Friday, February 26, 2010

The Last Station: Derailed

The Last Station (2010) • View trailer for The Last Station
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.10
Buy DVD: The Last Station • Buy Blu-Ray: The Last Station [Blu-ray]

Tempestuous period clashes between husband and wife cannot help being compared to the gold standard of this cinematic micro-genre: director Anthony Harvey's sizzling 1968 adaptation of The Lion in Winter, which starred Peter O'Toole as Henry II and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane.

Few performers have chewed up the scenery with such style, and James Goldstone's Academy Award-winning script  drawn from his own stage play  remains an exhilarating blend of historical fact, fancy and razor-edged temper tantrums.
Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) has been sent into Leo Tolstoy's
household in order to spy on the famed novelist's high-strung wife, Sofya
(Helen Mirren), and to keep a diary of all her conversations and behavior. Not
realizing this, Sofya in turn asks Valentin to spy on a man she doesn't trust,
by -- you guessed it -- keeping another diary of all his conversations and

Director/scripter Michael Hoffman's The Last Station, in great contrast, is oddly staid and uninvolving.

To be sure, stars Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren earn their Oscar nominations, for their shrewdly shaded portrayals of Leo and his wildly melodramatic wife, Sofya. Mirren, in particular, makes Sofya a pathetic and desperate creature: a woman who has grown to despise much about a husband whose hubris has gone way overboard ... but at the same time cannot imagine living without him.

Unfortunately, Hoffman's screenplay  adapted from Jay Parini's novel  assumes rather too much of its audience. Viewers lacking a great deal of knowledge about Tolstoy, and early 20th century Russia, are apt to get lost in a narrative that feels as though we've been dumped into chapter 37 of some expansive novel, and left to work out the various back-story details on our own.

Perhaps more telling, Hoffman's directorial focus goes not to Plummer and Mirren, but instead to James McAvoy's Valentin Bulgakov, the worshipful young man hired as Tolstoy's newest assistant. Hoffman too often concentrates on Valentin's coming-of-age lessons, particularly as related to his growing relationship with the free-spirited Masha (Kerry Condon), a young woman whose sexual willingness seems a bit out of place in these surroundings.

(I don't doubt, for a moment, that some early 20th century women were sexually adventurous: probably far more than history ever will acknowledge. But Condon looks and sounds too much like a 1960s flower child.)

Frankly, Hoffman seems most interested in Valentin, and McAvoy's sensitive, carefully layered performance certainly makes his the most compassionate character in these proceedings. But he's still a secondary character, and it seems wrong for him to steal so much focus from Tolstoy and his wife, particularly when acting heavyweights such as Plummer and Mirren are involved.

The film's balance feels off, as a result, and we're never quite sure who does  or doesn't  deserve our sympathy.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Shutter Island: Cast adrift

Shutter Island (2010) • View trailer for Shutter Island
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, nudity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.25.10
Buy DVD: Shutter Island • Buy Blu-Ray: Shutter Island [Blu-ray]

Shutter Island is a jittery, nerve-jangling riff on Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, by way of novelist Dennis Lehane's signature brand of menace and human depravity.

And when Lehane is involved  he also wrote the novels on which Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone were based  you can bet that children will be involved.
U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) and new partner
Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, center) are immediately dissatisfied with the
information supplied by Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley); both detectives find the
psychiatrist too slick and much too condescending. The question, then,
revolves around what this unnaturally calm clinic head is hiding.

And not pleasantly.

Shutter Island is a period piece, set in 1954, and very much a product of its era. World War II remains a recent and highly disturbing memory, with reflexive suspicion directed toward German immigrants. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting witch hunt and the House Un-American Activities Committee are uppermost on everybody's minds, as are fears about being vaporized by hydrogen bombs.

Against the paranoia of this Cold War backdrop, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are summoned to Ashecliffe Hospital, an isolated facility for the criminally insane located on Shutter Island, a rocky hiccup of land off the New England coast. (Filming actually took place on Peddocks Island, roughly 100 miles off Boston.)

The facility's directors, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Nauhring (Max von Sydow), have a disturbing problem: One of their patients  Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), a deranged woman who quietly drowned her three children, but even now believes that she and they are continuing their bucolic suburban lives  has disappeared from her cell. It's a classic locked room mystery: no way to get out, no way to get past several staffing and guard stations, and certainly no way to get off the island.

And yet she's gone.

Daniels, blessed with the sharpened awareness of a keen investigator, along with an intuitive ability to read people, senses hostility from the moment he and Chuck step off the only ferry that runs between Shutter Island and the mainland. The facility's armed guards are watchful and suspicious; the staff members, when gathered for interviews, are condescending and tolerantly amused.

Daniels knows they're lying to him, just as he knows that Rachel couldn't possibly have escaped ... at least, not without help.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Academy Award Shorts: Good things in small packages

Academy Award Short Subjects (2010) 
Four stars (out of five). Rating: not rated, but with considerable profanity and adult subject matter
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.19.10

I cherish well-crafted short fiction.

Any creative typist can hack through a narrative in a 749-page novel, but genuine talent is required to enchant readers with a 15-page short story. It's an artform too often overlooked: particularly these days, as the markets for short stories  magazines and anthologies  become ever-more-endangered species.
Wallace, left, and his faithful canine companion, Gromit, load their delivery
truck with the delicious bakery products for which their new business,
Top Bun, has become known. Director Nick Park's "A Matter of Loaf and
Death," his fourth Wallace and Gromit short adventure, is nominated for this
year's Best Animated Short Subject.

In just the same way, short films separate the truly gifted from Hollywood's inept, overpaid and often laughably arrogant names du jour. Economy of storytelling is of paramount importance in a short: Every scene  indeed, every frame  must advance the narrative. Nothing can be superfluous, if the finished product is to achieve the impact desired by its creator.

Once upon a time, way back in the day, short subjects were as much a part of the movie-going experience as the newsreel, the cartoon and a second, full-length B-feature. Patrons entered the theater in the late afternoon or early evening, and were entertained for four or five hours.

All for the price of a single ticket.

Recognizing the short subject's place in all this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added two Academy Awards categories  live action and animated  in 1931. And, for the next three-plus decades, that made perfect sense.

But as the 1960s yielded to the '70s, and short subjects went the way of double-features, mainstream Oscar-watchers began to wonder why these two categories remained: Where, after all, could one see these nominated mini-movies? And if only a select few get to view them, then why bother with the Academy Awards categories?

Typical short-term thinking (pun intended).

In the first place, today's talented makers of short films are tomorrow's equally talented makers of feature-length masterpieces.

In the second place, back at the beginning of this decade, the Academy quite wisely began to market the 10 nominated shorts in a road-show package aimed at arthouse venues; Sacramento's Crest Theater got on board, and now everybody can see what the fuss is about.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Wolfman: Bad Hair Day

The Wolfman (2010) • View trailer for The Wolfman
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.18.10
Buy DVD: The Wolfman • Buy Blu-Ray: The Wolfman (2-Disc Unrated Director's Cut + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Director Joe Johnston deserves credit, in his muscular remake of The Wolfman, for resurrecting the tone and atmosphere of the classic 1930s and '40s Universal Studios monster movies: the late-19th century setting; the foreboding, fog-enshrouded English moors and crumbling mansions; the superstitious townsfolk determined to blame traveling gypsies for the ferocious beast suddenly in their midst.

The film also is well cast, with Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins looking and sounding as if they belong in this time and place. (Too many Hollywood flavors-of-the-moment fail to shake their 21st century "presence" when placed in a period drama.)
Despite knowing of the curse that turns Lawrence Talbot into a raging monster
each full moon, Gwen (Emily Blunt) believes that she can calm him ... a
decision she starts to regret, once the beast starts chasing her across a foggy,
muddy moor. Where's a silver bullet when you need it?

And I smiled appreciatively when Johnston and his two writers  Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, working from Curt Siodmak's original 1941 screenplay  opened their film with the classic Wolfman mantra:

Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.

You just don't find moody curses like that these days.

Alas, production values and savvy casting do not a film make, and after a solid beginning Johnston's take on The Wolfman turns silly and devolves into a gore-laden bloodbath. Some directors simply haven't learned the lesson: If they wish their films to be taken seriously, they can't pelt the audience with the eviscerated limbs, dangling intestines and decapitations that are standard fare in the Friday the 13th franchise or Rob Zombie's blood-spattered remakes of the Halloween series.

It's always the story, stupid ... and this one turns into a stupid story.

More crucially, though, the 1941 film's all-important dramatic heft is absent. Lawrence Talbot is one of cinema's great tragic figures: a good man fully aware that he becomes an uncontrollable monster one night each month, but who lacks the strength the end his own life and stop the carnage. Lon Chaney Jr., back in the day, made Talbot deeply conflicted and heart-breaking: a tortured soul with whom we identified quite strongly.

We never, ever stopped feeling sorry for him.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Day: Rather sweet

Valentine's Day (2010) • View trailer for Valentine's Day
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.12.10
Buy DVD: Valentine's Day • Buy Blu-Ray: Valentine's Day [Blu-ray]

Interconnected stories and all-star casts have been a Hollywood staple ever since 1932's Grand Hotel, a best picture Academy Award winner that tossed Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery  and numerous other big names of the day  into a richly melodramatic and romantic stew that took place at a plush Berlin hotel "where nothing ever happens."

The technique also has been exploited for tension-fueled drama in recent hits such as Crash and Babel.
Ten-year-old Edison (Bryce Robinson, right) thinks nothing of the fact that he
has insufficient funds for an expensive flower transaction, and assumes that
Reed (Ashton Kutcher) will stand him the difference. Their negotiation is one
of many aw-shucks moments in Valentine's Day.

On a lighter, more playfully romantic note, the recent benchmark remains 2003's Love Actually, one of the most sparkling ensemble romps ever made.

Director Garry Marshall and a trio of screenwriters  Katherine Fugate, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein  seem to have fashioned Valentine's Day as an American response to Love Actually, and to a degree they've succeeded. Marshall's film, although uneven, hits many of the same whimsical high notes; the large ensemble cast is well used in a series of stories connected in ways that are both mildly contrived and extremely clever.

Indeed, the final few surprises  saved for the film's very end  can't help making you smile.

The varied events and encounters take place during a single day  Valentine's Day  throughout various portions of Los Angeles. We begin with three different couples waking in each other's arms: flower shop vendor Reed (Ashton Kutcher), who springs a ring and pops the question to girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba); grade school teacher Julia (Jennifer Garner), deliriously in love with new boyfriend Harrison (Patrick Dempsey); and agent-in-training Jason (Topher Grace), in the early stages of dating agency receptionist Liz (Anne Hathaway).

Elsewhere, teen bubblehead Felicia (pop music sensation Taylor Swift) receives a huge stuffed white teddy bear from boyfriend Willy (Taylor Lautner). Felicia's good friend Grace (Emma Roberts) and her longtime boyfriend Alex (Carter Jenkins) have decided to "take their relationship to the next level" with a clandestine lunchtime bedroom rendezvous at her home, when she knows both parents will be out.

Grace babysits 10-year-old Edison (Bryce Robinson), who lives with his grandparents (Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo) and is a star pupil in Julia's class. Edison, secretly sweet on somebody in his classroom, has grandiose plans for this particular Valentine's Day.

But not everybody is swooningly, deliriously perky over the prospect of this annual holiday for lovers. TV sports reporter Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) resents being stuck with a day of "lovers in the street" puff pieces, when he'd much rather pursue a story involving the future of star football quarterback Sean Jackson (Eric Dane).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Broken Embraces: Doomed love

Broken Embraces (2010) • View trailer for Broken Embraces
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexual candor, profanity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.11.10
Buy DVD: Broken Embraces • Buy Blu-Ray: Broken Embraces [Blu-ray]

Federico Fellini had his 8-1/2  recently transformed into the stage and screen musical Nine  Franois Truffaut gave us Day for Night, and Bob Fosse indulged in All That Jazz.

Sooner or later, big-screen impresarios can't resist making a movie about the movie-making process ... and, simultaneously, about their own involvement with cinema.
While watching an old movie on TV, Lena (Penelope Cruz) identifies so
strongly with one scene that she dissolves into tears. Mateo (Lluis Homar),
instinctively understanding her mood, immortalizes their love -- at that
precise moment -- by setting his camera on automatic and photographing them
in firm embrace, as they cuddle on the couch.

And with women. Always with women.

Now Pedro Almodovar has succumbed to the temptation (although it could be argued that every one of this writer/director's movies is intensely personal and semi-autobiographical in some way). The well-titled Broken Embraces is the saga of a filmmaker who fashions his newest movie around the leading lady with whom he falls in love at first sight; she, in turn, desperately wishes to abandon the aging, wealthy and quite powerful man who has kept her as the most prized bird in his gilded cage.

In true Almodovar fashion, though, the story unfolds in elliptical fashion, beginning with an extended prologue that introduces Harry Caine (Llu’s Homar, quite persuasive as a man in great pain), a blind writer who has "become" his former pseudonym. He is cared for by two "handlers": Judit (Blanca Portillo, displaying impressively layered depths), an agent of sorts; and Diego (Tamar Novas), her grown son, who acts as the writer's secretary, typist and guide.

Harry and Diego have a comfortable working relationship, and Homar and Novas share many warm scenes together. Indeed, theirs may be the strongest emotional bond in a film laden with interpersonal dynamics.

The initial information dump is swift. We meet Harry one morning as he indulges in an unlikely quickie with an all-too-willing blonde stranger. (This is, after all, a European film.) Judit arrives shortly thereafter, disapproval etched all over her face, behaving more like a long-suffering wife than a working colleague.

Diego has a second job as DJ at a sexually ambiguous nightclub, where drugs and alcohol flow freely. Harry is visited by a creepy young man who calls himself "Ray X" (Ruben Ochandiano), claims to be a filmmaker  on the basis of a single documentary he made "14 years ago"  and wishes to collaborate with Caine on a new project.

Harry, suspicious for reasons we're not yet able to guess, rebuffs Ray.

Friday, February 5, 2010

From Paris with Love: Frantic French free-for-all

From Paris with Love (2010) • View trailer for From Paris with Love
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.10
Buy DVD: From Paris with Love• Buy Blu-Ray: From Paris with Love [Blu-ray]

Live-action cartoons rarely are worth writing home about, but the better ones can be fun to watch.

And when it comes to crazed action thrillers, few filmmakers deliver the goods better than Luc Besson, the French writer/director/producer who seems responsible, at times, for every third film released in France. At his best, Besson has brought us La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Transporter series, and even lesser efforts  Danny the Dog and Angel-A  are intriguing misfires.
Impulsive black-ops agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta, left) thinks nothing of
breaking into an apartment in order to spy on somebody across the street, an
act of questionable legality that draws reproach from neophyte partner James
Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Charlie's response to James' raised eyebrow is
always the same: a long-suffering glance and an unspoken "Do you want to
get the job done, or not?"

From Paris with Love is a hoot 'n' a holler, not to mention a triumph of clever directing (Pierre Morel, strutting the same stuff he gave us in Taken) and slick editing (Frederic Thoraval). It couldn't have been easy to turn paunchy, 55-year-old John Travolta into a credible action hero, and yet his Charlie Wax (love the name!) brings down the bad guys with the panache of an actor 20 years his junior.

Besson takes credit solely for story here  scripting chores having been handed to Adi Hasak  but all the usual elements are firmly in place: oversized weapons, laughably overblown gouts of gunfire, plenty of male bonding and a tendency to treat women as appendages.

Despite being preposterous beyond words, though, Morel moves things along at a pace slick enough to minimize questions, while Travolta and co-star Jonathan Rhys Meyers keep us amply entertained every step of the way.

Folks seeking a rip-snortin' way to spend 95 minutes on a Friday evening couldn't do better.

Rhys Meyers plays James Reese, personal aide to the U.S. Ambassador in France (Richard Durden). James is a capable young man who has earned the respect of his boss, with whom he frequently plays chess. James also has a gorgeous, loving girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak, as Caroline) who designs clothes and dotes on him, and an enviable Parisian apartment with a rooftop perfectly suited to dining beneath the stars.

More than anything else, though, James likes his side job as a low-level operative for the CIA: a bit of moonlighting that he hopes, one day, to transform into a career as a bona-fide agent. This desire takes an unusual turn when his never-seen handler sends him on an urgent mission to collect somebody at Customs.

Enter Travolta's Charlie Wax, introduced as he verbally abuses the French Customs agents who are refusing to allow a bag of canned sports drinks into the country.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Edge of Darkness: Not too sharp

Edge of Darkness (2010) • View trailer for Edge of Darkness
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.10
Buy DVD: Edge of Darkness• Buy Blu-Ray: Edge of Darkness [Blu-ray]

Mel, Mel, Mel ... you do suffer so.

Whether getting goosed by a cattle prod (Lethal Weapon), tortured by the sick fear that his belligerence may have doomed his kidnapped son (Ransom) or disemboweled, drawn and quartered (Braveheart), Gibson's on-camera meltdowns are the stuff of legend.
Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson, left) comes home one
evening to find shadowy government operative Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone)
in his living room. The two retire to the kitchen and some vintage whiskey,
where Jedburgh drops cryptic hints while promising not to kill Craven ... yet.
As might be imagined, that's rather cold comfort.

He's never less than wholly persuasive at such moments, and many of his film roles clearly have been designed to capitalize on this talent for anguish on demand.

Even if the Christ-on-the-cross parallels have grown tiresome over the years.

And Gibson's Thomas Craven certainly gets plenty of opportunities for agonized self-doubt in Edge of Darkness, which concerns a veteran Boston homicide detec-tive's stubborn, rage-fueled mission to discover why his only child  24-year-old Emma (Bohana Novakovic)  was killed under rather puzzling circumstances.

Gibson does reasonably well in his first big-screen starring role since 2002's Signs; he continues to exploit the riveting presence that has served him so well, during a long and varied acting career.

Alas, as a comeback vehicle, Edge of Darkness rather lets him down.

This story began as a six-hour British TV miniseries back in 1985, each episode scripted by Troy Kennedy-Martin and directed by Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale). The latter has returned to helm this big-screen American movie adaptation, but the writing chores have fallen to William Monahan and Andrew Bovell ... and, frankly, they've screwed it up.

You do the math: The original miniseries ran 317 minutes, and this film clocks in at 117 minutes. So if the result frequently feels like a Readers Digest Condensed Books version of a much more substantial narrative, you're not imagining things.