Friday, April 30, 2010

City Island: Family Affair

City Island (2010) • View trailer for City Island
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.30.10
Buy DVD: City Island • Buy Blu-Ray: City Island [Blu-ray]

This is what going to the movies is all about.

High-profile pictures like Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2 come freighted with their own baggage; the talents involved behind and in front of the camera always set up certain expectations. And because of theatrical previews and TV spots that reveal far too much ahead of time, we invariably have a pretty strong sense of the film before the lights even go down.
Vince (Andy Garcia, center rear) always hopes to have a nice, quiet family
meal ... but tempers invariably fly in the Rizzo household, and it seems that
everybody has a secret to hide.

No possible sense of discovery there.

Ah, but the smaller films that arrive on little-cat feet, absent the megabucks marketing campaigns ... they always offer the anticipation of the unknown, the hope of joyous surprise.

City Island is just such a film. And it delivers on such hopes.

Writer/director Raymond De Felitta's thoroughly delightful comedy-drama deserves to become the sort of sleeper hit that turned My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine into box-office sensations. De Felitta's film is funny, touching, achingly poignant and perfectly acted by an ensemble company that puts the "dys" in this dysfunctional family.

We all know people like the Rizzos, in their noisy, combative and exasperated fury. God forbid any of us ever have the misfortune to live next door to a family like this, but in the event we do, one thing's certain: Life won't ever be dull.

Andy Garcia stars as "correctional officer" Vince Rizzo  never, ever call him a "prison guard"  who is introduced as he sneaks a cigarette in the master bathroom while studying up on Marlon Brando. Vince dreams of becoming an actor, and to that end has been clandestinely attending an evening acting class while claiming to be playing poker with friends.

(Alan Arkin pops up as the class' acting coach. I'm beginning to suspect that Arkin is under contract to appear in every misfit indie film.)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Losers: Cut your losses

The Losers (2010) • View trailer for The Losers
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for profanity and considerable violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.29.10
Buy DVD: The Losers • Buy Blu-Ray: The Losers [Blu-ray]

One of Hollywood's enduring mysteries concerns the parameters that ultimately determine which films get released ... and which don't.

Who decides that dreck like Cop Out deserves mainstream exposure in every state in the country? In what rational universe could studio wonks have imagined that it would be cost-effective to secure theatrical booking for a low-rent horror turkey like The Black Waters of Echo's Pond?
Having destroyed a great deal of downtown real estate to retrieve a portable
hard drive belonging to their mysterious adversary, our heroes -- from left,
Alisha (Zoe Saldana), Jensen (Chris Evans), Roque Idris Elba, rear) and Pooch
(Columbus Short) -- pop it into a computer and try to figure out why it's so
valuable. Take a close look at this photo: It's a fairly serious scene, and yet
you'll observe that all these actors seem to be having trouble fighting a desire
to burst into laughter. That's the sort of quality you can expect from this flick.

Alternatively  and recalling the junk that does get released  why do perfectly good films get bypassed for theatrical distribution, consigned instead to the purgatory of direct-to-cable and satellite services?

We've all stumbled across them, while channel-surfing: decent flicks that grab our attention and hold us in the chair. Then, thoroughly satisfied as the final credits roll, we turn to our companions and say, with more than a little surprise, "Hey ... that was a lot better than the waste of time we endured at the cineplex last night."

Well, The Losers is one of those wastes of time.

Most blatantly, this seems veteran action producer Joel Silver's low-rent attempt to undercut the late summer release of The Expendables, the high-concept riff on The Dirty Dozen that will feature Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke and just about every other alpha-testosterone star who ever shot, strafed and strutted across the big screen.

Note, for openers, the title similarity between The Losers and The Expendables. And the fact that both are derived from the suicide-mission aspect of director Robert Aldrich's muscular 1967 classic.

OK, true, The Losers is based on a comic book series written by Andy Diggle and illustrated by Jock, which gives it a certain amount of street cred in the minds of the young male target audience. But that doesn't change the fact that Silver and director Sylvain White (nobody we need to worry about for long) are slumming here; this laughable excuse for a movie is about as close to a live-action pinball game as I've ever seen.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hubble 3D: The final frontier

Hubble 3D (2010) • View trailer for Hubble 3D
Five stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.23.10

For sheer mind-boggling spectacle, the IMAX space films always have taken the best advantage of the giant-format screen and sound system.

While not wanting to snub the many other IMAX documentaries  most particularly 1998's Everest, which set the bar pretty high more than a decade ago  the various undersea efforts, freighted as they often are with reproachful environmental messages, have started to suffer from a serious case of same-old, same-old.
Neither words nor this flat image can begin to do justice to the overwhelming
majesty of Hubble 3D; it's true sensory overload. This experience won't ever
be reproduced in a home theater environment; only the size, sound, scope and
jaw-dropping dimensionality of an IMAX house can do it justice. Repeat
viewings are inevitable.

Not so the space films.

Never the space films.

And the newest, Hubble 3D, is simply breathtaking. Amazing. Astonishing.

If James Cameron's Avatar has become the benchmark by which all future 3D sci-fi epics will be judged, then Hubble 3D certainly does the same for documentaries. Never before has James T. Kirk's "space ... the final frontier" been depicted with such stunning camerawork, or with such dramatic heft.

Yep, drama. No other word describes the emotional impact afforded by this up-close-and-personal glimpse of God's heavens.

Writer/director Toni Myers' film has a story, of sorts: the evolution and initial 1990 orbital placement of the massive Hubble space telescope, followed by the immediate need to fine-tune its innards during subsequent shuttle missions. I'm not sure what's more impressive: the fact that we got that beast up there in the first place, or the fact that space-walking astronauts were able to repair and improve its functions as necessary.

And then the situation hits an eye-widening crisis, as recounted by narrator Leonardo DiCaprio (and his line readings are superb). Due to budgetary concerns and yet another glitch in the Hubble's performance  a warped lens had severely compromised the massive telescope's abilities  NASA and Congress came within a hair's breadth of allowing this technological marvel to reach the point of no return via orbital decay, after which it would have become who knows how many chunks of flaming space junk during atmospheric re-entry.

The mind doth boggle.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kick-Ass: Quite a kick!

Kick-Ass (2010) • View trailer for Kick-Ass
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for sexual candor, relentless profanity, violence and gore, much involving a young child
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.22.10
Buy DVD: Kick-Ass • Buy Blu-Ray: Kick-Ass (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

OK, pop-culture junkies of all ages: Send your parents out of the room for awhile, 'cause they will not like what I have to say about this film.

Kick-Ass is yet further proof that polite society  the civilized world as we know it  is going straight to hell.
Having been tracked back to his lair -- ah, his bedroom -- by the mysterious
Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, right), the
mostly uncostumed Dave (Aaron Johnson) is warned of the necessity to get a
bit smarter, before tackling some real villains. The result of this unusual pep
talk is certain to involve lots of blood, severed limbs and socially
unacceptable carnage ... and isn't that why you're buying a ticket in the
first place?

And I'm hanging on for dear life, enjoying every moment of the explosive ride.

In a word, this flick rocks.

Avid comic book fans need no introduction to this series by co-creators Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., which raised eyebrows as it took the industry by storm in 2008. Even in a medium known for shocking excess, this book's breathtaking blend of teenage angst and hyper-violence became legendary almost overnight.

Nobody could have expected  heck, nobody could have imagined  that such electrifying sensibilities would remain intact during a transition to the big screen. Several other equally popular graphic novels have made the jump before, with mixed results; even devoted admirers will acknowledge that (for example) the film adaptations of V for Vendetta and Watchmen are flawed.

Not so with Kick-Ass.

Director/co-producer/co-scripter Matthew Vaughn deserves a great deal of credit for his impressively faithful rendition of this splatter masterpiece. It's not merely a matter  with co-scripter Jane Goldman  of reproducing much of Millar's dialogue verbatim; Vaughn and production designer Russell De Rozario made their film look like much of Romita's comic book art. Memorable single panels are reproduced perfectly, as is the overall tone of this universe so much like ours.

That helps the palatability factor; it's a bit easier to find the gallows humor in a visual palette dominated by bright primary colors ... which you expect from a story involving folks in glitzy costumes.

Goodness, the film even kicks off with the comic's same prologue, which results in a rather unexpected outcome for "some Armenian guy with a history of mental problems." And with an opener like that, we know the rest of the film is in good hands.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Fiery thriller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010) • View trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: Unrated, but comparable to an R for violence, nudity, profanity, rape and strong sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.16.10
Buy DVD: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo • Buy Blu-Ray: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [Blu-ray]

The late Stieg Larsson's U.S. fans have been salivating over the prospect of seeing his debut novel on the big screen, ever since the American translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hit our shores in September 2008.

The wait has been worthwhile. Director Niels Arden Oplev has delivered a taut, intelligent and thoroughly absorbing adaptation of Larsson's intriguing and quite nasty thriller. Kudos, as well, go to screenwriters Rasmus Heisterberg and Nikolaj Arcel, who've done a masterful job of transforming Larsson's dense novel (480 pages!) into a 152-minute film that never, ever flags.
After realizing that their quarters have been searched in their absence -- thanks
to the perfect recall she has for the location of every object in the room --
Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) drags Mikael (Michael Nyqvist) outside, where they
discover the tell-tale scratches of forced entry. Perversely, Lisbeth regards this
as good news: The bad guys are getting nervous...

Although the literary world has given us a wealth of gripping thrillers and mystery novels during the past several decades, the genre has been woefully under-represented on American movie screens ... that is to say, in a manner that does justice to the original books. Hollywood adaptations of such stories are invariably superficial and additionally compromised by the reflexive need for the high-power wattage of movie stars, and their presence always wrecks the gritty integrity of the source novel.

We've had to rely on foreign filmmakers for adaptations that are true to the atmosphere of the written word. Roman Polanski's current handling of Robert Harris' The Ghost Writer is a marvelous drama: grim fiction by way of familiar real-world newspaper headlines. And I still have very fond memories of French director/scripter Guillaume Canet's sensational 2006 adaptation of Harlan Coben's Tell No One, without question one of the best mystery thrillers ever brought to the big screen.

Even French director Bernard Tavernier's 2009 interpretation of James Lee Burke's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead  shortened to In the Electric Mist when filmed  is an intriguing effort, despite its flaws. How can one not appreciate the perfect casting of Tommy Lee Jones as Burke's world-weary Dave Robicheaux?

To this list we must add Oplev's adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, highlighted by another example of perfect casting: Noomi Rapace's utterly mesmerizing performance as the damaged and deliciously complex title character, Lisbeth Salander.

You won't quickly forget her. Which is as it should be.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Runaways: Road to Ruin

The Runaways (2010) • View trailer for The Runaways
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for underage drinking, drug use and sensuality, and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.15.10
Buy DVD: The Runaways

As immaturity, frayed tempers and atrocious lifestyle choices take their toll, the other four members of the ground-breaking all-grrl punk-rock band The Runaways turn on their photogenic lead singer, objecting to the way that she repeatedly steals the spotlight.

"We're not the Cherie Currie band," one of them snarls, "we're The Runaways!"
While Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, left) watches nervously, newcomer Cherie
Curie (Dakota Fanning, center) is humiliated into exposing her inner slut
during an "audition" that feels more like a casting-couch session for a porn
film, in a seminal moment during the creation of the all-girl band that is
destined to become The Runaways. Are these girls really having fun?

Well, here's the irony: This film may be hitting theaters as The Runaways, but that's untruth in advertising. It should be called The Cherie Currie Story.

On one level, at least, that shouldn't come as a surprise; writer/director Floria Sigismondi's screenplay is adapted from Currie's memoir, Neon Angel. Small wonder, then, that this film spends so much time on Currie, at the expense of the other four girls ... even though one of them is Joan Jett, the only member to have clawed her way into a solid and respectable career after The Runaways crashed and burned.

Small wonder, perhaps, but bad filmmaking. Dakota Fanning's Currie and Kristen Stewart's Jett are front and center for 99 percent of this picture.

The other three band members are ignored to a degree that's initially puzzling and eventually just plain silly, and one of them  Alia Shawkat's Robin  is a fictitious construct apparently intended to stand in for the various "minor" girls (Micki Steele, Peggy Foster, Jackie Fox, Vicki Blue and Laurie McAllister) who were part of the tempestuous line-up that also included Sandy West (played here by Stella Maeve) and Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton).

Sigismondi similarly plays fast and loose with actual Runaways history, and has a terrible sense of the passage of time.

Although the film has a firm beginning in 1975, we never really know how many years actually pass as the fledgling band builds up a following that climaxes with a tour of Japan (for the record, in 1977) that rivaled The Beatles' original arrival in the United States, for sheer demented fan adulation.

And that  again, for the sake of accuracy  essentially was it. Currie decamped after the band returned to the States, a crucial event that Sigismondi depicts of necessity ... but then "time passes" and, in something of an epilogue, we see Jett, following the smash 1979 single ("I Love Rock 'n' Roll") that put her on the solo map. Cue power anthem, roll final credits.

Well ... not quite.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Date Night: Bland date

Date Night (2010) • View trailer for Date Night
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite generously, for profanity, violence and considerable smutty content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.9.10
Buy DVD: Date Night • Buy Blu-Ray: Date Night (Extended Edition) (With Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

I sure wish Tina Fey had written Date Night, instead of simply co-starring with Steve Carell.

She'd have done a much better job.
Phil (Steve Carell, center) can't understand why Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg)
keeps wandering around without a shirt, although Phil's wife, Claire (Tina Fey),
certainly doesn't seem bothered, in one of the more amusing segments of the
otherwise disappointing Date Night.

This film could be considered Exhibit A when it comes to Hollywood's lamentable tendency to place star power above script. The project clearly began life as a 25-word pitch designed to pair Fey with Carell, which then got handed to a hack writer  Josh Klausner, whose only previous credit of merit was as part of the committee on Shrek the Third  who didn't have the faintest idea what to do with the material.

The results are clumsy and uneven, to say the least.

The essential premise  a conservative middle-age suburban couple dropped into the big, bad city  goes back to 1970's The Out-of-Towners, a rare misfire from Neil Simon that starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. John Landis got much closer to the proper blend of danger and snarky humor with 1985's Into the Night, which paired nerdy Jeff Goldblum with femme fatale Michelle Pfeiffer.

The 1999 remake of The Out-of-Towners, with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, is best forgotten ... although it suffered from the same problem that plagues Date Night: a great concept, and two talented leading players, in desperate search of a script.

The set-up here is both clever and reasonably efficient, leading us to expect better than what we eventually get. Phil (Carell) and Claire Foster (Fey) are a sensible, devoted couple with the stereotypical two kids and charming house in the 'burbs of New Jersey. The discovery that their two best friends are getting divorced  mostly due to bland indifference  precipitates a mild crisis, as both Phil and Claire worry that they, too, have become overly complacent, the passion and adventure having leached from their relationship.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Clash of the Titans: Far from Titan-ic

Clash of the Titans (2010) • View trailer for Clash of the Titans
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.8.10
Buy DVD: Clash of the Titans • Buy Blu-Ray: Clash of the Titans [Blu-ray]

Most sword-and-sandal epics are notoriously stodgy and creaky.

The dialogue is invariably arch and cornball, the testosterone gets splashed across the screen in buckets, and the actors rarely feel authentic to the era. We too often get a sense that we're watching 21st century men and women dressed up in togas, who declaim in the manner of third-rate stage companies doing bad Shakespeare.
Scrambling to avoid getting skewered by the tail of a monstrous scorpion --
such a genre cliche! -- Perseus (Sam Worthington) and Io (Gemma Arterton)
dodge through rocky crags while trying to find better cover in a mostly
desert landscape. And things are about to get worse, because that huge
scorpion isn't alone ... and the next one's even larger.

Such films just can't help looking and sounding like a product of far more innocent times, back when Steve Reeves made his Italian Hercules flicks in the late 1950s and early '60s, or when stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen wowed audiences with epics such as 1958's The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and 1963's Jason and the Argonauts.

The new Clash of the Titans makes an additional mistake, also common to this sub-genre: Director Louis Leterrier doesn't even try to control the various accents emanating from his cast, leaving us to believe that these gods and heroes came to Mount Olympus and ancient Greece by way of central casting in England and Australia.

Granted, this film's production values are top-notch, and modern special-effects technology translates into bigger, better and badder monsters ... but everything plays out with an air of silly bravado.

Probably not the mood Leterrier had in mind.

Exceptions exist, of course; Gladiator is a magnificent drama, and even the flawed Troy had its moments. And while the artificial CGI environment of 300 was distracting, the human passion came through pretty well.

Not so with Leterrier's Clash of the Titans. This is a mostly silly children's film, just like the 1981 original, which similarly strove for "respectability" by dragging a few famous faces into key roles. Thus, while Harry Hamlin's Perseus traded florid speeches with Laurence Olivier's Zeus and Claire Bloom's Hera back in the day, now Sam Worthington's Perseus gets bounced between Liam Neeson's Zeus and Ralph Fiennes' Hades.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Last Song: Slightly off-key

The Last Song (2010) • View trailer for The Last Song
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.2.10
Buy DVD: The Last Song • Buy Blu-Ray: The Last Song (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

I suppose this could be viewed as a back-handed compliment, but the fact is inescapable: Miley Cyrus lacks the acting chops to play a credible bad girl.

That's a bit of a problem, because this big-screen adaptation of Nicholas Sparks' The Last Song demands that Cyrus' Ronnie Miller be quite the little bee-yatch in the first act ... and she simply can't pull it off. The film grinds to a thumping halt every time she tries to be unpleasant; it's like an acting exercise, with a novice thespian pretending to be disagreeable ... and it simply doesn't work.
Having rejoined the human race, and finally flashing the smile that helped earn
Miley Cyrus an acting career, Ronnie shyly warms to her father's (Greg
Kinnear) patient overtures ... no doubt because she's as happy as a young girl
in love could be. Hang onto the good feeling, Ronnie, because it never
lasts in a Nicholas Sparks story!

On the other hand, the fault may lie with director Julie Ann Robinson, who fluffs several other key scenes in this film, a few of which have nothing to do with Cyrus. Robinson has a boatload of episodic TV experience  including Grey's Anatomy, Big Love and Pushing Daisies  so she obviously knows her craft; the question, then, is whether she can coax persuasive performances out of untrained actors.

The evidence would suggest not.

Greg Kinnear, who plays Ronnie's father, Steve, is this film's strongest asset; his work is delicate, sensitive and wryly humorous by turns. He acts circles around Cyrus ... and so does little Bobby Coleman (The Martian Child), who plays Ronnie's younger brother, Jonah. He's impressively endearing.

Because this is Nicholas Sparks territory, we can expect a scenario involving attractive romantic leads with troubled lives, who meet, fall in love and then find their blossoming relationship sabotaged by assorted contrived plot devices.

The Last Song certainly is no different; we open with divorced parents and troubled teens, move on to a sidebar issue involving an atrociously abusive boyfriend, digress momentarily with a dysfunctional family rent asunder by the tragic death of a child, and then build to the narrative's Heartbreaking Big Surprise (a "surprise" only to those not paying attention).

Oh, and we can't overlook the church fire that serves as a prologue, and generates its own whiff of intrigue: Was it arson? And, if so, by whom?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Greenberg: Sheer torture

Greenberg (2010) • View trailer for Greenberg
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, strong sexual content, nudity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.10
Buy DVD: Greenberg • Buy Blu-Ray: Greenberg [Blu-ray]

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach opens and closes Greenberg with tight close-ups on Greta Gerwig's expressive face, and in both cases we're overwhelmed by a painfully raw display of naked emotion: hope, uncertainty, frustration and uncomplicated compassion.

Particularly the latter: Gerwig's Florence Marr is the best part of this film, and Baumbach does well to highlight this talented young actress  born and raised in Sacramento -— as much as possible.
After another of their "romantic" encounters goes horribly awry, Florence
(Greta Gerwig) can't wait to abandon the mean-spirited Roger (Ben Stiller) for
the rest of the evening. Too bad she doesn't run him over with a bus; now,
that would be worth watching.

Unhappily, Ben Stiller's title character is the worst part, which makes this tightly wound relationship drama rather difficult to endure.

I'll be more blunt: We're sometimes forced, by circumstance of employment or casual encounter, to spend excruciating hours with people we can't stand. Why the heck should we endure a similar jerk in a movie?

Although we're obviously intended to sympathize with Roger Greenberg  to tolerate and be patient with this lost soul, as he struggles at the mid-life crossroads  Stiller's character doesn't earn such respect, nor is there reason to cut him any slack. He's an abusive, misanthropic, misogynistic, self-centered cretin who doesn't deserve the kindness shown by several of the other characters in this story, and particularly not by Gerwig's Florence.

Watching Roger turn nasty and emotionally belittle Florence is stomach-clutching the first time. Enduring it the second time, the third time, the fourth time ... is inexcusable. Gerwig's performance is so credibly, painfully shaded  Florence is so vulnerable, so willing to suffer the abuse  that it's like watching somebody drown kittens in a barrel.

And to what purpose?

That's the key question about Baumbach's film, which he directed and co-wrote with occasional collaborator Jennifer Jason Leigh. (They worked together on 2007's Margot at the Wedding.) Why are we wasting time with this intellectual thug?