Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bad Teacher: Flunks out

Bad Teacher (2011) • View trailer for Bad Teacher
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Lest you’ve wondered recently, let me remove all doubt: America truly is the land of opportunity.

Nowhere else could Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have been paid — and quite well, by the standards of us ordinary working stiffs — for their script to this dreadful excuse for a movie.
While showing support for the faculty band's performance at a local bar, the
bored Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz, center), present only because she's hot for one
of the musicians, rather cruelly encourages the timid Lynn (Phyllis Smith) to
pick up a guy across the room, as Russell (Jason Segel) expresses silent but
obvious disapproval.

Nowhere else could a major film studio — Columbia, fercryinoutloud! — have believed, even for a moment, that this misbegotten project was worth green-lighting. What are those people smoking down there?

Nowhere else could director Jake Kasdan have drawn an even larger salary for making absolutely no effort to cajole convincing performances from his cast members. Indeed, one gets the impression that Kasdan spent the entire production shoot much like this flick’s title character: eyes closed and totally zonked, having stayed up too late the previous evening, and now paying not the slightest bit of attention to what happens each day in front of the camera.

Really, it doesn’t look like he even tried. The actors here move stiffly and awkwardly from one scene to the next — most of which have no continuity — and deliver their lines flatly and without the slightest trace of emotional connection, while standing uncomfortably about, as if waiting for a school bus.

With few exceptions, their “performances” look and sound like cold line-readings. And since we’ve seen most of these people do much better work elsewhere, the blame falls squarely on Kasdan’s shoulders.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since Kasdan most recently brought us the 2007 train wreck, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He’s yet another member of the Judd Apatow repertory company, having served his apprenticeship on television’s Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, followed by a reasonably respectable big-screen debut with 2002’s Orange County. But Kasdan never fulfilled those early suggestions of promise; if his next feature — 2006’s The TV Set — even achieved big-screen release, I never heard about it.

Being part of the Apatow crew, even a lesser part, means larding one’s films with requisite dollops of vulgarity and crude, boorish behavior. And profanity: plenty of profanity. But that style only works — which is to say, only becomes funny — when starting with a competent script that delivers characters whose behavior is somehow shaped or defined by their exaggerated impropriety.

Under no circumstances could Stupnitsky and Eisenberg’s random typing here be called a script, let alone competent.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2: Quite road-worthy

Cars 2 (2011) • View trailer for Cars 2
Four stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.11

I never cared that much for 2006’s Cars, which lacked the Pixar spark (plugs) present in the animation studio’s other big-screen features.
With a bevy of bad cars in hot pursuit, our vehicular heroes — foreground, from
left, Lightning McQueen, Mater and Finn McMissile — race to save London
from a nefarious villain who is determined to prove that alternative fuels
are no alternative at all.

I simply couldn’t identify emotionally with the vehicular characters: a rather ironic confession, coming from somebody who had no trouble falling in love with bickering children’s toys, culinary rats and lonely robots. It felt like Pixar guru John Lasseter was letting his own boyhood fixation with cars — his father was a parts manager at a Chevy dealership in the late 1960s and early ’70s — interfere with his guiding mantra regarding the importance of a good story.

Besides, the characters in Cars looked and behaved far too much like the claymation creations Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) had developed for a highly successful series of TV commercials for Chevron: a campaign that had begun a decade earlier. For once, Lasseter was imitating an established archetype, rather than creating fresh ones.

Advance reports regarding the impending arrival of Cars 2 also weren’t encouraging, with suggestions that this sequel was greenlighted because the merchandising tail was wagging the artistic dog: Cars, among all Pixar films, had generated one of the most financially successful toy lines. Again, not a happy possibility for those of us who’ve appreciated Pixar’s customary narrative magic.

I should have had more faith.

While still not among Pixar’s best efforts, Cars 2 is miles ahead of its predecessor: better character development, a more engaging premise and a vastly superior storyline. The “vehicular community” gags, no matter how whimsical, seemed stifled in the enclosed environment of Radiator Springs; this time out, writers Ben Queen, Brad Lewis, Dan Fogelman and Lasseter have broadened their tapestry to span the globe.

And, ingeniously, to send up spy movies.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Art of Getting By: Does just fine

The Art of Getting By (2011) • View trailer for The Art of Getting By
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual content, profanity, teen drinking and smoking, and thematic elements
By Derrick Bang

Motivation is an odd and elusive presence in our lives, and I often wonder why more people don’t suffer its absence.

Sure, we can cite personal drive and/or an awareness of responsibility — to family, friends and self — but what really makes us get up each morning with a willingness to tackle the new day?
The shy and withdrawn George (Freddie Highmore) doesn't understand why
Sally (Emma Roberts) suddenly is willing to hang out with him, but that's not
a bad thing. The trouble is, George hasn't the faintest notion of what to do next
with a pretty girl, just as he hasn't a clue how to handle life itself. And such
protracted inactivity can only lead to heartbreak...

George (Freddie Highmore), a New York high school senior, can’t find that intangible get-up-and-go. Part of the problem is fatalism: an awareness of overwhelmingly bad world events that render trigonometry homework rather insignificant by comparison. Additionally, George is crushingly lonely and has turned this isolation into a pose that rebuffs all meaningful contact, whether with peers at school or his mother and step-father at home.

In a word, George is the ultimate slacker, but with a twist: He clearly isn’t enjoying his indolence.

Writer/director Gavin Wiesen’s The Art of Getting By — which George has perfected — is a quiet, quirky little film: a sober character study of a lost soul who appears to have surrendered any willingness to seize his own self and give it a good shake. A diagnosis of clinical depression seems screamingly obvious, but Wiesen’s script never goes there; we simply wait for the moment when somewhere, somehow, George will experience the epiphany that will kick-start his enthusiasm for life, the universe and everything.

To be sure, at times Wiesen’s script plays like a lite version of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and suffers a bit for the comparison. Salinger’s book, although focused on Holden Caulfield, offered shrewd observations on the human condition; Wiesen’s film doesn’t explore much further than George’s condition.

It’s an odd role that could be off-putting if not handled properly. Lucky for us, then, that Highmore delivers just the right blend of earnest sensitivity and contrite resignation. Although he can’t be bothered to do his schoolwork, much to the growing vexation of his various teachers, George is always polite about his refusals. He’s not a “bad” kid in the usual sense; he’s simply ... lost.

Highmore, now a mature 19 years old, will be remembered as the engaging young actor who delivered such memorable performances in Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Highmore grew up somewhere along the way; he still was a kid in 2008’s Spiderwick, yet here he is now, with the height and gangliness of near-adulthood.

With his acting chops quite intact, rest assured.

That’s crucial, because a single mis-step would transform George into an unlikable parasite: somebody wasting the very air he breathes. And yet this never happens; we sense an artistic soul waiting to burst forth, thanks to the complex and often provocative doodles with which he fills all his textbooks and classroom worksheets.

Cool, we think; art class must be a cathartic release each day. But even here, George can’t muster the enthusiasm to complete an actual assignment. His doodles may suggest talent — even his crusty art teacher senses this — but George hasn’t yet found his muse.

Monday, June 20, 2011

From the archives: April 2008

Happy surprises are the best part of this job; sharing them runs a close second.

Because I'm not fortunate enough to live in one of our country's top movie markets — major cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago — indie and foreign films often open months later for us. In the worst case, and this happens every year, I'm not able to see all the nominees for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, before the actual ceremony. That can make life difficult for those of us who enjoy trying to predict the Oscars; lacking access to one or more titles is a serious handicap.

Such was the case this year, with The Counterfeiters; it only reached our neck of the woods a few months after having won that year's Foreign Film Academy Award. And no surprise there: It's a magnificent drama, and one of the most engrossing WWII Holocaust stories ever made ... and, mind you, that's a busy sub-genre. Indeed, as I mentioned in my review, I continue to be astonished by the wealth of fresh "takes" on this horrific period in human history; it seems there's always a new set of circumstances that speaks anew to the dignity, courage and moral clarity of one or more individuals.

Nobody argued the merits of The Counterfeiters. On the other hand, Leatherheads was pretty much dead on arrival: a wholly unjustified fate for a delightful period comedy with pleasant echoes of Hollywood's best 1930s and '40s screwball farces. If it escaped you the first time around — and that wouldn't surprise me — do take advantage of home-video afterlife.

Leatherheads' failure to find an audience merely puzzled me; I was saddened when the same fate befell Nim's Island. As with numerous other notable family films with young female heroines, this one also failed to click with viewers. Really, must we always have resourceful boys as protagonists, in order for such films to succeed? Haven't we gotten past that gender divide yet?

Apparently not.

The rest of the month offered a mixed bag, from the welcome pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, to yet another uber-violent saga of morally bankrupt cops. Forgetting Sarah Marshall offered a few bright moments of smutty sexual farce; Married Life should have been divorced prior to filming.

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

The Counterfeiters

The Forbidden Kingdom

Forgetting Sarah Marshall


Married Life

Nim's Island

Street Kings

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Enchanted dream

Midnight in Paris (2011) • View trailer for Midnight in Paris
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.17.11

Back in 1979, Woody Allen opened his film Manhattan with the following rhapsodic voice-over:

He adored New York City. He romanticized it all out of proportion. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles. No matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black-and-white, and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.
The displaced Gil (Owen Wilson), already enchanted by his unexpected
surroundings, is further mesmerized by the coquettish Adriana (Marion
Cotillard), who guides him through a side of Paris that offers fresh surprises
from one moment to the next.

A bit more than three decades later, three minor swaps — the city so named, luxurious color for black-and-white, Cole Porter for George Gershwin — could have allowed the same soliloquy to apply to the deliriously romantic montage of images that kicks off Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

This is an idealized vision of Paris, much the way Manhattan was an idealized vision of New York: cinematic love letters to iconic cities with palpable heartbeats. The Paris of Allen’s new film doesn’t — can’t — really exist, any more than the similarly strawberry-lensed Paris of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 masterpiece, Amélie.

Although Allen remains an astonishingly prolific filmmaker — 42 big-screen features to his credit, going back to 1966, with an even more impressive one per year, without fail, since 1982 — he hasn’t had a no-argument-about-it critical and popular hit since 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. That’s not to say he hasn’t done fine work since then — Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite and Vicky Cristina Barcelona immediately come to mind — but merely that such films aren’t likely to stand alongside his best.

Well, add another title to Allen’s list of classics, because Midnight in Paris is grand, glorious, witty fun ... and extremely sharp and savvy filmmaking.

Although the delectable conceit that fuels this story has echoes of Brigadoon and even Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Allen’s shrewdly clever script moves in an entirely different direction and takes a playful poke at folks who tediously — or naively — insist that things were much better “in the good ol’ days.” Indeed, Allen eats his cake and has it, too, by waxing poetically about the charms of times past ... while cautioning those who’d try to take up residence.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) are vacationing in Paris while planning their upcoming wedding: an impending union of remarkably dissimilar sensibilities. Although a wildly successful Hollywood screenwriter, Gil chafes at the soulless emptiness of this career, and thus is trying to write a novel; he rather vaguely hopes that Paris will prove a proper environment for this effort. Inez, perfectly content with the largess that Gil’s income provides, wastes no opportunity to belittle or bluntly dismiss this new artistic goal. Gil tolerates her put-downs with good-natured calm, in part because he secretly worries that she may be right.

Green Lantern: Slightly diminished glow

Green Lantern (2011) • View trailer for Green Lantern
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang 

Forget about the ring; Green Lantern’s greatest super power may be the ability to save his own movie.

Which is to say, Warner Bros. owes a huge debt to Ryan Reynolds, whose charisma and cheerful, naughty-boy charm masks several sins.
After being transported across the universe and slapped into his slick green suit,
Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds, right) hopes that the compassionate Tomar-Re, left,
will be his new "ring instructor." But no, that assignment falls to the much
larger and intimidating Kilowog.

The biggest problem is a clumsy script that tries to accomplish too much, and winds up with too little: too little emotional resonance, too little time spent with plot chapters that should have been given more weight. Too many secondary characters treated casually; too many details handled sloppily.

Savvy credits watchers will raise a skeptical eyebrow at the presence of four screenwriters — Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg — which invariably points to a script that has been fine-tuned by committee and target demographics, rather than narrative clarity and artistic consistency.

I recognize the problem: The first entry in any superhero franchise arrives with the burden of necessary back-story ... often dialogue-heavy, and at odds with the cataclysmic battles that viewers desire. That problem is magnified here, because Green Lantern has more back-story than most: a complicated and cleverly devised reason for why a cocky Earth man gets tagged to join an elite force of inter-stellar space cops.

All this must be explained, before our hero’s actions can be placed in the proper context. Unfortunately, in an effort to present all this information, sidebar character development gets abandoned.

But that’s not the sole issue. Although director Martin Campbell has plenty of action epics in his résumé — two James Bonds entries, two Zorro adventures — he’s clearly not as comfortable with the quite different nuances involved when heroes and villains owe most (all?) of their existence to special effects. Most of the skirmishes here are little more than rock-’em, sock-’em slug-fests involving plenty of ring- or telekinetically manipulated furniture, lab equipment and handy military hardware, vehicles and planes.

At times, you’ll wonder if we’ve slipped into an installment of the X-Men film franchise.

James Newton Howard’s score doesn’t help; it’s all loud-loud-loud orchestral crashes and smashes, with few nuances to help sell quieter scenes.

Finally, the film suffers from a major casting hiccup: Blake Lively is simply wrong as Carol Ferris, the on again/off again girlfriend and full-time colleague/sorta boss of brash test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds). For starters, the notion that she, too, is a test pilot ... is utterly laughable.

Additionally, Lively’s line readings during the first argument between Hal and Carol are atrocious, and the lines themselves are pretty dismal. Lively is too much a product of the breathy melodrama she handles so well on television’s Gossip Girl and the two Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies. For that matter, she also delivered a persuasive job as the desperate, dead-end gal pal in last year’s The Town.

But Lively never seems to really believe the role she inhabits here; one gets the impression that she retreats to a corner, after every take, and snickers over the idiocy of the line she just spoke. A quick comparison to Natalie Portman (Thor) or Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) reveals just how much Lively pales in comparison.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8: Plenty of pizzazz

Super 8 (2011) • View trailer for Super 8
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence, dramatic intensity and grody monster behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.10.11

This film reminds me how much I’ve missed the family-friendly action/suspense flicks of the 1980s, which introduced an entire generation of young stars to movie fans: The Goonies, Poltergeist, the prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the “young Indie” sequence, with River Phoenix), The Lost Boys, Fright Night and — most particularly — E.T.
And you thought your day was going badly? All heck is breaking loose in the
small Ohio town where our young heroes — from left, Martin (Gabriel Basso),
Cary (Ryan Lee), Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) — have
been trying to make an amateur zombie movie. They're about to discover
something far worse than even their imaginations can concoct.

Super 8 plays like an energetic cross between E.T. and The Goonies, and I mean that in all the best ways. I’d expect no less from producer Steven Spielberg and writer/director J.J. Abrams, who make a great team. To a degree, Abrams has re-visited his “unseen monster on the loose” concept from Cloverfield, but (thankfully!) absent the irritating, jiggly video verité point-of-view that ruined an otherwise nifty little film.

Spielberg’s touch as producer was present on some of the above-named thrill rides; he’s clearly able to help bring out the best in other directors. The same is true here, with a nifty premise that hits the ground running and maintains a palpable level of suspense, while allowing sufficient time to explore the key characters and their varied relationships.

And while our heroes are (for the most part) middle-school nerds, their savvy doesn’t come at the expense of adults who behave like boobs. The principal grown-ups here are just as resourceful, when necessary ... and there’s a whole lotta “necessary” populating Abrams’ cheeky, mildly retro script.

Two things to bear in mind:

First, this is a very loud film. The premise demands plenty of crashing, smashing and heavy gunfire, and sound effects editors David Acord and Dustin Cawood, and supervising sound editor Matthew Wood, definitely earn their paychecks. Given a theater with a well-tuned sound system — as was the case at Tuesday evening’s Sacramento preview — this flick will leave you wide-eyed and breathless.

Second, the PG-13 rating is deserved. The occasional shocks and jolts are on par with the severed head that unexpectedly bobbed into view, back in the day, during an underwater search in Spielberg’s Jaws. Since the whatzis is this story is large and carnivorous, draw the logical conclusions and be prepared accordingly.

Abrams opens his story with a doleful prologue, as young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a freak workplace accident: a sequence handled with poignant subtlety. The loss also is felt keenly by Joe’s father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler, familiar from TV’s Friday Night Lights), who works as one of the town deputies. For reasons not immediately made clear to us — or Joe — Jackson blames Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for the accident. To makes matters worse, Jackson is a distant father at best, and their shared loss further strains the dysfunctional family dynamic.

Four months then pass, putting Joe and his friends at the beginning of summer vacation. The small gang takes its marching orders from Charles (Riley Griffiths), who serves as director on an amateur zombie horror flick they’ve been making with his Super 8 camera. Joe handles make-up, model work and occasional script tightening; Cary (Ryan Lee), something of a nascent firebug, takes care of explosives and pyrotechnics; Martin (Gabriel Basso), the tallest and most mature-looking, is the primary star; and Preston (Zach Mills) does anything else that needs doing.

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer: Dumb and dumber

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (2011) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang

Films adapted from popular children’s books come in two distinct flavors: those taking place in our real world — or at least a close approximation — and those occupying a warped fantasyland with no semblance of authenticity.
Judy (Jordana Beatty, center) and her younger brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller)
cautiously dig into a dessert fondue of sliced wieners, fruit syrup and breakfast
cereal: merely one of the concoctions prepared by their free-spirited Aunt Opal
(Heather Graham).

Last summer’s Ramona and Beezus was an excellent example of the former: a sweet and respectful handling of Beverly Cleary’s famed characters, with a storyline that dealt with kid-oriented crises such as a parent’s lost income or the death of a family pet. I also have fond memories of 2005’s big-screen rendition of Because of Winn-Dixie.

Director John Schultz’s handling of Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, in great contrast, is aggressively silly from the first frame. This is kid-oriented entertainment aimed solely at moppets who watch Nickelodeon specials in order to see big-name stars slimed with green glop, and who firmly believe — as this script demonstrates, time and again — that most adults are clueless numbskulls.

Thus, as a typical example, we’re treated to a limp-noodle aunt who can’t drive, but nonetheless plops her niece and nephew into the back seat of the family station wagon — without seatbelts, of course — and charges through red lights, creating all sorts of vehicular havoc before crashing into an outdoor display and watching as the elephant head from a giant sign impales the hood with its tusks.

Later, the same aunt utterly trashes the family living room while creating one of her many “artistic masterpieces” ... and nobody seems to care, or even notice.

And so on, in a similar vein.

Not my cup of tea, and much too reminiscent of the ghastly, pratfall-laden, live-action “comedies” that nearly sank the Disney Studios in the late 1960s and ’70s. Those films also involved imbecilic adults and the destruction of considerable personal property, usually while hailing a young protagonist as some sort of misfit hero.

One must assume that novelist Megan McDonald, on whose books this film is based, wanted it this way; she co-wrote this script with Kathy Waugh. Yes, McDonald’s Judy Moody books are more opulently farcical than those from, say, Beverly Cleary; Judy is much more given to hilariously theatrical gestures of defiance, disappointment and disgust. Nothing major ever goes wrong in Judy’s world; her perceived traumas are the stuff of superficial nonsense, such as a growing concern that her hoped-for “perfect summer” may turn out to be dull, dreary and discouraging.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Tree of Life: Utterly lifeless

The Tree of Life (2011) • View trailer for The Tree of Life
No stars (turkey). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.3.11

At one point during writer/director Terrence Malick’s unforgivably tedious slog of a movie, Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien — while listening to a favorite piece of classical music, and no doubt wanting to comment upon the elusive search for perfection — explains that the composer recorded it 65 times ... and still wasn’t satisfied.
Jack (Hunter McCracken, right) lacks the patience to pull weeds and tend a
garden in the exacting manner demanded by his overbearing, short-tempered
father (Brad Pitt), who invariably takes the boy's "failings" as a personal slight.

A dangerous bit of dialogue, to insert into this dull, dreary and disjointed mess.

At my most generous, I might imagine that Malick intends his film to be more tone poem than typical narrative: more mood piece than conventional drama.

But I’m not inclined to be generous. The notoriously fussy Malick filmed this yawner three years ago, then spent the intervening time fine-tuning the footage in the editing bay.

He should have fine-tuned further.

Frankly, he should have given up entirely, and done unsuspecting viewers a favor.

The Tree of Life isn’t just bad; it’s laughably, crushingly awful. Unwatchable. Dull beyond description. Incomprehensible. Self-indulgently ridiculous.

Having said that, I’ve no doubt this film will speak to New Agers who love dissecting every last syllable of every last word in overly pompous poetry. Or, to put it another way, Malick’s approach will be adored by those who found the “star gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey to be rich with theological grace.

As opposed to the rest of us, who kept checking our watches and wondering when Stanley Kubrick would get on with it, fercryinoutloud.

Kubrick actually is a good comparison, particularly later in his career, when he, too, was taking years and years to make a single film. Malick has made only five since his big-screen debut, with 1973’s Badlands. The second one, 1978’s Days of Heaven, remains his most mainstream work; two full decades would pass before the next one, 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Since then, he also unleashed 2005’s The New World.

Malick shares Kubrick’s desire to make every frame so gorgeous that it could be extracted, mounted and hung in a museum; in fairness, yes, the cinematography and composition are that gorgeous, often that powerful. But if I want to look at paintings, I visit a museum; motion pictures are so named because, well, they’re supposed to move.