Thursday, September 30, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: Grounded

Legend of the Guardians (2010) • View trailer for Legend of the Guardians
2 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, and quite generously, despite considerable violence, peril and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.30.10
Buy DVD: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole • Buy Blu-Ray: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

This one simply doesn't fly.

During a lifetime devoted to fantasy cinema, I've embraced flying elephants, culinary rats, harmonizing chipmunks, brave little toasters, great mouse detectives, malevolent stuffed bears, 7-foot Wookies, singing teapots, one-eyed yellow minions and all manner of robots, androids and cute furry sidekicks.

Hoping to find the legendary guardians of Ga'Hoole, Soren,
center foreground, and his new friends -- from left, Digger,
Twilight and Gylfie -- embark on a long journey across a
dangerous ocean, little realizing that they're heading
straight into a ferocious storm. (Hey, if finding guardians
were easy, everybody would be doing it, right?)
I am, to drive the point home, predisposed to tolerate  nay, embrace  such imaginative flights of fancy.

But I cannot go where this big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Lasky's Guardians of Ga'Hoole books wishes to drag me.

Indeed, "drag" is the operative word. Director Zack Snyder's Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is a snooze; it plods along interminably during its lifeless 91 minutes.

The story, scripted by John Orloff and Emil Stern, begs, borrows and steals significant details from numerous other fantasy film and book franchises that did far better with the same material; I half expected the mentor owls to call their students "young Jedis" and warn against being seduced by The Dark Side of the Force.

Really, George Lucas should have his lawyers send a stern letter of protest.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Cairo Time: A Charming 'Time'

Cairo Time (2010) • View trailer for Cairo Time
Four stars (out of five) • Rated PG for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.24.10
Buy DVD: Cairo Time • Buy Blu-Ray: Cairo Time [Blu-ray]

Writer/director Ruba Nadda's quiet little character study is thoughtful and spare: a big-screen Hemingway short story ... allowing for the fact that the primary protagonist here is a woman.

But not just any woman: Juliette Grant is played by Patricia Clarkson, a superlative actress generally confined to supporting roles  such as Emma Stone's mother, in Easy A  who absolutely deserves this starring shot. She first caught my attention with back-to-back performances in 2003, in The Station Agent and Pieces of April, the latter bringing her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Although she has been delaying a visit to some of Cairo's
fabled landmarks, in the hopes of sharing them with her
absent husband, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) finally allows
new friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to be her guide: an
oddly intimate gesture typical of the Brief Encounter-style
relationship that evolves during the course of this
cinematic tone-poem.
Clarkson had been busy prior to that, and I wasn't surprised to discover that she had delivered memorable roles in Playing by Heart (1998), The Green Mile (1999) and Far from Heaven (2002). It can be fun, after "suddenly" being struck by somebody's talent, to back-trace and discover that you've been admiring her for years, without quite being aware of it.

All of which brings us to Cairo Time, in which Clarkson shines as an American woman wholly out of her element. Juliette has flown into Cairo to spend a long-overdue vacation with her husband, Mark. They're both workaholics: She has an executive editorial position with a high-tone woman's magazine that's both glossy and superficial; he's a dedicated United Nations relief worker.

Unhappily, he's not at the airport to meet her. Instead, Juliette is collected by Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig), until recently one of her husband's colleagues, who explains that Mark has been "detained" at the Gaza Strip. That word is pregnant with meaning, in this part of the world, but a phone call that evening reassures Juliette that Mark is fine ... but not likely to get away soon.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wall Street 2: 'Money' Talks

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010) • View trailer for Wall Street 2
Four stars (out of five) • Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.23.10

Asked by a scorpion to give it a ride across a lake, a frog wisely hesitated, reasonably concerned that the predator would sting it. 

"Why would I do that?" the scorpion replied. "I'll be on your back; if I sting you, I'd drown."

This sounded logical to the frog, which therefore allowed the scorpion onto its back. But sure enough, halfway across the lake, the scorpion stung the frog. 

"Why?" the frog gasped, as painful black waves of death closed in. "Now we'll both die!"

"It's my nature..." the scorpion answered. 
Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) fails to recognize that his
relationship with fiancee Winnie (Carey Mulligan) will
be severely threatened by his dealings with her
estranged father, particularly when he starts seeing
the man -- the infamous Gordon Gekko -- behind
her back.

I've always wondered, given writer/director Oliver Stone's left-leaning, populist politics, if he regretted having created the character of Gordon Gekko, so brilliantly played by Michael Douglas in 1987's Wall Street

Because while Gekko was designed as the villain we were intended to loathe, Douglas did his job too well; the fictitious financial shark made his malignant behavior charming, and became the admired role model for white-collar hooligans who went on a two-decade binge of Wall Street shenanigans that led, inevitably, to the economic crisis that afflicts us to this day. 

Given the opportunity to redress the catastrophe that he helped create  in his cinematic world  would Gekko mend his ways? 

Or would he remain true to his nature? 

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Town: Home-Field Advantage

The Town (2010) • View trailer for The Town
Four stars (out of five) • Rated R for violence, profanity and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.17.10
Buy DVD: The Town • Buy Blu-Ray: The Town (Extended Cut Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)

Ben Affleck certainly absorbed the gritty atmosphere that permeated his impressive directorial debut, 2007's engrossing adaptation of Dennis Lehane's crime thriller, Gone Baby Gone.

Affleck also co-scripted that drama, and we must remember  back before he became tabloid fodder  that he shared a well-deserved Academy Award with longtime buddy Matt Damon for the screenplay to Good Will Hunting. Affleck can be forgiven his ill-advised detour into Hollywood exploitation, particularly if he continues to rebound so well.
Doug (Ben Affleck, left) and Jem (Jeremy Renner),
disguised as Boston police officers, get ready to snatch
the massive volume of cash taken during an extended
weekend at famed Fenway Park; their two associates,
busy elsewhere, are prepared to bypass security cameras
on cue. Then everybody will help gather bundles of
money in the "safe room" before making a well-planned
getaway. With such meticulous attention to detail, what
could possibly go wrong?

The Town, a grim saga of violent young men in dead-end lives, will feel familiar to fans of Lehane's equally absorbing depictions of misguided hometown loyalty and the inability to conquer one's upbringing. This is a bleak environment where nurture definitely trumps nature, and where the only apparent way out of one's native turf is horizontal, in a box.

The Town is co-scripted by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, based on Chuck Hogan's novel, . As he did with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck capably directs a talented ensemble cast; as also was the case with Gone Baby Gon because nobody can forget Amy Ryan's Oscar-nominated performance as a young mother from hell  Affleck gets strong and memorable performances from both young actresses in this new project.

Perhaps emboldened by the critical approval granted Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has advanced a step and granted himself the starring role in this saga of crime in the streets. If his own performance pales slightly next to those from the rest of the cast, he shouldn't be too concerned; Affleck hits the appropriate melodramatic beats, and holds his own against some heavyweight co-stars.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Easy A: High Marks

Easy A (2010) • View trailer for Easy A
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual candor, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.16.10
Buy DVD: Easy A • Buy Blu-Ray: Easy A [Blu-ray]

Bert V. Royal based his screenplay on one of my favorite mordant sayings:

If you get saddled with a reputation, you may as well live up to it.

Royal's snarky script and the effervescent Emma Stone are the chief delights in Easy A, an engaging, teen-oriented riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The light comedy speaks volumes about the elusive nature of popularity, high school cliques and unintended consequences.

Mostly, though, it's a choice starring showcase for Stone, who deftly fulfills the promise of her stand-out supporting performance in last year's Zombieland. She's a natural on camera, with a radiant smile and perky disposition that serve her well as this saga's underdog heroine.

Having embraced the dark and slutty side that everybody seems to 
expect, Olive (Emma Stone, right) takes great pleasure in making the
insufferably judgmental Marianne (Amanda Bynes) as uncomfortable 
as possible. Alas, peer pressure eventually will have its consequences.

She also has deft comedy chops and a finely honed sense of line readings, holding her own during witty repartee with a supporting cast of scene-stealers that includes Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow. That's an impressive roster for a lightweight late-summer entry: all the more reason this film is a delightful surprise.

Stone stars as Olive Penderghast, a whip-smart student at Ojai High School who pales somewhat in the shadow of best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka, of the pop duo Aly and A.J.). Olive enjoys lively banter with her favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith (Church), although her academic prowess seems to have left her something of an outcast in the popularity and boyfriend departments.

We'll have to limit ourselves to raised eyebrows over the notion that a knockout like Stone wouldn't have boys lined up at her high school locker, but hey: That's Hollywood.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Machete: Slice 'n' Dice

Machete (2010) • View trailer for Machete
Three stars (out of five). Rated R for violence, profanity, nudity and gallons o' grue
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.10.10

Best exploitative trash I've seen in years. 

And very difficult to select a favorite moment. 

Robert De Niro, slumming even more than usual, given all the low-rent roles he has taken during the past several years? Cheech Marin, with a novel means of doing the Lord's work? Michelle Rodriguez, finally landing the part for which her sneering, bad-ass self was born? 

Lindsey Lohan, living down to her inner slut?

Maybe not that last one. 

For sheer brazen temerity, however, I've gotta nominate co-scripter and co-director Robert Rodriguez, for having the cajones to lace this cheerfully preposterous devil's brew with a cheeky political subtext. I mean, really: eviscerated limbs, severed heads and naked babes ... in a message movie? 

You gotta be impressed. 

Eventually, it all comes down to this: Machete (Danny Trejo,
foreground left) and his huge knife versus Torrez (Steven Segal) and
his two razor-sharp ninja blades. Conveniently, scores of other
gun-toting heroes and baddies stop shooting each other, in order
to watch the fight.
The back-story on Machete is almost as hilariously warped as the film itself. When Rodriguez teamed with fellow bad boy Quentin Tarantino for 2007's Grindhouse, the notion was to create the equivalent of a 1970s double-feature of sleaze. To that end, the two "main features" were separated by fictitious  and equally tasteless  coming attractions. One of those faux flicks was Machete, starring Danny Trejo, Rodriguez's favorite craggy, oversized force of nature. 

So here we are, a few years later, and Rodriguez has made good on the promise ... by concocting a film based on a preview for a film that didn't exist at the time. 

Now, that's what I call tweaking the system. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The American: State of Ennui

The American (2010) • View trailer for The American
Two stars (out of five). Rated R for nudity, sexuality and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.9.10
Buy DVD: The American • Buy Blu-Ray: The American [Blu-ray]

Goodness, what a stiff. 

Not even George Clooney's considerable charm can inject any life into The American, probably the dullest, dreariest drama he's ever made. Ironically, he isn't even well cast; the part calls for a degree of stoic amorality that Clooney can't quite deliver. His signature eye twinkle can't help emerging every so often, and that's wrong-wrong-wrong for this guy. 

This is a muddy, morbid little affair, the sort of European production that Hollywood stars sometimes embrace, in an effort to stretch their talents or reputation. In fairness, the project isn't entirely out of character for Clooney; whether in Syriana, Michael Clayton or Up in the Air, he has based a chunk of his career on morally troubled individuals in need of redemption. 

Jack (George Clooney) watches while Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) tests
the high-powered rifle that he has built to her precise specifications.
Both characters handle this scene with the clinical detachment that
infects the entire film; if they can't be interested in their own behavior,
why should we be any different?
Jack, the protagonist in screenwriter Rowan Joffe's adaptation of Martin Booth's novel, A Very Private Gentleman  a vastly superior title, just in passing  certainly has reached the end of his emotional tether. That'd be an expected career handicap for professional assassins, who live with the certain knowledge that one day they'll lose their edge and likely become the first target of their replacements. 

Unfortunately, Clooney doesn't give Jack enough depth to make us care what happens to him, and I'm also not persuaded that he either seeks or deserves salvation. Even worse, director Anton Corbijn maintains a pace so lethargic that his film flat-out stops at times. 

I'm not the slightest bit surprised to learn that Corbijn has a 35-year background as a portrait photographer; this film frequently feels like a still life. 

Honestly, how much time can we spend watching Jack hole up in his tiny apartment, trying  and frequently failing  to sleep? 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Takers: Badly Taken

Takers (2010) • View trailer for Takers
Three stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for profanity, fleeting nudity and truly insane levels of gunfire
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.03.10

Buy DVD: Takers • Buy Blu-Ray: Takers [Blu-ray]

Director John Luessenhop has a nifty little B-thriller here. 

Too bad he doesn't want anybody to enjoy it. 

That's the only conclusion to be drawn from Luessenhop's pervasive and obnoxious hand-held camerawork: not only vertigo-inducing but a serious impediment to appreciating the stuntwork and action sequences in his film's frantic third act. 

One sizzling foot-chase boasts the breathtaking intensity and hell-for-leather jumps and tumbles of the memorable "free-running" pursuit that opened Casino Royale, and this one covers considerable territory in downtown city pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Alas, it's impossible to appreciate  and therefore merely tiresome  because it appears as if Luessenhop and cinematographer Michael Barrett "filmed" the entire sequence by running after their two stars, tossing the camera back and forth between them, and hoping for the best. 

We can thank cinema-verite documentaries and low-budget horror flicks for bringing this irritating technique to the attention of hack directors who now believe that it's the epitome of slick: It ain't, and it's time this stylistic hiccup was retired. Without honors. 

When he's not succumbing to such self-indulgent nonsense, Luessenhop orchestrates a fairly taut heist thriller, working from a high-octane script he co-authored with Peter Allen, Gabriel Casseus and Avery Duff. It feels a bit like 2003's remake of The Italian Job on steroids, laced with a soupon of the Vegas-style cool from Ocean's 11

In other words, the de facto villains are much more engaging than the overmatched Forces of Good trying to bring them down. 

Loyalty to a former colleague, or common sense? Faced with the
offer of embracing another high-stakes heist very quickly after their
previous job, our suave anti-heroes -- from left, John (Paul Walker),
Jesse (Chris Brown), Jake (Michael Ealy), A.J. (Hayden Christensen)
and Gordon (Idris Elba) -- weigh the pros and cons of getting
involved. Alas, they'll choose badly...
Longtime friends Gordon Betts (Idris Elba), John Rahway (Paul Walker), A.J. (Hayden Christensen) and the Attica brothers, Jake (Michael Ealy) and Jesse (Chris Brown), enjoy an extravagant lifestyle filled with hot cars, hotter women and plenty o' cash. They finance this largess with meticulously plotted and well-coordinated bank robberies: no more than one per year, will no clues left behind. 

Indeed, law enforcement has treated all previous jobs as one-offs, and isn't even remotely aware of the existence of these serial criminals. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Farewell: Deadly Dance

Farewell (2010) • View trailer for Farewell
Four stars (out of five). Unrated,with profanity, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.2.10

Truth really is stranger than fiction. 

French director Christian Carion, working from Serguei Kostine's novel, Bonjour Farewell, shines a well-deserved spotlight on a fascinating sequence of game-changing events that forever altered the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The resulting drama is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as The Lives of Others, which similarly dealt with the behavior of people forced to live under the extreme scrutiny of endemic government paranoia. 

Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, left), a mild-mannered French civil
servant living in Moscow, simply isn't cut out for espionage work; he
becomes increasingly nervous and unhappy while serving as a
clandestine courier for disaffected KGB official Sergei Gregoriev
(Emir Kusturica).
On an entirely different level, Carion's film is fascinating for its view of both world powers. The Soviet elite are depicted as corrupt hypocrites determined to enjoy the advantages of capitalism while keeping the working class under the yoke of "idealized" communism; the Americans - as typified by Fred Ward's mercilessly vindictive portrayal of President Ronald Reagan - are arrogant cowboys who believe they know what's best for the rest of the world ... despite having no clue how exposed their own 'national secrets' have become. 

The French, as typified by Philippe Magnan's wonderfully dry performance as Franois Mitterrand, obviously think both sides are crazy. No surprise there; this is a French film. But the opinion isn't necessarily unjust, given that the escalating rattle of nuclear sabers would have wiped most of Western Europe off the map, had war broken out.