Friday, November 27, 2009

The Road: Futile journey

The Road (2009) • View trailer for The Road
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, torture, cannibalism, nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.27.09
Buy DVD: The Road • Buy Blu-Ray: The Road [Blu-ray]

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a story for folks who felt that his No Country for Old Men was too cheerful and uplifting.

Director John Hillcoat's film adaptation is designed for viewers seeking a reason to return home and slit their wrists.
The man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) must keep
a wary eye on their surroundings while traveling by day; encounters with other
human beings are likely to be deadly ... or worse.

I cannot, in good conscience, imagine any set of circumstances that would prompt me to recommend this movie. To anybody.

Granted, McCarthy's harrowing novel took the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for literature; the author's mesmerizing prose  and much richer characterizations  are spellbinding in their intensity. Although driven by a ghastly premise and heartbreaking plot, McCarthy is too skilled a writer  too adept a wordsmith  for his book to be ignored, should one pick it up.

But that doesn't make the experience worthwhile.

I've long been a fan of Dan Simmons' works, which as yet haven't been adapted to the large or small screen. Simmons is well known in the fantasy and sci-fi community, where his long and dense books are deservedly celebrated. I eagerly anticipated diving into The Terror, one of his recent historical novels, which blends chilling fantasy with the fact-based account of a doomed 19th century attempt to find the mythical ocean passage just below the North Pole.

Simmons' blend of gripping prose and meticulous research made the 992-page book a compelling read. But the story's conclusion proved so infuriating that I deeply resented what I now regard as utterly wasted time. I wanted  still want, nearly a year later  those many, many hours of my life back.

Viewers of Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road are apt to feel the same way, and it's only 113 minutes long.

Readers who were able to extract weighty philosophical issues and great moral truths from McCarthy's novel won't find them in this unrelentingly bleak and soul-deadening film adaptation. McCarthy's view of mankind never has been that optimistic to begin with, and his indictment of human behavior is particularly stern in The Road.

Screenwriter Joe Penhall gets that much right, but he overlooks the essential inner musings that McCarthy employed to make his primary characters at least somewhat palatable. Penhall and Hillcoat have done nothing but prove that some books simply defy visual translation; The Road cannot work as a movie, because the form demands that it become no more than an interminably depressing trivialization of its source.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Blind Side: Touchdown!

The Blind Side (2009) • View trailer for The Blind Side
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for one brief scene involving drugs, violence and sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.19.09
Buy DVD: The Blind Side • Buy Blu-Ray: The Blind Side [Blu-ray]

Some true stories are so wonderful, they simply beg to be made into films.

The saga of All-American football star Michael Oher is just such a story.

And the fact that The Blind Side represents the second half of the one-two punch re-igniting Sandra Bullock's career  following this summer's The Proposal  is the icing on the cake.
Young S.J. (Jae Head) takes it upon himself to crack the whip as personal
trainer and coach for his "big brother," Michael (Quinton Aaron); the result is
but one of many wonderfully uplifting scenes in this film.

Bullock must've gotten a better agent, or perhaps improved her own industry savvy. After a string of ill-conceived comedies and laughably overwrought melodramas  encompassing junk such as 28 Days, Miss Congeniality 2, The Lake House and Premonition  Bullock's career seemed on a slow swirl into the toilet.

Frankly, I couldn't understand why she kept getting hired.

But she has rebounded with pizazz, and then some. Her comic timing was perfect in The Proposal, and her work in The Blind Side stands with the finest of her career. Her performance as the aristocratic Leigh Anne Tuohy, who finds her soft spot after sheltering a homeless teen, is an engaging blend of tart one-liners, feisty compassion, grim determination and quite persuasive vulnerability.

Bullock makes Leigh Anne the original unstoppable force: a mama bear who'd do anything to protect her cubs ... even if one of them outsizes her by ridiculous extremes.

And Bullock is just one of this film's well-crafted elements. Director/scripter John Lee Hancock knows his way around an underdog sports saga, having similarly charmed us with 2002's The Rookie, and its uplifting tale of miracle pitcher Jim Morris. Hancock blends just the right amounts of poignance, suspense and gentle humor; The Blind Side  adapted from Michael Lewis' book  has plenty of chuckles, but never at the expense of its characters. We feel for them and laugh with them, never at them.

The story begins as the massive Michael  invariably dubbed "Big Mike"  is accepted, with considerable reluctance, into the high-tone (and very white) Wingate Christian School in Memphis, Tenn. The teenager is championed by coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon, in a small but nicely modulated part), who sees potential gridiron glory. The trouble, alas, is that Michael's grades  barely north of rock-bottom zero  prohibit any sports activities.

And so the unusually quiet boy sits in class after class, not even trying to participate, while most of Wingate's teachers wonder why they're putting up with him.

The situation is even worse as Michael leaves school each day. Having grown up virtually abandoned in the poverty-stricken Memphis projects  cruelly called Hurt Village  the boy has no real home. But his peaceful, oddly regal nature is sensed by 10-year-old S.J. Tuohy (Jae Head, marvelously engaging and cute as a button), who makes an effort to befriend his much larger school mate.

Friday, November 13, 2009

2012: End of days

2012 (2009) • View trailer for 2012
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, considerable carnage and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.13.09
Buy DVD: 2012 • Buy Blu-Ray: 2012 (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Goodness, it's déja vu all over again!

Its modern CGI effects aside, director/co-scripter Roland Emmerich's 2012 is a throwback to the cornball disaster flicks of the early 1970s  think Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, along with a nod to The Poseidon Adventure  and their rigid formulas: stalwart good guys, women and children in peril, grim fates for the sexually adventurous, and B-list actors introduced solely so they can perish after exchanging noble sentiments with each other. ("I've had a good run, son; don't you worry about me.")
This could be the computer-screen from a particularly difficult air-flight-
simulator game, but no: It's actually a rip-snortin' action sequence that finds
five of our central characters -- in the plane -- trying to dodge and climb above
the crumbling Los Angeles high-rises that rather peskily keep threatening to
hit them, during an early sequence in this film.

Bowing to our 21st century demand for bigger and noisier, of course, Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser couldn't be satisfied with demolishing a single building or even all of Los Angeles; no, they've got to take out Earth itself.

One wonders what could possibly come next. The destruction of all eight-and-a-half planets in our solar system, along with their various complements of moons?

Familiarity aside, Emmerich orchestrates this mayhem with considerable panache, and 2012 never flags during its bloated 158 minutes. That's pretty impressive, when the explosive money sequences start after a brief introductory half-hour. You'd think it unwise for a film of this nature to lead off with the sinking of California  all together now: "It's San Andreas' fault!"  but Emmerich has plenty of equally bombastic cards left up his sleeve.

Indeed, once beyond the obligatory mayhem and mass destruction, this film evolves into a strong echo of 1951's When Worlds Collide, the solid adaptation of Edwin Balmer's sci-fi novel that wonders how the people of Earth would behave, after learning of the impending arrival of a massive celestial body that will strike and destroy our planet.

Both When Worlds Collide and 2012 subscribe to the hail-fellow-well-met view of humanity: that we will (for the most part) behave virtuously and pull together for the common good, in an effort to save as many people  and as much of our way of life  as possible.

This may be naively optimistic, but it's a helluva lot more entertaining and gratifying than the bleak, every-cannibal-for-himself attitude on display in the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

2012 takes its premise from the pseudo-scientific twaddle currently making the rounds, about how the Mayans supposedly predicted a massive celestial event  an alignment of planets and our sun that takes place only once every hundreds of thousands of years  that will destroy life as we know it on Earth.

Translations being what they are, calmer heads tend to believe (if they address this nonsense at all) that the Mayans simply recognized that, as of 2012, it would be time to flip the page and start a new calendar. But hey, that would take all the fun away from the conspiracy wingnuts who stand on street corners and carry those cardboard signs proclaiming that "The end of the world is near" ... a phenomenon that this film acknowledges with a good laugh.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats: Chewed cud

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) • View trailer for The Men Who Stare at Goats
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating:R, for profanity, drug use and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.12.09
Buy DVD: The Men Who Stare at Goats• Buy Blu-Ray: The Men Who Stare At Goats [Blu-ray]

This film desperately wants to be as hip, snarky and relevant as Catch-22.

Mostly, it's just desperate.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those bewildering projects that makes one question the sanity of all involved. At no time could Peter Straughan's script  "inspired" by Jon Ronson's book (always a bad sign, that word "inspired")  have been considered worthwhile: not as originally written; not as tweaked during the filming process; and certainly not in post-production, when I'd like to believe director Grant Heslov realized he had unleashed a turkey truly worthy of the Thanksgiving season.
Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, second from right in front), a willing recruit
in the U.S. military's hippy-trippy New Earth Army, soon finds his unusual
mental skills challenged by renegade psychic Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey,
far left).

I can't imagine why this misbegotten flick ever even got off the ground, except for the possibility that Heslov and George Clooney wanted to work together again, having done so well with Good Night, and Good Luck.

Well, they shoulda held out for something better. All the luck in the world won't turn this 'Goat' into anything but ... well, a goat.

The absurdity of war has captivated writers and filmmakers for a long, long time, but battlefield satire is a ferociously difficult balancing act; few can achieve the glory of Dr. Strangelove or M.A.S.H.

Even the 1970 adaptation of Catch-22 failed to capture the manic spirit of Joseph Heller's must-read novel, and those folks started with excellent source material.

Straughan and Heslov, in great contrast, begin only with a one-note premise and no concept of where to take it. What eventually emerges, after a mercifully brief 93 minutes, is a clumsy, poorly plotted attempt to make fun of the U.S. military: something of a spectator sport, in certain circles.

But the effort is so insipid, that we can't help being irritated  on the U.S. military's behalf  by all involved with this dull, lifeless and laughless so-called "comedy."

Reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), having just been dumped by his philandering wife, decides to drown his sorrows by seeking A Really Big News Story in Iraq. It should be noted that Bob's wife has cheated on him with a one-armed man, who at one point wrestles our hero to the ground with his prosthetic limb. No reason for this, really, except to foreshadow the general weirdness to follow.

Once overseas, Bob encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), a twitchy, oddly intense individual posing as a corporate salesman. At the drop of a hat, though, Cassady explains that he's actually a special-ops agent under deep cover, working for an experimental U.S. military unit that has, for years, been tasked with changing the way wars are fought.

The self-described New Earth Army's goal: to train soldiers to wreak havoc with their minds.

Or, to put it another way, to develop the skill to stare fixedly at goats  or enemy soldiers -— and stop their hearts via nothing but intense concentration.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Christmas Carol: What the Dickens?

A Christmas Carol (2009) • View trailer for A Christmas Carol
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, despite considerable dramatic intensity and quite scary scenes
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.09
Buy DVD: A Christmas Carol• Buy Blu-Ray: Disney's A Christmas Carol (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Despite the frequently awkward blend of Charles Dickens, Jim Carrey and 21st century computer graphics, director/scripter Robert Zemeckis gets an impressive number of things just right: enough that, at first, we have reason to be optimistic about this rather unusual adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Sadly, Zemeckis also gets a lot of things disastrously, jaw-droppingly wrong.
Ebenezer Scrooge (sorta-kinda Jim Carrey, right) reluctantly allows the Ghost
of Christmas Present (Carrey again) to begin a journey through London -- a
trip that will reveal painful details about Scrooge's clerk, Bob Cratchit -- in
director Robert Zemeckis' ill-advised CGI adaptation of Charles Dickens'
classic holiday tale.

By the time the Ghost of Christmas Future shows up, you'll wonder if Zemeckis is designing a Disneyland theme park ride, rather than honoring the legacy of the most famous holiday story in recent history.

Zemeckis clearly is fixated by this hybrid animation process  which builds its characters, like the old-fashioned rotoscoping technique, by re-imaging actual people  that he first used in his adaptation of The Polar Express (2004) and then in Beowulf (2007). Although the technology has improved with each film, it remains distracting on many levels.

The core argument is the most basic: If one hires the likes of a Jim Carrey, why not simply use him?

Granted, animation allows a filmmaker the ability to put his "cast" through trials and tribulations that no flesh-and-blood actor ever could attempt, let alone survive. Zemeckis takes advantage of this many, many times during A Christmas Carol, and the simple touches often are the best: a sneer that not even Carrey's malleable features could produce, a disturbingly bony finger beckoning from a distance.

And Scrooge's encounter with the seven-years-dead Marley, late one dark night, is a masterpiece of editing, pacing and dialogue lifted faithfully from Dickens' novella. Unsettling camera angles blend with a truly frightening phantasm to produce an encounter that no man could soon forget. Nor do we.

But then, almost as if drunk with a puppeteer's power, Zemeckis overplays these techniques. Whizzing through the streets of London, passing in and around obstacles inserted to juice up the 3-D "in our face" effects, is breathtaking and exciting. The first time. Even the second time. But Zemeckis repeats this gag over and over and over again, until it becomes both tiresome and quite likely to induce nausea in vertigo-sensitive viewers.

It's an old lesson, and one worth remembering: The mere fact that one possesses the ability to design a dramatic sequence a certain way, doesn't mean that one should over-indulge and yield to it at every opportunity.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Coco Before Chanel: Dress rehearsal

Coco Before Chanel (2009) • View trailer for Coco Before Chanel
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.5.09
Buy DVD: Coco Before Chanel• Buy Blu-Ray: Coco Before Chanel [Blu-ray]

Modern women vexed by the gender divide should make a point to see Coco Before Chanel, just to be reminded how much worse life was a single century ago.

This autumn season has brought us biographical studies of two extremely impressive women — Amelia Earhart and Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel  in flawed films that nonetheless boast strong work from their respective lead actresses.
Having insisted on accompanying her lover and his condescending, aristocratic
friends to the racetrack, Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou, center) is delighted to bump
into her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain, right), who is beginning to realize
that her lover probably never will marry her.

The results, in both cases, are frustrating: Just as Hilary Swank's resolute and chameleon-like performance as Earhart couldn't rise above that film's flat execution, Audrey Tautou's equally persuasive interpretation of Chanel can't disguise director Anne Fontaine's leaden pacing in Coco before Chanel.

This film is so slow, that at times it appears to stop.

That's ridiculous, given real-life events that read like something out of Charles Dickens. Not even David Copperfield rose as high, given his humble origins, as the little orphan girl who grew up to become the very emblem of 20th century womanhood.

I don't believe the screenplay is at fault, although Fontaine and collaborator Camille Fontaine (no relation, believe it or not) should have encouraged co-scripter Christopher Hampton to insert more of the snarky tone he brought to his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons.

No, the problem is dull, listless direction: boring camera angles, tedious two-shots and a sloppy approach toward structure. Anne Fontaine simply doesn't present this story with any degree of passion ... which is pretty ironic, considering the passionate nature of Chanel herself.

Things begin with a brief prologue in the late 19th century, as a stoic man in a horse-drawn carriage abandons his two young daughters at a convent orphanage. His wife having died, he has no reason to keep the girls around. Despite the coldness of this act, young Gabrielle waits in vain every Sunday, hoping for a visit from the father who dumped her.

When next we see Gabrielle (now played by Tautou) and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), they've matured into young women who work as seamstresses in a tailor's shop by day, and by night sing mildly saucy little ditties in the crowded, smoke-filled confines of local cafés. (The miraculous fact that these two sisters have been able to stay together passes without comment.)

One of these songs, "Coco," gives Gabrielle the nickname that would follow her through life.