Friday, April 29, 2011

Fast Five: Over-revved

Fast Five (2011) • View trailer for Fast Five
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too generously, for profanity, sexual content and unrelenting violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.29.11

If the destruction of personal property were the benchmark of quality in a film, then this one would be a masterpiece. I've not seen so much gratuitous carnage since the Blues Brothers wrecked an entire shopping mall — amid dozens of needless close-ups of shattered storefronts and smashed merchandise — back in 1980.
Having rather miraculously escaped certain death while dangling from a speeding
train, Brian (Paul Walker, left) and Dominic (Vin Diesel) face a fresh problem:
They're about to roar off a cliff ... with nothing but a long drop below.

All attitude and relentless road rage, Fast Five is vacuous Hollywood product at its finest. Director Justin Lin rarely allows himself to be bothered by irritating details such as plot or character development; this fifth entry in the Fast & Furious series survives solely on macho posturing, scantily clad babes, screaming engines, spinning tires and gear-shift close-ups. I could make a rude comment about symbolism, and what the latter traditionally compensates for, but that'd be giving way too much credit to Chris Morgan's laughably dim-witted screenplay.

Admittedly, Vin Diesel isn't one of the world's great actors, but under better circumstances he can hold camera focus and deliver a line with gruff, teddy bear charm. But he can't make any headway with Morgan's lame dialogue here, which never rises above hilariously soap-opera-ish twaddle such as "It's all about family" ... this from a guy who has, during the course of this series, thought nothing of putting his sister and girlfriend — and anybody else who might have meant something to him — in harm's way every five to 10 minutes. Like they say, love can be cruel.

I'll give editors Kelly Matsumoto, Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner credit for momentum; they certainly move things along, in the manner of a relentless roller coaster. An endless roller coaster, at that; Fast Five clocks in at an indefensible 130 minutes, which is at least half an hour too long. Morgan pads his storyline with too many tiresome sidebar schemes and blown efforts, and of course we need the token street-racing sequence, with all-but-naked cuties draped provocatively over similarly hot cars. Even stalwart fans are apt to get restless as the third act drags on, by which time this franchise has attempted to re-invent itself as Dominic's Eleven.

That results from this story's extensive character reunion, drawing from faces going all the way back to 2001's The Fast and the Furious, whose success we can thank — or blame, depending on your taste — for the fact that we're still enduring this silly nonsense a decade later.

Lin opens this entry, as is customary, with a typically audacious stunt sequence that ignores both the laws of physics and the human body's resilience. With Dominic Toretto (Diesel) en route to a federal pen for the rest of his life, good buddy Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), roar up behind the prison transport bus and execute a maneuver that flips the larger vehicle, rolling it like a huge metal sausage until it smashes into pieces at the side of this conveniently deserted road.

Cool, said my Constant Companion; Dominic and everybody else on that bus obviously just got pulped beyond recognition, so I guess we can go home.

No such luck. As half a dozen TV newscasters subsequently inform us, "Miraculously, nobody was killed." (Now, there's an understatement!) And, of course, everybody is accounted for except Dominic, who's gone with the wind.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

From the archives: July 2008

Fantasy came in all sorts of flavors this month, but the summer's undisputed hit — and deservedly so — was director Christopher Nolan's accomplished second outing with Bruce Wayne's constantly stressed alter-ego, Batman. The Dark Knight is a superhero film for the ages, right up there with Spider-Man 2. Everything works in Nolan's film, and of course we'll also treasure it for Heath Ledger's memorably scary performance as the villain of the piece: the frightful Joker.

At the family-friendly end of the scale, the fresh adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth is a larkish delight, and perfect for all ages. Star Brendan Fraser once again demonstrates his deft talent for bringing credibility to even the silliest plot contrivance, and a good time is had by all.

ABBA fans were thrilled to find their favorite stage musical making its way to the big screen, and while Mamma Mia is fun in all sorts of ways, it would have been leagues better with a cast that could sing. I mean, Pierce Brosnan? Puh-leaze! Granted, ol' Pierce gives it the college try — as does Colin Firth — but these are actors, not singers and dancers, and the film suffers for the distinction.

As for the rest, Will Smith stumbled badly with his own superhero entry, a film that simply can't decide what it wants to be; and director Guillermo del Toro quite unwisely decide to make a sequel to his misfit superhero entry of a few years back. Both films fail because of inconsistent tone and a sniggering, jokey atmosphere that overwhelms any involvement we might have with these characters.

The month's pleasant surprise, however, was the overlooked and under-appreciated Swing Vote: an up-to-the-minute political comedy/drama that remains relevant to this day. Too many people have given up on Kevin Costner, and that's a shame; he's still able to uncork a winner every so often, and this one fits the bill. It's also a whimsical indictment of politicians behaving badly, and God knows we need to be reminded of that as often as possible.

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

Animation Show 4

Brick Lane

The Dark Knight


Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Mamma Mia


Swing Vote

Friday, April 22, 2011

Water for Elephants: Medium-top melodrama

Water for Elephants (2011) • View trailer for Water for Elephants
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence, dramatic intensity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.22.11

Acting flavors of the month shouldn't be allowed anywhere near prestige projects.

The newbie's presence inevitably affects atmosphere and tone, and sometimes story elements are modified — or compromised — according to this fresh young talent's strengths ... or limitations.
When August (Christoph Waltz, left) begins to suspect that his wife, Mariena
(Reese Witherspoon), and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) have become more than
troupe acquaintances, he orchestrates a cruel charade and orders them to
participate; we nervously eye this uncomfortable game, while also wondering
why the circus owner has insisted on the presence of Rosie, the company's
new elephant star.

Robert Pattinson's most visible problem is an acting range that stretches most of the way from A to B. He delivers tortured angst quite well, having had plenty of practice as the sparkly vampire love interest in the Twilight series. The trouble is, Pattinson's apparent takes on more cheerful emotions — happiness, satisfaction, love — still look very much like ... well, tortured angst.

He's therefore quite credible here while pining for Reese Witherspoon, or one of the most personable elephants ever captured on camera ... although it looks very much like the way he pines for Kristin Stewart's Bella, in the Twilight movies.

When things go his character's way in Water for Elephants, though ... well, it's difficult to tell the difference.

In a nutshell, both Witherspoon and supporting actor Christoph Waltz act circles around Pattinson. They're so far superior that he all but vanishes from the screen: rather awkward, given that his character is this story's protagonist. Heck, Mark Povinelli, in a minor role as a dwarf circus clown named Kinko, is more credible — and gives us a better sense of his character — than Pattinson.

In most other respects, director Francis Lawrence delivers a respectable adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, thanks in great part to a thoughtful, well-constructed screenplay from Richard LaGravanese (who also adapted The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer, among his numerous other credits). He has, of necessity, condensed many of the events from Gruen's dense Depression-era saga; he and Lawrence also have made the story far more viewer-friendly, toning down both the period squalor and often shocking animal cruelty, as befits a gentler PG-13 rating.

So while this film affords a reasonable glimpse of the hard-scrabble conditions found within a third-rated Depression-era traveling circus, the cruelty and sadism displayed by numerous characters in Gruen's book have been condensed into a single, supremely malevolent figure: Waltz's August, owner/manager of the Benzini Brothers Circus ("the most spec-ta-cu-lar show on Earth!").

But his introduction comes later. We first meet Jacob (Hal Holbrook) in the present day: an old-timer disgusted with life in a nursing home, who has wandered off to visit a nearby circus. Jacob winds up recounting his youthful days to an interested listener, and thus we're whisked back to the 1930s, as a polished and confident veterinary medicine student (now played by Pattinson) prepares to take the test that will confer his degree. But the exam is interrupted by a crisis: Jacob's two loving parents have been killed in a road accident. The young man subsequently learns that he's penniless, his parents having converted their house and business into cash, in order to fund their only child's education.

Bereft and adrift, Jacob hits the road, unable to return to the life and career that had been so carefully planned.

(One would think, given the nature of Jacob's devotion to his mother and father, that he'd honor their memory by taking the damn exam and hanging up his vet-med shingle. But then, of course, we wouldn't have a story...)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From the archives: August 2008

This month's pleasant surprise was unexpected, to say the least: a two-year-old French thriller, finally making its way to the States, and based on a novel by American crime novelist Harlan Coben. An awkward fit, you might think ... but far from it. Tell No One wasn't merely one of the best thrillers I'd seen in years, at the time; it's still one of the best thrillers I've seen in years. If you've not yet had the pleasure, stop wasting time ... and if subtitles make you nervous, get over it.

Other worthwhile efforts included an engaging urban fantasy, a slick espionage thriller ripped from present-day terrorism concerns, and a charming return visit with the four young actresses who brought the first Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book to the big screen three years earlier.

The month had its share of disappointments, of course, starting with the realization that George Lucas will sink to any necessary depths, in order to squeeze more money from his Star Wars franchise. While the extended Clone Wars chapter would have been easy to ignore as the ongoing TV series it became, I was forced to pay attention to the big-screen "film" that kicked things off ... and the word "film" appears in quotation marks for the simple reasons that Star Wars: The Clone Wars wasn't even a true movie, but rather the first few TV episodes strung together, to feature length. I call that dishonesty in advertising.

The jaw-dropper, though, was the degree to which Pineapple Express caught the public's attention. I guess there's no such thing as a failed stoner comedy, even one that boasts a wretched script, a $1.97 budget and ham-bone "acting" that wouldn't pass muster at a junior high school talent show. (And the fact that star James Franco was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, for his work in this film, says all that needs saying, about that body of voters.)

Equally ill-advised: the decision to remake Brideshead Revisited, which had been such a splashy, must-see TV hit as an 11-hour miniseries, back in 1981. File this attempt under "What were they thinking," and don't waste your time. Indeed, seek out the miniseries instead; three decades have passed, after all ... plenty of time to have forgotten all the wonderful narrative depth that kept so many viewers transfixed, back in the day.

As for the rest, step into the Wayback Machine, and check 'em out:

Bottle Shock

Brideshead Revisited

Henry Poole Is Here

Pineapple Express

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Tell No One


Friday, April 15, 2011

The Conspirator: Rule of panic

The Conspirator (2011) • View trailer for The Conspirator
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.15.11

Trust Robert Redford to find a historical courtroom drama that shrewdly echoes current events.

The Conspirator, set in the aftermath of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, focuses on what many view as a moral imperative: the need to adhere to the rules of American law, even — and most particularly — during times of national crisis. Vengeance, bloodlust and perceived expediency cannot be allowed to dictate our behavior, lest we sink to the level of those we presume to judge.
Having won his client, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the privilege of some fresh
air and sunshine after having been confined to a dingy, straw-filled cell, attorney
Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) accepts an invitation to sit with her. Much to
his surprise, he's beginning to see this woman less as a "heinous Confederate,"
and more as a human being.

One cannot imagine a better project for Redford, who has based his recent directing career on politically charged content. While not nearly as shrill as 2007’s Lions for Lambs, this film is just as likely to divide viewers along predictable party lines, and that’s a shame; the message here is equally crucial for those on either side of the partisan divide.

For if nobody is safe from the possibility of a witch hunt dressed up to resemble a court of law, then we’re all vulnerable ... depending only on who’s in charge, or shouts the loudest, at any given moment.

That’s ... unsettling.

We tend to forget, all these years later, that Lincoln wasn’t the only target that fateful night of April 14, 1865; the assassins who shot him while the president enjoyed an evening of theater also attempted to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The goal was nothing less than a complete overthrow of government, arranged by ultra-loyalist Southerners inflamed by the outcome of the Civil War, just five days after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

The man responsible for killing Johnson succumbed to nerves and never made the attempt. Seward, recovering from a nasty fall a few weeks earlier, probably survived his attack thanks to the neck brace that deflected his would-be assassin’s numerous knife blows.

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. the following day. This film’s distributor, Roadside Attractions, deserves credit for cleverly releasing The Conspirator on April 15.

Historians generally agree that the plot was orchestrated by popular stage actor John Wilkes Booth, who was killed during the subsequent manhunt. Numerous other conspirators were rounded up, some of whom made no attempt to conceal their actions.

This film’s storyline, thoughtfully scripted by James D. Solomon and Gregory Bernstein, focuses on one alleged conspirator whose involvement seemed open to doubt: Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house where Booth and his cronies frequently met to discuss their plans. Initially, Surratt was but one of scores of people arrested and imprisoned solely because they may have known or come into casual contact with Booth and his fellow plotters. But the suspects eventually were narrowed down to the eight people brought before a military tribunal that began May 1; Mary Surratt was the lone woman among the eight.

All were civilians, and all were tried not by a jury of their peers, but in front of a military court of nine officers who needed only reach a simple majority for conviction, and a two-thirds majority for a death sentence.

Rio: Samba-hued delight

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

I haven’t had this much fun south of the border, since Donald Duck met Joe Carioca and Panchito in 1945’s The Three Caballeros.
Rafael, right, a toucan deliriously in love with Rio and its annual Carnaval
celebration, insists that natural instincts will take over if Blu, left, simply tries
to fly. Blu has his doubts, and so does Jewel ... who already has seen a few of
the displaced Blu's unsuccessful efforts to leave the ground.

Rio is a joyous, giddy riot of color and song, anchored by captivating characters and propelled by a clever story that delivers plenty of fun — and a sly environmental message — while building to a suspenseful finale. This is, in short, another can’t-miss hit from Blue Sky Studios, the folks behind the equally polished Ice Age franchise.

A few elements — notably the placement of some songs — feel “borrowed” from the formula employed in Madagascar, but not to a bothersome degree; let’s just say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and let it go at that.

Mostly, director/co-scripter Carlos Saldanha scores by skillfully matching character to voice talent, supplying a narrative — with co-writer Don Rhymer — that opens with pizzazz and unfolds in distinctive chapters, and, perhaps more than anything else, reflects the obviously unabashed affection he has for his own home town of Rio de Janeiro.

Not since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, and its delirious depiction of Paris, has a director concocted such an opulent valentine to his native city.

As this film’s press notes so eloquently — and truthfully — state, Rio is more than a point on a map; it’s a magical place, a state of mind, and an attitude.

The saga begins in the Brazilian jungle, as a baby bird delights in an explosion of colorful avian neighbors indulging in a choreographed winged dance that would do Busby Berkeley proud. Sadly, this euphoric moment doesn’t last; smugglers descend and snatch as many birds as they can toss into cages ... including our terrified youngster.

A long plane trip and a van mishap later, the tropical infant is close to death in a small, snowbound Minnesota community. Salvation arrives in the form of a little girl named Linda, who carefully plucks the tiny creature from its damaged packing crate, promising to care for it.

One charming montage later, the girl has grown up and become the owner of her own small-town bookstore; the bird has matured into a gorgeous blue macaw dubbed Blu. The two are inseparable, and I wish the film could pause long enough to spend more time with the daily routine enjoyed by these two best friends; it’s both droll and touching.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

From the archives: September 2008

September can be a cruel month.

Summer is over, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned. We're therefore often stuck with leftovers that got pushed back, because of the (theoretically) better films that were given the prime months from May to July. And, indeed, September 2008 had its share of losers, most of which I didn't bother to discuss at length (although you'll find half a dozen of them cited in one I did suffer through, because of its Sundance Film Festival cred: the simply dreadful Hamlet 2).

Writer/director Diane English's ill-advised remake/update of The Women also is a classic September movie. What a sad, sad waste of a high-profile cast.

Alternatively, September can be great for counter-programming by films not necessarily intended to set the world on fire. The Coen brothers scored with their delicious Burn After Reading, a welcome return to the macabre blend of humor and drama they previously delivered so well in Fargo.

And look at this: back-to-back Penélope Cruz projects. Although both could be (unfairly) dismissed as superficial male sex fantasies, both occupy richer waters. Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona got most of the press, but while it's an engaging lark, it doesn't have near the heft of the all-but-ignored Elegy: a truly powerful, poignant drama fueled by two excellent performances.

As for the rest, another ludicrous tear-jerker was made from a Nicholas Sparks novel — his formula has become both predictable and tiresome — and Ricky Gervais delivered a droll, delightful surprise with the low-key Ghost Town.

So, all in all, a mixed bag. You get to skip most of the September bombs, because I weeded 'em out for you. (It's my job.)

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

Burn After Reading

Eagle Eye


Ghost Town

Hamlet 2

Nights in Rodanthe

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

The Women

Friday, April 8, 2011

Arthur: Poor little rich remake

Arthur (2011) • View trailer for Arthur
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sensuality, profanity, drug references and relentless alcohol abuse
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.8.11

Director Jason Winer's most impressive accomplishment, in his remake of 1981's Arthur, is keeping a lid on his star's aggressively flamboyant tendencies.

A little bit of Russell Brand goes a very long way.
Breakfast time in the Bach household often is conducted well after the noon
hour, as Hobson (Helen Mirren) patiently prepares a meal for the utterly
helpless Arthur (Russell Brand), who couldn't boil water without destroying
half the kitchen.

Indeed, I'd argue that Brand is best used as a supporting player, where his shenanigans can provide an ostentatious counterpoint to calmer leading players; in just such a capacity, he was one of the brighter spots in the mostly forgettable Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Alternatively, Brand completely overwhelmed last year's Get Him to the Greek ... which, I've no doubt, delighted both his fans and anybody who enjoys the similarly overplayed antics of, say, Will Ferrell or Steve Coogan. Larger-than-life comic personalities rarely "act" in their films, as opposed to simply playing unvarying versions of their successful stage personas.

In which case, let the viewer beware.

But Brand manages to be occasionally endearing here, as Arthur Bach: a spoiled-rotten, super-rich, arrested adolescent who never refuses an opportunity to make headlines while concocting new ways to embarrass his mother. Vivienne (Geraldine James) runs the family corporate empire, her husband — Arthur's father — having (wisely?) passed on when his only son was 3. Subsequently raised in a sheltered environment by an absentee single parent too frequently in the boardroom, Arthur has turned unrestrained hedonism into an Olympic-caliber sport, believing that one cannot have too much wine, too many women (often simultaneously) or too much song.

All this is a constant source of irritation to Hobson (Helen Mirren), Arthur's patient, long-suffering but mordantly prickly nanny. Hobson tirelessly cleans up after her charge, having done so for decades. And if this is motivated at least in part by affection, as opposed to a regular paycheck, that's difficult to discern ... initially, anyway.

Oh, yes: Arthur also drinks. Constantly. Excessively. With the intention of humorous effect.

Therein lies a problem.

The original Arthur, brilliantly written and directed by Steve Gordon — who died, tragically, just after the release of this, his big-screen debut — was designed as an homage to 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, which existed in the same sort of rarefied, fantasyland atmosphere populated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance flicks. This was an era of archetypes rarely seen in our more cynical, obnoxiously politically correct 21st century: dumb blondes, honorable cowboys, hookers with a heart of gold, and — most crucially, for our purposes — lovable drunks. Gordon's "Arthur" was a hit not just because of star Dudley Moore's spot-on performance, but also because the entire film so perfectly imitated this bygone era, while ostensibly being set in the present day.

Even as Arthur fell in love with the plain, working-class woman who taught him about the value of self-reliance — an improbably cast Liza Minnelli, but hey, she made it work — Gordon was careful not to slide too far into the real world. The bubble would have burst.

Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham, in their remake, exercise no such caution ... and more's the pity.

Win Win: Quiet triumph

Win Win (2011) • View trailer for Win Win
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and teenage smoking
By Derrick Bang

Actor turned writer/director Tom McCarthy concocts marvelous little ensemble pieces that are populated by disparate characters trying to connect with each other. They might be lonely, frustrated or somehow incomplete, but they’re always familiar and engaging: the sort of folks who could live next door, possibly as good friends in need of an emotional lift.
With bills piling up and his career circling the drain, Mike (Paul Giamatti, left)
yields to an ill-advised impulse ... and suddenly, weirdly, finds that things
start to go right in his life. But the knowledge of his misdeed eats away at his
soul, threatening all the new joy in his daily routine ... including a delicate
but genuinely loving bond with a lonely teenager, Kyle (Alex Shaffer).

McCarthy came to our attention back in 2003, with The Station Agent, a whimsical saga about a man (Peter Dinklage) who moves to rural New Jersey to mourn the loss of a friend, and winds up having to deal with an equally lonely woman (Patricia Clarkson) and an uncommonly chatty hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale). You can’t watch this charming film without smiling repeatedly; at the same time, McCarthy demonstrates an unerring sense of the way people reach out for each other, even while insisting they’re doing no such thing.

McCarthy’s next film, 2007’s The Visitor, upped the ante in terms of content and dramatic heft. Richard Jenkins garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as a bereft college professor who, still missing the wife who died young, discovers that his New York City apartment has been, ah, “occupied” by squatters. But this young man and woman aren’t low-lifes; they’ve been tricked into believing the apartment genuinely was available. The subsequent narrative puts a human (and refreshingly nonjudgmental) face on the plight of illegal immigrants, while demonstrating how helping others can teach us how to help ourselves.

All of which brings us to Win Win, which nestles somewhere between McCarthy’s first two films, with respect to tone. Although not as charged as illegal immigration, this story’s underlying premise — the tantalizing lure of situational ethics — still prompts us to confront our own behavior. As is so blindingly true in the real world — more so than ever these days, it seems — mistakes themselves aren’t necessarily the end of one’s relationship, career, whatever; we’re judged by what we do after the lapse in judgment.

Disheartened elder care attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) has watched his one-man business slide deeper into financial crisis for some time now. He seems genuinely drawn to his trusting clients, but lacks enough of them to make ends meet. He shares an office — actually a converted house — with Stephen Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor), a CPA similarly stressed by economic woes. Both men have been reduced to their own ill-equipped handyman repairs, whether dealing with a blocked toilet or a basement boiler/water heater that sounds like it’s auditioning for a role in Stephen King’s The Shining ... and is, in the words of a plumber, “ready to blow” at any moment.

Mike also moonlights as a high school wrestling coach; Stephen is his assistant. Their team is a hapless, listless, dispirited bunch; they’ve have to dig up to reach the cellar. In other words, Mike also derives no joy from this extra-curricular activity.

Hanna: Revenge served hot

Hanna (2011) • View trailer for Hanna
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too generously, for profanity, sensuality and relentless (often grim) violence
By Derrick Bang

Goodness, what a bizarre, unpalatable and clumsy mess.

I cannot imagine what drew director Joe Wright to this project.
On the run from yet another collection of vicious thugs, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan)
leads them on a merry chase through a dock yard filled with stacked containers.
It's a well-executed sequence, delivered with slick cinematography and clever
editing, but the flash merely serves to conceal this film's bankrupt script.

Wright is the talented filmmaker who delivered such sumptuous, intelligent and inventively photographed adaptations of the books Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and The Soloist. All three are engaging dramas, impeccably acted by superb ensemble casts; all three stir our emotions and showcase a craftsman who understands how best to use every nuanced element of the collaborative motion picture art form.

Hanna, in great, staggering contrast, is a nasty, lumbering oaf of a project: a misbegotten collection of scattered, individual scenes that barely count as a “plot” at all. Seth Lochhead’s story — given additional espionage-style juice by David Farr, a veteran of the British TV series MI5 — couldn’t ever have looked good: not on paper, and certainly not once the damage was up on the screen. It’s as if Wright suddenly forgot everything he ever knew about constructing a coherent film.

Bad scripts can be awful for all sorts of reasons, but one of the greatest sins is a failure to remain true to the rules established from the beginning. If we’re to be a real-world thriller, that demands certain levels of consistency; we don’t suddenly detour into sequences that would have felt more at home in Tim Burton’s handling of Alice in Wonderland.

I’m not certain it’s possible to describe enough of this chaotic, scattershot story in order to properly illustrate its many flaws, but here goes:

We open in a barren, snowbound forest, where Erik Heller (Eric Bana) apparently has been teaching survival skills to his teenage daughter, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Atonement), ever since she was a little girl. As a result, Hanna has become a lean, mean fighting machine: an ambulatory weapon trained for some dire mission.

These early sequences, and the mysterious build-up behind them, feel like a real-world spin on the character of Hit-Girl in Kick Ass, who similarly was transformed into a slicing, dicing assassin by her father. Fair enough; it’s an intriguing concept.

Believing herself ready, Hanna insists that it’s time she return to civilization, in order to fulfill her mission. Thanks to a homing beacon that Erik allows the girl to trigger, they don’t need to wait long; their isolated cabin soon is surrounded by gun-toting paramilitary types. Erik already has vanished, promising to re-unite with the girl in Berlin; Hanna, meanwhile, demonstrates her skills by taking out a few soldiers before quietly allowing the rest to bring her ... elsewhere.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

From the archives: October 2008

It's often hard to know, right at the moment, which films will linger over time.

Certainly this month had its share of high-profile projects: a new espionage thriller from director Ridley Scott; the third entry in Disney's enormously popular High School Musical franchise; and several impressive adaptations of books, whether historical or simply amusing.

Yet what did I wind up watching several more times? A charming, teen-oriented romantic comedy with the unlikely title of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Can't get enough of it. Go figure.

Okay, so I'm a sucker for good-natured misfit romantic comedies. But they're even better when layered with ribald sensibilities, and director Peter Sollett makes the most of Lorene Scafaria's script, which is adapted from an equally engaging (if even more filthy) book. Throw in a killer soundtrack, and you've got a hit for the ages, which I expect this film to become.

On an entirely different note, the other film that resonates, all this time later, is Rachel Getting Married: as gripping a real-world horror story as I've ever seen, and one that brought star Anne Hathaway a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. Director Jonathan Demme superbly orchestrates this cinema-verité depiction of the wedding guest from hell: You can't take your eyes off the screen ... much as you desperately want to.

As for the rest, the month also brought a nifty IMAX domentary; a poignant buried treasure (The Secret Life of Bees) that shouldn't have died at the box office; and a tiresome "inside look" at Hollywood (What Just Happened) that absolutely deserved the same fate.

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

Body of Lies

The Duchess

High School Musical 3

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Pride and Glory

Rachel Getting Married

The Secret Life of Bees

What Just Happened

Wild Ocean 3D

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Born to Be Wild: Sheltering the innocent

Born to Be Wild (2011) • View trailer for Born to Be Wild
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Stories about orphans are guaranteed heart-tuggers, as has been long understood by every writer from Charles Dickens to John Irving.

And when it’s a true story drawn from our contemporary world ... well, pass the hankies and prepare for the snuffling.
The rules of "elephant soccer" are sketchy to begin with, but that doesn't really
matter anyway. As narrator Morgan Freeman notes, the baby elephants always
win ... no matter what.

In short, only a troglodyte with a heart of stone could fail to be moved by director David Lickley’s new IMAX documentary, Born to Be Wild. We’re probably fortunate that the film clocks in at a mere 40 minutes; I suspect more empathetic viewers would need to be sedated, if it ran much longer.

Lickley’s film, scripted by Drew Fellman, profiles two remarkable women on similar missions of mercy: Borneo-based primatologist Biruté Mary Galdikas, and Kenyan Daphne M. Sheldrick. Both have spent their lives rescuing, raising and rehabilitating orphans: orangutans and elephants, respectively.

Merely learning how these two women find their charges is heartbreaking; in almost every case, the young animals have been orphaned after their parents have been slaughtered by poachers. Many of the youngsters remain by the maimed bodies, unable to do anything else.

One baby elephant came into Sheldrick’s care with its tail missing, because the appendage was chewed off by hyenas tearing at the butchered adult’s carcass.

We’re only told of these grim events; thankfully, we never see the actual aftermath of such an attack. The closest we get to lingering trauma is one baby elephant that initially associates all human beings with the monsters who killed its mother, and therefore charges about in a blind panic, unable to realize that these people are trying to help it.

No, the more distressing details come solely from narrator Morgan Freeman, who delivers the same blend of warmth, awe and occasional reproach — directed at us viewers — that he brought to March of the Penguins.

Watching Galdikas and Sheldrick — and their equally compassionate staffs — care for these helpless creatures, it’s simply impossible to imagine the thuggish cruelty that led to their fate.

But I don’t wish to give the impression that Born to Be Wild is a depressing experience: far from it. Aside from being a celebration of our own finer instincts — proof positive that the world is filled with more than enough good people to compensate for the random evil of their brethren — this film is filled with joyous, wondrous and incredibly cute sequences.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Music Never Stopped: What we do for love

The Music Never Stopped (2011) • View trailer for The Music Never Stopped
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for thematic elements, mild profanity and brief drug references
By Derrick Bang

Many of our strongest memories, happy or sad, are amplified by songs: first date, first kiss, what played on the radio as some dreadful news was delivered.

Movies are all about the often crafty application of music. Sometimes only a few measures of main theme or underscore are necessary to revive scenes or even entire films: the ominous strings in Jaws; the Pink Panther theme; the opening fanfare in Star Wars; the horn blast and “heavy guitar” strum that accompanies the silhouette of James Bond, as he strolls and shoots toward the circular gun barrel. No doubt you have many of your own, and that’s the whole point; we all do.
Temporarily brought back to "himself" while listening to the music he loves,
Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) attempts to explain his passion about certain songs,
while his bemused father (J.K. Simmons) attempts to make sense of an entire
decade that he willfully ignored. Can this generational chasm be bridged?

The Music Never Stopped, a touching drama expanded from an actual case study, draws its juice from this premise: the notion that music touches us, all of us, in a manner that opens a window deeper into our souls. In most instances, this merely intensifies a relationship also built by conversation, trust, shared experience and time: the years we spend getting to know each other.

But what if music were the only means of establishing a new connective bridge, to replace those damaged by circumstance?

Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks’ screenplay is based on “The Last Hippie,” a case study from Dr. Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars. Sacks, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, also happens to be an accomplished storyteller; he has written numerous best-sellers, based on his work with various intriguing patients. Quite a few of these accounts have become memorable films or plays.

His 1973 book Awakenings was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro; his 1985 collection, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, became a must-read title. Temple Grandin, a professor with high-functioning autism, also is profiled in An Anthropologist on Mars; her story recently was dramatized in a Golden Globe-winning HBO film starring Claire Danes. 1999’s At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino, also is drawn from one of Sacks’ essays.

“The Last Hippie” concerned a young man with devastating amnesia caused by a brain tumor. He could remember no new events in his life, but his recollection of music, specifically songs by the bands he adored in the 1960s, remained intact. In a very real sense, as Sacks noted, this young man had been marooned in the ’60s.

The Music Never Stopped, set in 1986, opens as Henry and Helen Sawyer (J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour) learn that their long-estranged son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), has been found wandering the streets of New York City. He has a dangerous brain tumor; surgery removes the ongoing threat but cannot repair the damage. When Gabriel recovers, he’s still in a near-catatonic state, his mind no longer able to create long-term memories or recall short-term events. In effect, every day — every conversation, no matter how many times it’s repeated — is a fresh experience.

Source Code: Tick ... tick ... tick

Source Code (2011) • View trailer for Source Code
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.11

Some stories are gangbusters on the printed page, but far less successful on the big screen. The mediums are distinct, each with advantages and disadvantages; what can feel elegant, lyrical and intriguing as prose can wind up clumsy, tiresome and contrived as a film. There's no getting around the fact that we imagine certain concepts better in our minds, while reading; being confronted by a visual adaptation in real time winds up less satisfying.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) hasn't the faintest idea how he wound up
traveling on this particular train, nor does he understand why Christina
(Michelle Monaghan) flirtatiously chats him up with such familiarity; she's a
complete stranger to him. But she — and everybody else on this Chicago-bound
train — are about to become very important, as Stevens gradually understands
and accepts the responsibility of a most unusual mission.

Source Code is somewhat unsatisfying, which is a shame; Ben Ripley's original screenplay is fascinating — if rather derivative — and director Duncan Jones does his best to minimize its built-in weaknesses.

The premise is classic sci-fi, the setting uneasily contemporary: A man on a Chicago-bound train (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes with a start from what feels like an unsettling dream. The woman sitting opposite (Michelle Monaghan, as Christina) obviously knows him, and chats animatedly; he hasn't the faintest idea who she is. The routine stuff of travel with a large group of strangers plays out — spilled coffee, punched tickets, impatient and oblivious passengers — while our bewildered protagonist attempts to process his disorientation. They stop once, at an outlying station, then resume their journey.

Minutes later, not far from the city, a massive explosion destroys the entire train, killing everybody on board.

Our hero comes to his senses in what looks like a simulator capsule, now suffering a similar type of dislocation. Gradually, a "handler" communicating via a monitor screen (Vera Farmiga, as Goodwin) talks him back to his own self. Military training takes hold: He's Colter Stevens, apparently participating in some sort of test, or something. Goodwin is vague about details; a fussy scientist type in the background (Jeffrey Wright, as Rutledge) orders her to "send him back."

And poof! Stevens is back on the train, resuming the ride from the same waking point, re-living the same events, although experiencing them differently, because he remembers everything from the first time around. But the outcome is the same: Eight minutes later, the bomb goes off and everybody dies ... at which point, he regains consciousness back in the simulator. Or whatever it really is.

Stevens gradually learns — as do we — that he's part of a military/scientific emergency operation that has been mobilized in the wake of the aforementioned catastrophe. Somebody has blown up the train, whether terrorists or a lone loony, and has threatened to explode an even larger device in the heart of Chicago. Through means we really don't need to obsess about, Stevens' consciousness can be "projected" into one of the train passenger's minds, shortly before the catastrophe, in effect taking over that person's body and soul. Because of the nature of the explosion, deductive logic suggests that the bombmaker is within viewing range of the train, perhaps initially as one of the passengers. Stevens' assignment is to figure out who is responsible, and then convey this information back to HQ, so that the impending larger attack can be stopped.