Friday, October 30, 2009

Cirque du Freak, The Vampire's Assistant: Bloody good

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009) • View trailer for The Vampire's Assistant
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and fantasy mayhem
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.30.09
Buy DVD: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant• Buy Blu-Ray: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant [Blu-ray]

Bang's 17th law of cinema:

The opening credits will give a strong indication of the quality and entertainment value of the entire film.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant has a great set of opening credits.

And, indeed, the film is a lot of fun.
Darren (Chris Massoglia, right) resists drinking blood, even though the much
wiser Laren Crepsley (John C. Reilly) explains that the boy eventually will die
without sustenance. The problem is that Darren hasn't yet been properly
motivated ... but that'll change soon.

This debut screen adaptation of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series cherry-picks key events from the first several books, and that may be the film's only major flaw: It tries to cover too much ground.

Too many characters are introduced too quickly, and the unrelenting pace never really pauses for breath.

At the same time, that certainly immerses us quickly in director Paul Weitz's enthusiastic depiction of these adventures. Production designer William Arnold and visual effects supervisor Todd Shifflett really go to town: Every scene is chockablock with captivating things to see, hear and absorb.

In that respect, this film is very much like an actual three-ring circus: It's impossible to watch everything at once, and repeat viewings will be necessary, in order to pick up little details scurrying about at the corners of many scenes.

Another round wouldn't bother me in the slightest ... and that's the only detail that matters, when judging a film. Do you want to see it again?


Many have tried for the "sweet spot" that perfectly blends thrills and chills in a horror comedy; many have failed. The Lost Boys, back in 1987, got it right; so did Once Bitten and Fright Night (both 1985), Shaun of the Dead and this year's Zombieland.

Weitz's handling of The Vampire's Assistant deserves its place on that list, and it's also more kid-friendly than some: a good, reasonably safe fright flick that can be viewed by all ages.

(An endorsement that'll be regarded as the kiss of death, of course, for the gore crowd more at home with the likes of Saw VI. To each his own.)

Darren (Chris Massoglia) and Steve (Josh Hutcherson, recently seen in the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth) have been best friends for years. Sadly, high school hasn't been good for this relationship; Darren's preference for integrity and good behavior are viewed with scorn by Steve, who definitely heads in the "bad seed" direction.

Both boys remain steadfast more out of habit, despite being increasingly dismayed by the ever-widening chasm separating their values.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Amelia: Stalled flight

Amelia (2009) • View trailer for Amelia
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.29.09
Buy DVD: Amelia• Buy Blu-Ray: Amelia [Blu-ray]

As long as this film is in the air, it positively soars.

Hilary Swank delivers an all-embracing performance, playing the legendary pilot in director Mira Nair's crisply paced but oddly flat Amelia. With her tousled and "mannish" hair cut, not to mention an eerily similar frame, Swank looks for all the world like the actual Amelia Earhart.
Immediately prior to beginning her ambitious, around-the-world trip, Amelia
Earhart (Hilary Swank) poses for photographers along with husband George P.
Putnam (Richard Gere, center) and navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher

She also captures Earhart's polite but feisty manner, her eyes flashing at the very suggestion that a woman might not be capable of anything a man could do. It was a rare attitude in the 1930s, and it got Earhart into trouble more than once; Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan's script  based on two Earhart biographies  touches on this vexing aspect of the aviator's public image.

One might argue that Earhart was born 50 years too soon, but that's wrong; if not placed firmly in her own era, her accomplishments  both as a woman, and also as a flier  wouldn't have been nearly as impressive.

The trouble is, Nair's film stalls every time it returns to earth, as we spend considerable time with Earhart's unconventional relationship with promoter and publishing magnate George P. Putnam, played with his usual wooden anti-acting by Richard Gere. Given Earhart's free-spirited, wild and untamable nature  so well captured by Swank  it's simply impossible to imagine her falling for the sort of one-dimensional stick portrayed here by Gere.

Mind you, Earhart and Putnam were quite the item in real life, and I've no doubt that the actual gentleman must've been one helluva persuasive charmer. But Gere can't sell that act; given that his entire thespic range revolves around his signature smirk, he never makes Putnam look anything but insufferably smug.

Nothing would have turned Earhart off faster.

So we go with the flow, grind our teeth every time Gere pops up, and wait for the next transcendent flying sequence, when Swank once again conveys, with such sparkling, wide-eyed wonder, the sense of oneness Earhart must've felt every time she was in the air.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Serious Man: Seriously odd

A Serious Man  (2009) • View trailer for A Serious Man
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.23.09
Buy DVD: A Serious Man• Buy Blu-Ray: A Serious Man [Blu-ray]

As a goy, I feel hopelessly ill-equipped to analyze this film.

A Serious Man would be served far better by a synagogue discussion group, and I've no doubt that'll happen a few times, during the next several months.
Mark this man's expression: It's how Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)
responds to a building series of calamities, while receiving not the slightest bit
of sympathy or assistance from his nearest and dearest. Son Danny (Aaron
Wolff), for example, couldn't care less about his father's happiness; the kid only
wants dad to fix the TV, so he can watch F Troop.

Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen have uncorked a baby-boomer riff on the biblical plight of Job: an unrelenting assault on the dignity of a hopelessly overmatched schlimazel with no means of fighting back. And the story itself is as wincingly stiff a parody of the Jewish culture as we've seen in awhile, with a savage streak that probably wouldn't be tolerated if the Coens weren't themselves Jewish.

They claim, in the press notes, that this film is "reminiscent of their childhoods."

If so, they have my sympathy.

Films in the Coen brothers' oeuvre come in three flavors, in order of their palatability to the general public: reasonably straight-ahead dramas (Miller's Crossing, No Country for Old Men), serio-comic morality tales (Raising Arizona, Fargo) and purely demented character studies (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There).

The latter category  lunatic descents down the rabbit hole, which not even Rod Serling's Twilight Zone could have embraced  best characterizes A Serious Man.

I'd call this film unwatchable, except that it's too oddly bizarre to be dismissed entirely.

I'd call it incomprehensible, except that its broad strokes do make sense. Sort of. After a fashion. The dozens of smaller issues don't lend themselves to easy answers, though.

Setting aside the Jewish tropes, the film's core message derives from the two mantras  the Schrodinger's Cat paradox, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle  that are viewed, by our physicist protagonist, as evidence of God's hand: Nothing in life is reliable, so you may as well anticipate the worst at all times.

And the corollary: It's impossible to anticipate every worst, so quit trying.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dolphins and Whales: Grave danger

Dolphins and Whales (2009) • View trailer for Dolphins and Whales
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.22.09

The 3D photography in Dolphins and Whales is spectacular  a word I don't use lightly  and certainly worth the price of admission.

Director of photography Gavin McKinney and his crew of IMAX cameramen spent three years and 600 hours under water in regions all over the world  from Argentina and the Bahamas to Australia, French Polynesia and the kingdom of Tonga  in order to obtain the necessary footage of this film's 12 ocean stars. The shoot was directed by Jean-Jacques Mantello, who then edited the resulting 100 hours of footage into the 42-minute film now in release at giant-screen IMAX theaters across the country.
Behind-the-scenes shots of underwater cinematographer Gavin McKinney might
have been useful in Dolphins and Whales, particularly to give context to the
enormous size of some of the creatures profiled in this documentary.

Obtaining the footage itself obviously required physical stamina and a degree of patience most of us couldn't even quantify. But editing all that raw film must've been painstaking in its own way, because of course every minute of the original exposed footage contained its own special magic, and caught these undersea creatures in some unique manner. Making such choices must have been excruciating.

I only wish the final result were a bit more viewer-friendly.

Dolphins and Whales is unlike most other IMAX animal documentaries: It makes no attempt at "story," and it lacks the presence of any creatures except those being discussed. In other words, people don't pop up in frame: not even any of the filmmakers. They're never seen in the water.

The only human presence here is narrator Daryl Hannah, whose solemn delivery underscores this film's primary purpose: It is not intended to entertain, but to enlighten. And warn.

Every one of the 12 creatures profiled here is endangered in some manner, some drastically so. And the film never lets us forget this; Hannah's commentary on each magnificent animal inevitably concludes with the ominous observation that  absent some drastic attitude adjustments on our part  we'll not be privileged to see them for much longer.

I favor more responsible stewardship of our oceans as much as (if not more than) the next person, but this film pounds the same message with the subtlety of a jack-hammer.

Frankly, the result is profoundly depressing; it's hard not to burst into tears.

One sympathizes with Mantello, McKinney and special adviser Jean-Michel Cou-steau; no doubt they've all grown frustrated and desperate, believing that previous "feel good" documentaries aren't getting the job done. Fair enough, but Dolphins and Whales is bound to lose whatever portion of its audience is generated by favorable word of mouth. Watching this picture is a downer, and friends don't let friends get bushwhacked.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: Woefully mild

Where the Wild Things Are  (2009) • View trailer for Where the Wild Things Are
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for dramatic instensity, scary scenes and one moment of unexpected violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.16.09
Buy DVD: Where the Wild Things Are• Buy Blu-Ray: Where the Wild Things Are [Blu-ray]

Those who wondered how anybody could have fabricated a feature-length film from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are were spot-on.

No doubt encouraged by the success of Robert Zemeckis' 2004 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express  a film that already has, in a few short years, become a holiday tradition  director Spike Jonze and collaborator Dave Eggers apparently felt comfortable "opening up" Sendak's spare little tale ... which probably has fewer words than we hear in the first five minutes of this ill-advised project.
Having pronounced himself king in an effort to avoid being eaten by his new
companions, Max (Max Records) issues his first proclamation: that everybody
indulge in a "wild rumpus."

Jonze may be known for his imagination and inventively warped approach to narrative  consider Being John Malkovich and Adaptation  but neither serves him well here. Perhaps more than anything else, this interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are demonstrates that truly attempting to mimic a 9-year-old boy's scattershot impressions of right and wrong  not to mention his wholly capricious take on make-believe  produces nothing more than a boring, random movie with no point.

And, frankly, no reason to watch it.

OK, fine: I get the broad strokes. The rambunctious and overly sensitive Max (Max Records, gifted with an expressive little face) hasn't gotten over his father's death, at some earlier point in time; he feels left out when his older sister hangs with her friends, and deeply resents his mother's (Catherine Keener) interest in a new male companion.

Fleeing via a lengthy boat journey across the ocean  or, more likely, sinking into a dream when he collapses, exhausted, after having run away  Max encounters a series of massive horned, clawed and hairy creatures: some vaguely familiar for their goat- and bull-like qualities, others unlike anything ever seen before.

Each of these creatures, to overstretch a metaphor, apparently represents a different facet of Max's personality: the petulant side, the lonely side, the ignored side, the quiet side and so forth.

But if Max learns something from his encounters with these creatures  these aspects of himself  it's not readily apparent. Far too much time is spent listening to these "wild things" speak in non sequiturs, never really "conversing" with each other, but instead just stringing words together and babbling like folks who accidentally wolfed down a batch of marijuana brownies.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen: Far from arresting

Law Abiding Citizen  (2009) • View trailer for Law Abiding Citizen
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, rape, torture, gore and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.15.09
Buy DVD: Law Abiding Citizen• Buy Blu-Ray: Law Abiding Citizen [Blu-ray]

The biggest mystery concerning this tawdry, wind-'em-up exploitation flick is how it managed to attract such an A-list cast.

Kurt Wimmer's mean-spirited screenplay never could have been anybody's idea of a good time at the movies, and F. Gary Gray's pedestrian direction coaxes no better than a fair-to-poor performance from star Jamie Foxx. Fortunately, co-star Gerard Butler and the supporting players do much better.
When the incarcerated Clyde (Gerard Butler, center) somehow orchestrates
another brutal killing, District Attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, right) arranges
a private "interview" with the help of a sympathetic cop (Colm Meaney). But
Clyde isn't about to give away his secrets, which means we're in for more
indiscriminate murders.

But that's not likely to matter in a project that gives us nobody virtuous to cheer on: rather ironic, considering the degree to which the concepts of law and justice are bandied about. All the characters on display here are flawed, in some cases ridiculously so. More to the point, Wimmer's so-called "indictment" of the American justice system fails miserably, because he  and his on-screen "mouthpiece"  indulge in behavior far worse than is necessary to make some sort of point.

Wimmer also hasn't the faintest concept of authentic human emotion, and at times his characters behave in ways that are laughably unrealistic.

Finally, Gray wallows too much in unnecessarily vicious violence and gore. Although not as bad as the mainstream torture-porn that Diane Lane got sucked into last year  the utterly appalling Untraceable  this one's still gratuitously, needlessly unpleasant.

The film opens with a nasty prologue stolen from the original Death Wish, as Clyde Shelton (Butler) is bound and gagged during a brutal home invasion, and forced to watch as his wife is raped and then killed, along with their young daughter. Inexplicably, Clyde is left alive ... which, frankly, makes no sense at all.

The bad guys get picked up, and Clyde puts his trust in the hands of prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx), an overly slick individual with his eye on conviction rates  no matter how compromised  rather than the human cost. The worst of Clyde's two attackers gives evidence against his younger, much less involved companion; the latter gets a death sentence, while the truly guilty thug gets a plea-bargained slap on the wrist.

Clyde does not take this well.

A decade passes, during which Nick has climbed the ladder in the Philadelphia district attorney's office, where he has become close to his boss and mentor, Jonas Cantrell (Bruce McGill, in a nicely modulated performance). Nick also has his own loyal understudy, the resourceful Sarah Lowell (Leslie Bibb, similarly convincing).

The younger felon involved in the Shelton family assault, finally having wound his way through the system, is strapped into the prison execution chamber for his lethal-injection cocktail. Nick, Sarah and several others are in the viewing chamber when the procedure goes horribly awry.

But that's nothing compared to what Clyde does to the other guy, more or less simultaneously, elsewhere in the city.