Thursday, October 28, 2010

Conviction: Fascinating legal drama anchored by strong acting

Conviction (2010) • View trailer for Conviction
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.28.10

Autumn seems to be the season of docu-dramas, whether the family-friendly triumph of Secretariat or the deliciously snarky profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network .

In terms of tone and execution, Conviction slots somewhere between these two, and director Tony Goldwyn's compelling legal drama offers the same high-caliber acting that made The Social Network such a pleasure to watch.

While Betty Ann Waters (Hilary Swank) watches in disbelief and
consternation, her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is led away
 after having been found guilty of a heinous murder. Kenny insists
on his innocence, and Betty Ann believes him ... but what can an
under-educated high school dropout do to help her only sibling?
Conviction is a grittier narrative about less palatable characters, given a finished polish of coarse authenticity by Pamela Gray's straightforward script. This is a story of uncompromising love and stubborn determination: an empowerment saga that would feel much happier under better circumstances ... but Goldwyn and Gray wisely eschew the Hollywood gloss that could have turned their film into a manipulative, tear-jerking fairy tale.

And although the events here are as factual and historically significant as those depicted in Secretariat and The Social Network, very few people will recognize the names of Betty Ann Waters and her older brother, Kenny. More than likely, then, this saga's outcome — although a matter of public record — will come as a surprise to most viewers.

Goldwyn and Gray pepper their first act with a series of flashbacks that allow us to develop a sense of Betty Ann (Bailee Madison) and Kenny (Tobias Campbell) as adolescents in the 1960s: wild children unsupervised by their absentee mother (Karen Young) and with only each other for support, and therefore frequently in trouble with the law in their small-town Massachusetts community.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Waiting for Superman: Teaching point

Waiting for Superman (2010) • View trailer for Waiting for Superman
4 stars (out of five) • Rated PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 10.22.10

If you don't leave the theater feeling outraged  and despondent  then you've not been paying attention.

Documentarian Davis Guggenheim, who helped transform global warming from a dry scientific theory into a hot-button political football with An Inconvenient Truth, has returned to indict another of-the-moment calamity destined to become a similar wedge issue: the absolutely deplorable condition of America's public school system.

Francisco, a Bronx first-grader, has trouble reading; his
mother, wanting to help, repeatedly sends messages to
her son's teacher. Her notes and calls are ignored, and so
she eventually decides to trust her son's fate to a lottery,
hoping she can get him into a charter school.
As he did with his previous film, Guggenheim skillfully blends discouraging statistics and damning news events to build a persuasive case: Despite their claims to the contrary, hidebound adults looking out only for themselves are defending the indefensible, and in so doing shortchanging children from California to Maine.

Make no mistake: This behavior will come back to haunt us, and rather rapidly. Several of our largest high-tech Silicon Valley companies  we're talking Microsoft-level giants  already are forced to hire outside this country in order to get enough employees, because our schools aren't graduating enough sufficiently skilled students.

That's flat-out scary.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hereafter: Too much here, too little after

Hereafter (2010) • View trailer for Hereafter
Three stars (out of five) • Rated PG-13 for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.10

Heartfelt attempts to deal with the afterlife, and with contacting the dead, are a risky proposition on the big screen.

Marcus (alternately twins George and Frankie McLaren) wants his
 mother (Lyndsey Marshal) to kick her drug and alcohol addictions,
but she simply isn't strong enough. With the threat of a foster
home just one social worker visit away, the boy becomes
increasingly frantic. 
Too much sentiment, no matter how well-intentioned, and the effort collapses: definitely the fate of 1998's adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel, What Dreams May Come, also undone by one of Robin Williams' too-earnest performances.

Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm, back in 1983, foundered beneath too much gadget-laden techno-babble. 1980's thoughtful Resurrection, while not exactly an afterlife story, skirted the subject's edges with enough intelligence to raise intriguing questions.

Director Peter Jackson's recent adaptation of The Lovely Bones got lost in the needlessly ostentatious afterlife landscape inhabited by the dead young girl who tried to watch over her family from beyond; the resulting storyline, coupled with a truly unacceptable conclusion, got lost in the visual excess.

All this said, I've no doubt that such films can comfort viewers predisposed to believe in the power of devotion, as a means to retain a link to loved ones who've moved beyond our mortal realm. Patrons of a more cynical bent, alternatively, are likely to scoff and raise eyebrows.

Our world, these days, seems inhabited by far more of the latter.

Friday, October 15, 2010

RED: Risible, Energetic and Delightful

RED (2010) • View trailer for RED
3.5 stars (out of five) • Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and plenty of violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.15.10

Some concepts are can't-miss, and that's certainly the case with RED, based on the deliciously snarky graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner.

Screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber maintain an appropriately wry tone, and the dry, deadpan one-liners are delivered with panache by veteran scene-stealers such as Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren.

Victoria (Helen Mirren) speaks softly, but carries a very big
gun, which she's not shy about using. She's also quite good
at keeping the paranoid Marvin (John Malkovich) focused
on the task at hand, which grows ever more complicated as
these retired black-ops agents find themselves targeted by
well-trained -- and much younger -- CIA assassins.
Director Robert Schwentke maintains a brisk pace, moving things along rapidly enough to compensate for the plot's comic book-style sensibilities. The narrative is jes' plain silly right outta the gate, but the overall tone is so whimsical that you're unlikely to mind.

Things begin mildly as Frank Moses (Willis), living a calm suburban life, makes another in a long line of calls to a cheerful bureaucratic drone named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). Frank has fallen in like with Sarah's telephone voice, and so keeps shredding checks that her company is supposed to send him, just so he can claim that "It still hasn't arrived" as an excuse to call her again.

Sarah, for her part, finds Frank far more charming than the losers she keeps dating.

Frank's sedentary life takes a noisy turn late one night, when ninja-garbed assassins do their best to put numerous holes in him. They fail, which leads Frank  clearly not your average civilian retiree, as we're learning  to travel hastily to Kansas City, in order to protect Sarah. Frank realizes that his thus-far-unspecified enemies probably tapped his phone, and therefore are likely to kidnap Sarah as a bargaining chip.

So Frank kidnaps her first. Duct tape and all.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Never Let Me Go: This one won't let you go

Never Let Me Go (2010) • View trailer for Never Let Me Go
4 stars (out of five) • Rated R for brief nudity, sexual candor and unsettling dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.14.10

Science-fiction isn't solely robots and space ships; some of the genre's best entries aren't even recognized as such. A story's speculative elements can be concealed beneath a cloak of social commentary, character interaction or even comedy.

Despite plenty of adolescent "play-acting training," Kathy
(Carey Mulligan, left), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy
(Andrew Garfield) are completely paralyzed by the process
of ordering a meal during their first visit to a restaurant;
they wind up requesting the same items simply because
this decision requires less thought. But why does this
"ritual" intimidate them so?
1951's The Man in the White Suit, ostensibly one of Alec Guinness' numerous British comedies of that decade, concerns a scientist who develops a fabric that repels dirt and won't tear; clothes made of this material never need to be replaced. Unexpectedly, though, the story's frivolous elements are overshadowed when blue-collar workers in the British garment industry go on a rampage, correctly deducting that their jobs are in jeopardy.

Pure sci-fi, but with a pretty powerful message.

Margaret Atwood's highly disturbing The Handmaid's Tale was made into an equally unsettling 1990 film; the story is set in an unspecified future, when radical, racist, religious elements have taken control of our country. Natasha Richardson stars as one of the many young, healthy white women who are brainwashed into bearing children that will become a new "pure" generation.

Atwood's novel, clearly an angry response to those wanting to roll back the clock on women's rights, feels even more relevant 20 years later, as we routinely hear of Islamic radicals who would deny women any rights ... and not just their women, but all women.

Science-fiction ... or uncanny prescience? That's when the genre truly makes its mark.

All of which brings us to Never Let Me Go, adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro's unsettling 2005 novel, and brought to brilliant, heartbreaking life by actors Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield. Director Mark Romanek draws memorable performances from his three stars, while quietly indicting those who regard some living things as inferior to the rest of us.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Secretariat: Merely a trot

Secretariat (2010) • View trailer for Secretariat
3.5 stars (out of five) • Rated PG
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.08.10
Buy DVD: Secretariat • Buy Blu-Ray: Secretariat [Blu-ray]

Secretariat's place in horse-racing history remains the stuff of legend, and perhaps the only true surprise revolving around this inspirational drama concerns why almost four decades passed before it was filmed.

The bare-bones details are amazing, both as they relate to Secretariat himself  the champion with the disconcerting habit of charging last out of the starting gate, as if delighted by the chance to tease all the hopeful punters  and to Penny Chenery Tweedy, the "Denver housewife" who took such massive financial risks in order to nurture the four-legged friend she so strongly believed in.

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane, left), Miss Ham
(Margo Martindale) and trainer Lucien Laurin (John
Malkovich) watch nervously as Secretariat approaches
the starting gate; a lot rides on this race, not the least
of which is Penny's ability to save the family farm.
Gosh, it's a Disney film; whaddya think is gonna happen?
And, no question, this film's third act builds viewers into a state of nervous anticipation, even though the outcome is well known all these years later. Real-world horses don't become cinema stars unless they've done something pretty extraordinary, so only very young viewers are apt to wonder whether Secretariat really will win the fabled Triple Crown.

The race footage hits all the right notes, and it's certainly OK if you want to cheer; director Randall Wallace obviously intends just such a reaction.

But that manipulative touch gets a bit irritating, as well. Wallace's film bears the stamp of the hyper-sanitized Disney corporate approach, and all the elements are just a bit too exaggerated. Diane Lane's performance as Penny makes the woman just this side of angelic; John Malkovich's handling of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin tries too hard for eccentric comic relief; Penny's prickly issues with her husband (Dylan Walsh, as Jack) and brother (Dylan Baker, as Hollis)  neither of whom supports her risk-taking madness  miraculously vanish just in time for the final race.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Let Me In: Poignant bite

Let Me In (2010) • View trailer for Let Me In
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated R for violence, gore, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.07.10
Buy DVD: Let Me In • Buy Blu-Ray: Let Me In [Blu-ray]

This is the sort of story that should unfold as a total surprise, the better to construct the creepy mood that director/scripter Matt Reeves works so hard to maintain.

Sadly, that isn't possible in today's show-me-now society. Media magazines, TV infotainment shows and various Web feeds blew the premise of Let Me In months ago: The little girl is a vampire, and she's played by the talented young actress who made such as splash in (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass.

Seeking some common ground with the very strange girl
who has moved into his apartment complex, Owen (Kodi
Smit-McPhee) shows Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) a Rubik's
Cube. She's charmed and intrigued; the connection is
made. The question, then, is whether Owen will have
reason to regret the resulting friendship...
Then, too, the plot has been known for awhile by arthouse cinema fans who caught the Swedish original, Let the Right One In, which in turn is adapted from the novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist.

So ... no surprises. The question, then, is whether Reeves can maintain the necessary unsettling tone without the benefit of much suspense.

Answer: He does pretty well, helped in great part by his two young stars.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure gore-jaded American viewers are willing to tolerate the retro-style slow build that Reeves employs. Far too many people laughed in all the wrong places during last week's Sacramento preview screening, each time destroying the mood. Patrons also were fidgety, but that's a more forgivable sin; Reeves' film is a bit self-indulgent at 116 minutes, and could benefit from a trim.

Still, I applaud his willingness to try for the unsettling, nervous-making atmosphere that leaves a much greater impact than brief, funhouse flurries of in-our-faces gore. Let Me In also benefits from its parallel side story, and that's where the two talented stars become so important; this isn't merely a monster movie, but also a painful, melancholy coming-of-age saga.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Social Network: Brave 'Face'

The Social Network (2010) • View trailer for The Social Network
4.5 stars (out of five). • Rating: PG-13 for considerable raunchy behavior, sexual content, drug use and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.01.10

Admire the art, abhor the artist.

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, left), bored and irritated
by depositions he is forced to attend, behaves as if he
couldn't care less whether millions of dollars are at stake
in such proceedings. And it's true: He doesn't care. Nothing
matters except his single-minded goal to completely
transform the Internet landscape ... and social rules
regarding personal privacy.
You've gotta be impressed by a film that holds us near breathless, despite spending so much time with a protagonist we loathe.

Director David Fincher's mesmerizing depiction of the tempestuous events that led to Facebook's creation is can't-miss cinema: a bravura blend of dead-on casting, engaging performances, slick pacing and captivating writing.

Particularly the latter. Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, adapted from Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book The Accidental Billionaires, is a masterpiece of clever composition and rat-a-tat dialogue. It'll be adored by film buffs who admire the machine-gun verbal byplay in (for example) classic Howard Hawks comedies such as 1940's His Girl Friday.

Fincher's film is both stylistically retro and blindingly contemporary, a true-life fable that proves, once and for all, that truth really is stranger than fiction. It's also a shrewd and perceptive statement of our narcissistic times: an indictment as unerringly  and uneasily  accurate as last year's Up in the Air.

And, not least, this film is something of a magic trick, taking a subject as potentially dull and obtuse as computer coding, and transforming it into a fascinating study of talent, greed, betrayal, misunderstanding and rage-fueled vengeance. The drama here is positively Shakespearean.