Friday, December 31, 2010

The King's Speech: Deftly spoken

The King's Speech (2010) • View trailer for The King's Speech
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for a few therapeutic sessions of profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.10

The next time somebody contemptuously dismisses acting as a frivolous occupation with no redeeming social value, cite this film and its fascinating account of eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue, who very likely helped England win the war against Hitler’s Nazis.

Not bad, for a failed Shakespearean actor from Australia.
Faced with the need to make a very public speech, and knowing full well that
he'll make a fool of himself, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) nonetheless -- and
quite bravely -- approaches the podium, with his wife, Elizabeth (Helena
Bonham Carter) offering plenty of moral support.

The King’s Speech – clever title, that – is both an absorbing story and a thoroughly engaging film experience: superbly acted by its three stars, and meticulously crafted by director Tom Hooper (The Damned United and 2008’s richly composed John Adams miniseries) and screenwriter David Seidler. The movie works both as a compelling slice of history and an often delightful character study, with an intimate, behind-closed-doors account of “The Royals” that feels wholly authentic, even though nobody would have taken notes at the time.

Indeed, everything about this saga remained a carefully guarded secret for decades. We’re able to cherish this account of a most unusual friendship – and professional relationship – only with the luxury of extreme hindsight.

And what a story it is: yet further proof that truth really is stranger than fiction.

(I seem to be saying that a lot this month, since the phrase also crept into my recent review of The Fighter. In a way, both films are alike, as they involve determined protagonists who face an unlikely challenge with rather unconventional assistance.)

The story begins in 1930s England, as the advent of radio – “the wireless” – makes it necessary for King George V (Michael Gambon) to become a more visible presence in Britain via broadcasts and Christmas speeches, akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” in the States. Such responsibilities also fall upon the king’s two sons: the elder Edward (Guy Pearce), the Prince of Wales, next in line to the throne; and Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York.

Like his father, Edward – known by the family as David – has a rich and nicely modulated speaking voice. Albert, called Bertie by his intimates, is quite the opposite; he has a lisp and a terrible stammer. His radio debut – opening the second season of the British Empire Exhibition, at Wembley Stadium – is a wincing, embarrassing calamity.

Monday, December 27, 2010

How Do You Know: Hard to be sure

How Do You Know (2010) • View trailer for How Do You Know
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Sweetest movie proposal scene ever.

And no, I’m not revealing anything that has to do with our stars. One of the hallmarks of a sharp script – and well-directed film – is the degree to which attention is paid to the smallest characters. Writer/director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) delivers precisely those goods in How Do You Know, and we can’t help being charmed by everybody from an observant doorman (John Tormey) to a savvy psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub, making the most of a single scene).
When Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) invites George (Paul Rudd, right) inside for a
brief visit, she's surprised to be dressed down by Matty (Owen Wilson), who
objects because she's living in "his" place ... rather than sharing digs in "their"
place. (Ergo, she should have "asked permission" before having any guests.)
Not for the first time, Lisa subsequently sees the need to re-evaluate her
relationship with Matty.

Indeed, Shalhoub’s sage advice to our heroine should be stitched onto a sampler and mounted on the wall adjacent to everybody’s kitchen.

Perhaps this also explains why How Do You Know seems to be on the losing end of the 2010 holiday films tsunami. For all its witty delights and clever repartee – Brooks’ characters always unerringly say the best possible things, at the best possible moments – the result sometimes feels a bit too slick, a bit too formulaic, a bit too clever for its own good. Much as we come to enjoy our time spent with Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), George (Paul Rudd) and Matty (Owen Wilson), the set-up is contrived and the execution rather retro: It’s not hard to imagine these lines being delivered by the likes of, say, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, back in the day.

Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it does require a particular mindset: a willingness to go with the flow in order to enjoy what frequently feels more like a particularly nimble stage play.

Lisa has played ball her whole life; indeed, her entire soul is wrapped up in the game. But advancing age – a heart-stopping 31 – has robbed her of those necessary precious seconds of additional speed and swift reflexes. As this saga begins, she’s hit with the worst possible calamity: She’s cut from the USA Women’s softball team.

Cast adrift. Directionless. Without a clue what to do next.

Oh, sure; Lisa knew, intellectually, that this day would come. She simply didn’t expect it to come now. Her plight – and Witherspoon’s nuanced depiction of Lisa’s reaction – will feel familiar to anybody downsized during our ongoing economic malaise. It’s like being in a relationship that one knows won’t go the distance: We always want to leave on our terms, rather than wake up one morning to discover we’ve been left.

Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit: Larger than life

True Grit (2010) • View trailer for True Grit
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.10

Despite Hollywood’s current love affair with remaking almost everything under the sun, certain classics remain sacrosanct.

In a precious few cases, neither film buffs nor the general public would tolerate any attempt to improve upon perfection. The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain come to mind, and the list also includes Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca. (The latter did, however, suffer a TV series remake in 1983, with – no, I’m not making this up – David Soul in the Humphrey Bogart role.)
Having demonstrated her own "true grit" by fording a stream without benefit of
the nearby ferry, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) proves that she's not about to be left
behind by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, center) and Rooster (Jeff Bridges).

True Grit has been viewed the same way, not so much because the 1969 film is that good – actually, it isn’t, and hasn’t aged well at all – but because of John Wayne’s iconic portrayal of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, which finally brought the Hollywood legend an Academy Award. Eyebrows lifted then, and have remained raised ever since: Wayne was many things, but the phrase “great actor” never could be applied to his work. Still, it was a nice way to acknowledge an impressive career, and – for better or worse – True Grit became firmly identified with Wayne’s starring performance.

And Charles Portis’ great novel, consequently, went into limbo. (More’s the pity.)

Finally, happily, somebody has seen fit to take another stab at it. And whereas the 1969 film suffered from stunt casting and a family-friendly effort to “sanitize” the storyline, this new version boasts excellent performances, a sharp and much more faithful script, and an atmosphere that does justice to the novel’s whimsical tone.

The latter is crucial. Portis blended rugged Western drama with snarky, comic sensibilities; his book can be hilarious at one moment, deadly serious the next. Needless to say, Joel and Ethan Coen are absolutely perfect for this material, since they have the same macabre and vicious sense of humor. Recall every moment that Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh was on the screen in 2007’s No Country for Old Men: He was simultaneously ludicrous – those clothes, that hairstyle – and terrifying.

This new version of True Grit doesn’t include a villain of such evil magnitude, but the story’s various rustlers, layabouts and bandits behave with oddly dignified gentility, as if following some 19th century bad guy’s manual of refinement. At the same time, they can explode into unexpected violence: an apparent contradiction that imbues even the least significant characters with added weight.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Fighter: A knock-out

The Fighter (2010) • View trailer for The Fighter
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, boxing violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang

The opening image is startling: a slice of documentary-verite with two men on a couch. We recognize the actor at left; it’s definitely Mark Wahlberg. But the guy at right ... we know, from the poster outside the theater, that Wahlberg’s co-star is Christian Bale. But this can’t be Bale ... not this gaunt, wild-eyed, tousle-haired, hyperactive crack addict. Not possible.

Indeed, possible.
While local cop Mickey O'Keefe (left) looks on with unconcealed dismay,
Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, right) once again attempts to take far too much
credit for any of his half-brother Micky Ward's (Mark Wahlberg) success.

Bale has an infamous reputation as a control freak and method perfectionist; he quite notoriously dropped 63 pounds – sliding down to a health-threatening 110 – in order to bring additional credibility to his portrayal of the emaciated title character in 2004’s The Machinist. (The film tanked, but Bale’s performance certainly wasn’t the reason.)

In The Fighter, Bale once again has drunk deep from the well of physical verisimilitude, for his role as one-time Massachusetts boxing prospect Dicky Eklund: a small-town scrabbler whose shining hour was a toe-to-toe bout with Sugar Ray Leonard.

But that was years ago. As The Fighter opens, Dicky is ostensibly “training” younger half-brother Micky Ward (Wahlberg), mostly as a means of maintaining his own cachet in the blue-collar community of Lowell, which ferociously nourishes its local heroes. But Dicky’s off-ringside behavior has become too much even for Lowell’s loyalty; when not being arrested for various minor crimes, the one-time contender holes up in a dilapidated crack house with a motley collection of substance-abusing losers barely able to stand ... or even string three words into a short sentence.

Dicky is so far gone that he fails to perceive the actual significance of the documentary crew that has been recording his every move, along with a sidebar focus on Micky. Dicky believes he’s the subject of a rags-to-riches-to-redemption puff piece, when in fact the HBO crew is working on an episode of its American Undercover series: “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron Legacy: Badly tarnished

Tron: Legacy (2010) • View trailer for Tron: Legacy
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild profanity and meaningless action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.17.10

Goodness, what an empty, soulless snooze.

Just like the first one.

OK, yes, the original Tron remains a groundbreaking visual tour-de-force: decades ahead of its time, when released in 1982 ... but with roughly a pinball machine’s worth of plot. Yes, it deserves credit as a clever demonstration of proto-CGI effects, and it also pioneered (on film, anyway) the notion of slipping into way-cool “avatar” versions of ourselves in a virtual world, while navigating a hippy-trippy interpretation of the information superhighway.
Quorra (Olivia Wilde), sympathetic to Sam's (Garrett Hedlund) desire to defeat
the Grid's menacing despot and find his way back to Earth, pays an
unexpected visit with a bit of intel: a mysterious individual who should be
able to help Sam with his dangerous quest.

But the story was bone-deep dumb, with perils and powers randomly designed only to fill any given scene, with little attempt at a logically cohesive plot. The result was boring, boring, boring.

Just like this one.

More than a few eyebrows shot up, back when Tron: Legacy was announced; the original Tron was a box-office dud, and a three-decades-later sequel seemed an unlikely notion, at best. Granted, the mainstream world has become more comfortable with computers and information technology during that time; concepts and jargon that were far-reaching in 1982 have become readily accessible elements of everyday speech. The original Tron failed, to a degree, because it was too way out at the time: a head-scratching anomaly during an era when even conventional animated films were struggling to find an audience.

The intervening years, however, have encouraged a case of selective memory loss among fans who have come to believe that the overuse of tech terminology was the sole reason for the film’s initial reputation as a stiff. Not true. It failed because it really is stiff: minimal story, laughable “acting” and a so-called plot that felt like script pages tossed into the air and then filmed as they randomly floated back to the ground.

As I find myself saying, far too frequently these days, that it’s the story, stupid ... the same failing that also dooms this sequel.

Back in the day, following his successful adventures on the grid in the original Tron, tech visionary Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) returned to his life. As the 1980s waned, his attention was divided between working at his company, Encom, and quality time with his young son, Sam. Then, one day, Kevin went to the office and never returned. Some suggested he’d had a mental breakdown; others surmised that he had fled the mounting pressure of his increasingly corporatized life, for a sunny beach in some far quieter part of the world.

Either way, young Sam – having previously lost his mother, as well – became an orphan. Encom, lacking Kevin’s progressive, planet-friendly hand at the tiller, evolved into a greedy, power-hungry giant led by a board of directors cheerfully willing to overcharge schools for “new” operating system platforms that were little more than higher numbers (“version 12”) on colorful boxes.

Sam, meanwhile, has grown a disenchanted young man – now played by Garrett Hedlund – who races motorcycles (allowing plenty of gratuitous product placement for Ducati) while occasionally breaking into Encom long enough to hack a system or three, in order to embarrass the CEO. The company board’s sole holdover from the old days, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, also reprising his original role), has all but given up on Sam, who in turn resents the older man’s efforts to be, if not a father figure, then at least a trustworthy uncle figure.

From the archives: October 2009

My tendency to resist mainstream adulation became obvious again this month: a busy 31 days highlighted by big-screen adaptations of two children's books. Where the Wild Things Are got all the loving press, and I found it a complete snooze  not to mention morally suspect  while the far more entertaining Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant got staked at the box office. Go figure.

Michael Moore hectored us again, this time on our country's financial mess, but the poor guy is sounding tired. Indeed; Moore claims this may have been his final rant-filled documentary. (Do we believe him?)

Despite its poor ticket sales, I found Whip It a thorough delight, and have seen it three times thus far. Drew Barrymore may not have gotten much respect nation-wide for her directorial debut, but she certainly has my vote.

The month's treasure, however, is My One and Only: a sleeper scarcely released, all but ignored, and deserving of much greater attention.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:


Capitalism: A Love Story

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

Dolphins and Whales

The Invention of Lying

Law Abiding Citizen

My One and Only

A Serious Man

Whip It

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Black Swan: Intense flight

Black Swan (2010) • View trailer for Black Swan
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor, drug use and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Director Darren Aronofsky grabs us by the scruff and buffets us into submission, much the way a terrier shakes the life out of a favorite toy.

Aronofsky’s films are far from passive experiences; they’re confrontational head trips about unhinged, deeply flawed characters, sometimes barely recognizable as human beings. And even when the approach is more or less realistic – as was the case with The Wrestler, which garnered well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei – Aronofsky can’t resist the occasional sadistic touches of Grand Guignol. (Recall the bout that put Rourke’s character into a broken glass and razor-bladed cage match.)
When Nina (Natalie Portman) fails to project the sensual heat required for a
segment of her performance in Swan Lake, ballet company director Thomas
Leroy (Vincent Cassel) gets aggressively physical with her. The result, far
outside the young woman's comfort zone, eventually proves quite unexpected.

Black Swan isn’t nearly that conventional, although Aronofsky once again narrows his gaze on a competitor in a highly stylized discipline: the world of ballet. But be warned: This isn’t the luxuriously romantic ballet of The Turning Point, with its soft-focus camerawork and beautifully toned bodies. This is more the unhealthy obsession of The Red Shoes: an aggressive depiction of an artform that involves punishing rehearsals, merciless competition and emotionally battered young women who – like jockeys – flirt with dietary dysfunction in order to make their weights.

Early on, we’re challenged with every bulimic purge, every toenail split down the middle by excess en pointe practice. The environment is punishing to the point where single-minded dedication becomes all-consuming mania.

Ah, yes: This is a story of madness.

Specifically, a descent into madness. Black Swan is the most riveting depiction of a woman coming unhinged since Catherine Deneuve lost her mind while inhabiting the claustrophobic apartment in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. And I suspect the similarity isn’t accidental; more than a few of Aronofsky’s touches feel like deliberate nods to Polanski.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is introduced in the protective cocoon of her bedroom: a frilly, fluffy, pastel-pink womb that would be the envy of any little girl. But Nina is many years beyond being a little girl, and this room – as lensed by Matthew Libatique – feels more than a little malignant.

Worse yet, the womb-like atmosphere also is an unsettling metaphor. The emotionally repressed Nina’s every move and thought are subject to the approval of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a control freak whose smothering embrace doesn’t quite mask long-simmering rage: Erica was forced, years ago, to abandon her own ballet career when she became pregnant. Ever since, this older woman has channeled her own desires through her daughter’s now-identical ambition, employing passive-aggressive mind games to get “little Nina” to cater to her every whim. And Nina, the classic victim, craves nothing more than this malevolent monster’s approval.

Nina is similarly mentally abused by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the hard-charging director of the New York City ballet company that counts her as likely heir apparent. The troupe’s current star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), has grown a bit long in the tooth for the ingénue roles that sell tickets and encourage grants from deep-pockets benefactors.

Or perhaps Thomas, who sleeps with all his stars, merely has grown tired of Beth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

From the archives: November 2009

An intriguing month, highlighted by Sandra Bullock's future Academy Award winner: a high-quality performance in The Blind Side that was easy to admire. Coincidence also struck this month, with dueling end-of-the-world scenarios: the popcorn-style optimism of 2012 contrasted with a bleak and wholly unpalatable adaptation of The Road.

Hollywood got an early jump on the holiday season with the misguided CGI version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol: an insufferable and soulless Jim Carrey vanity project that interests me less with every passing month. Alastair Sim never looked so good...

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

The Blind Side

A Christmas Carol

Coco Before Chanel

The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Road


Friday, December 10, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia -- Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Seaworthy

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) • View trailer for Voyage of the Dawn Treader
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy action and one truly scary monster
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.10.10

After a lumbering sophomore installment that was little more than an excuse for swordplay and a contrived “war” between CGI creatures, the Narnia series has found its footing again.

For starters, we can credit the character mix: Older siblings Susan and Peter have moved on, leaving this adventure to their younger brother and sister, Edmund and Lucy (Skandar Keynes and the always adorable Georgie Henley, still graced with the best rueful smile in town). They’re joined by a newcomer: their obnoxious, condescending cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter), which gives us the chance to experience this magical realm through a fresh set of eyes. This, in turn, makes everything seem new to us, as well.
Caspian (Ben Barnes, left), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie
Henley) learn more about their complex mission after studying a dusty old book
in a magical library. They think they're alone, but they're about to discover
that isn't the case...

(Perhaps more important, this series has been removed from Disney’s hands. The Mouse House has a tendency to put big, fat footprints on pre-existing material, sometimes distorting tone and atmosphere to fit the often rigid “Disney formula.” Narnia is better off without such tampering.)

More importantly, this third installment of C.S. Lewis’ famed series – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – is a good, old-fashioned quest in the classic heroic mold: a thrilling adventure scaled down to kid-size perils, setbacks and triumphs. That crucial aspect was lost in the second film, when Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy took this mystical realm for granted, and became far too blasé about everything.

Then, too, the wise and powerful Aslan’s presence has been scaled back, which cuts down on the fortune-cookie pronouncements – even though they always sound cool, when spoken so solemnly by Liam Neeson – and eyebrow-raising, deus ex machina “solutions” to impossible problems. The children are mostly left to control their destinies here, and learn from mistakes; that’s as it should be.

In the real world, roughly three years after the events depicted in Lewis’ second novel, Prince Caspian, England has been enveloped by World War II. It’s 1943; Peter is studying for university exams, while Susan is on holiday in the United States. Lucy and Edmund have been shuttled off to relations in Cambridge, where they’re stuck with their young cousin, the snobbish and wholly intolerant Eustace Clarence Scrubb (played to bratty perfection by Poulter).

Eustace is fond of recording his petulant thoughts and diatribes in a diary, where he can finesse events and people to his own desires. The rigors of real life are best avoided by this young lad, who is ill-equipped to deal with anything that requires pluck or imagination.

He’s forced to acknowledge the need for both when a painting in an upstairs bedroom – an image of an ocean-bound sailing vessel – starts slopping sea water all over the room; moments later, the three children are frantically kicking to the surface of an actual ocean. (A far less elegant means of reaching Narnia than slipping through the back end of a wardrobe and into a snow-covered forest, if you ask me.)

The Tourist: First-class accommodations

The Tourist (2010) • View trailer for The Tourist
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, mild sensuality and a hiccup of profanity
By Derrick Bang

Stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – who won a well-deserved Academy Award for 2006’s merely terrific The Lives of Others – and a sharp, cosmopolitan script by von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, The Young Victoria).

Goodness, how could it miss?

It doesn’t.
Strangers on a train: Elise (Angelina Jolie) surprises Frank (Johnny Depp), a
complete stranger, when she sits across from him during a railway journey to
Venice. Although Frank is convinced she has made an odd mistake, in fact
Elise has chosen her new comparion with care ... and for reasons that are
about to become significantly dangerous.

The Tourist is an engaging throwback to sophisticated 1960s espionage romps that matched stunning women with bemused and often clueless men: deservedly treasured classics such as Charade (Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant) and Arabesque (Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck). Full disclosure forces me to acknowledge this as one of my favorite genres, so I approached The Tourist with high expectations and guarded concern: It ain’t easy to re-capture this sort of lightning in a bottle.

No worries, mate. The storyline is pure bonkers, to be sure, but the execution is a whole lotta fun.

Jolie makes a pluperfect femme fatale, although cut from a different (much more expensive) cloth than the sleeper agent she played in this past summer’s Salt. Her Elise Clifton-Ward is an ethereal sophisticate: the sort of woman accustomed to playing with her toys, particularly those that stand on two legs. Her expression is a heady brew of charming amusement and mildly smug superiority: a smoldering, come-hither glance that promises much but yields little.

At the same time, she’s open to novelty: Any man might have a chance, her gaze suggests, if he intrigues her sufficiently.

Depp, although playing as “ordinary” as we’ve seen him in years – his Frank Tupelo is a mild-mannered American math professor – is captivating in his mundaneness. His timid astonishment – this woman’s paying attention to me? – is pitch perfect, his worried, are-you-putting-me-on sideways glances to die for. And I lament the fate of theater patrons lacking acute hearing, because they’ll miss all of Depp’s nervous grumbles and worried frum-frahs. He can turn a squeaky “Hmmmm?” into the height of hilarity.

We know we’re in good hands right from the get-go, as James Newton Howard’s engaging score draws us into a stakeout of Elise by law enforcement agents in several countries: a long-running operation overseen by British investigator Acheson (Paul Bettany, appropriately brittle).

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tamara Drewe: Draw your own conclusions

Tamara Drewe (2010) • View trailer for Tamara Drewe
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity and sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.3.10

Not long into director Stephen Frears’ big-screen handling of Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds’ rather viciously snarky graphic novel, we get a telling remark from the character we’re encouraged to loathe the most: condescending pop-fiction author Nicholas Hardiment, played to snobbish perfection by Roger Allam:

“All storytellers are liars and thieves.”
We can't see who everybody is looking at -- that would be Tamara -- but her
entrance certainly has a dramatic impact. The key players in this cheerfully
bent little drama include, from left, Glen (Bill Camp), Nicholas (Roger Allam)
and, in foreground, Beth (Tamsin Greig).

Keep that comment in mind, as this film works rather languidly toward its conclusion, because Tamara Drewe isn’t a story that rewards good behavior. Cheaters DO prosper in this rather caustic little saga, and that can prove unsettling.

At first blush, Frears’ film – scripted by Moira Buffini – feels like a slice of rural British whimsy, in the same vein as 1995’s Cold Comfort Farm or 2000’s The Closer You Get. All the elements are in place: a very small community, a core setting with plenty of eccentric characters – in this case, a “writers colony” run by Hardiment and his wife, Beth (Tamsin Greig), on their farming land, Stonefield – and an underlying current of earthy sexuality that constantly threatens to burst into voluptuous bloom.

And, for a great stretch, that’s precisely the way things proceed. The action takes place during a single year in the quaint, quiet village of Ewedown, with significant events divided into chapters according to season; we begin one summer and conclude the following spring. Nicholas and Beth host half a dozen or so writers per season; they come to this isolated setting in order to have nothing to do but write. Most are hopeless cases without a prayer of ever getting published, who hang onto Nicholas’ every statement as if each were one of God’s commandments to writers … little realizing that their host’s pithy observations are veiled put-downs.

As the story begins, only one of this particular gaggle of writers will be important: Glen (Bill Camp), a displaced American professor on sabbatical, who is making a last-ditch effort to complete a book on Thomas Hardy. Alas, Glen is as constipated in mind as he is in body: equally unsuccessful at putting words on paper, as he is, ah, emptying his digestive system. Which, of course, he discusses.

Stonefield’s lovely, secluded farm and gardens are tended by Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), a handsome “son of the soil” who respects and enjoys working the land, but also is far smarter – and more perceptive – than most folks give him credit for.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ho-ho-ho: The best Christmas movies of all time

By Derrick Bang

Next to Halloween, Christmas remains the most popular time to gather friends and family members, surround yourself with food and enjoy a holiday-themed movie or two ... or three or six, depending on your level of commitment.

Far too often, though, the roster of movies for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day suffers from an acute lack of imagination. Everybody can rattle off It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Home Alone, but where do we go from there?

While you'll find all three of those films cited below, I worked hard not to simply state the obvious.

To a degree, the challenge becomes harder every year, because — with a few exceptions — most of the best Christmas-themed films are decades and decades old. Many are in black-and-white, but try to be patient; I promise, the absence of color won't kill you. After all, story rules everything else; you might be surprised, halfway through one or more of these selections, that you're so wrapped up in the characters that you've completed forgotten about trivialities such as film stock.

As is true of any potentially significant historical event, one cannot truly judge a film's impact until it has been given a chance to stand the test of time. Hence, you won't find anything on the "classics" list newer than 1993.

That said, I still wonder where our modern holiday classics-in-the-making are hiding. Has Hollywood lost its ability to produce a poignant, well-made Christmas movie? Is trash such as Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus and Four Christmases really the best they can do?

Read more >>>

Friday, November 26, 2010

Love and Other Drugs: Good medicine

Love and Other Drugs (2010) • View trailer for Love and Other Drugs
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.26.10

Early into Love and Other Drugs, novice pharmaceuticals rep Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) shadows Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) as a means of currying favor with this potential client.

Dr. Knight has something of a mischievous streak – not to mention a fondness for attractive women – and therefore allows Jamie to attend a routine exam with new patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). She doesn’t think anything of Jamie’s presence, assuming an intern/doctor relationship; the situation turns eyebrow-raising when, as the exam concludes, she asks the doctor to take a quick look at one of her breasts.
Maggie (Anne Hathaway) can't stand Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) at first sight, but
of course that'll change; how could any woman resist his endearing, aw-shucks

The scene is staged for its erotic potential – Jamie about to enjoy a quick glimpse of forbidden fruit – and we figure, hey, it’s Anne Hathaway; director Edward Zwick will shoot the scene from behind her, preserving the actress’ modesty and allowing us to see Gyllenhaal’s Jake try not to appear lecherous. Plenty of comic potential there.

But no: The camera doesn’t cut to a different angle as Hathaway slips out of her top, and suddenly we become complicit in Jamie’s sneak peek … and the resulting scene, handled with bland insouciance by Hathaway, becomes even more erotic.

This scene is typical of Zwick’s approach in this film, which soon becomes unexpectedly, deliciously earthy and carnal in the manner of a cheerful French sex romp: a tone very few American-made films ever pull off. The film’s three screenwriters – Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick, loosely adapting Jamie Reidy’s book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman (and no doubt that little nugget of information just made your eyebrows shoot up) – understand that young couples in the throes of a new relationship spend a lot of time in bed, and also spend a lot of time OUT of bed, but still in the buff, rejoicing in their shared exposed selves.

Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, bless ’em, are game for anything; as a result, we connect with these characters at a level of intimacy that seems at odds with the film’s often mocking tone.

It’s a deft juggling act, but Zwick pulls it off. Love and Other Drugs veers wildly from one mood to another, ranging from playful sexiness and blatant comedy to increasingly powerful poignance. We watch the story itself blossom from adolescent foolishness to adult maturity, much the way Maggie helps Jamie grow up and become a better person.

Jamie is introduced as the ne’er-do-well member of an otherwise accomplished family, bright but self-destructive, and running a distant second to a dweebish younger brother – the hilarious Josh Gad – who scored a big hit with an Internet start-up. It’s the 1990s, and such things remain possible; the trouble is, Jamie has only one talent: scoring with chicks.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tangled: Misses by a hair

Tangled (2010) • View trailer for Tangled
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite unnecessarily, for cartoon violence
By Derrick Bang

Secretariat only won races. Maximus saves an entire movie.

Theatergoers will recognize that Tangled, Disney’s arch re-working of “Rapunzel,” suffers from a serious first act problem. The pacing is off, the characters are introduced somewhat haphazardly, and this animated musical’s first several songs – music by veteran hit-maker Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater – are rather underwhelming.
Flynn, accustomed to being in control of every situation, finds that he has his
hands full with Rapunzel and her impressively lifelike hair. And as if that
isn't enough to worry about, Flynn also must contend with Maximus, an
unusually intelligent horse, and an equally perceptive chameleon named Pascal.

Indeed, the early songs stop the show in the worst sense, as was the case with the weakest and most contrived movie musicals of the 1960s: the type where an otherwise dramatic scene pauses, the orchestra swells, and we all roll our eyes because we know some character is about to warble.

Then a fascinating thing happens in Tangled, right about the time our roguish good-bad-guy, Flynn Ryder (voiced by Zachary Levi, well recognized as TV’s Chuck), is pursued by the king’s guards after stealing a rather valuable – and plot-important – bauble from the palace. The Captain of the Guard (M.C. Gainey) leads the chase, astride a mighty white stallion named Maximus.

And within 15 seconds, the entire film turns around.

To say that this horse has more personality than any other three characters in this story would be an understatement. I know, from longtime experience, that different animators handle individual characters in a film of this sort; well, the team behind Maximus deserves an extra cookie after dinner for the next month.

Maximus is more dog than horse: ferociously intelligent, resourceful and shrewd; a master tracker, able to snuffle out any hidden sneak thief; and blessed with the split-second comic timing of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Aladdin’s blue genie.

Maximus introduces an energy that this film has been lacking, and the result is funny: It’s almost as if all the other characters in this bent fairy tale get jealous, and start to work harder. The music also picks up noticeably, with the next song – “I’ve Got a Dream,” a show-stopper in the truest Broadway tradition, sung by a motley crew of tavern thugs – bringing down the house.

Color me surprised, because I’d just about given up on this one.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: Deathly still

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) • View trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.19.10

Much has changed since this film series began in 2001, starting with its young stars, who’ve grown up – along with their characters – while we watched.

Think back to 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone … Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were so young.
Cornered within the Malfoy estate, with an injured Hermione (Emma Watson)
barely able to stand, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, left) and Ron (Rupert Grint) must
place their fate in the hands of Dobby, the house elf (behind the group).

The most telling transformation, however, has been subtle and a lot more disturbing. The frivolous, kid-oriented delights and challenges of that first book and accompanying film – sorting hats, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, quidditch matches, petulant bullies and 12-foot trolls running rampant in the Hogwarts girls’ bathroom – have given way to child-abusing adults, soul-sucking phantasms, the vicious insanity of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, such a chilling villainess), the malevolent plots of He Who Must Not Be Named (Lord Voldemort, brought to nightmarish life by Ralph Fiennes) and the ill treatment, torture and even death of secondary characters.

With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the first of two halves, at any rate – filmgoers now know what J.K. Rowling’s fans found out, when they devoured this seventh and final book upon its release in the summer of 2007: We definitely ain’t in Kansas any more.

The nasty, world-shattering behavior once left at the edges, and then generally tempered by young love and other teen-oriented pursuits, has taken center stage. Dark times have erupted, and Harry, Hermione and Ron seem utterly helpless to do anything about it.

And that’s rather a problem.

Our three young heroes spend a serious chunk of this picture on the run, camping out in various desolate locales while hoping to evade Voldemort’s followers. Harry and his two best friends bicker amongst themselves, which frankly became tiresome one or two films ago … and even if this rising mutual antagonism is nurtured by an evil locket, it still feels like a serious case of Been There, Done That.

Mostly, though, we wait for something to happen, much the way Harry and his friends await the worst. Although the opportunity for character development is welcome – particularly since it has been too frequently absent, during the more recent films drawn from Rowling’s ever-longer novels – director David Yates never convinces me that this entire film, all 146 minutes of it, is little more than a lenthy prologue for The Good Stuff to come in the second half, due out next summer.

Yep, this one’s just a time-filler, to whet the appetite. That’s rather irritating.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Unstoppable: Unrelenting

Unstoppable (2010) • View trailer for Unstoppable
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.12.10

There’s something about trains.

In the same way that baseball movies are far more interesting than football movies, thrillers set on trains are much more involving than similar stories set on planes, ships, cars or buses. Call it the romance of the rails; call it whatever you like. The simple truth is that train movies touch us profoundly.
Hey, it's a movie about a runaway train ... which means that veteran brakeman
Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) eventually will wind up climbing on top of
the beast and trying to make his way to the engine. Think he'll make it?

Some actors shy away from sharing the screen with children or small animals, lest they be upstaged. Trains can be added to that list; it’s almost as if they’re living, breathing entities with souls of their own.

Buster Keaton dazzled viewers all the way back in 1926, with the train-oriented comedy of The General. Cinema’s avowed master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, understood the power of trains; one of his very first talkies, 1932’s Number 17, climaxed with a furious train and car chase (using a tabletop model train set for much of the “action,” but hey; he did his best). Hitch perfected the template a few years later, with 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, and we’ve thrilled to slick, well-designed train epics ever since.

All of which explains why Unstoppable is such an engaging, hell-for-leather experience … even though director Tony Scott and writer Mark Bomback have crafted a manipulative, overwrought, at times laughably melodramatic Hollywood experience in every sense of the phrase.

Doesn’t matter. It’s a train movie, and an impressively mounted one. Surrender your cynical skepticism, sit back and prepare to enjoy the ride, ’cause Scott orchestrates this thriller with the seasoned hand of a master conductor.

Although an opening crawl suggests that the story to follow is “inspired” by actual events, that should be taken with a grain of salt. Bomback’s screenplay is Tinseltown artifice through and through, although it does unfold due to the sort of numb-nuts carelessness that resulted in the October 2008 Metrolink commuter train crash in California, when its engineer distracted himself by texting … and plowed into a freight train, killing himself and 24 other people.