Friday, January 29, 2010

A Single Man: Singularly compelling

A Single Man (2009) • View trailer for A Single Man
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, and much too harshly, for nudity and mild sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.10
Buy DVD: A Single Man • Buy Blu-Ray: A Single Man [Blu-ray]

We spend our lives searching for precious moments of clarity: the shock of epiphany that may come, if we're lucky, a few times before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

The recognition that, at this precise instant, everything makes sense.
Much as he might like to, George (Colin Firth) cannot freeze this pleasantly
intimate moment with Charley (Julianne Moore), despite her desire that he do
so; he's not in a position to provide what she needs. More to the point, he has
an appointment with his own pending suicide.

George Falconer (Colin Firth) thought he had found his place in life, the universe and everything, thanks to a deeply satisfying 16-year relationship with his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). Everything made sense. But in a flash, during a drive on a snowy road in an entirely different state, Jim lost his life in a car accident.

Months later, George still hasn't recovered from the loss. He fantasizes being at the crash site, and approaching Jim's body to give him one last kiss: a comforting bit of closure denied to George, because Jim's parents  who never approved of the relationship  restricted the funeral and services to "immediate family only."

Director/co-scripter Tom Ford, working with screenwriter David Scaearce, has turned Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, A Single Man, into a beautifully constructed film with a captivating attention to detail. Much has been made of Firth's starring role, and deservedly so; it's an achingly melancholy portrait of a man who, much to his regret, can't hold himself together.

Ford brings his skills as a world-famous fashion designer to every frame of this film, which is composed with the skill of a master musician.

The film's most fascinating aspect, however, is its ingenious use of color: a technique not employed with such creativity since director Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau capture the mundane aspects of George's life with a washed-out palette: a muddy, sepia-hued filter that reflects the despondent cloud that poisons his brain.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crazy Heart: A bit too crazy?

Crazy Heart (2009) • View trailer for Crazy Heart
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.28.10
Buy DVD: Crazy Heart • Buy Blu-Ray: Crazy Heart [Blu-ray]

Despite fine performances by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal  and they're both exceptional  I simply could not get past the key plot point in Crazy Heart.

In no real-world scenario would an attractive and reasonably perceptive young woman such as Gyllenhaal's Jean fall for a slovenly, smelly, chain-smoking, burned-out alcoholic such as Bridges' Bad Blake.
Despite prudent instincts that silently scream advice to the contrary, small-
town journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) allows herself to be moved by the
seductive heat that radiates from her subject, aging country singer Bad Blake
(Jeff Bridges). Savvy viewers who watch the movie and then take a second
careful look at this photo will notice, however, that the studio publicists
cleaned Bridges up -- a lot -- before snapping this publicity still. In the film,
during this scene, Blake looks much, much seedier. (One assumes that's why
they call it "movie magic.")

It'd never happen.

She's in her late 20s, early 30s tops: single parent to an adorable 4-year-old son. Blake, at 57, is a shambling, falling-down, vomiting-as-a-recreational-sport career drunk.

No way.

Mind you, I hold this opinion despite being a guy who, in the usual Hollywood fantasyland style, would love to have somebody as cute as Gyllenhaal give me even a second glance when I hit 57. A good many of the women who attended last week's Sacramento preview screening were much more troubled, and quite vocal in their objections and disbelief.

Writer/director Scott Cooper's film is based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, who I'll assume dealt with this issue more persuasively. Maybe Jean's character is older in the book. Maybe Blake isn't quite that much of a wreck.

Whatever. On the big screen, it's an insurmountable hurdle.

So is the notion, a bit later, that Jean would trust her young son  absolutely the most precious thing in her life  in Blake's unchaperoned care. Again, no way.

Crazy Heart also suffers from deja-vu; we've definitely been here before, most notably with Robert Duvall's Academy Award-winning performance in 1983's Tender Mercies, which also concerned a washed-up country singer seeking redemption. Switch careers, and we again saw this saga played out a year ago, when Mickey Rourke impressed everybody so much with his starring role in The Wrestler.

That film also had a May/October romantic subplot, but with an important distinction: Marisa Tomei's career stripper was pretty down and out herself. She and Rourke were cut from the same cloth to begin with, and had been equally disillusioned by forever getting stuck with  to quote Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot  "the fuzzy end of the lollipop."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Extraordinary Measures: Merely ordinary

Extraordinary Measures (2010) • View trailer for Extraordinary Measures
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.22.10
Buy DVD: Extraordinary Measures • Buy Blu-Ray: Extraordinary Measures [Blu-ray]

The quest for medical miracles, although obviously compelling to those intimately involved, can be a tough sell cinematically; the real-world process is frustrating and grindingly slow, the obsessed, lab-coated doctors and researchers generally far from the big-screen archetypes likely to bring us into the story.

The usual "solutions," as a result, involve the infusion of melodrama and the fabrication of fictitious characters; the resulting narrative  at this point merely "suggested by" actual events, as opposed to rigorously factual  can turn into an eye-rolling TV movie designed to manipulate more than educate.
Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford, left) increasingly resents what he perceives
as partner John Crowley's (Brendan Fraser) bean-counting "corporatized"
decisions, believing that pure research is being sacrificed on the altar of
"acceptable loss." It's a frequent argument in today's biotech field, and one of
this film's most persuasive dramatic components.

Fortunately, Extraordinary Measures doesn't succumb to such shortcomings ... at least, not completely.

Robert Nelson Jacobs' screenplay  drawn from the book The Cure, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geeta Anand, who in turn based it on her own August 2003 Wall Street Journal article  does an impressive job of detailing the frankly insane financial and corporate constraints under which miracle drugs are developed these days. The saga is fascinating and frequently overwhelming, particularly with respect to the notion that any "regular citizen" could survive, let alone make progress, in such a process.

Our hearts are won as well by Brendan Fraser's persuasive and wholly sympathetic starring performance as John Crowley, who with his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) have been coping with having two children  out of three  who suffer from Pompe Disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder somewhat related to both muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's fatal, with most children dying before their ninth birthday.

As the film opens, Megan (Meredith Droeger, a genuine charmer) is celebrating her eighth birthday. Patrick (Diego Velazquez), not quite two years younger, has the same disease; both children require wheelchairs, breathing devices and constant monitoring by trained nurses. First-born son John Jr. (Sam Hall) is completely healthy.

Crowley, having educated himself to every possible degree, is drawn repeatedly to the theoretical research of Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), whose efforts are largely ignored in the tiny lab he holds together at a Nebraska university. Ford plays Stonehill as a crusty eccentric with two ex-wives and a preference for working with loud music blaring: a guy who can't really be bothered with "people skills."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Broken

The Lovely Bones (2009) • View trailer for The Lovely Bones
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and a very grim storyline
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.21.10
Buy DVD: The Lovely Bones • Buy Blu-Ray: The Lovely Bones (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

Likening herself to a snapshot  a moment frozen in time  young Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), during her concluding voice-over in The Lovely Bones, laments that she was here but for a moment ... and then gone.

If only the same could be said of the film itself.
Susie (Saoirse Ronan) enjoys helping her father (Mark Wahlberg) with his
hobby of building ships in bottles, even as she playfully teases him about it;
he describes the way in which such a painstaking hobby instills the discipline
of seeing things through, and -- waving a hand vaguely toward shelves filled
with bottled tiny ships -- promises that "One day, all this will be yours."
His daughter, with a horrified glance, can't be sure it's a promise or a threat...

Director Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's grim novel  which Jackson scripted with longtime collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens  is a dull, dreary and dispiriting slog. It feels like a self-indulgent vanity project that got entirely out of hand. Jackson obviously wanted to make portentous statements about death and the despair of a human soul left with no means to take care of unfinished business ... but all this gets lost amid leaden pacing, irritating plot points and monotonous, hippy-trippy images of the afterlife.

Seeing this film immediately on the heels of Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus made for an interesting comparison. Both films are a mess, in different ways, but Gilliam's chaotic dreamscapes at least have the benefit of being relevant to his storyline. The luxurious realms in which Susie finds herself trapped, in great contrast, pointlessly interrupt the flow of a (potentially) more interesting narrative.

I'm reminded of old-style movie musicals, where the actors would break away from a dramatic moment, often quite jarringly, in order to launch into a song. You'll get just as irritated here, each time Jackson cuts to Susie's fixation with the same damned gazebo.

And it's a shame, because The Lovely Bones begins well. We're fully involved with these characters up to the moment Susie's life is snuffed, and quite horribly; things fall apart only later  and this is the bulk of the overlong 135-minute film  when the girl refuses to "move on," preferring instead to find out to what degree she can, or should, hang around and attempt to influence matters back in the mortal world.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Warped reflections

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) • View trailer for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violent images, sensuality and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.10
Buy DVD: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus • Buy Blu-Ray: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus [Blu-ray]

Terry Gilliam's imagination is both wildly, feverishly creative and oddly grungy; one gets the impression that he views dreams and nightmares as cluttered landscapes cobbled together by people who can't be bothered to tidy up their homes, let alone put any order to their deeply buried fantasies and fears.

This somewhat messy view of humanity goes all the way back to Gilliam's days with Monty Python, when (for example) he had much to do with the filthy, muck-infested depiction of medieval England in 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Ironically, the film has since been praised for the historical verisimilitude of its setting: far more realistic than the freshly scrubbed and impeccably garbed knights and ladies of so many Hollywood costume dramas.
Although Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, left) is inclined to reflect sadly on
the mess he has made of his life, an oddly solicitous Mr. Nick (Tom Waits)
rather charitably points out that things aren't that bad ... and besides, there's
always another wager to make.

Gilliam continued to focus on mankind's scruffier elements in his best big-screen fantasies, from the bedraggled heroes of Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to the street people of his inner-city masterpiece, The Fisher King.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is no different. We can readily believe that the ageless Parnassus, long ago granted immortality, truly has traveled the world for centuries with the same dilapidated, horse-drawn carriage-cum-circus: a deceptively rickety affair that possesses a much larger interior than its weather-worn exterior would suggest.

Once upon a time, perhaps back in the 18th century, Parnassus and his traveling troupe would have dazzled average passers-by with a blend of juggling, acrobatics, sly subterfuge and a truly magic mirror that serves as a gateway to the more embarrassing  or nastier  parts of the human soul. But the good doctor hasn't updated his schtick since then, and the smirking, condescending denizens of our 21st century lack the childlike sense of wonder that would have left their ancestors rapt whenever Parnassus' wagon rolled into town. More's the pity, because the traveling show's true nature remains just as pressing in this modern age.

Countless generations ago, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) bargained with the Devil, dubbed Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), for the gift of immortality. The Devil cheerfully granted this wish, because Parnassus hadn't anticipated the agony of eternal life, and of watching, over and over, as people he knew and loved grew old and left him.

We also eventually realize, thanks to the delightful subtlety of Waits' performance, that Mr. Nick sensed a kindred spirit in Parnassus all those years back: a worthy opponent for an endless celestial competition over the very nature of man.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Leap Year: Leap of faith

Leap Year (2010) • View trailer for Leap Year
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild sensuality and milder profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.14.10
Buy DVD: Leap Year • Buy Blu-Ray: Leap Year [Blu-ray]

This film is a triumph of star talent over thin material and ham-fisted execution.

Honestly, whatever Amy Adams and Matthew Goode were paid for this limp romantic comedy, it wasn't enough. Absent their considerable charm and engaging chemistry, this tired flick wouldn't even rate release as a late-night cable original.
Every time Declan (Matthew Goode) ticks her off, or they miss one of their
travel connection -- both events sometimes occurring simultaneously -- Anna
(Amy Adams) petulantly hits the road again, rolling her Louis Vuitton suitcase
in her wake, like a misbehaving child. No matter how thin his patience wears,
Declan is too much a gentleman to let her trundle off alone, and so he follows
in her heel-clacking wake. True love must be just around the next corner, right?

But Adams, bless her heart, sparkles in every scene ... and Goode isn't far behind. Both embrace this predictable material as if it were as fresh as the Irish countryside, which offers its own radiance. The company filmed on location, and we're treated to stunning Irish vistas and picturesque countryside rambles in and around Dun Aengus, Wicklow, Dublin and  most impressively  the Aran Islands.

Too bad Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's script can't live up to the scenery.

Worse, still, that Anand Tucker's direction  and most particularly Nick Moore's editing  don't even live up to the script.

Adams stars as perky Anna Brady, an "apartment stager" who has tired of waiting for longtime boyfriend Jeremy (Adam Scott, utterly unmemorable) to pop the question. Reminded of a family legend by her father (John Lithgow, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo), Anna decides to surprise Jeremy, who has flown to Dublin for a cardiologist convention, by following and proposing herself.

This is in accordance with the swooningly romantic Irish "leap year tradition" that "allows" women to take the lead.

(We'll skip the raised-eyebrow surprise at such a story emerging in the enlightened 21st century, as opposed to, say, the 1940s or '50s, when such a premise would have been much more appropriate. By now, I suspect women have been proposing to men for decades.)

Alas, bad weather forces Anna's plane into an emergency landing far short of Dublin, and she eventually winds up in a small-town Irish bar/hotel run by Declan (Goode), a mildly surly bloke who is quite amused by this prissy, displaced American. They eventually negotiate a fee for his driving her to Dublin, and set off on a road journey destined to be fraught with complications and missed connections, some of them far more contrived than funny.

Indeed, this film's early scenes are clumsy enough to be off-putting. Anna's attempt to re-charge her BlackBerry, late the first night, would have been amusing enough when an ill-fitting charger blows the power grid in this entire hamlet; was it absolutely necessary for her to trash her room as well, by blundering about like a bull in a china shop?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Young Victoria: Vivat regina!

The Young Victoria (2009) • View trailer for The Young Victoria
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for brief violence and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.8.10
Buy DVD: The Young Victoria • Buy Blu-Ray: The Young Victoria [Blu-ray]

If Jane Austen had written a factual novel about Queen Victoria's early years, it likely would have sounded much like The Young Victoria.

No surprise there: Screenwriter Julian Fellowes won a well-deserved Academy Award for his sly 2001 pastiche, Gosford Park, which felt like an impossible dream collaboration between Austen and Agatha Christie. Fellowes has a knack for meticulously interlaced ensemble drama and the delectable, tart-tongued dialogue that Austen employed so well.
Recently married and still working out how to behave with each other, Prince
Albert (Rupert Friend) and Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) must set aside the
injured pride of a recent quarrel while making a necessary public appearance.

Fresh evidence is on hand in director Jean-Marc Vallee's tantalizing Young Victoria, which also benefits from Emily Blunt's accomplished and carefully layered starring performance.

Queen Victoria reigned for a jaw-dropping 64 years, from 1837 to 1901, during which time  as the saying goes -— the sun never set on the British empire. She championed the arts, ignored the customary aristocratic arrogance and developed relations with "the riff-raff" (read: ordinary citizens), and kept her nation stable during a time of great industrial and economic change.

We can well imagine that this grande dame might have looked and sounded like Blunt's portrayal here, because one thing is obvious: From a young age, Victoria had to have been quite waspish with those making meddlesome attempts to usurp her birthright. History proves this, because otherwise she likely never would have retained the royal power necessary to back up the authority of her crown.

Vallee's film is tightly compressed, detailing  as its title suggests  Victoria's life and career from just prior to her 17th birthday, to shortly after her initially tempestuous but eventually highly successful marriage to Prince Albert. Fellowes' focus concerns Victoria's need to retain, understand and consolidate her power, and the point at which  not that many years later  it becomes clear that she'll successfully do so.

And yes, those who've not recently dipped into a history book may be vexed by the spoiler unleashed in the previous paragraph, since this film teases us with respect to whether Victoria will succumb to the much more flamboyantly dashing advances of Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), who becomes her first prime minister and, for a time, sole advisor.

But c'mon, folks; the London landmark is the Royal Albert Hall, not the Royal Melbourne Hall!