Friday, June 25, 2010

Knight and Day: Stormy

Knight and Day (2010) • View trailer for Knight and Day
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and a hiccup of profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.25.10
Buy DVD: Knight and Day (Single-Disc Edition) • Buy Blu-Ray: Knight and Day (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (+ Digital Copy)

Movies like Knight and Day make me tired.

They also make me long for the days of quality romantic espionage thrillers such as The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Three Days of the Condor, Enigma and my all-time favorite, Charade: films written by people who understood the value of well-crafted characters and tightly plotted narratives.
Roy (Tom Cruise) and June (Cameron Diaz) prepare for another ludicrous
escape, as they elect to flee assassins and charging bulls on the streets of
Seville, Spain, while burning rubber on what this flick's press notes describe
as a "hot-red, super-nimble Ducati Hypermotard S." Beware of films that spend
more time on upscale product placement than plot logic...

As opposed to the big-screen debut of so-called writer Patrick O'Neill, whose screenplay for Knight and Day is no more than a disconnected string of meet-cute one-liners separated by lots of flying bullets and the destruction of considerable personal property. I'm frankly surprised that Tom Cruise would have been lured into such a numb-nuts project; his taste generally is better.

Granted, the second and third Mission: Impossible entries have their cartoonish qualities, but at least they make sense within their own stylistic exaggerations. Knight and Day is little more than a big-budget "idiot story": so named because each and every character behaves like a total idiot at all times.

Heck, I can't even explain the title. The "knight" has dual references, most notably the little toy figure that Cruise's Roy Miller uses to conceal the super-secret scientific prize that everybody wants in this deranged mess of a movie. But "Day" doesn't relate to anything beyond the apparent attempt to concoct a cute play on words.

And yes, this perfectly typifies the sort of thought - or absence thereof - that went into writing the entire film.

Consider: The high-tech gizmo that fuels an endless series of chases and confrontations is a new-fangled battery that never runs down ... not ever. Only one prototype exists, and Roy keeps it close. Capturing or killing Roy therefore might be reasonable options for his various pursuers, but how are we to explain several attempts to blow him up?

Hey, gang: Blow up Roy, blow up the battery. Game over.

Yep, as a writer, O'Neill is quite the deep thinker.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Winter's Bone: Bone deep

Winter's Bone (2010) • View trailer for Winter's Bone
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, drug use and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.10
Buy DVD: Winter's Bone • Buy Blu-Ray: Winter's Bone [Blu-ray]

The setting  a snow-laden winter in the Ozarks of southern Missouri  is as cold, desolate and unforgiving as the souls of most folks who live there.

Director Debra Granik's sensitive handling of Winter's Bone, adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is a searing, utterly unforgettable drama set in a cultural landscape so alien that identification with many of these characters is difficult, if not downright impossible.
Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, center), ever the pragmatist, won't embark on her quest
without first showing her younger sister (Ashlee Thompson) and brother (Isaiah
Stone) how to hunt for squirrels ... and then how to skin and cook them.

Many, but not all. Nobody will have trouble empathizing with star Jennifer Lawrence's Ree, a stalwart and stubborn 17-year-old girl given courage by the snapping jaws of utter desperation.

Ozark culture comes freighted with all sorts of baggage and preconceived notions; as a people, American mountain folk are pejoratively stereotyped just as badly as European gypsies. Snap judgments begin with the term "hillbilly" and descend from there to include moonshining, blood feuds and capricious interbreeding with girls barely into puberty.

Winter's Bone, scripted by Granik and Anne Rosellini, doesn't exactly refute all these notions; the film instead explores the grinding poverty and embittered emotional landscape that gives rise to such assumptions. Some of the players in this drama are every bit as morally bankrupt as the worst gang-bangers in South-Central Los Angeles; they're scary in a way that makes this film unsettling from its very first scene.

Ree, in stark contrast, has the valiant fortitude and noble bearing of a classical heroine; we can't help wondering how such an incandescent rose survived and even thrived in this dung heap. But she's no less credible a character for her many virtues; indeed, her behavior blazes a light of truth and righteousness that uncomfortably exposes the many human cockroaches trying to conceal themselves within dark and dingy cabins, and reminds them of long-suppressed remnants of decent behavior.

The question is whether such epiphanies will be sufficient ... or arrive quickly enough.

The story begins quietly, establishing the daily grinding pattern of Ree's life: She's the de facto parent of her two younger siblings  12-year-old Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and 6-year-old Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson)  and does everything for them. She also cares for their mother, a quiet, withdrawn woman no longer in her right mind, her soul perhaps having given up the struggle to endure in these harsh surroundings.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3: All Growed Up

Toy Story 3 (2010) • View trailer for Toy Story 3
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and perhaps too generously, for quite scary moments and heart-stopping suspense
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.18.10
Buy DVD: Toy Story 3 • Buy Blu-Ray: Toy Story 3 [Blu-ray]

To this day, I can't listen to Peter, Paul and Mary's 1963 recording of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" without getting an ache in my gut, and the patiently calm, sentient teddy bear in Steven Spielberg's A.I. tore me to shreds.

The notion of abandoned "toys with souls" as a metaphor for growing up is more than I can stand. Only a wretchedly cruel world would demand that children surrender their innocence and sense of wonder, as a "necessary" step toward maturity and adulthood.
Woody, far left, is surprised to learn that all the other toys -- from left, Mr.
Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Bullseye, Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Jessie,
the Aliens and Buzz Lightyear -- would rather be sent to Sunnyside Daycare,
than wait in the attic of the only home they've known, for the time when the
college-bound Andy one day might need them again.

Imagine my chagrin, then, to discover that this message is front and center in Toy Story 3.

Ah, but trust Pixar to soften this subtext with the studio's trusted, impeccable mix of solid storytelling, spot-on character voices, bursts of wicked humor and a growing level of tension and suspense that climaxes with a heart-thumping third act.

Granted, these characters have lost a bit of their freshness; and yes, many of the new toy co-stars feel overmuch like deliberate product placement, much the way George Lucas let the commercial tail wag his artistic dog, when he added those cuddly Ewoks to his third Star Wars film.

But that's small stuff: There's also a lot to be said for simply seeing Woody and Buzz together again, and for hearing the wonderfully familiar strains of Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" in the soundtrack of this third toy-centered adventure.

But goodness: If you thought that nasty neighbor kid Sid was menacing in 1995's original Toy Story, you're likely to choke on your Jujubes after meeting the cymbal-smashing monkey in this story.

Indeed, it could be argued that this film is much too scary for the youngest members of its target audience. I'm all for stories with teeth; those grim Grimm's fairy tales demonstrate the necessary truth that heroic redemption means little without some adversity along the way. But writers John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich and Michael Arndt skipped teeth and went straight for fangs; they've really ladled on the terror, which builds to a wide-eyed, chest-clutching, gasping-for-breath finale.

The monkey's bad enough; the deceptively serene "Big Baby" will revive all those doll nightmares we had back in the day, thanks to Twilight Zone episodes such as the one involving the homicidal "Talking Tina." Brrrrrrr!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Karate Kid: Quite a kick

The Karate Kid (2010) • View trailer for The Karate Kid
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for quite realistic bullying and martial arts violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.17.10
Buy DVD: The Karate Kid • Buy Blu-Ray: The Karate Kid (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

The original Karate Kid was a can't-miss hit that became the empowerment film for kids who first saw it back in 1984, and then embraced it with the devotion that young Ralph Macchio applied to his training with Pat Morita's wise and patient Mr. Miyagi.

Two steadily diminishing sequels were inevitable, although the subsequent TV cartoon series was a mistake, as was a 1994 gender-switching attempt to revive the franchise, with then-young Hilary Swank taking over the title role. (That film's failure wasn't her fault, I hasten to add.)
When young Dre (Jaden Smith, left) finally persuades the taciturn Mr. Han
(Jackie Chan) to instruct him in the ways of martial arts, the boy expects a
series of showy, dynamic lessons. He's dismayed to discover that -- like a
musician who endures months of scales before tackling symphonies -- he first
must survive a series of bizarre and grueling exercises.

Then things went quiet until now, when Sony Pictures and director Harald Zwart decided that a new generation was ready for its own young martial-arts underdog.

The result, once again simply titled The Karate Kid, is every bit as well crafted, engaging and exhilarating as its quarter-century-old ancestor. Credit goes to Christopher Murphey's solid script, based on the original 1984 story by Robert Mark Kamen, but this new film gets most of its charm from a strong and personable cast, most particularly Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, quite successfully stepping in for Macchio and Morita.

All the elements that contributed to the first film's success remain in play, and the formula is sure-fire. Most of us have felt picked-upon at some point in our lives  with the possible exception of the career thugs doing the taunting  and Smith makes it easy to identify with his tormented Dre Parker.

The young actor is physically slight to begin with, and he's an adorably beguiling presence, which he proved when sharing the screen a few years ago with his father, Will Smith, in The Pursuit of Happyness.

The setting of this re-booted saga has been shifted to China, a clever touch that increases the sense of alienation and loneliness experienced by Dre, when his widowed mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, excellent as always), is forced to move them from the States because of her career. Culture shock isn't the half of it; Dre was a popular kid in his Detroit neighborhood, and in China he's a curiosity because of the color of his skin and the styling of his hair, and an outcast because the language and customs are impenetrable.

Such a newcomer is bound to run afoul of the local bullies.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The A-Team: 'A' for audacious

The A-Team (2010) • View trailer for The A-Team
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for relentless cartoon violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.11.10
Buy DVD: The A-Team • Buy Blu-Ray: The A-Team (+ Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Back in the day  the early 1980s, to be precise  The A-Team was the action show for folks who found Charlie's Angels too intellectually challenging.

Sacramento-born director Joe Carnahan (Smoking Aces) has taken that template to heart, with his noisy, big-screen reboot of the former. This new and improved A-Team is even more absurd and more awesomely indestructible than its boob-tube ancestor, but I'll say this much: The cast  highlighted by the scene-stealing Sharlto Copley  makes the ride quite entertaining, no matter how daft things get.
The man with the plan: Despite being warned to leave this particular mission
alone, Hannibal (Liam Neeson, far right) concocts a scheme that he believes his
"boys" -- from left, Templeton "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper), "Howlin' Mad"
Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) --
can bring home with their usual hel-for-leather precision. Ah, but things are
destined to go drastically awry...

And they get very daft.

I knew where we were heading when one of the first death-defying escapes involved flying a helicopter upside-down, a feat that defies aerodynamic reality on so many levels that aviation engineers  and real-world chopper pilots  will bust a gut from derisive laughter.

But things only gets crazier, most notably with a jaw-dropping sequence that finds our heroes plummeting to earth inside a tank suspended by three massive parachutes, while using said military vehicle  in "flight," no less  to shoot down attacking drone aircraft.

Really, I lost track of the laws of physics being violated by the script credited to Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods. Adjectives fail me; the word "silly" just doesn't have enough magnitude.

And yet ... and yet...

Team leader Liam Neeson's Hannibal Smith, taking over from TV's George Peppard, is the way-cool epitome of grace under fire: a tough-talking, cigar-chomping planner never at a loss for the solutions to 13 impossible problems. Neeson has come late to the action hero genre, but  as he demonstrated in 2008's Taken  he's quite good at conveying the necessary blend of rugged charm and implacable, thug-busting fury.

Bradley Cooper is equally beguiling as the smooth, suave, lady-killing Templeton "Face" Peck, a glib operator who can charm his way into any situation ... and past any lady's defenses. Cooper continues to make good on the promise he demonstrated on TV's Alias, where he honed the light comedy action chops that he demonstrates so well in the midst of this madness.