Thursday, December 31, 2009

Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakquel: Nuts to 'em!

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (2009) • View trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.09
Buy DVD: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel • Buy Blu-Ray: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel [Blu-ray]

The law of diminishing returns caught up with the chipmunks.

I call it the Home Alone syndrome, although numerous older examples also exist. A film  generally a comedy  takes the world by storm, so of course the studio rushes a sequel into production. Corporate wonks  who get paid far too much for mistakes of this nature  "analyze" the original picture and conclude that the public was most captivated by the element easiest the quantify and reproduce: the slapstick nonsense.
Although initially delighted to be sent to the school where Alvin and his two
brothers already have become celebrities, gal chipmunks Jeanette, Brittany and
Eleanor eventually are persuaded -- by the villain of this piece -- that their idols
are self-centered jerks. Fortunately, a budding romance between Eleanor and
Theodore evokes a thawing in affairs, just in time for a triumphant musical
climax. Too bad the rest of the film isn't nearly as endearing...

And so the sequel is nothing but slapstick nonsense.

But if you examine Home Alone carefully, you'll notice ample evidence of the film's heart, as young Kevin struggles to cope with having been abandoned, while also attempting to retain some semblance of the Christmas spirit. The pratfall-laden invasion by the burglars doesn't arrive until the very end, and it's actually that much funnier because we've grown to truly care about the little boy they're attacking.

Home Alone 2, in great contrast, skips the character development and goes straight for the stupid stuff. Result: bad sequel.

2007's Alvin and the Chipmunks  no classic to begin with  at least benefited from a script that attempted actual poignance, most of it deriving from the vulnerable Theodore, whose insecurities helped Dave Seville (Jason Lee) find his inner responsible self.

(And yes, I know how silly that previous sentence sounds. Work with me here.)

As a sidebar, we also had Dave's long-stalled efforts to become a successful songwriter, and his goofily endearing attempt to ignite a relationship with the kind-hearted hottie who lived in his adorable apartment complex. These elements complemented and offset the self-centered Alvin's frequent lapses in judgment, not to mention the bad behavior that wreaked havoc within Dave's apartment.

And, most important, we had a villain  music mogul Ian (David Cross)  who represented a genuinely sinister threat: a greedy, manipulative swine who may as well have worn a Snidely Whiplash mustache.


Flash-forward two years, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel has made every mistake possible; it's almost as if somebody maintained a checklist of what went wrong with Home Alone 2 and reproduced it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes: The game's afoot!

Sherlock Holmes (2009) • View trailer for Sherlock Holmes
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.30.09
Buy DVD: Sherlock Holmes • Buy Blu-Ray: Sherlock Holmes [Blu-ray]

Arthur Conan Doyle purists likely will sputter and take solace in the canonical 56 short stories and four novels, while more aggressive members of various Baker Street Irregulars societies will pen waspish editorials in their newsletters, but that won't change the facts: Director Guy Ritchie's audacious re-imagining of the world's most famous consulting detective is impressively realized.

And a lot of fun.
Watson (Jude Law, left) and Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), relaxing in their digs
at 221 B Baker Street, ponder a particularly devilish detail in a case that grows
weirder -- and possibly more supernatural -- by the day.

Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes  with a stylish original script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram  isn't even close to being the most outrĂ© send-up of Holmes and his faithful companion, Dr. Watson; half a dozen earlier projects could vie for that title (my vote for the most wretched being the 1977 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, easily one of the worst movies ever unleashed on an unsuspecting public).

Ritchie is, it therefore must be said, being pilloried both unnecessarily and unfairly. True, this new Sherlock Holmes owes much to co-producer Joel Silver's bombastic, testosterone-fueled school of filmmaking; the frequent bouts of fisticuffs border on the bone-shattering absurd, and at least one of the more vicious death-traps seems to have escaped from the Saw horror franchise.

But the sense and mood of Doyle's brooding detective, along with his environment, are spot-on. Production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) has done a phenomenal job of re-creating Victorian London, albeit with considerable assistance from the special-effects team that  as just one example  fills the Thames with meticulously authentic 19th century water craft.

Elsewhere, the half-constructed Tower Bridge looms with exposed steel frames and wooden walkways across that same mighty river: an imposing set piece that we just know will figure prominently in this story's climax.

Holmes' cluttered lodgings at 221 B Baker Street are brought to life with similar fidelity to Doyle's original vision. While I couldn't spot the detective's correspondence stuck to the fireplace mantel with an oversized knife, I did note the glass-covered hive of bees, phrenology charts, anatomical drawings, chemical retorts and sagging piles of dog-eared books and scattered newspapers.

And if Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes combats the frustration of boredom with bare-knuckle boxing, as opposed to a seven-percent solution of cocaine, that seems a minor quibble; either way, the man remains the cheerful misogynist and raging manic depressive that we all know and love.

Indeed, Downey's mesmerizing performance  his coldly analytical approach to any conundrum, his wild mood swings, his foolhardy tendency to charge where angels would fear to tread  ranks as one of cinema's most authentic portrayals of Doyle's famed detective.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's Complicated: Is it too complicated?

It's Complicated (2009) • View trailer for It's Complicated
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for drug content and frank sexual dialogue
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.09
Buy DVD: It's Complicated • Buy Blu-Ray: It's Complicated [Blu-ray]

Eyebrows are likely to lift, not far into It's Complicated, when Meryl Streep's Jane Adler speaks wistfully of a home remodel that finally will give her "the kitchen she's always dreamed of" ... a statement she makes while standing in a kitchen most of us would kill for, in a luxurious and rambling country home that resembles a presidential summer retreat.

Yes, writer/director Nancy Meyers' film is another one of those romantic comedies that we all can identify with so easily, since it involves only White People With More Money Than God. You'll not find a single African-American, Latino or Asian face in this entire picture, which makes it a rather curious throwback to the lavish Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance films of the 1930s.
Jake (Alec Baldwin, center right) and his much younger second wife, Agness
(Lake Bell, far right), are quite amused by the enthusiasm that Jane (Meryl
Streep) and Adam (Steve Martin) have brought to a party. But these giddy high
spirits aren't self-induced; Jane and Adam rather naughtily split a joint before
entering the room, in an effort to "take the edge off." They succeed...

Those pictures were intended to take audiences away, if only for a few hours, from the grim realities of the real-world Depression; to a degree, the ploy was successful. Funny thing, though; my reaction to It's Complicated and its financial largess involves far more irritation than capricious wish-fulfillment.

Jane apparently gets her bottomless bank account from her thriving bakery/restaurant, always packed to the gills even in these discouraging times. And while we can assume that ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), a successful attorney, ponied up a substantial settlement during contentious divorce proceedings, many years ago, I'm still not sure this would justify such a house in tony Santa Barbara.

Such issues make Meyers' film feel oddly retro, as if it hopped a time machine from Hollywood's Golden Age. The core premise  divorcĂ©e embarks on a hot affair with her ex  has the potential for the sort of screwball comedy riffs delivered so well by the likes of Cary Grant and Irene Dunn, back in the day. (Appropriately enhanced by 21st century smutty dialogue, of course.)

But the "complicated" part of this film  the genuine pain and angst the affair brings both to its primary protagonists and a gaggle of secondary characters, notably Jane and Jake's three adult children  feels far more European. Indeed, at one point Jake even comments that he finds the situation "very French."

These two moods  American screwball comedy and sophisticated French sex farce  don't really mesh all that well. As a result, the film feels a bit "off" and unbalanced, although you may be at pains to identify the primary source of your dissatisfaction, upon exiting the theater.

On the other hand, Streep and Baldwin  ably supported by Steve Martin and John Krasinski  embrace this uneven material with the persuasive conviction we'd expect from top-flight stage actors in a production of King Lear. The cast is far superior to Meyers' screenplay, and this likely will make It's Complicated far more popular than it deserves to be.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar: Myth-making

Avatar (2009) • View trailer for Avatar
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, sensuality, brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.18.09
Buy DVD: Avatar • Buy Blu-Ray: Avatar (Three-Disc Extended Collector's Edition + BD-Live) [Blu-ray]

This is cinematic world-building on an epic, jaw-dropping scale.

Berkeley Breathed, late of Bloom County and Opus, delivered an entertaining rant in the Nov. 19 Los Angeles Times, and complained about the rampant complacence of the modern movie viewer. Computer-enhanced graphics make the fantastic far too ordinary, he argued; movie patrons have seen it all before, and yawn at what should astound them.

I can think back to seminal moments in filmmaking history: the ones that generated a sense of wonder that only a well-crafted science-fiction film can deliver. For example, we've no concept  at this great remove  of how viewers went absolutely nuts over Walt Disney's 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Movie audiences simply hadn't been taken to the ocean depths before, and folks were utterly knocked out.
Thanks to the data gathered by Jake (Sam Worthington, left) while in his avatar
form, Grace (Sigourney Weaver, foreground) and Norm (Joel David Moore)
learn more about the fascinating symbiosis between this planet's indigenous
people and every plant and animal in their environment. Trudy (Michelle
Rodriguez, background), a tough-talking gunship pilot who has come to respect
this scientific work, waits for instructions about their next mission.

I was around, however, for the similar thrill afforded by the opening of 1977's Star Wars, as Princess Leia's consular ship was pursued by the massive Imperial star destroyer: so huge it seemed to emanate from the space behind us in the theater. The deep-space thrills only got better, building to the vertigo-inducing climax when Luke Skywalker made his strafing run on the Death Star.

Many years passed before another movie delivered a similar eye-popping jolt, when 1993's Jurassic Park had me half-convinced that Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton had found a scientist who really did grow dinosaurs with cloning techniques.

And now, with Avatar, writer/director James Cameron's crew has taken us to another whole planet, with its own extremely complicated eco-system. The breathtaking attention to detail covers everything from topography to the nighttime sky, from the tiniest insect to the most massive lumbering predator, from huge trees to the yielding moss that glows green when trod upon.

Some of this newness and strangeness, due to narrative necessity, is highlighted and commented upon. Most of it, however, is just there: alternately dazzling or simply different things to see and hear, which quietly contribute both to the otherworldliness of this environment, and the notion that we are, indeed, no longer in Kansas.

Enormous care has been taken, while creating an entire interconnected ecosystem.

Very, very impressive.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Princess and the Frog: It's not easy being green

The Princess and the Frog (2009) • View trailer for The Princess and the Frog
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.17.09
Buy DVD: The Princess and the Frog • Buy Blu-Ray: The Princess and The Frog (Three Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

During the delightful prologue that introduces our heroine in The Princess and the Frog, it becomes clear that this new Disney animated feature well remembers the lessons learned from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Specifically, co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements  who also wrote the film, with a few other hands  have made another old-style Hollywood musical with lavish production numbers limited only by the size of the movie screen. But it's not all song and dance, of course; we quickly come to care  and deeply  for the major players in this re-worked fairy tale, and that's the important part.
The newly frog-ified Tiana, left, has trouble controlling her extendable,
mucous-covered tongue; she quickly gets this unexpectedly long pink
appendange tangled up with the one belonging to the similarly amphibious
Prince Naveen. Rescue will come from an unexpected quarter...

As Pixar's John Lasseter has proven, time and again, story and character are paramount; everything else is just flash. Now that he's supervising all Disney animated projects  he secured an executive producer credit on this one  Lasseter clearly has re-emphasized the crucial need to help viewers bond emotionally with these characters.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first old-style, hand-drawn animated feature to emerge from Disney since the extremely disappointing Home on the Range. At the time, that 2004 release's failure was attributed to its hand-drawn look, as if to suggest that audiences would have embraced the film had it been done on computers.

Nonsense. Home on the Range failed because of its relentlessly stupid story and unappealing characters, not to mention its uninspired voice cast. (I'm looking at you, Roseanne.)

The Princess and the Frog, in great contrast, has a marvelous voice cast, and the story wisely blends the coming-of-age "journey" aspects of earlier Disney classics  say, The Jungle Book and The Lion King  with the faster-paced comic hijinks of The Emperor's New Groove. The result probably won't be regarded as one of Disney finest animated films  that's a daunting club to join  but it's certainly engaging and entertaining.

The setting is jazz-era New Orleans of the 1920s, where Tiana (voiced by the mellifluous Anika Noni Rose) has grown up with the strong work ethic instilled by her beloved parents. She has a talent for cooking, and works long shifts at two jobs in order to save enough money to finance her longtime dream of opening a restaurant/jazz nightspot.

Her one friend from childhood is Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), the spoiled, demanding and flamboyantly wealthy daughter of richer-than-God 'Big Daddy' (John Goodman). The relationship between these two women is uncomplicated; Charlotte certainly perceives Tiana's lesser circumstances, and makes no effort to lend assistance, but at the same time remains untroubled by any concept of a racial divide.

The film doesn't dwell on such issues, but occasionally makes its points rather cleverly and subtly.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus: Fate's master

Invictus (2009) • View trailer for Invictus
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.09
Buy DVD: Invictus• Buy Blu-Ray: Invictus [Blu-ray]

Although it eventually builds a full head of steam by the exciting third act, director Clint Eastwood's Invictus may be remembered more for its earlier, quieter moments:

• The pitch-dark 4 a.m. walks taken by newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), in the company of two bodyguards who fret about the ritualistic regularity of this practice, and how easily an ambush could be mounted;
When Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, left) arranges to meet rugby team
captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), their first conversation takes place
over afternoon tea: one of the greatest traditions brought to South Africa by
the British, in Mandela's view.

• The suspicion that characterizes interactions between the white and black members of Mandela's security team, and the oh-so-gradual thaw that eventually bonds these men through mutual respect;

• A shanty-town rugby session involving dirt-poor black children and the privileged members of the Springbok rugby team  fielding only one black player  when they're ordered to reach out to these young sports fans; and

• All interactions between Mandela and his feisty chief of staff, Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh), who cannot understand why her boss devotes so much time and attention to something as "insignificant" as sports matches.

Ah, but that's the core of Anthony Peckham's carefully modulated screenplay  adapted from John Carlin's book, Playing the Enemy  which Eastwood has transformed into an uplifting underdog sports saga.

And one based on actual, history-making and life-changing events.

Invictus gets its name from the title of a poem by William Ernest Henley, which brought Mandela solace during the 27 years he spent in prison for his efforts to overthrow apartheid. Although the entire poem is deeply moving, its final two lines are key:

I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

The film begins on May 10, 1994, the day that Mandela takes office. He arrives to general chaos, as the previous administration's white staff members, having assumed their services no longer will be needed, pack hastily and try to leave inconspicuously. Mandela immediately puts a stop to such assumptions, and Freeman nails this short speech with just the right blend of surprise, sincerity and morale-building passion.