Friday, May 21, 2010

Shrek Forever After: Serene green

Shrek Forever After (2010) • View trailer for Shrek Forever After
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.21.10
Buy DVD: Shrek Forever After (Single-Disc Edition) • Buy Blu-Ray: Shrek Forever After (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

DreamWorks insists that Shrek Forever After will be the final installment of a saga that dates back to the first film's development plans in 1995, and that's probably a good thing.

The law of diminishing returns has infected this franchise. While our jolly green ogre's fourth adventure certainly isn't a bad film, the formula has grown tired, and  more crucially  the characters no longer feel fresh. The snarky banter has become obligatory, rather than inspired by circumstance; the riffs on familiar fairy tales have lost their spontaneity.
Fiona, far left, couldn't be happier with the domestic turn her life has taken.
Shrek, alas, isn't as certain; although he loves his wife and adores his three
children, he misses the "good ol' days" when he could be his rude ogre self.
He's about the learn the perils of that old warning: Be careful what you wish
for ... because you might get it!

That said, Eddie Murphy's Donkey still brings down the house, and Antonio Banderas  his Puss in Boots having undergone something of a physical change  isn't far behind. Murphy's one-liners are a hoot, as are Donkey's various attempts to carry a tune, and viewers  particularly viewers with cats  will laugh every time Puss in Boots appears.

I only wish writers Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke had worked as hard with the other characters. The irony is reflected in this screenplay's basic premise: Just as Shrek chafes at how domesticity and family responsibilities have sapped the "ogre-ness" (read: bachelor frivolity) that made him such an endearing rascal in 2001's first outing, this film's emphasis on marital harmony and baby ogre diaper duty dictates standard-issue plot points that work against the free-spirited unpredictability we enjoyed so much a decade ago.

It's the eternal dilemma: We want the rogue hero (or heroine) to become responsible, surmount all manner of obstacles and save/impress the object of affection, but  having done so  we're immediately less engaged by the new dynamic. There's a good reason so many romantic comedies and thrillers conclude with the embrace and kiss we've waited to see for two hours: That's invariably the end of the interesting part of the story.

The rest is afterthought ... which is why most films shouldn't beget sequels.

Shrek Forever After  a deliberate riff on the Frank Capra/James Stewart classic, It's a Wonderful Life  begins as Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) gradually succumbs to the lifestyle changes faced by any new parent. At first delighted to be the proud father of bouncing, puke-green triplets, his pleasure wanes as various daddy duties encroach on his few remaining pleasures: quality time in the family outhouse and his beloved mud bath.

Matters aren't helped by the fact that his home has become a popular tourist stop, or that the citizens of Far Far Away now assume that family life has 'tamed' him completely. How can an ogre be an ogre, if he can't annoy or scare people?

This deftly assembled early montage, of Shrek's increasingly claustrophobic family life, is director Mike Mitchell's finest moment ... which is unfortunate, since it arrives so early. Nothing else lives up to it.

Shrek hits full boil and finally erupts during a well-intentioned but wholly chaotic first birthday party for his children. He stalks off and unwisely allows himself to be picked up by the scheming Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn, wonderfully malevolent), a nasty, duplicitous little gnome who has worn out his welcome with everybody else in Far Far Away.

Apparently, Shrek didn't get that memo.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Babies: Tiny treasure

Babies (2010) • View trailer for Babies
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for chaste nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.20.10
Buy DVD: Babies • Buy Blu-Ray: Babies [Blu-ray]

Although director Thomas Balms and producer Alain Chabat took pains to avoid editorializing in their oh-so-charming documentary, Babies, they clearly succumbed to a few trenchant observations here and there.

My favorite, by far, involves a series of scenes with Mari, in Tokyo: The little girl is surrounded by toys, games and all manner of colorful distractions, but for some reason remains discontent. Perhaps she's tired; perhaps she's over-stimulated. Whatever the cause, she abandons herself to wails of frustration. We can't help but laugh; she's just so upset, and unable to communicate why.
Little Bayarjargal, who lives in a nomadic yurt in Mongolia, happily crawls
about on the rough ground immediately outside his home, not caring a whit
about the various goats and cattle that share this rugged pasture land. They
never bother him, so what's to worry?

All that stuff, and she's not happy.

These scenes are intercut with a similarly extended sequence with Bayarjargal, in Mongolia: happy as a clam with a roll of toilet paper.

And nothing else.

It's hard to resist drawing a lesson from these contrasting segments ... which surely couldn't have been cut this way accidentally.

It could be argued, as well, that Balms takes a well-deserved poke at the San Francisco couple raising little Hattie. They're hot-tubbing vegetarians who drive a bio-diesel vehicle: clearly devoted to 17 brands of New Age, Mother Earth, touchy-feely lifestyle choices.

As the representative Americans in a film that'll obviously be popular around the world, they make us all look like fruit bats.

That said, Balms quite cleverly allows Hattie to have the last laugh. During one eye-rolling, group parent-child encounter session that involves lots of chanting and spiritual arm movement, the little girl  just having learned to walk  gets up, ambles across the room and tries to open a door, apparently wanting to bolt.

"I'm right behind you, kid," I muttered, sotto voce, to my Constant Companion.

Both these sequences come somewhat late in Balms' film, after we've gotten to know the four pint-size stars, and regard them as fully dimensioned characters in the biggest story of all: their own lives.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood: Straight as an arrow

Robin Hood (2010) • View trailer for Robin Hood
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for battlefield violence and occasional sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.14.10
Buy DVD: Robin Hood (Single-Disc Unrated Director's Cut) • Buy Blu-Ray: Robin Hood: Unrated Director's Cut (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

Technically, director Ridley Scott's new film should be titled Robin Longstride, because the rugged character played so well by Russell Crowe doesn't become Robin Hood until the final scene.

So no, Brian Helgeland's screenplay  developed from a story by Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris  isn't the usual Sherwood Forest romp, with the "merry men" making sport of the Sheriff of Nottingham, while robbing the rich to benefit the poor. This drama purports to reveal what transformed a skilled infantry archer in King Richard the Lionheart's army into a renegade no longer loyal to his king.
Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, foreground right) chances upon an ambush
of British soldiers by French mercenaries, an intolerable situation that will
prompt him and his men -- from left, Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), Little John
(Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) -- to lend their able support.
The results of this skirmish will shape Longstride's future.

As such, Helgeland plays fast and loose with both history and established legend, although that's probably splitting hairs; we've little idea what really went down in the 13th century, cell phone cameras not yet having been developed. Most of what modern folks know about Robin Hood derives from films starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner, along with Richard Greene's extremely popular mid-1950s TV series.

Our only concern is whether Scott, Helgeland and Crowe deliver a suitably involving drama. They succeed, and quite admirably.

Things begin as King Richard (Danny Huston, one of few badly cast players in this film) and his troops, taking the long way home after their less than glorious behavior during the Third Crusade, lay siege to one final castle in despised France. They win the skirmish but lose everything else: King Richard is killed in battle.

Meanwhile, back in London, Richard's younger brother, John (Oscar Isaac) has upset his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), by abandoning his British wife in favor of a French crumpet (Lea Seydoux, as Isabella of Angoulme). Worse yet, John has placed his trust in the duplicitous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, always a marvelous villain), who secretly plots with France's King Philip to invade England.

The timing is perfect, as the increasingly desperate British people have been taxed almost to starvation, in order to finance the Crusades. Sentiment against the crown is high, and a divided British populace unwilling to unite behind its monarch makes the country a tempting target for King Philip.

Eleanor recognizes this all too well, as does Sir William Marshal (William Hurt), her most trusted adviser. The question, though, is how to win over angered landowners and desperate serfs who've no love for the newly crowned King John: a childish twerp who does himself no good with arrogant temper tantrums and vindictive behavior.

Isaac plays such immaturity quite well; he truly makes John a ruler we love to hate.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Letters to Juliet: Special delivery

Letters to Juliet (2010) • View trailer for Letters to Juliet
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.13.10
Buy DVD: Letters to Juliet • Buy Blu-Ray: Letters to Juliet (Single-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

Rising young female stars must tread carefully, lest they be seduced by the easy money of dumb, career-killing romantic comedies or questionable horror flicks.

Consider the fate of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who went from worldwide fame as TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer to utter obscurity in a few short years, thanks to a string of misfires that included Simply Irresistible, Harvard Man and a pair of live-action Scooby-Doo entries. The latter two may have made money, but they didn't prevent a career slide that has seen four recent films get only minimal release or go straight to video.
Charmed by how so many people leave messages for the romantic spirit of
Shakespeare's Juliet, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) helps gather a day's worth of
such missives ... only to discover, tucked behind a loose rock, a letter that has
remained unread for half a century.

Alternatively, let's examine the case of Amanda Seyfried.

She's also a former TV actress, having spent a season each on the soaps As the World Turns and All My Children, before getting a high-profile supporting part on Veronica Mars (as the ill-fated Lily Kane). That was followed by a continuing presence on the acclaimed series Big Love, along with occasional small film roles; she struck gold with her effervescent work in the 2008 big-screen adaptation of Mamma Mia.

Holding one's own against Meryl Streep is no easy task.

Although Seyfried's detour into the gore-laden idiocy of last year's Jennifer's Body was a misfire, she has gotten strong notices more recently for her work in Atom Egoyan's sensuously charged drama, Chloe. That, coupled with her earnest performance in Dear John a few months ago, bespeaks an actress clearly trying to shape a career that'll last.

All of which brings us to Letters to Juliet.

Director Gary Winick's romantic charmer, scripted by Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan, certainly isn't anything special; its completely predictable storyline takes no unexpected detours, treads no fresh ground. But familiarity isn't a sin if choice ingredients help freshen a familiar recipe, and the ingredients here include Seyfried and co-star Vanessa Redgrave, both radiant in a heartwarming little tale certain to please those seeking relief from the approaching summer season bombast.

Besides, the premise that drives this story is truly delightful.

Seyfried stars as Sophie, a resourceful fact-checker who works for The New Yorker magazine  a well-cast Oliver Platt pops up briefly as her editor  and harbors a secret desire to become a writer. She's more or less engaged to Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a budding restaurateur with a tendency to regard everything he drinks or tastes as "amazing" or "incredible" ... words he never seems to use with respect to Sophie, or anything she does.

The phrase "self-absorbed jerk" springs to mind pretty quickly.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2: Solid iron

Iron Man 2 (2010) • View trailer for Iron Man 2
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.7.10
Buy DVD: Iron Man 2 • Buy Blu-Ray: Iron Man 2 (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

When it buckles down and gets to work  much as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark does, midway through this story  Iron Man 2 succeeds nicely.

The capably directed, summer-style action flick certainly will satisfy longtime Marvel Comics fans, while remaining reasonably accessible to clueless civilians who wander in, wanting to know what all the fuss is about.
When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) dons his Iron Man suit and makes a
drunken fool of himself at his own birthday party, longtime gal pal and
business colleague Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to talk him off the
very public stage; after all, partygoers are clicking away with their cell phone
cameras. Sadly, Tony hasn't hit bottom yet...

For the most part, director Jon Favreau gets the job done  as he did two years ago, with this film's predecessor  and avoids the worst pitfalls of the so-called "sophomore slump" that often sabotages high-profile sequels. Downey remains mesmerizing as bazillionaire industrialist-turned-reluctant superhero Tony Stark, and he's surrounded by interesting supporting players.

When Justin Theroux's screenplay remains serious, this film achieves some of the dramatic heft that made 2008's Iron Man so entertaining. The two primary villains are well conceived and engaging in their own right, and Stark's ego-driven arrogance escalates quite credibly, making him the flawed-hero-needing-redemption that gives this narrative a solid emotional core.

On the other hand...

Stark's Iron Man faced and defeated a bucket-headed adversary in a bigger tin suit in the first film, so building this sequel to a climactic bout with a bucket-headed adversary in a bigger tin suit seems ill-advised: Been there, done that. Much worse, as well, is Favreau and Theroux's decision to preface that final battle with an assault by scores of bucket-headed robots in similar tin suits.

And blowing stuff up. Lots of stuff. Race cars. Buildings. Tony's Malibu home. An entire industrial expo's worth of convention showrooms and outlying buildings.

This suggests ... a lack of imagination.

Finally, much as I enjoyed the banter between Tony and reliable Gal Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the first film, Theroux rather overdoes this running bit here. Conversations between Tony and Pepper involve both of them never getting to finish a sentence; that's cute the first few times, but wears thin very quickly.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010): Silly dream

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) • View trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, gore, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.6.10
Buy DVD: A Nightmare on Elm Street • Buy Blu-Ray: A Nightmare on Elm Street [Blu-ray]

Director F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent classic, Nosferatu, frightened the wits out of post-WWI viewers and made a star of icky vampire Max Schreck, in a film that ripped off Bram Stoker's Dracula by changing the relevant names, in an effort to avoid paying the author.

Half a generation later, director Tod Browning made Bela Lugosi a star in 1931's legitimate adaptation of Dracula, a hit that spawned a series of undead sequels.
Running on adrenaline and an ill-advised cocktail of caffeine and uppers in
order to stay awake, Nancy (Rooney Mara) and Quentin (Kyle Gallner) stumble
upon the dread Freddy Krueger's secret lair, where they learn the worst about
the entity terrorizing their nightmares.

Roughly a generation after they subsided, Britain's Hammer Films and star Christopher Lee injected fresh blood  and plenty of sensuality  into the mix, and trigged a new series with 1958's Horror of Dracula. A generation after that, Frank Langella became a swooningly erotic blood-sucker in 1979's Dracula.

And so on, and so on, up to more recent genre hits such as TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and the big-screen Twilight series.

Point being, every new generation wants its own version of iconic monsters, starring brand-name talent of the moment. Bearing that in mind, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by the arrival of a re-booted Nightmare on Elm Street, with a well-cast Jackie Earle Haley filling the razor-bladed glove that Robert Englund wielded so well, in so many earlier films.

Except ... Englund's huge shadow is part of this remake's problem.

OK, yes, director Wes Craven's original Nightmare is a quarter-century old at this point, having been released in 1984. (That film had juice, by the way, and still does. It also had Johnny Depp.) But it was followed by umpety sequels  the most recent being 2003's Freddy vs. Jason  and two TV series (1984 and 2005). Englund's Freddy Krueger never really left us, which makes director Samuel Bayer's current retread ... totally irrelevant.

And pointless.

And oddly bloodless, given the franchise's history.

The latter element clearly disappointed last week's Sacramento preview audience, particularly the gore-hounds apparently hoping for something more along the lines of the torture-porn Saw franchise.

In fairness, though, Freddy Krueger never focused on evisceration for its own sake; his most memorable killings, in the stronger films in Englund's series, took full imaginative advantage of the eerie illogic of a given victim's dream world.

And that, perhaps, is this new film's biggest failing: It lacks imagination and quickly devolves into a ho-hum slasher flick.

Bayer, a director of music videos and TV commercials making an ill-advised big-screen debut, hasn't the faintest idea how to generate tension. He also can't coax anything approaching a credible performance from most of his no-name cast members, all of whom look quite long in the tooth to be playing high school students.

The one credible exception is Rooney Mara, who brings some reasonable acting chops to her handling of Nancy, very quickly identified as our "heroine of choice" in Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's laughably sloppy script. Mara ensures that Nancy deserves our respect, and the capable actress is responsible for the limited dramatic heft that this picture generates.

The basic set-up, for first-timers: Teens Nancy, Quentin (Kyle Gallner, well remembered from TV's Veronica Mars), Kris (Katie Cassidy), Jesse (Thomas Dekker) and Dean (Kellan Lutz) all live on Elm Street. Of late, they've all been having the same very frightening dream, involving a dark, basement-type building and a shadowy, fedora-clad figure with a disfigured face and razor-bladed fingers.

The first kid checks out before we're aware of what's happening; the second follows quickly thereafter. The remaining three realize that something is pursuing them in their dreams, and that if it kills them while they're asleep, they'll die in real life.

Quite, quite horribly.

Logical problems erupt almost too quickly to tabulate.

To an outside observer, a victim experiences real-world carnage: a body being thrown about a room, blood erupting from multiple slash wounds that appear from nowhere. In one case, this ghastly violence is caught on video camera, under circumstances that are being viewed  and would have been re-viewed  by many, many other people.

People In Authority.

And yet nobody ever seems to think anything's the slightest bit unusual about the gory ways these kids keep dying.

Horror films have a habit of beating the "Why won't you believe me?" protest to death, but in this case it's just plain stupid.

On a more specific level, we eventually learn that the parents of the five teens in question took vigilante justice into their own hands years earlier, after learning that the gardener (Krueger) at a local daycare center, which all their young children attended, was abusing them. The various moms and dads  the only ones granted identities are played by the disposable Clancy Brown and Connie Britton  chased Krueger into a warehouse, set it on fire and burned him to death.

And then moved to different parts of town, swearing to never mention anything about Krueger again, particularly not to their kids.

Doesn't it strike you as rather odd, then, as these same five kids  now teens  start dying under mysterious and horrible circumstances, that their respective parents never even consider the long-ago connection to Krueger? And never think to confess all and warn the remaining and clearly terrified kids, if only to help protect them?

These folks aren't likely to win Parent of the Year awards any time soon.

And, finally, why now? Why this week? Why not when Nancy and the others were 8, 10, 12 or 15?

More than anything else, though, this particular franchise always has suffered from the rather uneasy implications of its premise. Strick and Heisserer's script attempts to have it both ways: Maybe Krueger was unjustly accused ... whoops, no, he definitely was guilty as charged. Which creates a problem.

Englund's Krueger turned into something of a pop-culture hero: definitely the go-to guy in his own film series (which perhaps explained why his teen victims became less and less consequential, over time, on the thespic talent meter). The 1984 film's many sequels kinda-sorta tried to overlook the fact that this guy molested little children.

This new film, as well, has an unpalatable "Chester the Molester" atmosphere about it, most notably during an ill-advised bathtub scene, played for laughs, when Nancy briefly falls asleep and Krueger's razor-gloved hand pops up in the water between her legs, which are splayed out in the position one would expect during a gynecological exam.

The scene is ... creepy. And not in an unsettling, horror-movie vibe.

("Chester the Molester," for the uninitiated  and I hope that's most of you  was an ongoing cartoon strip published in Hustler magazine, which depicted the "saucy" adventures of a guy who wanted to molest pre-pubescent girls. The strip's creator, Dwaine B. Tinsley, was convicted of raping his 13-year-old daughter; he served 23 months of a six-year sentence ... and continued to produce his comic strip while in prison.

(Tinsley died in 2000, and his conviction later was overturned, his now-adult, cocaine-addicted daughter eventually proven to have been less than a reliable witness. We leave the question of justice delivered or denied to other, wiser heads.)

Children  and adults  back in the day found their monsters in supernatural creatures of myth and legend: vampires, the Golem, the Wolf Man, Greek snake-tressed gorgons. I find it interesting that the horror-franchise creations that resonate today are, instead, lifted from newspaper headlines: serial killers (Jason, of Halloween fame) and child molesters (Freddy Krueger).

Vampires, alternatively, have become metaphors for disenfranchised minorities (the Twilight and True Blood books).

What, I wonder, does that say about us culturally, at this point in the road?