Friday, August 27, 2010

High on 'Get Low'

Get Low (2010) • View trailer for Get Low
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity, fleeting violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.27.10
Buy DVD: Get Low • Buy Music CD: Get Low

On June 26, 1938, shortly before the Great Depression yielded to the WWII years, a Tennessee hermit named Felix "Bush" Breazeale  having lived for years with no company but his beloved mule  threw himself a "funeral party" that lured upwards of 12,000 'mourners' from at least 14 different states. 

The event probably wouldn't draw more than raised eyebrows today, but at that more innocent time it was regarded as highly eccentric; the 'service' was covered by Life magazine and reporters from numerous papers. 
In an effort to make Felix Breazeale (Robert Duvall, seated) more
presentable, funeral home owner Frank Quinn (Bill Murray, right) and
his assistant, Buddy Robinson (Lucas Black), take the grizzled hermit
to a barber, and then to a clothing store. Felix is perfectly content to
go along with all this, since Frank is picking up the tab.

"I just wanted to hear," Breazeale took the Roane County Banner, "what the preacher had to say about me while I am alive." 

Breazeale enjoyed his newfound celebrity for another five years before dying on Feb. 9, 1943, this time being laid to rest during an intimate church service that drew few onlookers on a cold winter's day. 

Nobody really knows what prompted his desire for that first mammoth affair; it may have been just a whim. 

Questions that tantalizing were made to be answered by imaginative writers. 

Chris Provenzano, a veteran scripter of provocative TV shows such as Mad Men and Justified, shaped his take on Breazeale's saga with co-writer Scott Seeke; Provenzano then fine-tuned the subsequent script with C. Gaby Mitchell. The result is Get Low, an engaging little character drama deftly directed by Aaron Schneider, which gives memorably quirky roles to Robert Duvall and Bill Murray, with solid support from Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black and Bill Cobbs. 

The film capably lives up to the iconic line in 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." 

Duvall has no shortage of unusual character parts in his past; he thrives on them. But familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt, as Duvall's never quite the same way twice. His take on Breazeale is deceptive: The mostly silent backwoods man who initially appears unsophisticated proves to be shrewd, cunning and intelligent. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Switch: Awkward Fit

The Switch (2010) • View trailer for The Switch
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, fleeting nudity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.26.10

Some films don't find their footing right away, and The Switch is a good example. 

New York stock trader Wally Mars (Jason Bateman) and TV chat show exec Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston) are longtime best buds, having somehow side-stepped the discomfort resulting from a romance that never quite took off. That's what we're told, at least, but the plain fact is that Bateman and Aniston seem supremely uncomfortable around each other as we meet them, their dialogue sounding flat and unconvincing. 
Striking a humorous blow for nature vs. nurture, Wally (Jason Bateman, right)
discovers that he has a great deal in common with young Sebastian (Thomas
Robinson), the son he never knew. Alas, this isn't necessarily good news, since
the boy's mother has no clue about the extent of Wally's, ah, involvement with
the boy's conception.

There's little evidence, based on what we see, that Kassie would put up with a guy as self-absorbed and pessimistic as Wally. 

One suspects co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck simply don't understand the requirements of a romantic comedy, a suspicion fueled by previous credits that include the Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory and the (deservedly) failed TV series Cavemen. These guys go for broad strokes, and a film such as The Switch requires a lighter touch. 

I'm certain, for example, that Gordon and Speck are responsible for the most pointlessly unnecessary bit of male nudity I've ever seen in a film of this nature: a naked stage production of some Shakespeare play that Wally and Kassie just happen to take in. This screen extra's bared buns, along with a subsequent party scene that includes a fleeting puff of marijuana, are blatantly cynical: included solely to obtain the more demographically desirable PG-13 rating. 

But the directors aren't solely to blame. Screenwriter Allan Loeb  who adapted a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides (which was made into a much better film)  can be fingered for the clumsy "conversations" that pass between Wally and Kassie. 

Honestly, they look and act like total strangers pretending to be bosom pals. Doesn't work. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Eat Pray Love: Dour prayer

Eat Pray Love (2010) • View trailer for Eat Pray Love
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, brief profanity and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.20.10
Buy DVD: Eat Pray Love • Buy Blu-Ray: Eat Pray Love [Blu-ray]

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I'm not currently a woman, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. 

This puts me at something of a gender disadvantage when attempting to discuss films such as director Ryan Murphy's current adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, Eat Pray Love, or  reaching back a few years  director Audrey Welles' kinda-sorta 2003 adaptation of Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun
While in Italy, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts, center) embraces the guiltless,
senses-tingling joy to be found in sumptuous meals. She also smiles a bit. But
be warned: Roberts' signature, radiant grin gets very little exercise in this
mostly melancholy and self-indulgently gloomy drama.

Both are intended for a very precise demographic, which turned out in force during the afternoon screening of Eat Pray Love that I caught: 98 percent female, 100 percent older than 35. 

At a core emotional level, I'll never be able to empathize with some of the ways that Eat Pray Love might touch this crowd. Some things simply are too gender-specific: Fellas granted the supreme gift of silver-tongued, crowd-swaying oratory still couldn't explain the Three Stooges to their female companions. 

But I can say this much safely and honestly: I've absolutely no interest in watching a whiny, self-absorbed guy wander the world for a year while trying to "find himself" during a "crisis" of his own creation, and wrapping that same character into Julia Roberts' talented frame doesn't make the menu any more palatable. 

Mind you, I've long admired Roberts, and make a point of seeking out all her films. 

In fairness, the problems with Eat Pray Love  and there are many  have nothing to do with the acting. Roberts sells her scenes persuasively; she quite successfully got me to view Liz Gilbert as a petulant narcissist incapable of being grateful for all the blessings in her life. Acting is an art designed to provoke a reaction from the audience, and Roberts certainly provoked me; I wanted to reach into the screen, shake her by the shoulders and scream, "Perspective, woman ... perspective!

Viola Davis makes the most of her brief scenes as Gilbert's publisher and best friend, Delia Shiraz; James Franco is scruffily charming as David, the young stage actor who serves as Liz's first rebound affair. Javier Bardem is his usual swooningly debonair self as Felipe, the world's greatest divorced father; Richard Jenkins steals the film as "Richard from Texas," a guy with genuine problems who hasn't yet figured out how to forgive himself for past sins. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Expendables: Flush This Mush

The Expendables (2010) • View trailer for The Expendables
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.10
Buy DVD: The Expendables • Buy Blu-Ray: The Expendables (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

They certainly are. 

On paper, the concept of The Expendables must have seemed like a sure thing: a testosterone-fueled mash-up of The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch, populated by a dream team of fresh and fading cinema action stars. 

On the big screen, the results are dark, dismal and sniggeringly stupid: a clumsy, ludicrous exercise that can't even fulfill the basic requirements of a grade-C action epic. 

Oh, and it's loud. Very loud. Excessively loud. Between supercharged gunfire, bombs and gasoline-enhanced explosions, this flick may be responsible for viewer hearing loss. 
When Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, center) loses his cool and seems poised
to kill his fellow mercenary, Yin Yang (Jet Li, left), team leader Barney Ross
(Sylvester Stallone) has to get equally serious while trying to defuse the
situation. The Expendables is filled with hilariously improbable scenes just
like this one, and they only get sillier as the film unspools.

As noisy as all the pyrotechniques are, though, they don't drown out the tin-eared dialogue. 

More's the pity. 

For once in his life, the egomaniacal Sylvester Stallone should have stepped back and allowed input from other, more talented hands. Sly's participation should have been limited to his starring role; he has gotten pretty good at playing his one-note self. He's a hack writer at best  he shares screen credit here with David Callaham  but he's a truly deplorable director without the slightest idea of where to place the camera, how to light a scene, or how to orchestrate a fight sequence or vehicular chase. 

What is the sense of casting martial-arts fan favorites such as Jet Li and Jason Statham, if their considerable skills are lost amid badly lit scenes and smash-cut editing, which make it impossible to enjoy their work? 

And it's not just Li and Statham. Much (most?) of the hare-brained action is handled by the actors or stunt doubles, rather than being "sweetened" by computer enhancements, and it's vexing to miss the details. This film's sizable stunt team clearly put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this flick, and a lot of their effort goes unappreciated. 

That's the frustrating part: the realization that, all other elements being equal, The Expendables could have been a decent action flick, given a better director and a savvy script doctor. 

As it is ... little more than bumbling junk. 

Stallone stars as Barney Ross, head of a squad of seasoned mercenaries who've retained enough humanity to accept only good-guy assignments. We meet them during a confrontation with Somali pirates; needless the say, the pirates get wasted while our heroes  and all the hostages  apparently suffer nary a scratch. 

Neat trick, that, with so many bullets flying all over the place. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Chaos Rules

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) • View trailer for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for loopy violence, mild sensuality and drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.13.10
Buy the DVD: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World • Buy Blu-Ray: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

The lunatics aren't just running this particular asylum; they've obviously infiltrated civilized society. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is as deranged a fantasy as I've seen in awhile, and that's no small statement. Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels are pretty out there to begin with, and director Edgar Wright  who with Michael Bacall also adapted the material  has retained the wild 'n' crazy exaggeration while pushing the outer boundaries of conventional filmmaking. 
Wanting only to help his garage band qualify for a competitive play-off, Scott
Pilgrim (Michael Cera, center) is astonished when a menacing stranger literally
drops from nowhere onto the stage, and then attacks him. This would be "Evil
Ex No. 1," the first of seven lunatic ordeals Scott must face, thanks to his
rising interest in a mysterious girl with cotton-candy hair.

Pushing? No, that's not strong enough. Wright and Bacall have punched through completely, delivering an eye-popping hybrid that's equal parts movie, comic book and video game. The colorful result is entertaining and bewildering by turns, although ultimately undone by a running time that's at least 20 minutes too long. 

Mere mortals can safely absorb only so much ferocious intensity. 

At its core, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is just another saga of youthful angst and unrequited love. Or, more precisely, love that has been requited a bit too frequently, with painful consequences. It's a familiar tale: boy meets the girl of his dreams  in this case, literally  but finds the path to her heart rather complicated. 

That this timeworn scenario unfolds in the Day-Glo, smash-thud universe of comic book sensibilities is, in Wright's view, merely an acknowledgment of an ordinary nerd's tendency to over-dramatize and succumb to his hyperactive imagination. "When teens or twentysomethings describe the events of a night out," Wright explains, in his press notes, "they're usually blown out of all proportion." 

And so, as a result, is Wright's film. 

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera at his whiny, self-deprecating best) is between jobs and filling time as the bass guitarist for a slacker garage band dubbed Sex Bob-Omb. As befits a Cera character, the 22-year-old Scott has been pining too long for his former girlfriend, Envy Adams (Brie Larson), who abandoned the band and hit it big on her own. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Flipped: Engaging points of view

Flipped (2010) • View trailer for Flipped
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.12.10
Buy DVD: Flipped • Buy Blu-Ray: Flipped [Blu-ray]

Girls know these things. 

A second-grade girl can meet a boy her own age and know it's love at first sight: deep, passionate, swooning love that, if properly nurtured, could stand the test of time. 

Second-grade boys, totally clueless, invariably miss getting struck by Cupid's bolts. 

More's the pity. 
After raising chickens as a classroom project, Juli (Madeline Carroll) discovers
she can make some extra money by selling eggs. She wouldn't think of
charging Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) and his family, though, because she has
been sweet on him for years. But this act of generosity becomes a catastrophe
when Bryce's father rather arbitrarily demands that the eggs be returned,
uneaten ... and the boy can't figure out how to obey that edict without hurting
Juli's feelings.

Director Rob Reiner's generally engaging adaptation of Wendelin Van Draanen's Flipped will be enjoyed by anybody with fond memories of television's The Wonder Years. Reiner's film  he also co-wrote the screenplay, with Andrew Scheinman  hearkens back to the sensitive touch he brought to 1986's Stand by Me, a different sort of coming-of-all saga. 

This new film evokes a similar time period: the transition from the Eisenhower '50s to the Kennedy '60s. Children still are polite to their elders, families customarily dress up for dinner in their own homes, fathers are the de facto heads of the household  even if they don't deserve the role  and rock 'n' roll hasn't yet moved beyond the innocence of bubble-gum boy bands and girl groups. 

And assertive girls are branded tomboys and regarded as "strange." 

That label certainly fits young Juli Baker, immediately struck by Bryce Loski's gorgeous eyes when his family moves into the house across the street, in the sort of bucolic neighborhood that seems to exist only in fading memories. Juli boldly insinuates herself into Bryce's life, much to the wary amusement of the boy's father, Steven (Anthony Edwards). 

Bryce wants nothing to do with this pushy girl, but his disinterest only emboldens her further. School life for a second-grade boy stalked by a girl becomes a living hell. 

The gimmick employed by this film is a classic "he said/she said" depiction of events: We first witness Bryce's point of view, accompanied by his voice-over. This continues through a series of encounters  sometimes lasting weeks and months, sometimes only hours and days  and then the clock is re-wound to allow Juli's version. 

Specific developments occur the same way  both kids are reliable narrators  but the emphasis shifts. Juli reads more into something Bryce regards as a casual comment; he perceives her constant attention as intrusive and freakish, whereas she believes herself merely devoted. Expressions and body language change, as well, depending on who's telling the story. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire: Smoldering

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010) • View trailer for The Girl Who Played with Fire
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity, nudity, rape and strong sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.10
Buy DVD: The Girl Who Played With Fire • Buy Blu-Ray: The Girl Who Played with Fire [Blu-ray]

The characters are no longer as provocatively fresh, and we've learned that Stieg Larsson's plots can be extremely nasty. 

But familiarity certainly doesn't breed contempt. Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander remains one of cinema's truly great characters, and parts of The Girl Who Played with Fire are just as tense as what went down in this film's predecessor. 
Having gotten to know Lisbeth Salander quite intimately
during the events depicted in the previous film,
investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael
Nyqvist, right) refuses to believe that she could be guilty
of the three murders with which she has been charged.
Alas, investigating detective Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylen)
doesn't share Mikael's faith in the absent Lisbeth, whose
location remains unknown. To make matters worse,
Bublanski resents Mikael's tendency to embarrass the
police ... which leaves our crusading reporter to do his
own sleuthing. (Would we have it any other way?)

Perhaps even more suspenseful, since we now know that Larsson doesn't pull his punches. If no single scene in this film generates the sickening horror of Salander's rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it ain't for lack of effort. Bad things happen to good people here. 

That said, replacement director Daniel Alfredson simply doesn't have the snap that Niels Arden Oplev brought to the first film. Alfredson's approach is more routine, less galvanic; he doesn't exactly dilute the twisty plot or intriguing characters, but he also doesn't bring much to the party. 

Were she not so emotionally damaged and oddly vulnerable, Rapace's character could be regarded as less mortal and more iconic: a pierced, black-garbed avenging angel placed on Earth hunt down "men who hate women," as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, also returning) perceives her. 

The beauty of Rapace's performance, though, is the intriguing balance between human frailty and adrenaline-fueled hatred. Salander is such a tiny little thing  one wonders how she's able to handle a huge motorcycle, in one scene  that first-time acquaintances can be forgiven their assumption of weakness. But Rapace makes us believe that rage and ferocious skill trump size, particularly when she sets her mouth grimly and we watch, with both satisfaction and horror, as all humanity and compassion drain from her dark eyes. 

Aside from some quick scenes that establish the sex-traffickers who hover malignantly throughout this story, Fire begins somewhat quietly, allowing us to get a better sense of the relationships between Blomkvist, Salander and various side characters that were given short shrift in the first film. Larsson's books are dense, to say the least; while the screenwriters  Jonas Frykberg here, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg on Tattoo  have done an impressive job of compression while retaining all the crucial bits, one can lament the missing subtleties. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dinner for Schmucks: Overcooked

Dinner for Schmucks (2010) • View trailer for Dinner for Schmucks
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for sexual candor, partial nudity and considerable smutty content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.5.10
Buy DVD: Dinner for Schmucks • Buy Blu-Ray: Dinner for Schmucks [Blu-ray]

American remakes of French comedies generally don't work very well, although that doesn't stop Hollywood from trying. 

Tinseltown studio execs love to extol rare successes such as The Birdcage (from La Cage Aux Folles) and Three Men and a Baby (Trois Hommes et un Couffin), conveniently forgetting that every hit stands in the far larger shadow of numerous train wrecks: The Toy (Le Jouet), Buddy, Buddy (L'emmerdeur), The Man with One Red Shoe (Le Grand Blond avec une Chaussure Noire), Just Visiting (Les Visiteurs), My Father, the Hero (Mon Pere, ce Heros), Pure Luck (Le Chevre), Jungle 2 Jungle (Un Indien dans la Ville) and The Man Who Loved Women (Franois Truffaut's L'homme Qui Aimait les Femmes, no less), among many others. 
In desperate need of a total boob to bring as a guest to his boss' cruel dinner
party, Tim (Paul Rudd) bumps into Barry (Steve Carell), a mousy IRS agent
who can't wait to share his unusual hobby: "mouse-terpiece" tableaus that
feature tiny stuffed rodents wearing itty-bitty human outfits. Yes, that's "The
Last Supper," and the astonished Tim is holding Jesus himself.

Honestly, the list is endless. 

Part of the problem is scale: American directors can't resist the compulsion to make a small joke large, a large joke massive, and a massive joke elephantine. If destroying a chair is funny, then destroying an entire apartment building must be even funnier. (Well ... no.) All sense of proportion is lost, and the scene's humor is sacrificed to bombast. 

The most awkward efforts, though, involve a sexual element: always a major mistake. The French handle sensuality and casual infidelity far differently than we do; their playful je ne sais quoi makes such movies erotic and droll, whereas American translations inevitably feel awkward, forced and vulgar. 

So: When American director Jay Roach focuses on the central relationship between Barry (Steve Carell) and Tim (Paul Rudd), Dinner for Schmucks stays on solid ground and is both funny and unexpectedly poignant. Credit Carell for the latter; he can go from unabashedly goofy to morosely vulnerable in the blink of an eye. 

But when Roach and screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman stray into the sexier territory inhabited with cheerful inhibition by Francis Veber's Le Diner de Cons, which inspired this film, the results fall as flat as the proverbial pancake. Great chunks of Dinner for Schmucks  those involving a hedonistic photographer/artist (Jemaine Clement, as Kieran) and Barry's grasping, sex-crazed, long-ago one-night stand (Lucy Punch, as Darla)  land with thuds that reverberate for miles. 

Both Clement and Punch are given impossible dialogue and thrust into stupidly contrived situations; Kieran's conversations about goats could win the annual Bulwer-Lytton Award for bad writing.