Sunday, February 27, 2011

Again, the Academy Awards: Predictions 2010

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.27.11


Oscar prognostication, once no more than a living room activity, has become Big Business; every print or TV media personality remotely connected to cinema has jumped onto the bandwagon.

No surprise, really. The gig is tantalizing; the trick is to anticipate and navigate the complex weather patterns that might guide Academy voters each year. Will they honor individual achievement, or consider a nominee’s past work? (Hello, John Wayne.) Will a sweeps mentality prevail, motivated by an over-compensating desire to acknowledge a tremendous achievement? (Got my eye on you, Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.)

Will the voters in a particular category, stung by recent bad press, behave foolishly in an effort to be viewed as hip? (Nothing else can explain the Best Song wins by “Last Dance,” from 1978’s Thank God It’s Friday, and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from 2005’s Hustle and Flow.)

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to catch all the prevailing winds; the Academy Awards always produce some surprises. Indeed, that’s part of the fun. And although we definitely suffer from “awards show glut” at this time of the year, I take heart in the fact that the Oscars remain The Big Show. After all, nobody bothers to predict the Golden Globes, or offer contests for same.

The Academy Awards show itself continues to be tweaked and fine-tuned to increasingly silly degrees. We once again have 10 choices for Best Picture, apparently to bribe viewers who wouldn’t tune in unless they could see scenes from 127 Hours and Inception. And I could kvetch about the weirdness of having only four Best Song nominees, but I long ago gave up on the idiotic Academy members who rule this category. They’re wombats.

And I’m equally dismayed by the dweebs who make similarly ludicrous rules in the Best Animated Feature category, which once again fields only three entries. C’mon, folks; be logical: If you expanded the Best Picture category for the sake of acknowledging box-office popularity, wouldn’t it make sense to do the same with animated features?

But enough with the eye-rolling; let’s get to the meat of the matter. It’s a potentially exciting year for Oscar, and a tough year for predictions. So let’s see how many right answers I can talk myself out of this time...

Visual effects

A busy category this year, with five nominees (usually no more than three). The marvels of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1 and Iron Man 2 aside, I suspect this is a dust-up between Alice in Wonderland and another hot challenger. I therefore expect these statues to be claimed by Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb, for Inception.

Makeup

Nobody saw The Way Back, and Adrien Morot’s aging make-up in Barney’s Version, while excellent, also wound up in a little-seen film. Name-brand recognition is tough to beat in this category, and the name belongs to Rick Baker. So even though his film was perceived as a horror dud, I expect him to win, for The Wolfman.

Sound mixing

Bear in mind that this category represents the totality of the sound-mixing process – the music, the dialogue, the background noises and everything else – whereas the next category focuses more specifically on fabricated sound. Think sound effects, like visual effects.

The Motion Picture Sound Editors’ annual Golden Reel Awards aren’t much help here, since they divide the spoils within even more sub-categories. Their 58th annual ceremony, which took place Sunday, gave two awards to Inception, for music editing and sound effects/foley editing. The Social Network took the Golden Reel for “dialogue and ADR,” which would correspond most closely to this Oscar category.

My personal choice would be the folks who really made me feel like a part of the action, in True Grit, but that ain’t gonna happen. Both sound categories, as with visual effects, will be knee-jerk bones thrown to Inception, in this case acknowledging Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hall Pass: Automatic detention

Hall Pass (2011) • View trailer for Hall Pass
One star (out of five). Rating: R, and rather generously, for nudity, sexual candor, drug use, profanity and an endless stream of potty humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.25.11

In an amusing scene from 1980's Caddyshack, panic erupts in a crowded country club swimming pool when a suspicious brown UFO (unidentified floating object) is seen on the water; anticipation is built, prior to its discovery, with some riffs from John Williams' theme from Jaws. Following a shriek of "Doodie!" from one kid, everybody hops outta the pool, which then is drained and scrubbed.
While Fred (Jason Sudeikis, left) and Rick (Owen Wilson, right) watch in
astonishment, Coakley (Richard Jenkins) demonstrates how an 8 can "pass"
as a 10 by surrounding herself with less attractive friends. (Feminists, it should
be noted, are unlikely to appreciate what constitutes "humor" in this film.)

Bill Murray, perfectly cast as a deranged groundskeeper, finds the offending object at the bottom of the empty pool. He picks it up (mild consternation from all onlookers), takes a sniff and then chomps into it (fainting from some onlookers).

No big deal, of course, because he's immediately realized that it's a Baby Ruth candy bar, which we viewers also know, having earlier seen a couple of children accidentally drop it into the water. But nobody else in the movie knows this crucial piece of information, which is why the scene is so funny.

That's the difference between Harold Ramis, who made his directorial debut with Caddyshack, and the Farrelly brothers, who've returned after a four-year hiatus — sadly, not nearly long enough — to annoy, offend and repulse unsuspecting viewers, with Hall Pass. When Bobby and Peter Farrelly trade in excrement "humor," they employ actual excrement. Sometimes explosively.

This, in the interests of full disclosure, is considered the height of humor in a Farrelly brothers movie: watching a grown man squat, grunt, bare his back end and then use a golf course sand trap as a toilet. And, as an added treat, the camera then lingers on the little brown pile left behind.

This "mishap" results from the ingestion of marijuana brownies, a wheezy plot contrivance that stopped being funny decades ago.

Moments like that tend to overshadow the fitful attempts at relationship dynamics in Hall Pass, which, in better hands, might have blossomed into a halfway decent sex farce. (I'd love to have seen what a French director, such as Francois Veber, could have made of this film's premise.) Because that's the truly frustrating part: The core idea here has potential.

From the archives: March 2009

A month of extremes, highlighted by a long-delayed arthouse entry — The Reader having finally made its way into my neck of the country — and an uber-violent adaptation of Alan Moore's remarkably prescient Watchmen.

Kate Winslet won a well-deserved Academy Award for her chilling portrait of clueless amorality in The Reader, which leaves viewers pondering the precise nature of evil: born ... or nurtured? The story intrigues, tantalizes and horrifies by turns, and functions both as a disturbing drama and a wistful echo of films such as Summer of '42.

Watchmen also disturbs, albeit for different reasons, its grim political subtext occasionally overshadowed by truly outrageous and graphic violence. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but ample food for thought, for those who ponder the possible roots of an Orwellian society ... and whether they could germinate here.

On a much lighter note, the charmingly retro Monsters vs. Aliens opened a whole new animated franchise, with characters that proved popular enough to star in a follow-up TV special.

The rest of the month proved sadly average for late winter and early spring: a sloppy big-budget entry, a disappointing indie, a disappointing IMAX documentary and — another bright spot! — a preposterous but quite entertaining sci-fi action flick.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

African Adventure: Safari in the Okavango

Duplicity

Echelon Conspiracy

The Great Buck Howard

Monsters vs. Aliens

Race to Witch Mountain

The Reader

Watchmen

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My favorite things: An effort at an all-time Top 10 list

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.23.11

People often ask if I have a favorite film.

That's easy; the answer hasn't changed since I was 8 years old, closing in on half a century ago.

Taking it further ... can be difficult.

My Enterprise colleagues, seeking cinema-themed content to help build excitement for this Sunday's Academy Awards celebration, dug into the files and realized that I've never gone on record with a list of all-time Top 10 favorite films. This is true, and with good reason: It's not a stationery target. I see between 150 and 200 films every year, and I've not yet lost my ability to be dazzled; simple logic demands that new "favorites" will replace older ones.

My wife and I have a similar problem at home, with our ever-expanding library of books. We've done pretty well over the years, in terms of constructing new shelves in out-of-the-way corners or just below ceiling height. But we've hit saturation, which demanded a new house rule: If a book comes in, a book must go out. In other words, the total number  whatever that is, and we've never had the nerve to count 'em  no longer changes.

So it is with the nebulous concept of an all-time personal Top 10 movie list. I could supply an answer today, which won't be the answer you'd have gotten 10 years ago, and likely won't be the answer I'd give next month. Times change. Taste changes. People change. I change.

It's also true, however, that each of us tends to be most transfixed by movies, books, songs and TV shows that we see between the ages of, oh, 10 and 22. Many of those early experiences remain fixed forever, sometimes beyond all reason; more than once, I've been embarrassed during a recent visit to something not seen or read for decades, which I remember being much better the first time. In some cases, you really can't go home again.

Attempting to explain all this to my Enterprise colleagues garnered no sympathy; they believe this is a good story idea  and it is, no question  and couldn't care less about my reluctance. An assignment is an assignment. Besides, they insisted, I'm waffling. Surely I can rattle off a personal Top 10.

Well ... no.

At least, not without cheating.

First, let's establish some ground rules. I'm discussing my favorite films, not those I consider the medium's best. The difference is significant: Favorite films are those we choose, repeatedly, to experience the reassuring embrace of an old friend. Big-screen comfort food. Movies which, for each of us, stand the test of time and bear multiple viewings. (In my case, often, lots of multiple viewings.) As a result, my favorites rarely correspond to the films usually cited by pundits as Hollywood's finest, such as Citizen Kane, High Noon, Gone with the Wind, West Side Story, The Godfather and many others.

My taste often is more, ah, eclectic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Unknown: Unknowable

Unknown (2011) • View trailer for Unknown
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.18.11


For a time, this is a slick audience involvement picture: We empathize completely with poor Liam Neeson, and wonder what we might do next, to solve such a baffling predicament.

Then, as answers begin to flow and the narrative shifts into its third act, Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s script becomes increasingly contrived and develops a serious case of The Stupids.
When Martin (Liam Neeson, far right) returns from the hospital, expecting to
reassure his wife (January Jones) that he's all right, he's bewildered by her
failure to recognize him ... and the fact that her "actual" husband (Aidan
Quinn, second from left) is standing right next to her.

In the final scene, as the camera pulls back from a train departing from an ultra-modern station in Berlin, it becomes clear that we’ve been had. Because of several final-act revelations, earlier parts of the story don’t hold together well. Indeed, the conclusion itself leaves a big, fat question that’s likely to raise the eyebrows of any psychologists and human behaviorists in the audience.

That’s a shame, because the first act develops the premise quite well, and suggests that we’re in for an intelligent suspense thriller.

Martin Harris (Neeson), a scientist, and his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), have arrived in Berlin to participate in a high-profile biotech conference. As they depart the airport via taxi, Martin accidentally leaves his briefcase behind, on the sidewalk; among other things, it contains his passport and all other ID.

(Just in passing, most guys I know would keep their identification in a wallet, in a pocket or belly pack – particularly in a foreign country! – but that’s not too large a pill to swallow.)

As they reach their hotel, Martin realizes what has happened; leaving Elizabeth to check in, he grabs another taxi and starts back to the airport. He never makes it. A freak road accident – very well staged – sends the taxi plunging from a bridge and into a river. Having been knocked unconscious, he’s just barely pulled out in time by the resourceful cab driver (Diane Kruger).

When Martin regains consciousness, he’s in a hospital; four days have passed. He remembers most of what happened, and knows enough to realize that his wife must be frantic; because his American patient arrived with no identification, the attending doctor had no way of notifying her (or anybody else).

Additional minor details are glossed over here. Even with socialized health care, the hospital staff’s failure to mention money seems a bit odd; odder still is the absence of any police officers or American Embassy personnel, who’d quite reasonably want to know more about this mystery man. (The “explanation” for the absence of American Embassy folks – that this is Thanksgiving weekend – is a bit thin.)

Still, these remain small oversights: not enough to impede our mounting curiosity.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Barney's Version: Larger than life

Barney's Version (2010) • View trailer for Barney's Version
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang 


At first blush, Barney’s Version walks and talks like a picaresque comedy about a rash, self-centered, hedonistic schlub played to humorous perfection by Paul Giamatti: a 21st century Tom Jones with a somewhat more irascible protagonist.

Great chunks of the first and second act are hilarious, fueled by Giamatti’s priceless slow burns and double-takes. (Honestly, film classes could be constructed around Giamatti’s depth of expression, starting with his narrow-eyed squints of suspicion. One gets the impression he could read the phone book and make it mesmerizing.)
Although the freshly minted groom at his own wedding, Barney (Paul Giamatti)
can't take his eyes off Miriam (Rosamund Pike), one of the guests, after spotting
her across the room. Newly married or not, Barney is about to embark on a
relentless crusade to woo this other woman, who can't quite figure out what
to make of him.

It’s also rather difficult, early on, to like Giamatti’s Barney Panofsky. He’s not exactly cruel, but he’s certainly thoughtless and prone to frequent sins of omission: the sort of guy who’d hover near a concealed TV set on his wedding day, in order to follow a hockey game. We grow ever more exasperated by Barney’s behavior, even as we laugh at his sometimes outrageous shortcomings.

Then ... an odd thing happens.

Suddenly, we’re not laughing any more. Just as suddenly, we feel sorry – profoundly sorry – for this fellow we’ve gotten to understand so well. And that’s a further surprise; director Richard J. Lewis and scripters Michael Konyves and Mordecai Richler – the latter adapting his novel of the same title – sneakily fashion a narrative which, despite its episodic nature, ultimately paints a portrait of a complete person. By the end of this film, we feel like we’ve known Barney for years.

Additionally, due both to final-act revelations and a better appreciation for little things along the way, we realize that Barney – for all his weaknesses and failings – always has been capable of acts of surprising generosity, and kindness of spirit.

Such a tightrope act – in terms of winning and keeping our empathy to such a character – requires extraordinarily precise acting; one false step, and we’d never surmount the resulting disgust and loathing. But Giamatti pulls it off, unerringly, much the way Michael Douglas held our grudging, head-shaking admiration as the misanthropic Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys.

On a superficial level, Barney’s Version is a riff on The Heartbreak Kid, in that poor Barney meets the love of his life on his wedding day ... and it ain’t his wife. But this actually comes a bit later in the narrative, after we’ve gotten to know Barney a bit.

We meet our protagonist in the present day, in the act of hassling his ex-wife’s new husband over the phone: not a terribly sympathetic start. Barney’s professional life, while successful, is somewhat soulless; as the head of a television company he has self-deprecatingly dubbed Totally Unnecessary Productions, he has overseen a wildly successful three-decade soap opera that has generated pots of money. But there’s no such thing as enough prestige in Barney’s world; as a product of Montreal’s predominantly Jewish, working-class Mile End region, he’s stuck with the nagging belief that he needs to “trade up” in every aspect of his life.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Illusionist: End of an era

The Illusionist (2010) • View trailer for The Illusionist
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite stupidly, because some of these animated characters smoke (!)
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.11.11


Some transitions are smooth and painless; others are painful and cruel.

French animation maestro Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is a melancholy ode to a passing era: the last final gasps of classic vaudeville. The setting is the late 1950s; the title character, Tatischeff, is a stage magician forced by a changing world – and most visibly by the advent of television and rock ’n’ roll – to accept work in a succession of fading and dilapidated theaters, music halls and even bars, often in fringe villages.
Although young Alice would prefer to dine in an upscale restaurant, surrounded
by Edinburgh's "beautiful people," Tatischeff lacks the funds for such an
excursion. The far more practical alternative: fish and chips, of course.

Tatischeff is a master of his craft, but this is of no consequence; nobody cares. Theaters laden with enthusiastic teenagers who swoon over the gyrations of a rock quartet suddenly empty when our magician takes the stage, demonstrating his skill to no more than a handful of aging patrons.

Make no mistake: This is a profoundly sad story. It really can’t be otherwise, because it takes place in our real world, albeit a stylized representation that is meticulously – and lovingly – crafted via hand-drawn animation. The Illusionist is beautiful to watch: gorgeous in the manner of old-style ink-and-paint animation practiced only by a precious few these days. Fans of classic animation will swoon over this film the way they embrace every frame of a Hayao Miyazaki fable (Ponyo, Spirited Away).

No surprise, then, that The Illusionist is competing for the 2010 Academy Award for best animated film, against Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon.

Tatischeff’s first few bookings establish the sad pattern of his life, as he resolutely works his stage miracles to largely indifferent patrons, just to earn enough money to eat, keep a roof over his head, and move on to the next gloomy venue. He eventually winds up at a Scottish tavern and a somewhat more appreciate audience, if only because they’ve been loosened up with liberal quantities of beer.

Here, though, the dynamic changes: He meets Alice, an impressionable teenage girl who works at the tavern. Although a big-city teen probably wouldn’t be so easily impressed, Alice hasn’t yet lost the sense of wonder possessed by all children; perhaps it’s the isolated environment. She believes in Tatischeff; he recognizes and cherishes this. When he “conjures up” a pair of new shoes for the girl, to replace the tattered pair on her feet, her eyes light up: not just at the gift itself, but at the magic by which they appeared.

She elects to leave the tavern when Tatischeff moves on to his next job. Mind you, this is a completely innocent arrangement: a father/daughter relationship, nothing more. They wind up in Edinburgh, where they take a room at the Little Joe Hotel, a boarding house for similarly disenfranchised performers: a sad-faced clown, a too-desperately cheerful ventriloquist, a trio of acrobats. Tatischeff obtains a booking at the nearby Royal Music Hall.

The Eagle: Can't fly

The Eagle (2011) • View trailer for The Eagle
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for rather restrained battle sequences and disturbing images
By Derrick Bang


Great films are easy to admire; terrible films are fun to rake over the coals. Both tend to resonate for a long time, either as fond memories or water-cooler topics of scorn.

Much of Tinseltown’s output, however, is blandly ordinary: flicks that don’t make much of a ripple upon release, and also sink like a stone during home-viewing afterlife. We must remember that the classics we cherish so fondly from Hollywood’s Golden Age represent perhaps 10 percent of the studio output from that era; much of the other 90 percent, never really worth anybody’s time or attention, is forever lost to memory.
When Marcus (Channing Tatum, right) and Esca (Jamie Bell, center) are
intercepted by the vicious Seal People, their prince (Tahar Rahim) relishes the
thought of beheading a lone Roman centurion who has ventured far into
dangerous lands.

The Eagle is likely to join them.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s sword-and-sandal saga isn’t really a bad film; it’s simply not distinguished in any manner. It’s also one of Hollywood’s cursed genres – gladiator action flicks, like Westerns, don’t attract viewer interest absent the involvement of a Russell Crowe or a Clint Eastwood – and therefore doomed to box office under-performance anyway.

That said, the premise is reasonably engaging. Jeremy Brock’s script, drawn from Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, concerns a tantalizing bit of historical fancy: the notion that Rome’s Ninth Legion, stationed for several years in Eburacum – present-day York, in modern England – suddenly vanished in 120 AD. Nobody knows whether all these men marched to an unexpected fate in Scotland, starved to death at their own outpost, or simply were assimilated by neighboring tribes; the mystery made Sutcliff’s book enormously popular and led to both a radio dramatization and a six-part 1977 BBC serial.

And now we have a big-screen movie that, despite this tantalizing notion, emerges as a curiously flat and uninvolving drama. Part of the blame belongs to star Channing Tatum, a stiff actor who never inspires viewer empathy, but in fairness he’s also hampered by Macdonald’s rather lifeless guidance. These characters simply aren’t very interesting, and the various actors never look, sound or feel like denizens of the second century; they’re all modern folks play-acting – and not very convincingly – in togas and gladiator armor.

More disappointingly, Macdonald hasn’t the faintest notion how to stage a battle scene; he and editor Justine Wright cut their melees with such fury that it’s difficult to follow who’s hacking away at whom. Then, too, small Roman squads twice face an overwhelming onslaught of enemies in far greater numbers, during the course of this story, and quite improbably emerge victorious in both cases. That outcome is difficult to swallow the first time, and utterly absurd the second time.

That’s just sloppy scripting, since a detail of this nature would be very, very easy to repair, to help with credibility. It’s not as if Macdonald and Brock were attempting a documentary, and adhering to established historical fact. After all, nobody was on site with a cam-corder.

Gnomeo and Juliet: All the garden's a stage

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011) • View trailer for Gnomeo and Juliet
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang


Shakespeare and garden gnomes?

Surely, you think, nothing good can come from such a combination.

Keep an open mind. Timeless stories endure no matter what form they take, and that includes this hilariously bent take on Romeo and Juliet. Director Kelly Asbury and a veritable army of writers – working from a screenplay by Rob Sprackling and John Smith – fine-tuned this droll animated fantasy until it purred. The result is clever, engaging and well integrated with a score that recycles a dozen Elton John tunes (in a few cases, with whimsically modified lyrics) and tosses in a few new ones.
When Gnomeo and Juliet consider ignoring their deepening feelings because of
the silly blue/red feud that has kept their respective clans apart for years, the
much wiser Featherstone, a yard flamingo in a neighboring garden, brings the
two lovebirds back together as only he can.

I’m all about little details, and Gnomeo and Juliet is laden with amusing touches. The film is introduced by a tiny “red goon gnome” who doesn’t get too far through a voluminous text scroll before being removed from the stage; the curtain then opens on two adjacent homes – one of a blue d├ęcor, the other red – on Verona Drive. Old lady Montague lives at 2B, while cranky Mr. Capulet’s identical address has been slashed out, Ghostbusters-style (in other words, “not 2B”).

Right away, I was charmed.

Aside from their ongoing squabbling feud of unknown origin, the human characters don’t really factor into this story, which instead concerns the ceramic fixtures in their respective gardens: mostly gnomes of all sizes and shapes, but also the occasional ornamental frog, fish and toadstool. Just like the assorted stars of Toy Story, these garden creatures come to life whenever they’re not being observed; when people unexpectedly arrive on the scene, the little figures freeze back into immobility ... no matter where they might be. That, by itself, leads to very amusing consequences at times.

The animation style – different yet again from anything done by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks or Blue Sky (the Ice Age series) – is ingenious. All these figures have the worn, paint-faded, often slightly chipped appearances of weathered ceramic; they make contact with each other – whether gently or aggressively – with the easily recognized chink of porcelain bumping into porcelain. The 3-D cinematography gives them a rounded dimensionality, and we very quickly accept the notion that these figurines have their own clandestine societies.

They are limited by original design, however, and that’s also played for frequent laughs. A ceramic fish can neither float nor swim, and two gnomes who share a single ceramic base can’t ever “quit each other.”

And yes, that nod to the famous signature remark from Brokeback Mountain is typical of the occasional snarky one-liners. Although family-friendly and certain to appeal to youngsters, who’ll be enchanted by these colorful heroes and villains, the script frequently nudges and winks at adults who’ve been savvy enough to give this charmer a try.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

2010 Academy Award Shorts: Stars of tomorrow?

Academy Award Shorts (2010)
Four stars (out of five), as an average. Unrated, and also a mix, with most entries worthy of a family-friendly G, while others slide into PG or PG-13 territory, for dramatic intensity or sexual candor.
By Derrick Bang


In anticipation of Feb. 27’s Academy Awards ceremony, the “Oscar Shorts” package once again is making road-show appearances across the country; here in the Sacramento area, the program will play at the Crest Theater starting Friday.

As always, the 10 short films – five live action, five animated – demonstrate impressive talent and technical skills. Indeed, they’re all exceptional in the latter respect; several of the live-action entries boast strong acting and production values that would be the envy of many feature-length films.
David (Samuel Peter Holland, left), although dying from cancer, retains a
cheeky candor and has no qualms about sharing his rather inappropriate
"secret desire" with a compassionate priest (Jim Carter), in Wish 143.

I am, however, dismayed by the dearth of foreign-language entries. Four of the live-action nominees hail from the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland; the fifth, although set in Burundi, is made by a Belgian. Two of the animated entries are American, and two are UK co-productions – with Australia and Germany, respectively – while the fifth, although set in Madagascar, is helmed by a French director.

These exclusively American and Western European sensibilities are ... well, regrettable, at the very least. No noteworthy Asian entries? African? Middle-Eastern? All the creative talent available in the world, and four out of five of the live-action shorts concern white characters speaking English?

I’d hate to think the Academy voters were overly seduced by the aforementioned slick production values present here; I’d have welcomed a few more alternative viewpoints, even if the films themselves had been a bit rougher around the edges.

Particularly when, as is the case with the first live-action entry, the story is such an infuriating puzzle.

Director Tanel Toom’s The Confession concerns two Catholic schoolboys – the quiet and sincere Sam (Lewis Howlett) and his trouble-making friend, Jacob (Joe Eales) – who face the prospect of their first Confession. Jacob, intrigued by the notion of getting a free pass for all his sins – and we can imagine there are many – finds the concept “cool.” Sam, alternatively, is worried because he can’t think of anything worth confessing.

Jacob hits upon a solution: a prank that will give Sam grist for his chat with the priest. But the prank goes horribly, horribly awry, much to Sam’s horror. He immediately wants to tell everybody what happened – not just the priest – but Jacob grimly insists that they should keep quiet.

Okay, it’s an intriguing moral dilemma, and young Howlett is achingly persuasive as a young boy wrestling with his conscience. But before he can come to grips with the initial crisis, Toom hits the kid with a second ghastly calamity ... and then brings his film to a maddening conclusion. We’re left to wonder what the hell Toom and his co-writer, Caroline Bruckner, expected us to take away from this unsettling little drama. That they enjoy torturing children?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From the archives: April 2009

The Fourth Estate flickered into big-screen life this month, with a pair of compelling dramas.

The sensational British miniseries State of Play lost none of its impact when adapted for American viewers and brought to these shores; indeed, the unsettling rise of blogging  over traditional investigative reporting  gave this version even more juice.

Similarly, the value of a dedicated newspaper columnist is illustrated by The Soloist, based on Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez's series of pieces on a rather unusual musician. This deeply moving film was all but abandoned at the box office, and deserved a better fate; perhaps home-viewing afterlife will be more kind.

France delivered a top-notch, school-based drama with The Class, and Miley Cyrus brought her enormously popular alter-ego to the big screen with the crowd-pleasing Hannah Montana, The Movie.

On the other hand, a pair of noisy and extremely poor sequels demonstrated Hollywood at its money-grubbing worst, with Crank: High Voltage and Fast & Furious good for nothing but robbing the pockets of fans suckered into purchasing tickets.

Although those two are bad, at least they're honest; Disney quite reprehensibly tried to trick viewers into believing that Earth  the first entry in the Mouse House's new DisneyNature documentary series  was a "new" film, when in fact it's nothing but excerpts from the masterful Discovery Channel series, Planet Earth. Shame, shame!

The month's quiet prize, though, is Adventureland: a poignant little indie drama that showcases the talents of Jesse Eisenberg, who in two short years would find himself nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Kristen Stewart, too, shines in this quiet drama, which was made before she became a household name with the Twilight franchise. Humble beginnings can be fascinating, after the fact ... particularly when they're this enjoyable.

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Adventureland

The Class

Crank: High Voltage

Earth

Fast & Furious

Hannah Montana, The Movie

The Soloist

State of Play

Sunshine Cleaning

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sanctum: No solace here

Sanctum (2011) • View trailer for Sanctum
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, grim peril and disturbing images
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.11


Do not be misled, by the prominent use of James Cameron’s name, into believing that Sanctum is worthy of your time.

It isn’t.
Josh (Rhys Wakefield, left) and his father, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), prepare
to lead their comrades through a narrow underwater passageway: so tight that
they'll need to unhook their re-breathing equipment and push the tanks in front
of them, while carefully preserving the fragile hoses. Worse yet, they've no
idea what will be found on the other side...

I’m surprised Cameron would associate himself with such a stinker. Yes, the underwater work and caving cinematography are spectacular, and the 3-D effects are stylishly employed. Yes, some of the free-climbing stunt work is impressive. Yes, the level of claustrophobic tension is effectively conveyed.

But that’s all superficial stuff. As I’ve said so many times before, our hearts and minds are engaged by compelling characters and a solid story, not by an overwhelming assault of state-of-the-art cinematic technology.

And, at its core, Sanctum is a classic example of what I’ve dubbed the idiot plot: a movie that advances, from one scene to the next, only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times.

A woodenly acted idiot, at that. Spouting the worst dialogue I’ve endured from a major release in quite awhile.

Honestly, who told "scripters" Andrew Wight and John Garvin they could write? And who gave Alister Grierson the notion that he could direct? The performances here are flat, stiff and utterly lifeless, the dialogue bombastically melodramatic in the extreme. I'd say this was the stuff of a bad afternoon soap opera, but that insults soap operas.

This is the sort of movie where characters declaim the obvious at all times: the certain hallmark of screenwriters who don’t trust us viewers to keep up with their numb-nuts story. (It ain’t even that difficult. People get trapped deep underground. They struggle to get out. Period.) It’s the sort of purple melodrama where every other line is a howler such as "I didn’t come all this way to sit on the sidelines!" or "How did you become like this?"

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

From the archives: May 2009

Stand-out supporting performances ruled, as the cinema summer season got off to its usual early start this month.

Sam Worthington proved much more interesting than star Christian Bale, in the noisy, bombastic Terminator Salvation. Bale phoned in his performance  quite unusual for this actor  while Worthington demonstrated the presence that soon would serve him well, as an action star.

Amy Adams continued her career climb with a sparkling interpretation of Amelia Earhart, an unexpected Gal Friday to Ben Stiller's hapless hero in the sequel to Night at the Museum. This second entry certainly would have been entertaining anyway, but Adams made it even better.

And watch for young Emma Stone, in a small but hilariously memorable performance as the second of the life-changing phantasms visited by Matthew McConaughey, in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. She's a sparkling part of a truly clever riff on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and you'll see the obvious talent that she'd soon use for her starring performance in the career-changing Easy A. (Just in passing, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a far better spin on Dickens than Jim Carrey's clumsy CGI vanity take on A Christmas Carol, released six months later.)

Veteran sci-fi fans, however, will forever remember May 2009 as the month that Star Trek roared back into big-screen life with a vengeance, thanks to director J.J. Abrams' muscular and grandly exciting franchise reboot. "The final frontier" appears limitless once again, and James T. Kirk and his boon companions obviously will live long and prosper.

On the flip side of the coin, director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks fumbled badly with the inevitable sequel to The Da Vinci Code: a truly dreadful attempt at so-called suspense that does nothing but prompt endless skeptical stares heavenward. (I would have thought Howard couldn't do worse ... but I hadn't yet seen 2011's The Dilemma.)

Step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Angels & Demons

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Sin Nombre

Star Trek

Terminator Salvation

Wolverine