Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From the archives: November 2008

Hollywood studios call it a "tentpole franchise": a series destined to be a guaranteed, ongoing cash cow ... as long as the filmmakers concerned don't screw things up too badly. Think Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Star Trek.

And if the franchise is strong enough — if, to continue the silly metaphor, the poles are strong enough to withstand a storm — the series can survive the occasional lamentable entry. (Star Trek 5, anyone?)

This month was laden with series entries, but only two qualified as tentpoles: the newest James Bond outing, and the first big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Fans of Daniel Craig's re-booted "blond Bond" got what they paid for; so, I suspect, did the legion of readers transfixed by Meyer's "sparkly vampires." Director Catherine Hardwicke deserves credit for good casting in the latter, but the film itself is tedious and bloodless ... although still a major cut above Meyer's laughably over-written book. Her devoted readers couldn't care less about that, of course, and they've made each of the subsequent films a bigger hit than the one before (despite the fact that the films themselves have gotten worse).

With respect to the other follow-ups, Jason Statham delivered his usual crazed stuntwork in the newest Transporter flick, and managed the hardest challenge of all: surviving a no-talent female co-star who couldn't act a lick. And the second Madagascar outing proved to be the rare sequel that improved upon its predecessor.

On a frustrating note, the world at large — both critics and the public — apparently decided that Australia wasn't worth a damn. This is one of the mysteries of the court of public opinion: Every so often, people inexplicably turn on a perfectly decent film, heaping it with wholly undeserved scorn and contempt. I loved Australia, and am not ashamed to admit it. Because of a very early advance screening, I had no inkling of the public censure to come, when my review was written; I predicted that Australia would "pack 'em in" during the upcoming holiday season. Well, that proved incorrect ... but the film deserves a much broader audience than it received. Maybe time will be kinder.

As for the rest, Clint Eastwood delivered another searing drama, this one based on jaw-dropping true events, and we also were transfixed by a heart-breaking Holocaust parable. All in all, a very strong month.

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


The Boy in the Striped Pajamas


Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

Quantum of Solace

Role Models

Transporter 3


Friday, March 25, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules — These kids rule!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011) • View trailer for Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.11

Jeff Kinney's clever and perceptive Wimpy Kid series made a thoroughly delightful transition to the big screen last year, when Diary of a Wimpy Kid became a well-deserved hit.

That was surprising enough, given the pitfalls waiting to trap unwary filmmakers who easily could have ruined the blend of line drawings and kid-oriented wisdom that made Kinney's book — and its several sequels — so popular with its target audience. (And — don't tell anybody! — with their parents.)
Surveying the aftermath of a party they weren't supposed to host in the first
place, Greg (Zachary Gordon, left) and older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick)
are further horrified to learn that their parents will be home at any moment ...
which leaves precious little time to clean up the mess and conceal any
lingering evidence.

The even greater surprise is that the just-released sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, is every bit as charming as its predecessor. All involved avoided the temptation to which so many lesser filmmakers succumb, which results in a sophomore effort that's heavier on the cruel, property-damaging slapstick and lighter on the poignant story elements that touched viewers' hearts the first time around. (Think back to Home Alone and its more-was-less sequel.) Director David Bowers, making a solid live-action debut after cutting his teeth on the animated features Flushed Away and Astro Boy, wisely resists several opportunities to crank up the mayhem; the result feels just as real-world as the first film.

Which is crucial, of course, because the whole point of Kinney's books is that his readers identify so strongly with their protagonist. Damage that relationship, and any film adaptation would suffer.

Not that this new film isn't funny. Indeed, it's often hilarious, precisely because screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah — closely following Kinney's template — play to all the adolescent-oriented catastrophes that give boys nightmares: not knowing how to approach the cute new girl in school, getting caught doing something dumb in a very public setting, and (oh, the horror!) accidentally winding up in a women's public restroom.

At its best, which is frequently, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules echoes the perfect blend of kid-size trauma and adult perspective that director Bob Clark brought to his adaptation of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, so many years ago. You really couldn't ask for more.

Well, yes I could: It's also nice to see the entire cast return from the first film, particularly since everybody was so well suited to their roles. (Well ... everybody except Chloe Grace Moretz's Angie. But I guess you can't expect everything.)

Having survived the various catastrophes and angst-laden crises of his previous year, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is relieved to enter the seventh grade, where he expects (hopes?) life will be less traumatic for him and best friend Rowley (Robert Capron). Not likely. Greg is still plagued by bratty, pig-tailed classroom nemesis Patty (Laine MacNeil) — the Margaret to Hank Ketchum's Dennis — and still suffers the geeky, weird behavior of tag-along Fregley (Grayson Russell). Plus, there's a new problem: a teacher who recognizes the Heffley name all too well, and immediately assumes that poor Greg is equally guilty by association.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jane Eyre: Deliciously swooning melodrama

Jane Eyre (2011) • View trailer for Jane Eyre
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite stupidly, for dramatic intensity and a fleeting nude image
By Derrick Bang

Folks who love their romances brooding and gothic will adore director Cary Fukunaga's new take on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I haven't seen so much angst and despair — nor so many dismal moors and long-suffering stares — since Merle Oberon chased Laurence Olivier in 1939's Wuthering Heights.

That was sister Emily Bronte's novel, of course, but Charlotte certainly penned an equally memorable saga of tortured love.
Jane (Mia Wasikowska) can't help being attracted to Rochester (Michael
Fassbender), even though she knows the very thought of embarking in a
relationship with the man is impossible, given the divide of their social
stations. But what is love, if not an emotion determined to surmount any
potential obstacle?

I'm frankly surprised, at a time when Jane Austen's books have enjoyed such renewed popularity, that we've not sooner re-visited either or both of the Bronte sisters. To be sure, a typical Austen heroine has more dash and sharp-tongued wit than an average Bronte heroine, but the latter should not be dismissed as silent wallflowers. This new Jane Eyre offers plenty of spirited feminine pluck, thanks both to Mia Wasikowska's sensitive performance and Moira Buffini's impressively nuanced script. The book runs roughly 400 pages, and capturing all that depth in a two-hour film is no small accomplishment; Buffini — who also scripted the charming Tamara Drewe — does a fine job.

Then, too, Michael Fassbender's Edward Rochester just might get swooning female viewers to forget Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy, in 1995's Pride and Prejudice. Fassbender's tempestuous Rochester is a haunted soul for the ages.

Fukunaga's one irritating misstep is the decision to open his film at the story's first climax — the conclusion of the third of this saga's five major acts — and then reveal what came before through a series of lengthy flashbacks. This sort of structural conceit, if employed unnecessarily, bespeaks a director who fears that his audience demands a splashy first scene, in order to settle into the story. That's utter nonsense, particularly given the drama at hand as Bronte's book begins.

Then, too, Fukunaga compounds the error later on, by showing us those opening scenes again, when Buffini's screenplay catches up to them. What, did they think we had forgotten so quickly?

That pesky annoyance aside, we quickly settle into the unhappy tale of poor Jane, orphaned as a child and initially raised by her Aunt Sarah (the hissably waspish Sally Hawkins, who recently starred in Made in Dagenham), who despises the girl. As soon as decorum permits, Jane — a heartbreaking performance, at this early age, by Amelia Clarkson — is shipped off to the foreboding Lowood School for Girls.

Additionally, Aunt Sarah makes it clear that "it" — not "she" — will remain at Lowood during all holidays. Needless to say, this is the sort of institution where the staff appears to live quite well on the tuition fees, while the scores of young girls must make do with cold rooms, minimal clothing and meager meals.

We generally associate this sort of hard-luck orphan with Charles Dickens ... and, in truth, Oliver Twist didn't have it any harder.

Paul: Sci-fi nerd delight

Paul (2011) • View trailer for Paul
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, occasional rude humor and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang

Genre geeks who flocked to 1999’s Galaxy Quest will get an equal kick out of Paul, and for many of the same reasons; this new comedy sends up the whole sci-fi nerd universe with equal mischief.

On top of which, we know we’re in for a good time when the British writing/acting team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost uncorks a fresh endeavor. And if this new effort isn’t quite as sharp as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, it’s still an amusing romp with enough satiric zingers — and affectionate pokes at sci-fi fandom — to satisfy its target audience.
Graeme (Simon Pegg, far left) and Clive (Nick Frost) have plenty to worry
about, once their extraterrestrial new friend takes the wheel of their RV, in
order to escape pursuit. Matters are further complicated by the fact that they've
sorta-kinda kidnapped Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a devout Christian whose close
encounter with this alien visitor proves, ah, life-changing.

Pegg and Frost star as Graeme Willy and Clive Gollings, two British genre geeks who’ve taken the vacation of their dreams in the United States, by starting at San Diego’s annual Comic-Con and then touring UFO-themed “hot spots” in the American heartland — Area 51, the “black mailbox” — in a rented RV.

They also possess a smattering of their own geek cred: Clive has written a sci-fi novel, Jelva, Alien Queen of the Varvak, which Graeme has illustrated. Most infamously, the book’s cover sports a sexy drawing of a green-skinned alien babe with three breasts ... an anatomical curiosity that prompts commentary from everybody who sees it.

Granted, it’s not hard to send up the whole Comic-Con experience, but Pegg and Frost nonetheless have a good time during the montage prologue that opens this film; they cover everything from the crazed costumes to the outrageously overpriced genre paraphernalia. Clive has his eye on an awe-inspiring, bushido-style sword, but he can’t surmount the four-figure price tag; naturally, the poor guy leaves the booth muttering dire imprecations in flawless Klingon.

The boys also queue up in order to get a signature from their idol, renowned sci-fi author Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor, appropriately condescending). The hilarious running gag here is Shadowchild’s list of credits; later, on several occasions, as Graeme and Clive are forced to explain who the author is, they rattle off increasingly wacky lists of the guy’s published books.

Once on the road, our heroes turn camera-crazy at each significant UFO tourist site ... and, before long, wind up with a most unusual hitchhiker. That would be Paul, a bona-fide extra-terrestrial on the lam from “The Big Guy” back at Area 51, who wants to remove his brain in order to study some of this alien’s more, ah, unusual talents.

Paul has been a “guest” of the U.S. government since the 1940s, when he had a spaceship mishap. Ever since, he has been something of an informational and psychological resource for shadowy federal agents. This story’s central conceit is that Paul — a not entirely random name given this unusual visitor — has been responsible for helping our government “shape” the American perception of life on other worlds. Paul’s input has even influenced several generations of sci-fi writers and filmmakers; you’ll quickly recognize the voice of the famous director who, in a brief flashback, is heard seeking advice on a project.

And, needless to say, Paul’s “office” is amid the stacked contents of a huge warehouse that looks every inch like the final shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids: Droll undercurrents

Cedar Rapids (2011) • View trailer for Cedar Rapids
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, crude humor, sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.18.11

Mark Twain’s innocents abroad never had it this rough.

Tim Lippe is a small-town guy through and through: an unsullied soul who seems quite content to remain within the sheltering boundaries of tiny Brown Valley, Wis. He sells peace of mind as an agent for locally based BrownStar Insurance, and he’s good at it; people trust his utterly sincere face — which is genuine, not a calculated façade — and acknowledge the wisdom of dealing with somebody who resides no more than a few blocks away.
Although Joan (Anne Heche) insists that Tim (Ed Helms, center right) shouldn't
have any trouble with an indoor climbing competition, our hero is far from
convinced. And once he's 20 feet off the ground, he'll naturally do the opposite
when some helpful soul warns him not to look down...

Tim lives alone in the house where he grew up, and seems content to do so. In the manner of an honest, guileless individual who lacks cynicism and fancies himself a moral clean spirit, he doesn’t miss what he can’t imagine. Whatever the greater world holds, somewhere Out There, he genuinely couldn’t care less. This isn’t a guy who lives vicariously through his Netflix subscription; he probably peruses nothing more progressive than Readers Digest.

But then ... disaster.

When a BrownStar colleague dies suddenly under eyebrow-raising circumstances — the details of which Tim refuses to contemplate — our sheltered adult waif is ordered to take the guy’s place at the industry’s annual ASMI convention in the free-wheeling, hothouse atmosphere of ... wait for it ...

Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Instant panic attack.

Indie director Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids starts slowly, almost somnambulantly, but gradually builds its way into the sort of hilarious, full-out raunchy comedy that the Farrelly brothers wish they could make, but haven’t near the talent — or artistic sensibilities — to pull off. But while Arteta deserves the credit for tone and pacing, and for encouraging precisely modulated performances from his talented ensemble cast, the true hero of the moment is screenwriter Phil Johnston.

You’d never know it from Johnston’s few credits: a couple of shorts and a forgettable made-for-TV sci-fi comedy. But he must’ve been shopping the script for Cedar Rapids around, because he made Variety’s 2009 list of “10 screenwriters to watch,” an accolade he clearly deserves. Cedar Rapids makes excellent use of a successful comedy’s essential ingredients: a simple yet captivating premise, well drawn characters, funny but wholly credible plot hiccups, and — most important — a solid moral center that allows us to root for the protagonist.

Not to mention a pitch-perfect performance from star Ed Helms, cast as poor, beleaguered Tim. The long-time veteran of TV’s The Office got his big screen break with 2009’s The Hangover, and knew just what to do with it. His work here in Cedar Rapids merely illustrates the obvious: Helms knows how to carry a starring role.

And it’s not an easy part. Too much clowning, too much infantile behavior, and Tim would devolve into the sort of man-child caricature that Will Ferrell has turned into such a tiresome cliché. Alternatively, too much aggressive compensation — too large a dose of the inner wild child encouraged to escape during this life-changing ASMI weekend — and Tim would cease to be sympathetic.

The Lincoln Lawyer: Sloppy defense

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) • View trailer for The Lincoln Lawyer
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence and sexual content
By Derrick Bang 

Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast as novelist Michael Connelly’s cocky defense attorney, Mick Haller, and John Romano’s screenplay is impressively faithful to the novel of the same title.

No surprise there. Connelly’s engaging book — the sort of page-turning pot-boiler one loves to have while flying across the country — reads like a film script.
Although the charges against Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan
Phillippe, right) are grim, resourceful defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew
McConaughey) has several tricks up his sleeve. But even Haller is destined to
be surprised, as this case spins off in a few unpredictable directions.

Unfortunately, director Brad Furman does the project no favors. His bombastic, exploitative approach adds an air of overwrought cheesiness to these proceedings, and he too frequently allows his characters to stand and declaim in the manner of first-year drama students. As a result, McConaughey’s performance is wildly uneven: gritty and persuasive at one moment, laughably over the top at other times.

And Furman may be the first director to encourage or tolerate sloppy work from the usually exceptional William H. Macy.

Not that we should be surprised. Pedigree always tells, and Furman’s only previous big-screen credit is 2007’s trashy armored car heist flick, The Take: reasonably diverting as a junky, made-for-cable quickie, but nothing to write home about. And while The Lincoln Lawyer, as a property, certainly represents a step up for Furman, he doesn’t rise to the occasion. I kept wishing Connelly had been able to hold out for a better director.

Casting is another problem. The first major chunk of Connelly’s novel is a classic mystery, with respect to who did what to whom, before this information is revealed and Haller subsequently winds up with a whole new set of problems. Alas, that tantalizing puzzle is blown practically from the moment we meet all the major players in this movie, because the actor in question couldn’t look more guilty if he wore a sign around his neck. To a degree, that’s because this actor always looks like a smug, arrogant bastard ... but, again, Furman could have tried harder to conceal the obvious.

Haller is introduced while plying his trade in his “office,” which happens to be the back seat of his Lincoln Continental sedan, invariably driven by streetwise colleague Earl (Laurence Mason, appropriately cool). Connelly’s book explains this intriguing affectation, but Furman can’t be bothered with such details, so audience members are left to wonder why Haller can’t afford a proper office environment.

That aside, Haller is quite willing to work with social misfits, whether members of a rough-trade biker gang or hookers struggling with a drug habit. For the most part, though, Haller demands regular visits from “Mr. Green” ... which is to say, suitable payment for services rendered.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From the archives: December 2008

Double features, once a cherished constant of the movie-going experience, have all but disappeared.

Multiplex houses hardly ever show more than one film on a given screen; if they do, you'll need to pay separate admission for each. Art houses and independent theaters sometimes offer double features, but even here they're few and far between. Perhaps more tellingly, the mainstream "movie date" no longer allows for double features. Who has the time?

As a result, my rare opportunities for double features have been accidental, usually resulting from the nature of my job. So it was, on an otherwise average Thursday afternoon in November 2008, that I found myself in the pleasant company of colleage Jonathan Mumm — film critic for Sacramento's Channel 10 — at that city's Crest Theater. Thanks to that week's random assignments of preview screenings, both Australia and Slumdog Millionaire were being shown to us critics that day, at (as I recall) 1 and 4 p.m., respectively. Since Australia clocks in at 165 minutes, that left time only for a brief pit stop in between.

I couldn't have cared less. It was a magical afternoon at the movies: six hours (more or less) that encapsulated everything I love about the medium. The sense of wonder, the feeling of being carried away by stories well told, the admiration for all the many talents — in front of and behind the camera — who had collaborated so well to deliver these sumptuous results.

Australia, for reasons I'll never understand, tanked at the box office, finding favor neither with critics nor the public. Too old-style and corny, I guess, but I loved it nonetheless.

Slumdog Millionaire, however, was something else again: an absolute masterpiece that I knew, without question, would become a world-wide phenomenon ... and deservedly so.

Director Danny Boyle's film was the brightest spot among 2008's holiday movie season, although by no means the only gem; Milk — given an additional (and serendipitous) boost by political events of the moment — also earned a well-deserved spot among solid, fact-based dramas.

As for the rest ... well, not such a much. The month brought us numerous movies that were compromised by ill-advised business decisions. The usually dependable Will Smith and Tom Cruise stumbled, and rather badly; the former attached himself to a thoroughly depressing — and wholly unbelievable — melodrama, while the latter was completely miscast as a WWII-era German soldier. An otherwise engaging adaptation of a best-selling book suffered from an equally miscast Owen Wilson. Sloppy history marred the great music re-created for a profile of uppity Chess Records, which helped re-shape the radio landscape of the 1950s and '60s. A charming children's book became dour and even frightening when brought to the big screen. Disappointments, all.

Ah, but Slumdog Millionaire made up for 'em. And then some.

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

Cadillac Records

Marley & Me


Seven Pounds

Slumdog Millionaire

The Tale of Despereaux


Yes Man

Friday, March 11, 2011

Red Riding Hood: Not Grimm enough

Red Riding Hood (2011) • View trailer for Red Riding Hood
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, bits of grue and fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.11.11

Having been dumped rather unceremoniously from the Twilight film series, after bringing a respectable adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's first book to the big screen, director Catherine Hardwicke came up with a rather droll response: She bundled the same elements into a fresh (but familiar) package, apparently hoping to kick-start her own franchise.
Having already absorbed the shock of her only sister's brutal murder by a
marauding werewolf, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, foreground left) and her
parents (Billy Burke and Virginia Madsen) are horrified to learn that the beast
probably lives concealed within their own village: perhaps even as a trusted
friend or neighbor.

So, while this new Red Riding Hood ostensibly is drawn from the Charles Perrault/Brothers Grimm fairy tale, David Johnson's script actually is a swoony, Gothic-style romance set in the medieval times of a world not quite our own, with a plucky young heroine torn between the two young men who love her, while their village is beset by a ferocious, magical creature.

Sound familiar?

Although the many coincidences can't be accidental, Hardwicke's film has its own merits. For starters, production designer Thomas E. Sanders has done very impressive work with this story's setting: the isolated township of Daggerhorn, a rough-hewn clutch of wooden dwellings nestled amid the dark and scary woods that completely surround its citizens. The trees themselves are malevolent, their trunks sprouting long, spiky thorns just waiting to impale the unwary or careless.

Life would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but Daggerhorn has long been plagued by its own additional menace: a marauding werewolf that has inspired a ritual of dread in all these people. Inclined to be superstitious by nature — these are, we must remember, unenlightened times — the townsfolk slaughter their prize livestock each full moon, as an offering to the beast, in the hopes that this will prevent it from killing people.

As the story opens, this uneasy "arrangement" seems to have worked for many years, during which the werewolf hasn't decreased the local population. But just as we're introduced to our heroine, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), the beast strikes again, claiming the life of Valerie's sister. This ghastly event forestalls Valerie's intention to run away with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the somewhat wild young man she has loved her entire life. This rather reckless plan seemed like Valerie's only course of action, because her parents — Cesaire (Billy Burke) and Suzette (Virginia Madsen) — have decreed that she is to marry Henry (Max Irons), scion of the town's wealthiest family.

Peter, something of a "bad boy," is only a poor woodcutter, like Valerie's father; Henry, the good boy, is a much more "respectable" blacksmith. (I can't quite see the difference, so we must assume that Daggerhorn has its own unique caste system.)

Battle Los Angeles: Retreat, hell!

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) • View trailer for Battle: Los Angeles
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang 

You have to feel sorry for Los Angeles.

Invaded by Martians in 1953. Infested with giant ants in 1954. Flattened by an earthquake in 1974. Annihilated by a nuclear bomb in 1991. Assaulted by more outer space visitors in 1996. Buried beneath lava in 1997. Blasted to bits by freak storms in 2004. Destroyed by giants robots in 2007. Shaken to bits by gravitational forces in 2009 and — for good measure, that same year — overrun by ravenous zombies.
Staff Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart, center) contemplates a situation that has gone
from bad to worse, leaving his squad open and exposed to punishing enemy
fire, while Santos (Michelle Rodriguez, right rear) scans their surroundings
for the expected assault by overwhelming forces.

Honestly, the City of Angels can’t catch a break.

Things go kaflooey again in the rip-snortin’ Battle: Los Angeles, when the metropolis becomes one of several dozen world-wide beachheads for yet another alien invasion from space.

Director Jonathan Liebesman’s kick-ass action flick is a suspenseful, sci-fi echo of few-against-many classics as diverse as Rio Bravo, The Seven Samurai and Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter’s version). This is an impressive step up for Leibesman, previously known only for low-grade horror flicks such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and The Killing Room. He obviously apprenticed well, because Battle: Los Angeles hits the ground running and doesn’t let up, with a suspenseful first act that builds throughout to an exciting climax.

On top of which, this may be the best U.S. Marine recruitment film ever made.

Liebesman makes a few missteps, such as opening with a completely unnecessary flash-forward and then backing up 24 hours, to more leisurely introduce the story’s major players. This is the sort of panicky artistic decision made by somebody worried that we’ll not be interested in his movie, unless he overwhelms us immediately with some explosions.

He should have trusted Christopher Bertolini’s screenplay. And our intelligence.

Far better, in this case, to have started that one day ahead, thus allowing us to wonder — along with the cast — about the oddly organized “meteors” that suddenly enter Earth’s atmosphere and then plunge, in distinct patterns, into oceans directly off the coastlines of major cities.

Indeed, even when it becomes obvious that these objects are the initial phalanx of a full-blown planetary invasion, Liebesman teases us during the first act, before finally revealing what, precisely, has emerged from those spacecraft. He’s obviously adept at building nervous tension and suspense, and therefore should have done so from the top.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

From the archives: January 2009

Months like this make my job a tremendous pleasure.

As often is the case in California's Sacramento Valley, January is spent catching up with the prestige December films from the previous year, which initially open only in select big-city markets (for Academy Awards consideration) and then later migrate to rest of the country. The best pickings were rich this time out, highlighted by a mesmerizing political drama, yet another solid character study from director/star Clint Eastwood, and a curiously poignant adult fantasy suggested by an obscure F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.

Things weren't all skittles and beer, of course; I was crushed by the way graphic novel genius Frank Miller ruined Will Eisner's iconic comic strip hero, The Spirit, with a thoroughly reprehensible big-screen adaptation. "Disappointment" wasn't anywhere near a strong enough word for my reaction.

Then, too, I wasn't as moved by Revolutionary Road as this drama's critical reception led me to expect; despite strong performances, the characters aren't well conceived, and the result is oddly flat and uninvolving.

An established series of fantasy novels made a lackluster debut on the big screen, pretty much scotching any hopes of sequels; an otherwise earnest WWII saga — based on actual events — succumbed to a "Hollywood approach" that worked against the story's power.

And, rather bewilderingly, we were treated to what felt like only half a movie: an unfinished work-in-progress that utterly wasted the talents of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

Even these misfires, however, are intriguing for the manner in which they don't quite come properly alive.

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

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button



Gran Torino


Last Chance Harvey

New in Town

Revolutionary Road

The Spirit

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: Well adjusted!

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) • View trailer for The Adjustment Bureau
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.4.11

Oooo ... this one’s way-cool.

Catching a preview screening of The Adjustment Bureau several weeks early, before the inevitable media blitz had a chance to ruin any of the clever story’s surprises, reminded me of a similar happy encounter with The Truman Show, back in 1998.
Most guys would be rather startled to find an attractive woman hiding in an
otherwise deserted hotel men's room. David Norris (Matt Damon) is surprised,
to be sure, but he and Elise (Emily Blunt) immediately feel a spark of attraction:
a connective jolt that suggests their lives are destined to be intertwined. But to
what degree? Ah, that's the core of this film's tantalizing mystery.

Paramount must not have known how to handle that atypical Jim Carrey film, because the studio screened it more than a month before it opened. As a result, nobody in the packed theater – Carrey was at the height of his popularity, at the time – had the faintest idea what to expect. I still remember the collective murmurs of surprise, right at the beginning, when the skylight fell with a clank onto the “stage.”

Being part of that crowd, as everybody gradually realized the nature of Andrew Niccol’s marvelous script, was quite a buzz.

My point: We live in a tell-all-now society, which works against stories that derive much of their juice from unusual concepts or unexpected plot twists. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most people don't turn to the final page of a mystery first, to see if the butler did it; we truly do like to be startled and astonished. Why else would films such as The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense have made such a huge impact?

All of which brings us to The Adjustment Bureau, and the cheeky surprises to be found in director/scripter George Nolfi’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Adjustment Team.” Merely mentioning Dick’s name is something of a giveaway in itself; truth be told, I’d prefer that my loyal readers stop reading right here, take my encouragement on faith, and go see the film before, inevitably – despite the care with which the subsequent paragraphs will be constructed – I reveal too much.

Then come back and read the rest of this commentary.

No? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you...

On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious New York politician David Norris (Matt Damon) sees his carefully choreographed plans shot to bits when a scandal rag unearths and publishes – on election eve – an indelicate photo from his rowdier college days. The blowback is swift and catastrophic, as David’s friend and campaign manager, Charlie (Michael Kelly), understands full well. The two go through the motions on election day, but with poll results coming in, the bleak result comes to pass.

Alone with his regrets in a men’s restroom at the fancy hotel where he had hoped to celebrate his victory, David instead works his way through a “Well, gang, we tried” speech. He’s unexpectedly interrupted by a decidedly female voice, which belongs to a vivaciously sexy ballet dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt), who has been hiding from hotel security because she crashed a wedding elsewhere in the hotel. She’s flustered and apologetic on David’s behalf, having heard what he has been doing, during what he thought was a private moment.

David is bemused, but certainly not irritated.

Rango: Sickly green

Rango (2011) • View trailer for Rango
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for rude humor and occasionally tasteless action mayhem
By Derrick Bang 

I’d say this animated oddity goes off the rails when Clint Eastwood shows up – yes, Clint Eastwood (after a fashion, anyway) – but it actually jumps the track long before that.

Right about the time the crushed armadillo starts talking like the Dalai Lama.
Rango (center) contemplates an odd local ritual surrounding the desperate need
for water, as townsfolk Priscilla (far left) and Wounded Bird (right) clutch empty
bottles and line-dance their way to a spigot that they pray, this time, will
provide the life-sustaining fluid. If this peculiar sequence is intended to be
funny, it fails ... like much of the rest of this film.

Well, no; even that’s too far in. Rango loses its way right from the start, when its chameleon hero runs through a Stanislavski acting exercise with the help of a cocktail sword, a plastic tree and the maimed torso from some long-discarded doll.

Successful comedy requires two elements: sharp writing and deft timing. The gags – and the set-up – must have potential to begin with, and then the lines must be delivered with unerring precision. If either ingredient – or both – fails to gel, the result falls flatter than an unwatched soufflé.

And it doesn’t matter whether we’re discussing live actors or animated characters; the goals are the same. Indeed, well-animated wisecracks – think of all the perfectly timed lines and facial expressions in Despicable Me – can be delivered just as well those spoken by real-world performers.

All of which goes to explain why Rango simply doesn’t cut it. Too much of this film just can’t rise to the occasion; it lays there, helpless, like road kill. Director Gore Verbinski may know how to handle the ba-dum-bum frozen beat that follows a good gag – as all the characters hold the moment – but this only works if something funny has preceded the pause.

Absent a genuine giggle, we’re left only with lots of dead air time. Rango has way too much dead air time; it’s a total yawn. The script – by John Logan, Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit – simply isn’t very good.

Frankly, I can’t imagine what made Verbinski think he could handle an animated film in the first place. While it’s true his amazingly successful Pirates of the Caribbean series has more than an average amount of CGI sweetening, when the camera rolls each day, he’s still handling human beings. Animated comedy requires an entirely different mind-set and years upon years of training and practice ... as any Pixar director will be the first to insist. One cannot simply “jump into animation” and expect to get it right; that betrays impressive levels of both ignorance and arrogance.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

From the archives: February 2009

The first few months of any new year have become notoriously weak for big-studio Hollywood product: the time when pictures deemed unworthy of release the previous autumn are dumped into the laps of unsuspecting viewers. I've never understood why bad publicity money gets thrown after bad flicks, but then I've never run a movie studio. (And, with my attitude, obviously never will.)

And, so, February 2009 was "highlighted" by a numb-nuts sequel to a misbegotten remake; an ill-advised effort to milk humor from uber-consumerism, just as the American economy tanked; an espionage thriller that self-destructed in the final act; and an ensemble cast effort at a Valentine's Day romantic comedy that wilted like last week's roses.

Things are pretty bad when the highlights are limited to a foreign film released the previous year, and only making its way to my Northern California market months later; and the annual collection of Academy Award-nominated short subjects by filmmakers not yet corrupted by corporate or commercial dictates.

But do not misunderstand me: That package of 2008 short subjects is fab. Sadly, though, if you weren't lucky enough to catch those 10 filmlets during their road-show appearances at art houses prior to the Oscar broadcast, you'll find it extremely difficult to do so now. Short films still get very little aftermarket love; some pop up on YouTube, while a few others can be found by, ah, inventive detectives who know their way around the Internet. On rare occasions, the directors concerned make them viewable on their personal Web sites.

As for the aforementioned Hollywood features ... well, don't say you haven't been warned.

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

Confessions of a Shopaholic

He's Just Not That Into You

The International

I've Loved You So Long

Oscar Shorts 2008

The Pink Panther 2