Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse: A truly incredible journey

War Horse (2011) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense war violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.30.11

The first act is breathtaking.

The second act is grim, horrifying and heartbreaking.

The third act is transcendent.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine, center) defiantly holds onto his horse, after realizing that
his father (Peter Mullan, right) has just sold the animal to Capt. Nichols (Tom
Hiddleston, far left). The "Great War" has begun, and horses are needed at the
front; Albert knows what this likely means for his beloved, four-legged friend.

Once again demonstrating a facility for extracting compelling, first-person narratives from the faceless, senseless morass of war, director Stephen Spielberg has delivered another masterpiece on par with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

The twist, this time, is that the “person” is a horse.

War Horse — sensitively adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, from the celebrated novel by Michael Morpurgo (with additional material from Nick Stafford’s inventive stage play) — is alternately exhilarating and shattering. The film is riveting from the first frame, the plot points — major and minor — delivered with such skill and imagination that one wonders how this saga could have been anything but a visual experience. (A book? Really?)

Spielberg, acutely aware of the emotions to be stirred at any given moment, orchestrates this World War I saga with a brilliant blend of subtle suggestion and harsh, jarring brutality. The juxtaposition is both unsettling and ferociously clever; time and again, we’re set up for what seems a welcome lull in the dramatic intensity, only to be caught off-guard as grim events once again overtake apparent tranquility.

As one character bitterly reflects, along the way, war takes everything from everybody.

But that’s getting ahead of things. War Horse actually opens gently, majestically, in the dappled English countryside of Devon. Young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) watches as a hunter colt is born in a neighboring farmer’s field; the boy remains close, as time passes and the animal matures into a regal thoroughbred with four white socks and a white diamond on its forehead.

Come auction day, Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), attends with the intention of purchasing a strapping plow horse. But something about the skittish, four-legged youngster touches a chord; goaded into a foolish winning bid, Ted returns home with this wholly impractical “farm” animal, much to the vexation of his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson) ... and the delight of their son.

But harsh reality merely emphasizes the folly of Ted’s purchase. Having spent what should have been the rent money, Ted gambles his entire farm on the ludicrous promise that this new horse — which Albert has named Joey — can successfully plow an impossible, stone-laden lower field, so that a crop can be planted and brought to market.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Thrills, spills and great 3D frills

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for plenty of peril and action violence
By Derrick Bang

Director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson respectfully honor their source material during the opening scene of The Adventures of Tintin, which finds the intrepid boy reporter having himself sketched by a street artist ... who bears an uncanny resemblance to the character’s Belgian creator.
A "simple" plane ride is anything but, when intrepid boy reporter Tintin is
involved; our young hero and his faithful canine sidekick, Snowy, barely
survive a crash-landing in the desert. The bigger question: Will the nasty
jolt stir long-forgotten memories in Tintin's companion, Captain Haddock, so
that they can get on with their treasure quest?

Better still, the finished drawing — granted a nod of approval by its subject — is Tintin, as illustrated for close to half a century, from 1929 to ’75, by Georges Prosper Remi, better known by his pen name Hergé.

It’s a brilliant prologue by Spielberg and scripters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, because it immediately connects Hergé’s style and vision with this film’s motion-control characters. Call it a hand-off: much the way George Lazenby faced the camera after his pre-credits escapade in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, acknowledging his having taken over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, cheerfully quipped, “This never happened to the other fella!”

Spielberg actually begins The Adventures of Tintin with a smashing title credits sequence: very much in the vein of both Hergé’s work and the equally memorable opening credits to 2002’s Catch Me if You Can. As was the case with that earlier Spielberg romp, soundtrack maestro John Williams delivers another deliciously retro title theme, echoing the “cool jazz” mode of his emerging career in the late 1950s and early ’60s. (Williams, let us remember, was the pianist in Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn sessions.)

I place a lot of weight on opening credits, as slick credits often signal great things ahead. That’s absolutely the case here: The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous mash-up of comic book thrills, movie serial clichés and — most particularly — ferociously clever animation that allows exhilarating action sequence “camera angles” that simply wouldn’t be possible in a live-action film.

And yet this rich, suspenseful fantasy feels very much like a live-action film, thanks to next-gen motion-control visual effects geniuses Joe Letteri, Scott E. Anderson and Jamie Beard. The “dead eye problem” — which turned the children of The Polar Express into creepy zombies — is no longer an issue; Spielberg also wisely avoided the trap of using animated characters who resemble the film’s “stars,” which made Jim Carrey’s version of A Christmas Carol equally weird, for different reasons.

No, with the exception of that initial tip of the hat to Hergé, these characters look like fully dimensioned versions of their graphic novel selves, and definitely not like the actors voicing the parts. Tintin and his spectacularly resourceful dog, Snowy, are realized superbly; I’m also impressed by the fidelity with which bumbling inspectors Thomson and Thompson have been brought to life.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We Bought a Zoo: Lions and tigers and anxiety ... oh, my!

We Bought a Zoo (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.11

Writer/director Cameron Crowe, absent from the screen for far too long, has returned with the season’s sweetest, gentlest family film.
The care of exotic animals can't be learned from books, despite Benjamin Mee's
(Matt Damon, center) effort to do so. To his growing frustration — and the
tolerant amusement of zookeepers Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and Kelly Foster
(Scarlett Johansson) — poor Benjamin keeps revealing his ignorance. And so
he begins to wonder: Can willingness and hard work ever be enough?

We Bought a Zoo is adapted from journalist Benjamin Mee’s engaging 2008 memoir, which boasts the much more irresistible title of We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals that Change Their Lives Forever. The setting has shifted from England’s Devonshire to the California countryside, and the Mee family has been compressed a bit, but Crowe has retained the saga’s essential plot points and — most of all — its heart.

Thanks to an engaging ensemble cast of misfits, eccentrics and one incredibly adorable child — along with Crowe’s always excellent ear for dialogue — the result is an easygoing, crowd-pleasing charmer.

Sadly, it may get lost in the holiday glut of noisier, flashier competition. That’d be a shame, because Crowe’s film is the perfect all-ages alternative to the third Chipmunks flick (too dumb for adults) or Hugo (probably too high-tone for children, much as I hate to admit it).

Benjamin (Matt Damon) introduces himself, via a voice-over montage, as a veteran Los Angeles newspaper reporter with a thrill for adventure and the skill to finesse a story from reluctant and dangerous subjects. Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared him for the biggest adventure of all: functioning as a single parent in the wake of his wife Katherine’s untimely death ... still a raw, recent wound as this film begins.

This tragedy has left the family at forlorn loose ends, with Benjamin wondering — on a daily basis — if he’s doing anything right. Seven-year-old Rosie (the beguiling Maggie Elizabeth Jones), wise beyond her years, points out that he hasn’t lost his hair like some of her classmates’ fathers. She does this while carefully making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the next day’s school lunches: one of many details that Benjamin invariably overlooks during early-morning chaos.

Fourteen-year-old Dylan, alas, is a different story. He’s an angry, withdrawn kid whose artistic talent leans toward shocking depictions of gory decapitations. He also has been expelled from school, which gives Benjamin an excuse to attempt the impossible: eradicate Katherine’s memory entirely, by moving to someplace where he won’t be surrounded by constant reminders of their giddily happy times together.

Benjamin and Rosie subsequently take a house-hunting excursion with a newly minted Realtor (J.B. Smoove) who nervously wears his inexperience on his sleeve, but nonetheless has his heart in the right place. He therefore advises caution when Rosie, paging through scores of listings that aren’t quite right, sets her heart on a rustic home surrounded by 18 acres of California countryside (actually Thousand Oaks), nine miles from the nearest store.

There’s a catch, and a big one: The home comes attached to the dilapidated Rosemoor Animal Park, complete with scores of exotic animals and a dedicated but long-unpaid staff.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Not tough enough

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for brutal violent content, rape, torture, strong sexuality, nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.23.11

David Fincher exhausts all his creative juices on this film’s opening credits.

The director who disturbed us so effectively during Se7en and Zodiac delivers a truly creepy set of credits for his handling of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They unspool like some rancid afterbirth of classic James Bond credits, with oil- and rubber-covered figures, barely human, punctured by various sharp-bladed instruments.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) should be unhappy when he learns
that Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has been eavesdropping on his laptop
activity; indeed, he could have her arrested. But Blomkvist recognizes
investigative talent, and instead asks Lisbeth to help him solve a
40-year-old murder mystery.

Fincher certainly establishes a mood.

Trouble is, he never matches it from that point forward. Yes, this is an uncomfortable, edgy thriller, with Steven Zaillian’s script reasonably faithful to the late Stieg Larsson’s iconic, best-selling novel. But Fincher brings little to the party in the way of visceral oomph; he simply goes through the motions, as if hamstrung by the heavy expectations riding on this project.

As a result, his film remains in the shadow of Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev’s far more satisfying 2009 version: the first adaptation of Larsson’s book, and clearly the superior effort.

Fincher’s remake simply doesn’t sizzle. At no time does he come close to the suspense he generated with Panic Room, particularly during that tension-laden thriller’s final half hour. The climactic confrontation in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should have the same edge-of-the-seat suspense ... but it doesn’t.

Possibly because — as most definitely wasn’t the case with Oplev’s version — the “big reveal” regarding the clandestine villain’s identity isn’t much of a surprise here.

Zaillian made several intelligent decisions with his script. He clarified the relationship between crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and his publisher/partner, Erika Berger (Robin Wright); Zaillian also dumped an unnecessary — and eyebrow-rolling — affair that Blomkvist has with Cecilia Vanger (Geraldine James), once he begins his investigation for her uncle, Henrik (Christopher Plummer).

Unfortunately, by minimizing Cecilia’s involvement and compressing the rest of the extended Vanger family — we only meet them en masse once, during a fleeting scene in a hospital waiting room — Zaillian whittles down the likely suspects to ... well, very few. After all, we can hardly worry about people the script scarcely bothers to introduce.

Oplev and his scripters, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, did a far better job with the various members of the arrogant Vanger clan, and therefore kept us guessing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — Fourth time's the charm

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.21.11

Four films into this series, and we finally get a director/writing team willing to acknowledge the classic TV show’s longtime viewers, while still delivering the improbably ferocious, stunt-laden action that star/producer Tom Cruise loves so much.
Ethan (Tom Cruise, right) looks less than convinced when Benji (Simon Pegg)
insists that these spiffy high-tech climbing gloves will allow a man to crawl up
a sheer wall of glass ... particularly since the team's gadgets have been failing
to work at the most inopportune moments.

In fairness, 1996’s first entry is a solid thriller, although fans were enraged — and justifiably so — by the storyline’s deplorable treatment of Jon Voight’s Jim Phelps, so honorably played by Peter Graves in the TV series.

Installments two and three also had their moments, although their plots were muddy and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt dominated both to an eyebrow-raising degree. The frequently egomaniacal star apparently forgot the whole concept behind Bruce Geller’s original series — that every caper is a team effort — in a desire to showcase himself at all times. This is Mission: Impossible, not some lone-wolf Jason Bourne clone.

Happily, director Brad Bird and writers Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec understand the distinction. Both Appelbaum and Nemec served as writers and producers on television’s Alias, a series very much in the mold of Geller’s ensemble cast approach to Mission: Impossible, which nonetheless showcased a core star (Jennifer Garner).

Bird also has action-saga cred in his background, although in the quite different world of animation. The Incredibles is laden with subterfuge and spy-type capers, albeit with a superhero twist; perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the apparent ease with which Bird has transitioned to live-action directing.

In a word, this puppy moves. Bird deftly orchestrates a well-paced blend of exposition, back story and pell-mell action sequences, each one choreographed with increasing snap by Academy Award-winning editor Paul Hirsch (for the first Star Wars, back in 1977).

Although this film’s most visually impressive — and impressively perilous — sequence is Cruise’s exterior climb of Dubai’s cloud-scraping Burj Khalifa, don’t assume that things will quiet down after this bit of cinematic legerdemain. Appelbaum, Nemec and stunt coordinator Gregg Smrz have one more audacious skirmish up their sleeves, wisely saved for the third act climax: a brutal, body-slamming melee in a setting that must be seen to be believed.

But all is not brawling and gravity-defying stunt work. The script also injects some welcome character drama, most of the angst courtesy of co-star Jeremy Renner: a welcome addition to the team.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — Nothing elementary about this sequel!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for intense action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.11

Mention Sherlock Holmes, Prof. James Moriarty and Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the same breath, and even the most casual fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed consulting detective will have certain expectations.
With certain death via gunfire and even cannon fire hurrying their flight, Holmes
(Robert Downey Jr., center) and Watson (Jude Law) try to lead Simza (Noomi
Rapace) to the safety of a dense forest, as trees, shrubs and even rocks
explode around them.

Director Guy Ritchie delivers on those expectations, albeit in a roundabout, cheeky and visually exhilarating manner. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is much more audaciously stylized than its 2009 predecessor, which is to say it’s a throwback to the gleefully demented Ritchie who brought us 2000’s Snatch.

This outing with the analytical super-sleuth feels more like an unholy mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and classic Jackie Chan movies, with just enough vintage Holmes — I’m thinking Basil Rathbone’s era — to satisfy Baker Street Irregulars wanting to hear at least some of Doyle’s immortal prose.

Indeed, it’s difficult to repress a shiver of delight when, after Holmes’ unsatisfying face-to-face encounter with Moriarty (Jared Harris) — and the elliptical conversation it contains — the detective eyes his demonic counterpart and says, with the utmost solemnity Robert Downey Jr. can bring to bear, “If I were assured of the former, I would cheerfully accept the latter.”

And if that line doesn’t resonate, then hie thee hence to the nearest copy of Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” in order to best appreciate the phrase’s pregnant implications.

But that suspensefully charged meeting comes well into Ritchie’s film, by which point we’ve already had a great deal of fun.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens with an extended prologue that reunites Holmes (Downey) with the larcenous Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, also returning from the first film), the only woman whose intellect ever impressed the master detective. Adler has fallen in with ill-advised companions; one nasty skirmish later, Holmes possesses a bit more information regarding the criminal mastermind pulling the strings connected to a series of recent calamities.

London — indeed, the entire Western European continent — has been plagued with a series of bombings and other acts of sedition, reflexively blamed on vaguely defined “anarchists” supposedly hoping to topple governments. But Holmes suspects a more sinister plot behind these various attacks, and believes that everything can be traced to a brilliant mathematics professor whose reputation is so spotless that he counts the British prime minister among his closest confidants.

Absent physical evidence, Moriarty can’t be touched ... and, certain as he is, Holmes lacks proof.

Friday, December 9, 2011

New Year's Eve: Classic Hollywood froth

New Year's Eve (2011) • View trailer for New Year's Eve
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and some sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.9.11

New Year’s Eve is a lighthearted throwback to classic Hollywood ensemble dramas such as 1932’s Grand Hotel, with star-laden casts that played isolated clusters of characters involved with their own little dramas.
Trying to get a conventional cab on New Year's Eve is impossible, so when
Tess (Jessica Biel) suddenly must get to the hospital right now, lest she deliver
her baby on the sidewalk, husband Griffin (Seth Meyers) does the best he can,
and flags down a pedal-cab.

Additionally, New Year’s Eve is very much like last year’s Valentine’s Day, also directed by Garry Marshall and co-written by Katherine Fugate, who assumes solo scripting chores this time.

And, as was the case with Valentine’s Day, Marshall’s newest effort will be embraced as a fun date flick by folks with romantic souls, and loudly dissed by cinematic snobs who can’t get beyond the calculated pretense and contrived star turns.

A pox on the latter’s houses, and may they be alone on New Year’s Eve.

Sometimes a movie is just a movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Marshall knows how to craft slick Hollywood product, and Fugate deftly sketches a dozen or so mini-dramas, adding just enough backstory — in most cases — to involve us with each set of characters.

And we can’t help being impressed by a cast that includes three Oscar-winning best actors, a couple more Oscar nominees and several dozen familiar faces from both television and the big screen. A few are notorious scene-stealers, but Marshall maintains a steady hand and somehow grants everybody equal time.

That’s an impressive accomplishment with a cast this large, and a set of stories this diverse. Which only matters in an abstract sense, because our sole obligation with a film such as New Year’s Eve is to sit back and have a good time.

As the title suggests, the events take place during a single day in and around New York’s Times Square, as a massive cluster of humanity jams the streets in order to watch the big ball drop at the stroke of midnight. This year’s annual ceremony is being supervised by Claire (Hilary Swank), the newly promoted vice president of the Times Square Alliance.

She arrives early, with plenty of time to test the ball. Which — horrors! —gets stuck halfway up the massive pole, with only a few of its many lights flashing.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ho-ho-ho: The best Christmas movies of all time (plus some turkeys) — 2011 edition

By Derrick Bang

[Author's note: I first wrote this article for The Davis Enterprise in December 2005. When reviving it for this blog in late 2009, I was surprised by how little had changed. Indeed, the lists themselves remained constant; it was necessary only to mention a few more holiday duds which — although dreadful — weren't quite bad enough to make the turkey list. Nothing changed in 2010 either, but 2011 is a different story entirely. The only sad news: A new entry to the list of classics also means that one must be retired to the related selection of near misses. What follows, then, is the original article with minor introductory modifications and one major update.]

Next to Thanksgiving, Christmas remains the most popular time to gather friends and family members, surround yourself with food and enjoy a holiday-themed movie or two ... or three or six, depending on your level of commitment.

Far too often, though, the roster of movies for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day suffers from an acute lack of imagination. Everybody can rattle off It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Home Alone, but where do we go from there?

While you'll find all three of those films cited below, I worked hard not to simply state the obvious.

To a degree, the challenge becomes harder every year, because — with a few exceptions — most of the best Christmas-themed films are decades and decades old. Many are in black-and-white, but try to be patient; I promise, the absence of color won't kill you. After all, story rules everything else; you might be surprised, halfway through one or more of these selections, that you're so wrapped up in the characters that you've completely forgotten about trivialities such as film stock.

In this article's first draft, I expressed the belief that one cannot truly judge a film's impact until it has been given a chance to stand the test of time. As a result, nothing on the "classics" list had been released more recently than 1993. I also wondered where our modern holiday classics-in-the-making were hiding, and worried that Hollywood had lost its ability to produce a poignant, well-made Christmas movie. My doubts were valid, given recent trash such as Surviving Christmas, Fred Claus and Four Christmases.

Happily, on this year's first day of Christmas — actually the waning days of November — my true loves in Tinseltown brought to me ... a bona fide, game-changing movie classic. No test of time necessary for this charmer. And so the list changed, for the first time in years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Arthur Christmas: Plenty of Christmas spirit

Arthur Christmas (2011) • View trailer for Arthur Christmas
Five stars. Rating: PG, and quite pointlessly, for very mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

My list of favorite holiday movies just got amended.

Arthur Christmas is a treasure: a heartfelt, joyous romp with plenty of action, hilariously snarky dialogue, dollops of poignance and oodles of yuletide spirit. Not to mention plenty of Christmas magic, all lovingly gift-wrapped and topped with the most perfect bow.
Arthur (right), terrified of heights, isn't wild about Grandsanta's risky plan to
use his old sleigh for a Christmas Eve "rescue mission" designed to bring an
overlooked present to a little girl who otherwise won't find a gift from Santa
beneath her Christmas tree. But Arthur also realizes that he has no other
options ... and, after all, he's the one who insists that every child should
waken to a share of holiday magic.

Indeed, yes: As Bryony — an Elf Wrapping Operative, Grade Three — repeatedly insists, there’s always time for a bow.

Director/co-writer Sarah Smith and fellow scribe Peter Baynham deserve the largest possible round of applause. Working from a question every child has asked for centuries — how does Santa deliver all those presents in one night? — Smith and Baynham have crafted a clever Christmas fantasy that explores every facet of Santa’s ingenious North Pole operation.

The story involves five well-crafted characters, not to mention a massive cast of supporting elves, flying reindeer and Gwen, a trusting little girl who lives at 23 Mimosa Lane in Trelew, Cornwall, England, whose Christmas morning is about to be ruined.

Like countless other children around the world, Gwen has sent a letter to Santa Claus: a missive laced with the usual impressionable curiosity and hope, along with a request for a pink bicycle. Her note — complete with crayoned illustration — is routed to a staff member in Santa’s massive Letters Department: the gangly, accident-prone, overly enthusiastic Arthur.

In the noble Kris Kringle lineage, poor Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is little more than a subordinate clause. Christmas has become an ultra-efficient, high-tech delivery operation, and Santa’s younger son has been designated a spare part. The boy is allergic to snow, and suffers from a fear of heights, reindeer and high-speed travel.

But he loves, loves, loves Christmas — every enchanting aspect of it — and his tiny office is a chaotic mess of snow globes, pictures of Santa, and Arthur’s favorite letters from children. Indeed, Arthur reads every single letter that comes to the North Pole, and answers each with an astute precision that preserves the child’s most crucial trait: belief.

Arthur is the ultimate Christmas fanboy, although his giddy enthusiasm prompts tolerant smiles from the hundreds of elves who certainly like the boy, but nonetheless make mildly condescending remarks behind his back.

Arthur’s older brother, Steve (Hugh Laurie), the hereditary heir to the Claus reign, has made the annual Christmas Eve operation a masterpiece of military precision. The centerpiece of this high-tech procedure is the S-1: a mile-wide sleighship with stealth cloaking technology and a veritable army of elves who descend in precision teams of three, taking no more than a carefully calculated 18.14 seconds per home.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Descendants: Doing the right thing

The Descendants (2011) • View trailer for The Descendants
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and coarse sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.2.11

One of Janis Ian’s typically insightful songs, released on a 1978 album, is called “Silly Habits.” In part, it goes:

I used to say “I love you,”
But one day I forgot.
Silly habits mean a lot.
Matt (George Clooney) and his daughters — Alexandra (Shailene Woodley,
left) and Scottie (Amara Miller) — take one final, lingering look at the
unspoiled family land soon to be turned into a beach resort by the
highest bidder.

Some relationships explode in passion and fury; many simply fade away. Small, thoughtful gestures — spontaneous acts, so lovingly granted in the early days — fall victim to increasingly busy schedules or diverging interests. Impulsive cards, flowers or teddy bears. The promise to always have breakfast together. A book or new CD recently commented upon: not on a birthday or some other holiday, but just because.

We initially register these missed opportunities: pangs of guilt, mental promises to do better. Eventually, though, even the regret and intent get lost in the shuffle.

Then, one day — a day seemingly like any other — we look across the dining table and see a stranger. In that moment, the revelation strikes: True intimacy has been lost.

The Descendants opens as Matt King (George Clooney) has just such an epiphany. It’s a wake-up call; he suddenly, genuinely understands that business affairs have pulled him away from his wife and family. In his own words, he acknowledges being the “back-up parent” to their two daughters. He resolves to change course: correct the heading and do better.

He makes this promise as his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), lies in a hospital bed, submerged within a deep coma: the result of a boating accident.

Alexander Payne’s previous film, 2004’s warm, whimsical and bittersweet Sideways, probed and dissected friendship and courting rituals with the precision with which its protagonist extolled the similar complexities of his favorite wines. Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor shared a well-deserved Academy Award for their effort; Payne also garnered a nomination as director.

Now, seven years later — apparently not one to be hurried — Payne has returned to the director’s chair for The Descendants. He shares scripting duties this time with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; they have adapted the 2007 book by Hawaiian-born Kaui Hart Hemmings, who based this debut novel on her earlier short story, “The Minor Wars.”

The Hawaiian setting is as much a character as the fractured King family and their friends and relatives; Payne understands this, and many scenes — particularly many brittle exchanges of dialogue — are amplified or given counterpoint by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s lush vistas of (mostly) unspoiled Hawaiian land.

This land actually is a significant plot point. Matt’s missionary ancestors who came to the islands were financially and culturally progressive; one even married a Hawaiian princess, making Matt a royal descendant and one of the state’s largest landowners. Indeed, stewardship of this property, along with the responsibilities of his own legal profession, bear the blame for his absentee husbanding and parenting duties.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hugo: A true sense of wonder

Hugo (2011) • View trailer for Hugo
4.5 stars. Rating: PG, and too harshly, for mild peril and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.25.11

This Thanksgiving weekend is impressively stuffed with family films, and the best is the one you’ve heard the least about.

Hugo isn’t merely a great film; it’s a spellbinding experience: one of the most loving, heartfelt valentines to the art of movie-making since 1988’s Cinema Paradiso.
After Hugo (Asa Butterfield, left) finally wins the grudging tolerance of the train
station toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), the older man delights the boy with
sleight-of-hand card tricks. As Hugo soon is to discover, this gruff gentleman
possesses a wealth of hidden talent.

It’s also stunningly gorgeous, from cinematographer Robert Richardson’s first sweeping pan of France’s Gare Montparnasse train station — the story’s primary setting — to the luxurious vistas of a postcard-perfect Paris. It’s the sort of heightened-reality Paris that never really existed, except in the minds of those who adore the city ... and in on-screen fantasies such as An American in Paris, Amélie and this year’s Midnight in Paris.

Indeed, director Martin Scorsese’s sparkling approach here strongly evokes the playful, exquisite oeuvre of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has granted us access to his creatively whimsical dreams in films such as Amélie, City of Lost Children and Micmacs.

I hesitate to explain too much about Hugo, because much of its charm derives from not knowing where John Logan’s captivating screenplay will go next. Those familiar with Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret — on which Logan based his script — will know, but everybody else deserves an opportunity to be swept along for a truly enthralling ride.

Hugo is one of those rare films that truly exploits the medium. This isn’t merely radio with pictures; you’ll want to savor every frame, every inch of production designer Dante Ferretti’s opulent sets. Too few movies deliver a true sense of wonder; this one does.

The year is 1931: a time of euphoria for those who believed that “the Great War” had put an end to conflict between nations. The year also is significant as the last gasp of silent filmmaking, before talkies would take over: a fact central to this story.

The Gare Montparnasse hustles and bustles with arrivals and departures, the waves of humanity tempted to linger at the little shops, stalls and cafés deposited, almost capriciously, within the cavernous building’s maze-like corners and hallways.

High overhead, unobserved by all those below, young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) tends the station’s many clocks, making his way along a concealed rabbit warren of tiny corridors, narrow stairways and dangerous ladders in order to oil, wind and repair — as necessary — all the magnificently detailed clockwork mechanisms that help travelers reach their destinations on time.

Hugo has the scruffy, ill-kempt appearance of a boy on his own: a life to which he has become accustomed, for reasons we’ll eventually learn. He has the station’s rhythm down to a science, and has become proficient at the art of snatching warm croissants and the occasional bottle of milk.

The Muppets: Being green is fun again

The Muppets (2011) • View trailer for The Muppets
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

The new Muppets film quite cleverly addresses a real-world puzzler that has vexed fans for years: Where have Kermit and all his friends been hiding?
Gary (Jason Segel, right) and Walter do everything together, as would be
expected of any two devoted brothers. But as the years have passed, Walter has
become increasingly aware that he's, ah, a bit different from Gary and their
other two-legged friends and neighbors. The solution? An unlikely road trip,
during which Walter will get to meet others of "his kind."

The colorful felt creations who ruled television with The Muppet Show from 1976 through ’81, simultaneously jumping to the big screen with an equally popular series of films, have been missing in theaters since 1999’s rather odd Muppets from Space. Occasional TV specials such as 2005’s ill-advised The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz have done little to keep the brand alive.

True, Kermit and his pals have rather mischievously — and memorably — popped up in whimsical YouTube shorts. But when it came to the movies, I’d begun to wish that Pixar’s John Lasseter would step in and exert some of his can’t-miss creative control.

Jason Segel beat him to the punch.

Yes, the Jason Segel best known for his roles in crass, numbnuts comedies such as Knocked Up and I Love You, Man, and for his ongoing run on television’s saucy How I Met Your Mother, and for rather oddly going full-frontal as the lovesick loser in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Not exactly the first fella who springs to mind, when contemplating a revival of the Muppets.

But it turns out that Segel has been a fan, like, forever, and he currently wields enough industry clout to help make dreams come true. Which brings us to The Muppets, which at its best definitely captures the sweet, silly, family-friendly hijinks and unlikely adventures experienced (and endured) by a gentle frog, a feisty pig and their dozens and dozens of colorful cohorts in crime.

Credit also goes to (human) co-star Amy Adams, who brings her own trouper’s “enchanted” spirit to several of the deliberately corny song-and-dance numbers that populate this gaudy farce. Most of these tunes are wincingly inane — one hopes that songwriter Bret McKenzie intended them this way — and performed, particularly by Segel, with a wide-eyed earnestness that will elicit either hysterical giggles or gape-jawed stares of disbelief.

In fairness, this is a longtime element of the successful Muppet formula; the original TV series delighted in putting celebrity guests into unlikely production numbers, and the line of willing “victims” certainly never got shorter during the show’s enormously popular five-year run. Segel and his behind-the-scenes cronies try hard to echo that manic vibe, and at times they catch the magic.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Like Crazy: Sweet and revealing

Like Crazy (2011) • View trailer for Like Crazy
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.18.11

Raw, painfully vulnerable intimacy has become a calling card in recent indie dramas, with 2008’s Rachel Getting Married and last year’s Blue Valentine — and its shattering portrait of Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and a marriage in crisis — setting a very high bar.
Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) can't get enough of each other,
as their relationship blossoms; they hunger for the intimacy of every shared
moment. The question, though, is what will happen when circumstances
interrupt this courtship at its most fragile juncture: the point when infatuation
ordinarily would transition into deep, abiding love.

Those films now are joined by Like Crazy, a poignant and richly drawn study of young love and the cruel toll extorted by unfortunate timing. Director Drake Doremus — who co-scripted this alternately charming and heartbreaking courtship saga with Ben York Jones — has a masterful eye for the little moments and small, spontaneous gestures that inform a relationship. No surprise, then, that his film took the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Better still, this story is beautifully depicted by stars Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, who wholly inhabit characters that look, sound and move like smitten couples we’ve all known in the apartment next door. Jones and Yelchin share chemistry, impeccable timing and an engaging, naturalistic closeness that transcends the artifice of acting; at times we feel like we’re eavesdropping on something intensely personal.

That said, Doremus’ pacing is slow at times, and his directorial flourishes occasionally overwhelm — and detract from — the emotions bared in this quiet, delicate little charmer. Many of Doremus’ pacing and editing touches are brilliant; others — such as his jump cuts in early scenes — are merely irritating. But he does establish an engaging narrative flow, and Felicity Jones and Yelchin ensure that we’ll be drawn into the story.

Jacob (Yelchin) and Anna (Jones) meet during a college class. He’s intrigued by the intelligent, provocatively worded essay she reads aloud; she notices his doodles of chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture. He’s a California native; she’s an exchange student from London. Drawing upon her creative strength, she “stalks” him with a lengthy letter slipped under his car’s windshield wiper.

Charmed, he calls her; they meet for coffee. Right here, the film’s core strength becomes evident: This awkward, sorta-kinda first date is punctuated by the weird non-sequiturs we all slip into such conversations, when not wanting to reveal too much of ourselves too quickly, but at the same time wanting to come across as, well, brilliant and perfect.

John Guleserian’s camerawork catches all the essential details: Anna’s shy, nervous expressions; Jacob’s somewhat more self-assured replies. (What guy wouldn’t be pleased by the attention of such an intelligent and attractive young woman?)

They easily slip into the giddy early days of a relationship: the free-spirited outings; the initial tingling frisson of those first kisses; the eventual sweet, mutual surrender late at night, as the lights go out. He makes her a chair; Jones’ squeal of delight — of total, enchanted surprise — could melt steel. She makes him a book of shared memories from their time together: tickets, receipts, photographs and other ephemera, all catalogued with her captivating, adoring prose.

This is Love writ large: infectious, overwhelming, breathtaking.

Friday, November 11, 2011

J. Edgar: Too contrived an agenda

J. Edgar (2011) • View trailer for J. Edgar
2.5 stars. Rating: R, and rather stupidly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.11.11

A fascinating film could be made about the life of notorious FBI autocrat J. Edgar Hoover.

J. Edgar, sadly, is not that film.
As Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, background left) and J. Edgar Hoover
(Leonardo DiCaprio, background center) look on, FBI "wood expert" Arthur
Koehler (Stephen Root) carefully examines bits of the ladder used when the
Lindbergh baby was kidnapper. Koehler insists that he can match the ladder to
the plant where the wood was milled, and therefore confine the kidnapper's
movements to a specific geographic area.

Scripter Dustin Lance Black’s approach to this seminal 20th century figure is boring. Yawningly, crushingly boring.

I expected much better from Black, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay to 2008’s Milk. Unfortunately, in this case he focuses far too much on the clandestine affair between Hoover and longtime associate/companion Clyde Tolson.

Yes, we can lament the fact that Hoover and Tolson lived during unenlightened times, when “the love that dare not speak its name” was something to be concealed, particularly by men in power. And Black certainly intends that we consider the irony that one of the country’s most powerful men, a trader in dirty secrets himself, kept a whopper of his own.

But that would presuppose that Hoover is a man worthy of our sympathy, which isn’t the case. His intelligence, determination and maniacal patriotism notwithstanding, Hoover was — and is, as portrayed here by Leonardo DiCaprio — a venal, arrogant control freak, blackmailer and political kingpin every bit as corrupt as the headline-making gangsters his nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation helped bring down in the 1930s.

Hoover does not deserve our compassion, nor does he deserve the strawberry-lensed portrait that director Clint Eastwood grants him. And this Hoover certainly doesn’t merit the gentle keyboard theme that dominates the soundtrack: a lyrical eulogy that sounds much like the poignant piano ballads Eastwood composed for The Bridges of Madison County or Million Dollar Baby, but is completely out of place here.

The leaden pacing aside, this film’s other major problem is tone and focus: Both are completely wrong. Black suggests that the complicated relationship with Tolson was the single most important element of Hoover’s character, closely followed by his equally troubled relationship with a domineering mother (Judi Dench, at her waspish best) who’d rather have a “dead son than a daffodil.”

This is one view, and certainly a contributing factor to the elements that stoked Hoover’s growing paranoia, desperation and thirst for control. But Hoover obviously was far more than that, and Black utterly fails in his depiction of the man’s professional career: his genius for organization, his sharp political savvy, his quite accurate insistence that agents of law enforcement need investigative resources superior to the criminals they hope to apprehend.

What emerges is no more than a truncated, Readers Digest Condensed Books version of a very complex life: little more than surface gloss given minimal depth by DiCaprio’s performance.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene: Portrait of paranoia

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (2011) • View trailer for Martha Marcy Mae Marlene
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, profanity, rape and nudity
By Derrick Bang

If a film’s influence is judged by its ability to linger in the mind, days and weeks later, then Martha Marcy May Marlene is incredibly powerful. Quite some time later, I still can’t get some of its images from my head.
Try as she might, Lucy (Sarah Paulson, left) can't break through the barrier with
which younger sister Martha (Elisabeth Olsen) has surrounded herself.
Something awful happened to Martha, and unless she finds a way to confront
and move past this trauma, it may haunt her forever.

Writer/director Sean Durkin’s psychological drama is at first intriguing, then mildly unsettling and finally downright creepy: far too close to real-world parallels to be dismissed as casual entertainment. (Not that “entertaining” is a word I’d use in the first place.)

That said, both Durkin’s sluggish pacing and his movie’s low-budget origins betray it; the film stock is distractingly grainy, and Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is too dark at times, with a few scenes literally nothing but murk. Much of the dialogue is spoken quietly, and either looped poorly in post-production or not at all; as a result, some of the conversations are difficult to discern.

Fortunately, star Elizabeth Olsen does most of her acting via complex, haunted expressions and phenomenal body language; this is the best portrayal of an irrevocably damaged spirit that I’ve seen in a long time. Olsen is both mesmerizing and unforgettable: quite appropriate, then, that her face is the last thing we see, before the story fades to its final blackout (rather chillingly, I might add).

Durkin opens his film with an idyllic overview of a farming commune somewhere in the woods of upstate New York. This silent montage is bucolic and utopian, with men and women working various chores while young children seek fun in mud puddles.

But this tranquil sequence has a darker side. The first disconcerting sign comes as dinner is served: The men eat first at the single table, taking their time with the meal, while all the women wait — silently — in the next room. After the men leave the table, the women are released to enjoy their own food. The implication is that they get scraps.

The following morning, a lone figure rises early from a “bedroom” strewn with blankets, sleeping bags and ramshackle beds, prone bodies all but lying atop one another. Martha (Olsen) quietly heads downstairs, slides out the front door but is spotted by another young woman; Martha flees into the nearby forest, pursuit not far behind.

She escapes. (Perhaps.) With nowhere else to turn, she phones her long-estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who drops everything to collect Martha and bring her back to a lush, lakeside Connecticut summer home.

Details emerge slowly: much more slowly than they would in real life. This is by design; Durkin parcels out bits of information parsimoniously while cross-cutting between Martha’s terrified flight in the “now,” and her experiences in what eventually emerges as more cult than commune, in the “recent past.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tower Heist: Quite a steal

Tower Heist (2011) • View trailer for Tower Heist
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity and snarky sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.4.11

I had to check my calendar, to make sure it wasn’t 1982.

There was Eddie Murphy, as fresh, feisty and funny as he was back in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places. No preening. No mugging. No vanity turns.
Josh (Ben Stiller, far left) and his unlikely crew — from left, Mr. Fitzhugh
(Matthew Broderick), Enrique (Michael Peña), Charlie (Casey Affleck) and
Slide (Eddie Murphy) — case the luxury tower condominiums across the
street, seeking a way to evade FBI agents, police officers and regular staff
members while somehow making their way to the penthouse, where they hope
to find and steal $20 million.

Honestly, Murphy hasn’t been this entertaining in a live-action film for ... well, decades. He’s been an arrogant, self-centered glory hound for so long that I’d forgotten he could be anything else.

And Tower Heist is the perfect vehicle for this vintage, everything-old-is-new-again Eddie Murphy. In many ways, director Brett Ratner’s film even feels retro, as if it might have been made back in the 1970s or ’80s, during the glory days of heist comedies such as The Hot Rock and The Thief Who Came to Dinner.

Yep, this film is that much fun.

Ratner knows this territory, having helmed After the Sunset — a nifty, under-appreciated 2004 heist flick with Pierce Brosnan — in between Rush Hour and X-Men entries. Ratner delivers just the right breezy, light-hearted tone, while granting us a despicable villain to loathe: a guy we’re begging the heroes to take down.

More crucially, Ratner and his four writers — Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage — pay careful attention to every member of an engaging ensemble of characters. And, in the grand tradition of such storylines, they’re the most unlikely “burglars” since Dick Van Dyke oversaw an aristocratic household of larcenous servants in 1967’s Fitzwilly.

The vintage atmosphere notwithstanding, the setting is completely contemporary: a luxury New York Central Park condominium complex dubbed The Tower, where manager Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller) commutes from Queens — rising at 4:30 a.m. each day — in order to ensure that every last little detail is perfect for each tenant.

That’s every detail, whether dog-sitting an elderly woman’s pampered pooch, warning a philandering husband that his wife has returned three days early from an overseas trip, or running interference as bank officials try to evict destitute former Wall Street broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick).

Josh also enjoys matching wits during chess games played via the Internet with investment titan Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who lives in the penthouse, where his many pleasures include a daily swim in the rooftop pool.

Much as the tenants depend on Josh, he also is respected by his own staff: the beloved elderly doorman, Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who shares old jokes with anybody who will listen; a feisty maid, Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe, well remembered from Precious), who takes guff from nobody; the evasive Miss Iovenko (Nina Arianda), clandestinely studying for the bar while insisting she’s doing no such thing; and newly hired Enrique Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), a bellhop/elevator operator-in-training delighted to have traded up from his former position at Burger King.

Oh, yes: and Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s brother-in-law, who works as The Tower’s concierge and isn’t nearly as savvy as he imagines himself.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Puss in Boots: The cat's pajamas

Puss in Boots (2011) • View trailer for Puss in Boots
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.28.11

I greeted the impending arrival of Puss in Boots, roughly a year ago, with a skeptical eye.

Popular sidekicks, putting too much faith in their perceived importance, occasionally make a bid for personal stardom. The effort rarely succeeds, although Hollywood seems to encourage such behavior; the television landscape is littered with the remnants of secondary characters spun off into their own shows ... which generally tank in record time.
Having climbed a most unusual beanstalk and reached a verdant land above the
clouds, our mercenary heroes — from left, Humpty Dumpty (disguised as a
golden egg), Kitty Softpaws and Puss in Boots — part the vegetation and
glimpse a most amazing sight.

The reason? Basic chemistry. Supporting characters who “work” as part of an ensemble fail on their own because the formula’s other equally important ingredients have been left behind.

Exceptions exist, but several dozen bombs such as The Ropers (from Three’s Company) and The Tortellis (Cheers) exist for every Frasier (also Cheers) and Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But despite such dreadful odds, folks keep trying.

Nor is the big screen immune to such behavior; The Scorpion King, derived from the recent Mummy series, certainly did nothing for Dwayne Johnson’s career.

Granted, things are different with animated characters: no egos involved. All of which brings us to Puss in Boots, named for the suave feline sword-wielder from the Shrek series, voiced with such hilarious swagger by Antonio Banderas ... and he’s no less entertaining here. Put simply, Banderas was born to voice this character; he’s one cool cat.

Chalk up this spinoff, then, under the “successful” column. Director Chris Miller’s prequel — these events take place before Puss meets up with the jolly green ogre — offers a solid plot and all the snarky humor that has made the Shrek entries so much fun.

That said, Puss’ roster of supporting players isn’t quite as memorable. Zach Galifianakis’ Humpty Dumpty is a pale shadow of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey, and we don’t get nearly as many incidental storybook characters to spice up various scenes. But — credit where due — Salma Hayek contributes plenty of spunk as the saucy, catty Kitty Softpaws, a spirited hellcat with the allure to corral Puss’ roving eye and make his fur fly.

Banderas and Hayek easily hold this film together, even when dealing with the generally bland and annoying Galifianakis.

All good-hearted rogues of classical myths are wronged heroes, and Puss is no different. We meet him as a wanted fugitive; the details behind his “crime” date back to his origins as an orphan in the hard-scrabble town of San Ricardo, where as a kitten he befriends a shunned young egg dubbed Humpty Dumpty. The two become inseparable best buds, sharing a dream involving fabled magic beans that, if planted properly, will produce a beanstalk that rises to a giant’s castle ... and, most importantly, a goose that lays golden eggs.

In Time: Fast-paced sci-fi thriller

In Time (2011) • View trailer for In Time
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, sexuality, fleeting nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Andrew Niccol has quite an imagination.

The New Zealand-born writer/director landed with a splash in 1997 with Gattaca, an intriguing sci-fi thriller that has aged well. Then Niccol really caught my attention with his Oscar-nominated script for The Truman Show, the following year: truly a work of genius.
Will (Justin Timberlake, center), out of his element in fancy dress, and
surrounded by wealthy people who instinctively realize that he doesn't belong,
nonetheless catches the eye of the headstrong Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried),
daughter of corporate titan Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser).

The Truman Show anticipated the realty TV craze that subsequently infested the world; Niccol’s next film, S1m0ne, explored the ethical parameters likely to emerge if computer-enhanced substitutes replace actual film and television stars (an issue that subsequently hit the headlines when advertising companies began to use dead celebrities such as John Wayne and Fred Astaire, shilling for — respectively — Coors Light and Dirt Devil).

All of which brings us to In Time, Niccol’s intriguing sci-fi spin on our real world’s increasingly deplorable divide of wealth between the have-nots and the have-everythings. Such social commentary notwithstanding, though, the approach here is more exploitative than contemplative; this is a B-thriller in fancy dress.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; plenty of gritty — and quite entertaining — action flicks have made excellent use of sci-fi elements, from 1973’s Soylent Green to 2009’s Echelon Conspiracy.

Here, in Nichol’s rather disturbing view of the future, immortality has been achieved: Everybody ages normally to 25, and then never looks a day older. One’s mother, sister and daughter become de facto physical peers ... which leads to some amusingly disorienting issues.

But the world’s resources are finite, and the entire population cannot be allowed to live forever. Ergo, time has become money ... literally. Somehow, everybody is born with a body clock embedded within the lower left arm. (We cannot ask how this occurs, or was allowed to happen; reasonable questions have no role in this scenario.) On a person’s 25th birthday, an inner clock starts ticking downward for one final year of life.

Except that it’s far less than a year, because everything in this world — food, clothes, lodging, entertainment — also costs time: an hour for a bus ride, several hours for a meal. This “price” is withdrawn electronically from one’s inner time-meter; should that meter drop to zero, heart failure and instant death follow.

The rich and powerful never need to worry about time; they control its use — and frequently misuse — in the manner of rapacious Wall Street brokers. Working-class citizens are a different story; they rarely have more than 24 hours on their body clocks, and must toil every day, in factories, to earn another day of precious life. Many fail.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Johnny English Reborn: Sporadically silly spy spoof

Johnny English Reborn (2011) • View trailer for Johnny English Reborn
Three stars. Rating: PG, for mild action violence, occasional rude humor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.11

Rowan Atkinson’s expressions are to die for, and his best moments in Johnny English Reborn are priceless.

Alas, moments do not a movie make.
While junior agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya, right) watches from a discreet
distance, MI-7 director Thornton (Gillian Anderson) warns Johnny English
(Rowan Atkinson) that times have moved beyond the unacceptable behavior
of traditionally chauvinistic secret agents, and that — as a result — she won't
tolerate any of his old, cheeky ways.

I first encountered Atkinson in 1983, when he had the small but quite memorable role as the hapless Nigel Small-Fawcett, a bureaucratic drone supporting Sean Connery’s last hurrah as James Bond, in Never Say Never Again. Despite being surrounded by the usual action-laden 007 escapades, Atkinson’s role felt designed for his specific comedic talents.

Sad to confess, I somehow missed Atkinson’s career-making work in Blackadder. He next hit my radar in 1990 or ’91, when one of his first Mr. Bean sketches popped up as a short prior to a movie screening; this was at least a year before HBO began importing this series to the States.

Rarely have I laughed so hard at a five-minute comedy bit.

Now convinced, I caught up with Blackadder and started clocking his occasional big-screen efforts: highly memorable supporting roles in The Tall Guy, The Witches, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually and a few others.

Then he brought Mr. Bean to the big screen: the first time not too well, the second time more successfully.

By this point, Atkinson’s predicament had become apparent. Like Tim Conway, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams, Atkinson is funniest when allowed to improvise and play to his own comedic strengths, which are considerable. That’s why his movie guest spots are so successful; he essentially plays variations on the hapless Mr. Bean or the sneering Edmund Blackadder.

But if welded to a script — or to the requirements of a specific genre — Atkinson winds up out of his comfort zone. Part of the problem, and this is a tragic thing to say, is that Atkinson is far better as a supporting player than a star. He can own short, individual moments of slapstick genius; carrying a film is a different matter.

That’s why 1997’s big-screen Bean was such a disappointment. The original Mr. Bean sketches ran no more than 10 or 15 minutes; the best ones were even shorter. The character wasn’t designed for an 85-minute movie, and the sequences between priceless bits dragged like the chains behind Marley’s Ghost.

2007’s sequel, Mr. Bean’s Vacation, did a better job of playing to the character’s strengths, but — because a full-length movie demands as much — Mr. Bean still was forced to develop relationships. Which simply isn’t in the character’s nature.

Margin Call: Grim tidings

Margin Call (2011) • View trailer for Margin Call
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Moving into the third act of writer/director J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, I was reminded of the war room discussions in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 adaptation of Dr. Strangelove, particularly when Peter Sellers’ U.S. President Merkin Muffley and George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson argue over “collateral damage.”
Having survived a devastating company layoff, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto)
attempts to settle down for a "normal" day's work. But a financial time bomb is
ticking away in his pocket: the parting gift from a veteran risk analyst who was
escorted out of the building that same morning. Eventually, as day turns to night,
Peter will examine the files on that flash drive ... and then nothing will be the same.

“Mr. President,” Turgidson finally insists, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

The point, of course — delivered with every possible ounce of chilling satire — is that nobody in this room, filled as it is with people responsible for the safety of the entire United States, has the faintest idea what would happen during an all-out nuclear war. And yet they still argue over “acceptable losses.”

Just as everybody in the board room of the fictitious investment firm in Margin Call debates the acceptable losses certain to arise in the wake of a proposed we’re-first-into-the-lifeboat desperation ploy.

Hell, it’s worse than that. They’re not simply commandeering the first lifeboat; they’re scuttling all the others.

I’m not sure the public is ready for this suggestion of how the 2008 financial crisis kicked off; my own interest was guarded, upon entering the theater. It’s simply too soon: The real-world wound remains too fresh, the resulting carnage still plain in every drawn and desperate face, every freshly foreclosed and empty home that once contained a family that still believed in the American dream.

I worried that Chandor would trivialize actual history, or — worse yet — attempt to build sympathy for the greedy, soulless bastards who fiddled while Wall Street burned.

But, as it turns out, Chandor is much smarter and shrewder than that. He’s also a sharp scripter and a damn fine director, and Margin Call is an extremely impressive feature debut for a fellow whose sole previous credit was a short back in 2004.

Granted, Chandor also had the good sense to assemble an impressive cast ... but a director still needs to know how to encourage excellent work. And he draws fine performances from all concerned.

Chandor’s most brilliant stroke, however, was to resist the temptation to imagine what truly occurred in the late summer of 2008. We can assume that his script evokes Lehman Brothers, and that the two days depicted here offer a guess as to what may have gone down behind closed doors, before that august firm filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008.

But it doesn’t really matter. Chandor’s build-up is absorbing, and the subsequent character interactions generate the intensity of a solid, well-acted stage play. We eventually share the horror of those who recognize a catastrophe only after it’s too late to attempt a recovery.