior of corporate whistle-blower
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who genuinely believes that his own company
will hail him as a hero after he exposes a massive price-fixing scheme
orchestrated by his bosses. Could anybody really be that naive?

Director Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! adopts a gleefully wicked tone for its depiction of a recent corporate crime, with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns taking pains to exaggerate the best elements of Kurt Eichenwald's book  The Informant (A True Story)  in the service of what emerges as a sharp-edged satire on truth, justice and the American (business) way.

Soderbergh always gets great work from both cast and crew, but special mention must be made of Burns, star Matt Damon and soundtrack composer Marvin Hamlisch, all of whom perform above and beyond the call of duty. Damon's performance is mesmerizing, and he bites off Burns' marvelously arch dialogue with considerable brio; Hamlisch's whimsically retro themes, evoking everything from 1960s TV shows to James Bond scores, masterfully counterpoints the increasingly erratic behavior of these frazzled characters.

Soderbergh also deserves praise for two additional elements: a series of the best-timed double-takes and slow burns ever caught on film; and the cleverest use of voice-over I've heard in years, in the form of Damon's interior monologues. Pay close attention to the latter, because they're not nearly as random as they appear at first blush.

And while it might be useful to be familiar with what actually went down at the agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland in the 1990s, you'll have a much better time if this saga's mid-point reverse catches you by surprise. Assumptions and expectations are rent asunder, and you'll suddenly need to watch the film's first half again, to better judge its plot points against all this new information.

That's cunning writing and shrewd directing  not to mention richly layered acting  and all concerned should take a bow.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jennifer's Body: A total nottie

Jennifer's Body (2009) • View trailer for Jennifer's Body
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, gore, profanity and teen sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.09
Buy DVD: Jennifer's Body• Buy Blu-Ray: Jennifer's Body (+ Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Absent the involvement of an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Jennifer's Body would be just another easily ignored, late-summer teen fright flick dumped with the expectation of two weeks on the big screen, prior to fitful video afterlife a few months down the road.

But expectations are raised when the credits include Diablo Cody, who took a well-deserved Oscar for her original screenplay for Juno, and charmed both the industry audience and home viewers with a particularly exuberant acceptance speech. Cody's clever and whimsically snarky script for Juno demonstrated a sensitivity for teens in general, and misfit girls in particular; fans therefore were more than a little intrigued when she selected a gal-centered horror entry as her next project.
Despite having a loyal girlfriend -- even if she has gotten a bit strange lately --
Chip (Johnny Simmons) quite foolishly allows himself to be seduced by
Jennifer (Megan Fox) on the night of the high school prom. Little does he
know that this encounter is about to move up the hill, into the sort of
dilapidated, shrubbery-infested indoor swimming pool that exists only in
horror movies ... where Jennifer's appetite will prove more cannibalistic
than carnal.

Surely, we hoped, Cody could bring a fresh perspective to a genre dominated by male writers and directors far too willing to demean, debase and disembowel women.

It didn't work out that way.

To be sure, most of the on-camera victims in Jennifer's Body are guys, but they're not exactly misogynistic jerks whose fates would be greeted with vicarious delight; indeed, the one granted the most attention is just the sort of disenfranchised nice guy who would have been one of Juno's best friends. Of course, that could be the point: Cody builds this character into a well-defined individual, rather than a disposable, two-dimensional nonentity. His eventual fate hurts a bit.

The most gruesome demise, however, still is reserved for a female character, and hack director Karyn Kusama  most notorious for the sci-fi bomb Aeon Flux, with Charlize Theron  lingers on this sequence just as exploitatively as the genre usually demands.

Actually, Kusama doesn't bring much to this party. She and cinematographer M. David Mullen orchestrate only one really great shot: an eerie, late-night tableau that shows the next victim, just barely seen waaaay at the end of a deserted street, as his silhouette moves toward the house where he'll meet his eventual fate. It's a wonderfully moody image, and there ain't nothin' else like it in the rest of this humdrum and utterly predictable film.

That's the most disappointing part: Jennifer's Body is nothing fresh, and has no surprises. It's not fun in the manner of TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or the more recent Being Human; it's actually rather depressing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9: About a 7

9 (2009) • View trailer for 9
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, quite scary images and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.11.09
Buy DVD: 9• Buy Blu-Ray: 9 [Blu-ray]

Its way-cool creations, mesmerizing landscapes and grimly compelling tone notwithstanding, 9 is something of a mess.

It's also quite a downer, but that's to be expected of a post-apocalyptic setting, even in an animated film.
The steampunk-style, post-apocalyptic world that our stitched-doll hero finds
himself in is filled with dangers, as becomes clear when a new comrade comes
to a rather unfortunate end.

The major problem lies with director Shane Acker's clumsy and contrived story  co-scripted with Pamela Pettler  which too often feels as if stuff is being made up on the fly (a frequent failing of so-called steampunk sci-fi, it should be mentioned: all high-concept, no narrative heft).

I wasn't the slightest bit surprised to find Russian writer/director Timur Bekmambetov among this film's eight (!) credited producers, because his Night Watch/Day Watch series is exactly the same: marvelous to look at, and dripping with golly-gee-willikers imagination, but utterly incomprehensible.

Even the most mind-boggling images and concepts can't survive when mired down by daft, incoherent storytelling. Absent the obvious cuteness factor, we wouldn't even have a reason to empathize with the "stitchpunk" protagonists who drive this film's clumsy storyline.

Like so many before him, Acker has borrowed hoary clich├ęs from numerous earlier sci-fi sagas, stitched them together much like his diminutive heroes, and unleashed the results with the hope that we'll not recognize the deja vu all over again. 9 actually is expanded from an Academy Award-nominated 11-minute student film short he completed in 2004, which may explain why he raided established sci-fi lore to beef it up.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Extract: Flavorless

Extract (2009) • View trailer for Extract
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.10.09
Buy DVD: Extract• Buy Blu-Ray: Extract [Blu-ray]

Some indie productions  Juno and Little Miss Sunshine leap to mind  overcome their financial limitations and modest production values practically from the first frame. All involved obviously are talented and working just as hard (if not harder) as they would on a big-budget Hollywood production, if only to demonstrate that "low budget" need not be synonymous with "cheap."

Other indie productions are strictly amateur hour: dull, plodding curiosities that might have pleased the participants as the cinematic equivalent of home movies, but never should have been made available to an unsuspecting public.
When Joel (Jason Bateman, right) shares his marital unhappiness with longtime
best friend Dean (Ben Affleck), the latter concocts a crazed scheme to "trap"
Joel's wife into infidelity, thus paving the way for our hero (?) to soothe his
soul with a little of his own action on the side. Granted, cynical human
behavior has been exploited successfully in countless other film comedies,
but this one's strictly a nonstarter.

Extract belongs to the latter category.

This third live-action effort from writer/director Mike Judge, best known for his animated TV shows Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, is as limp a noodle as I've endured in awhile. Whatever his facility with pencil-and-paper characters, Judge hasn't the faintest idea how to direct actual living human beings; everybody in this tedious blue-collar comedy drifts somnambulately from one scene to the next, as if the catering truck had laced its lunches with the mind-altering pills this story's hero pops at one point.

These are entry-level problems: humdrum camera angles, bland color palettes, poor pacing, indifferent editing  far too many useless scenes that run too long  and actors who always seem to be half a second late with their line readings.

All of which reminds us of the skill possessed by a truly competent director, because at least two of the cast members here  Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons, and perhaps Ben Affleck on a good day  are capable of much better work. More crucially, much better comic timing.

Judge, however, can't extract a good scene from anybody. I'll give him credit for penning some amusing lines, but they'd have been a helluva lot funnier if the characters had put some effort into delivering them properly.

An additional problem isn't entirely Judge's fault: Familiarity breeds contempt. Extract is another in a long line of recent comedies that surround only one reasonably intelligent protagonist with supporting characters who collectively possess the IQ of a butter dish. Honestly, I'm not sure these people could dress themselves each morning.

One hopes Judge didn't intend this as some sort of indictment of factory workers, because the collective portrait is pretty damning.