Friday, July 29, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Love: Hilarious, painful truths

Crazy, Stupid Love (2011) • View trailer for Crazy, Stupid Love
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for profanity, coarse humor and unrelenting sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.29.11

Some of them sneak up on us.

Its excellent ensemble cast notwithstanding, Crazy, Stupid Love risked being lumped in with the numerous smutty farces we've endured this year, starting with The Dilemma and Hall Pass, and continuing all the way up through Horrible Bosses and the as-yet unreleased The Change-Up. Some of these misfires have purported to be romantic comedies; others simply made fun of the gender divide. Most have been ho-hum at best, downright dreadful at worst.
Watching not terribly clandestinely from the bar, Cal (Steve Carell, rear)
analyzes the moves being demonstrated by new friend Jacob (Ryan Gosling), as
he smoothly and successfully picks up yet another willing woman. Cal, trying
to navigate the dating scene he never really experienced back in his own youth,
still has a long way to go...

Crazy, Stupid Love does not belong in their company.

By turns hilarious, poignant, witty and painfully perceptive, this ode to love spurned and unrequited is the nearest thing I've found to a successful American riff on a classic French sex farce. Hollywood generally does quite badly when attempting to reproduce French comedies, particularly those with an erotic element. Indeed, this film's Steve Carell was in one of the recent bombs, last year's Dinner for Schmucks.

Somehow, what's often funny and sensual in a French film, winds up looking desperate, clumsy and merely smarmy when filtered through our Puritanical sensibilities.

Dan Fogelman probably wasn't even trying for Gallic tone or momentum when scripting Crazy, Stupid Love, and that may be why he nailed it so well. This is new territory for Fogelman, best known until now for collaborating on the scripts for animated fare such as Tangled, Bolt and both of Pixar's Cars movies. His only big-screen live-action effort, 2007's Fred Claus, was a debacle.

So where did he come up with the romantic and relationship savvy executed so well here? Doesn't really matter, of course; we care only about the result ... which is delightful.

Credit goes, as well, to the directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, best known to this point for having co-scripted 2003's hilariously vulgar Bad Santa. This is their second directing effort, coming after 2009's modestly amusing I Love You, Phillip Morris, which they also wrote; sadly, that film became no more than another of star Jim Carrey's recent nonstarters.

A fate Crazy, Stupid Love most certainly will be spared.

Cal (Carell), contemplating dessert options after a quiet dinner out with wife Emily (Julianne Moore), is stunned when she declines a tort in favor of a divorce. Driven to nervous chatter by Cal's stricken immobility, Emily compounds the awkward moment by confessing an affair with a guy at work.

The bloody aftermath of this ghastly scene becomes even worse when it's witnessed, at home, by their young daughter (Joey King, as Molly), 13-year-old son (Jonah Bobo, as Robbie) and the visiting 17-year-old babysitter (Analeigh Tipton, as Jessica). The latter is particularly anguished to see Cal in such pain, because she nurtures a secret crush on him.

Cowboys & Aliens: When genres collide

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) • View trailer for Cowboys & Aliens
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for intense sci-fi action and violence, brief partial nudity and a fleeting crude reference
By Derrick Bang

Scientist and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Scott Mitchell Rosenberg had plenty of fun with that concept, in the 2006 graphic novel he created and chaperoned with artist Luciano Lima and writers Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley. The basic premise is so beguiling, that it's amazing nobody else thought of it first: What if, instead of repeatedly bothering post-WWII Earth, extraterrestrials had arrived 100 years earlier?
Having tracked an unknown whatzis to its rather unusual lair, cattle baron
Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford, left) and wanted train robber Jake
Lonergan (Daniel Craig) ponder their next move ... while both men wonder if
the strange gadget on Jake's left wrist will prove helpful.

Surely the average citizens of our Wild West would have believed themselves beset by demons who wielded magic beyond their comprehension.

Director Jon Favreau's big-screen adaptation of Cowboys & Aliens takes numerous liberties with that original graphic novel; a press-gang of six (!) credited writers has shaped this rootin', tootin' saga around its two big-name stars, while also moving the core plot in different directions. But the story's foundation remains the same: How would 19th century folks have reacted to such a threat?

While Favreau sends up hoary film western conventions with a few chuckles here and there — the sort of levity he also brought to his two Iron Man films — Cowboys & Aliens is, at all times, a much grimmer saga (grim enough to test the boundaries of its PG-13 rating). We're quite removed from the cute, inquisitive outer-space visitors of Steven Spielberg's E.T.; the aliens in this tale are brutish, nasty and Up To No Good. They think nothing of kidnapping hapless Earthers and then studying them at great length.

And you can forget about the eyebrow-raising rectal probes discussed with such insistence by obsessed modern "victims" of alien abduction; these extra-terrestrials go straight to vivisection and cellular disintegration. Not nice folks. At all.

But that's getting ahead of things. Favreau's film opens as a man with neither memory nor name (Daniel Craig) wakens one morning, in the sun-blasted land just outside the small New Mexico town of Absolution. It's 1875, and our protagonist hasn't the faintest idea how he got there, or how he wound up with such a peculiar bracelet-type gadget around his left wrist.

The latter won't come off, and its purpose remains hidden.

Shortly after wandering into Absolution — following a brief encounter with three would-be bounty hunters — our stranger learns that he's Jake Lonergan, and that he's wanted for all sorts of crimes. He encounters a young woman — Olivia Wilde, as Ella — who seems unusually interested in him; he also realizes that the entire town is in thrall to local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), whose ne'er-do-well son, Percy (Paul Dano), is an untouchable thorn in everybody's side.

Until Jake touches him, anyway. Quite a solid touch, at that.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: Gung-ho glory

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and perhaps too harshly, for sci-fi violence and action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.22.11

We're in good hands with this fellow.

And I don't mean Captain America, although he also has our backs. I'm referring to director Joe Johnston, who has the perfect touch for this sort of material: precisely the proper blend of dramatic heft, low-key humor and well-choreographed action scenes.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, center), having seized an opportunity to lead a
rescue mission deemed impossible by his superior officer, discovers that his
silly, USO-show costume might serve an important symbolic purpose after all.

Johnston understands the balance necessary for us to buy into fantasy, and he also sets a mean period stage; we always feel part of whatever era and locale his projects exploit. And he clearly has a fondness for retro superhero sagas, having delivered an impressively authentic and entertaining — and sadly undervalued — adaptation of The Rocketeer, back in 1991.

But Johnston is equally at home with the fully grounded and more gently emotional requirements of an intimate character drama such as 1999's October Sky, or the all-stops-out roller coaster ride found in 2001's Jurassic Park 3. The latter may have been formulaic and a shadow of its predecessors, but somebody had to step into Steven Spielberg's shoes ... and, to his credit, Johnston made sure his continuation wasn't a pale shadow.

And since I'm waxing poetic about Johnston's earlier accomplishments, let me also praise 2004's thoroughly engrossing horse-racing saga, Hidalgo ... which also never found its audience. Some directors just can't catch a break.

But Johnston certainly snatched the gold ring this time. Armed with a pitch-perfect script — Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, take a bow — and a skilled ensemble cast, Johnston has delivered a well-told fantasy saga that feels as innocently high-spirited and pridefully patriotic as America itself, during the turbulent days of World War II.

At the same time, Johnston fulfills the genre requirements expected by the Marvel Comics geeks who always sharpen their blogging knives, in anticipation of disrespectful or otherwise inferior big-screen adaptations. Markus and McFeely know their stuff, and they've managed the quite impressive task of nailing this patriotic symbol of two eras. Bear in mind that Cap, although still a stalwart of contemporary comics fiction, emerged as a red, white and blue avenger in the 1940s ... and yet hasn't aged.

Ah, therein lies a tale...

Which I'll not spoil.

Following a suitably intriguing prologue, we meet scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans): the epitome of a 98-pound Brooklyn weakling, but no less determined to sign up for his chance to help end Hitler's Nazi reign. But no recruiting office wants an undersize mutt who also suffers from asthma and a dozen other physical issues, and Steve should know; he has tried every "Uncle Sam wants you" station within easy travel, using a variety of aliases.

Winter in Wartime: The complexities of heroism

Winter in Wartime (2008) • View trailer for Winter in Wartime
Four stars. Rating: R, for brief profanity, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Children, bless their resilience, can find adventure in almost anything.

Director/co-scripter Martin Koolhoven’s Winter in Wartime, The Netherlands’ submission for the 2010 Academy Awards’ foreign-language film category — where it became one of the nine penultimate contenders, but missed the short-listed final five — takes place in January 1945 in Holland, in a rural village occupied by Nazi soldiers.
Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier, right) and his fellow villagers share the local roads
with German soldiers on a constant basis, and the wariness — on both sides —
never diminishes. For Michiel, the cautious circumspection grows even more
intense when he becomes involved with local Resistance activities ... where a
single mistake could result in arrest and severe punishment, not only for
himself, but for his entire family.

The film is based on Dutch author Jan Terlouw’s semi-autobiographical best-selling novel, 1972’s Oorlongswinter; Terlouw spent five years under German occupation during World War II, and his father, a vicar, was twice arrested and threatened with execution. The author designed his book for young readers, but Koolhoven structures his film more for adult viewers ... while maintaining the focus on a 13-year-old protagonist who loses his innocence in the space of a few short weeks.

Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) and his best friend Theo (Jessie van Driel) are excited when an Allied plane crashes in the nearby woods; despite the presence of investigating German soldiers who don’t want the townsfolk anywhere near the wreck, the two boys sneak close and pilfer a few small items.

I was reminded, by the boys’ casual disregard for personal safety, of director John Boorman’s similarly autobiographical Hope and Glory; this film is set during the London Blitz, when Boorman's younger childhood self found thrilling excitement even in that ghastly, unrelenting experience. Kids simply weave their own magic.

Ah, but Michiel gets caught and hauled in front of the senior Nazi officer, who relents and releases the boy after learning that he’s the mayor’s son.

Rather than feeling grateful, though, Michiel is ashamed by the apparent way in which his father, Johan (Raymond Thiry) cozies up to the Nazis. This seems a betrayal in the boy’s eyes, particularly when compared to the activities of his favorite uncle — Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), Johan’s brother — who works with the local Resistance. Visits from Uncle Ben always are accompanied by stolen ration cards and clandestine food items, such as prized tins of sardines.

Because Michiel said nothing about Theo’s involvement with the downed airplane, he gains the trust of Theo’s older brother, Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg), a Resistance member who entrusts Michiel with an important letter. Michiel eventually winds up reading the letter himself, at which point he learns that an RAF pilot survived the crash, and is holed up in an underground shelter in the same woods. The pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower, in a nicely modulated role), needs to reach a larger town across the river, in order to rendezvous with colleagues who can get him back to England ... but he’s badly wounded and running out of food.

Michiel, believing himself quite capable of handling such an important mission, assures Jack that he can help; the pilot, not that much older himself, has no choice but to trust the boy.

Needless to say, things won’t be nearly as simple as Michiel naively assumes.

Koolhoven plays us viewers with the assurance of a master musician. The atmosphere in early scenes minimizes the everyday danger enveloping this village; co-existence seems to have reached some sort of stability, despite occasional arrests — or worse — and the threat of same. At least, that’s the way Michiel sees things, and our point of view is his: Up until now, the boy has enjoyed the luxury of assigning labels to everybody — good Resistance fighters, bad Nazi invaders — based on observation, local gossip and his own assumptions.

But people aren’t that easily catalogued, as Michiel gradually realizes, now that he has assumed responsibility for Jack. He can’t afford any mistakes, but of course he blunders in all sorts of ways. He doesn’t feel that his Nazi-sympathizing father can be trusted, and his uncle also seems an unwise choice; the protective Ben already has warned the boy against getting involved in anything dangerous.

Now, even the most casual glance from a neighbor, a friend or a passing German soldier fills Michiel with dread ... and Koolhoven correspondingly ratchets up the tension.

When Jack’s injury becomes life-threatening, Michiel finally, reluctantly brings his older sister — Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse — to help the pilot. Although her medical ministrations turn the tide, Erica isn’t content to simply return home and let her younger brother carry on; she’s attracted to this dashing young British soldier ... and he, to her. Michiel, not yet distracted by girls, views this as a needless complication. Which it is.

Klaver, vexingly, doesn’t bring much life to Erica; her performance is unnecessarily subdued, and — in fairness to the actress — the script doesn’t animate her too well.

And still, unintentionally but perversely, the boy keeps drawing attention to himself. Angered by his own carelessness, aware that his actions could endanger his own family, Michiel increasingly succumbs to paranoia ... and, as we eventually reach the third act, the bubbling suspense is almost too much to endure.

That said, Koolhoven isn’t telling a tale of stereotypical Nazi brutality; he resists any sort of exploitative violence while still getting the crucial narrative points across. In many respects, the director’s approach is decidedly retro, even restrained; the blend of paranoia-fueled drama — particularly as amplified by Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack — feels like Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage-laden collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann, notably 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

That said, Donaggio’s ostentatious, operatic underscore can be rather jarring. This film is all about oppressive silences, and the constant need to be quiet: avoiding patrolling German soldiers while sneaking through the snow-covered woods; walking carefully late at night, so as not to draw the attention of watchful neighbors who might be Nazi spies. Donaggio’s crashing crescendos therefore seem an odd choice, and I’d argue that Koolhoven relies on them much too heavily; it works against the subtly unsettling mood that he establishes via the narrative and various character interactions.

Indeed, Donaggio is best known in this country for his many 1970s and ’80s horror movie scores, and particularly his numerous collaborations with director Brian De Palma, on films such as Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Donaggio is an in-our-face composer, and that’s not the atmosphere Koolhoven builds here.

Lakemeier is making his film debut, and he’s reasonably persuasive as a boy increasingly conflicted about various loyalties. Michiel’s assumptions are challenged at every turn; even some of the despised German soldiers can be helpful, courteous and kind. Lakemeier’s often troubled gaze speaks volumes; he successfully carries the film, since Michiel is front and center almost all the time.

We become invested in this young man, and want him to quickly achieve levels of perception and intelligence that seem just beyond his reach. And that’s ironic, because on another level we decry the way in which the war is robbing all these children of their innocence.

Van Wageningen’s Ben is every inch the capable, larger-than-life figure that a boy would make of his favorite uncle. Thiry, in deliberate contrast, is a calmer, more cautionary individual, and therefore one easily viewed as “weak” by an impatient son. We know better — at least we think we do (paranoia clouding our own judgment, as well) — and understand that when Johan bargains pleasantly with the Nazis, he’s trying to prevent his neighbors and townsfolk from getting arrested ... or shot.

Nor is the father/son dynamic completely shattered. The film’s most loving moment comes when Johan catches Michiel attempting to shave; the father then instructs his son in this rite of passage. Thiry and Lakemeier handle this intimate moment brilliantly ... and if you’re not yet worried on behalf on these characters prior to this scene, you will be after it concludes.

The R rating seems needlessly harsh, even allowing for occasional bursts of profanity and some flurries of violence. Koolhoven’s film deserves to be seen by a general audience, with parents then able to help educate young viewers intrigued by history, and the intricacies of day-to-day existence in the face of an invading army.

And heroism, of course, and the tough choices placed upon those forced into awful moral quandaries.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2: All's well that ends well

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for fantasy action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.15.11

And so concludes the big-screen saga of The Boy Who Lived.

Aside from this series’ critical and public popularity — impressive in its own right, and with healthy box-office receipts to match — these eight films represent an extraordinary artistic accomplishment.
In order to defeat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, right), Harry (Daniel
Radcliffe) learns that he must allow himself to be killed ... because his own
body harbors one of the missing pieces of the villain's soul.

Exactly 10 years have passed since the release of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, during which time — miracle of miracles — the entire cast has remained intact. We’ve watched the young stars grow up, which added considerable verisimilitude to their increasingly perilous academic terms at Hogwarts. Supporting cast members have remained consistent as well, the sole exception being poor Richard Harris, who died and left the role of Albus Dumbledore in the equally talented hands of Michael Gambon.

I can’t stress how unusual this is, for a series that has run 10 years and eight films. Peter Jackson made all three of his Lord of the Rings epics simultaneously, and they were released within a much shorter 24-month period. And while smaller roles such as Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny and Desmond Llewelyn’s Q may have remained consistent during much of the James Bond series, 007 himself was handed down to an ongoing series of leading men, each time forcing viewers to adapt to a new face and — more critically — a new tone fashioned around this new individual.

No such changes had to be made with Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter series, which was enriched further by its consistency. From the standpoint of casting alone, the feat is nearly unprecedented.

Honestly, I think we’d need to go all the way back to MGM’s Andy Hardy series, which generated 15 films from 1937 to ’46, with a 16th “reunion story” in 1958. Mickey Rooney starred in all 16, and the key supporting players also remained the same.

But those were modest, low-budget programmers with TV sitcom-style storylines, and nothing about the Harry Potter series has ever been less than top-shelf. Indeed, the production values and special effects have been stunning, and the 3-D work in this final installment is no different; we can be grateful that 21st century movie-making technology has been able to realize the wealth of imagination present in J.K. Rowling’s novels.

The series also has delivered reliable entertainment value: not a clunker in the bunch. If not quite scaling the impressive heights of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the Harry Potter series always came darn close ... and, with Deathly Hallows 2, it has concluded with honor.

Uniformity of vision has been another blessing. Chris Columbus got the series off to a solid start by directing the first two entries; he was followed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell, and then David Yates brought the saga home during its final four entries. Steve Kloves scripted all but one film, pleading burnout and briefly surrendering the reins to Michael Goldenberg, on Order of the Phoenix. One imagines that Rowling and Warners must’ve made Kloves the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, because he returned with renewed energy, each time embracing the increasingly difficult task of condensing the ever-expanding books into economical screenplays.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Horrible Bosses: Rather horrible, all right

Horrible Bosses (2011) • View trailer for Horrible Bosses
Two stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, crude and sexual content, and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.8.11

Imitation isn’t merely the sincerest form of flattery; in Hollywood, it’s a way of life.
After deciding to do away with their mean, conniving bosses, our three put-upon
heroes — from left, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale
(Charlie Day) — seek advice from Dean "MF" Jones (Jamie Foxx), the baddest
cat in the city's worst neighborhood.

When some bottom-feeder unexpectedly made a fortune with Saw, within 12 months we were wallowing in the sewage of numerous quickie torture-porn imitations. A few years before that, American remakes of Japanese horror flicks were the rage. Want superheroes? These days, you can’t check out newspaper or online movie listings without encountering half a dozen Spandex-clad champions of justice.

Which brings us to vulgar moron comedies.

Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers have strip-mined this genre for several years, with results that have been uneven at best; every successful 40-Year-Old Virgin has been accompanied by lesser cousins such as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Step Brothers and the ill-advised remake of The Heartbreak Kid. Superduds, all.

But the surprise success of 2009’s The Hangover really put Hollywood on notice, and now — two years later, which is about as quickly as perceived trends can be acted upon — we’re paying the price. This year already has brought us swill such as The Dilemma, Hall Pass and the pallid sequel to The Hangover; fairness dictates that I acknowledge enjoying the pleasant surprise of Bridesmaids, which boasts the same pedigree.

Still to come, in the next few months: The Change-Up and Our Idiot Brother.

And the topic of today’s conversation: Horrible Bosses.

More than anything else, this weak excuse for a comedy hints at an insubstantial, one-sentence concept pitch by no-talent hacks attempting to get the attention of a gullible (desperate?) studio exec: “I know, I know; let’s do a potty-mouthed comedy retread of Strangers on a Train ... you know, the one where they swap murders!”

And thus a movie is born. Oh, joy.

I’ll give director Seth Gordon credit for attracting A-list talent; quite a few high-caliber actors wander through this limp noodle. Trouble is, they’ve little to do; as is typical of a clumsy script, individual scenes seem stitched together more of necessity than logical narrative progression.

Writers Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein haven’t even tried, and the proof is most visible in the blank character slates with which our three protagonists must struggle. Watch this flick — if you must — and then ask this key question: Do we know anything about Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), aside from the fact that each has a horrible boss? Anything about their private lives? Hobbies? Dietary preferences? Whether they’re kind to animals?

From the archives: March 2008

This was when I knew that Amy Adams would be a major, major star.

I missed her Academy Award-nominated performance in 2005's Junebug the first time around; the film simply didn't get much distribution. Nor, through any fault of her own, was she able to stand out among the lesser ensemble in her pair of 2006 comedies, The Ex and Talladega Night: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Ah, but 2007's Enchanted was something else again.

That entire film was a tightrope act, and a single misstep would have destroyed the credibility of its premise: that classic Disney-esque fairy tale characters had invaded our real world. But Adams held that film together like a pro, and she made the magic work.

Okay, fair enough; now she was somebody to watch.

Then came Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Goodness, what a charmer.

And that word can be applied to both Adams' performance, and the film as a whole. Hollywood frequently tries to recapture the saucy energy of 1940s comedies, with little success; this one's a winner in every respect. Indeed, it also channels the mildly naughty pre-Code 1930s flicks that found inventive methods of dealing with male/female sexual dynamics: scandalous at the time, deliciously quaint from this great remove. Miss Pettigrew nails every come-hither gaze, every innocent innuendo. The result is wonderfully beguiling, thanks also to a great cast led by Adams and Frances McDormand. This is a film for the ages.

This month also brought us (finally!) The Band's Visit, Israel's submission for the previous year's Foreign Film Academy Award. Whimsical and wise by turns, Eran Kolirin's engaging little drama suggests that many of the world's problems might vanish, if only we could come together through music. Not a novel concept, to be sure, but it's well utilized here.

Dr. Seuss was well served by Blue Sky Studios' big-screen adaptation of Horton Hears a Who: no surprise, I guess, considering that we're talking about the talented crew behind the Ice Age franchise. This one benefits from great voice casting, a droll script and a richly colored canvas that feels like a Dr. Seuss book brought to life. Fun for all ages.

As for the rest of the month ... not such a much. Will Ferrell unleashed one of his worst efforts yet (and mind you, that's saying quite a lot), and not even grand special effects could save a pallid prehistoric saga that desperately needed a dinosaur or two. A fascinating real-world Las Vegas card-counting saga turned into a silly melodrama, and the genuine tragedy of today's U.S. military personnel forced to re-enlist beyond their anticipated terms of service was trivialized by a bone-stupid farce that appeared to have been directed by MTV rock video impresarios.

Heck, even the new IMAX documentary was too preachy to be entertaining.

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

The Band's Visit

Grand Canyon

Horton Hears a Who

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day


Stop Loss

10,000 B.C.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Larry Crowne: Long may he reign

Larry Crowne (2011) • View trailer for Larry Crowne
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and occasional sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.1.11

True movie stars could captivate us while shopping for groceries.

Tom Hanks, my generation’s esteemed answer to Henry Fonda, charms with every word and gesture. When on camera, he brightens the most mundane task, adds sparkle to the most ordinary line. His questioning gazes are pregnant with hidden meaning; his double-takes are to die for.
Try as he might, Larry (Tom Hanks) can't seem to impress or even satisfy his
public speaking teacher, Mercedes (Julia Roberts). Sadly, Larry doesn't know
that Mercedes has made ill-advised assumptions about some of the other
people in his life. Can a budding relationship survive such misunderstandings?

He projects the sort of uncomplicated ease that Cary Grant also wore so well, suggesting that Hanks would be the ideal neighbor, dinner guest, friend of the family or boon companion. We must credit his on-camera craft for this, of course, although all indications suggest that the off-camera Hanks is the same genuinely pleasant fellow. I envy his friends and family members.

While never without work as an actor, Hanks has been quite selective about the projects he chooses to write and/or direct. Although involved in such capacities with episodes of the TV miniseries dramas From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers, Hanks hasn’t written or directed a big-screen film since 1996’s thoroughly delightful That Thing You Do.

Our loss. And now our gain, with the release of Hanks’ sophomore feature, Larry Crowne.

This gentle romantic saga places Hanks in the sort of role that suits him best: that of a quiet Everyman who, faced with a real-world crisis that could strike any one of us, meets the challenge with calm dignity. He displays the bearing and demeanor that we’d love to summon at such a moment: the personification of what we hope is the best part of ourselves.

Hanks shares scripting credit with Nia Vardalos, best known for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Vardalos’ subsequent career has been spotty: Greek Wedding made an ill-advised transition to television — best forgotten — and then she stumbled with her next two scripts: Connie and Carla and I Hate Valentine’s Day, the latter all but unreleased.

Larry Crowne, on the other hand, represents a deft meeting of the minds: an impeccably polished and delightfully constructed script that perfectly suits its chosen genre. This is how a romantic comedy should be done, with careful attention also paid to minor characters, and whimsical payoffs for incidental bits of business (such as where to hide a spare key, for those occasions when one is locked out of one’s own home).

Beginners: Poignant to the end

Beginners (2010) • View trailer for Beginners
Four stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for mild sensuality and occasional bursts of profanity
By Derrick Bang

Chronic grief is difficult to convey on camera.

It’s not chest-beating and wails of anguish; that may be a credible snap response to a tragedy, but it’s the stuff of extended sorrow only in afternoon soap operas and bad melodramas.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor), not quite certain whether to trust that his budding
relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) will last, attempts to keep her
off-guard with unexpected gestures. But being spontaneous doesn't come
easily to Oliver; it's one of many things he needs to learn while navigating
several unexpected and life-changing events.

Long-term misery is more like a lamp on a dimmer switch; the entire bulb is present, but the inner glow is diminished. One’s aura is muted. Answers to questions are half a heartbeat late; physical movement is sluggish; the eyes never quite focus; smiles seem to appear more because they’re expected — a social convention, to mask the truth — as opposed to reflecting spontaneous delight. One simply doesn’t look or seem involved.

All this is hard to project in a film, precisely because it isn't flashy. Lesser actors try too hard, and miss the desired result entirely.

Meryl Streep caught it, in 1982’s adaptation of Sophie’s Choice. Richard Jenkins did just as well, more recently, in The Visitor. Both earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for their efforts; Streep won hers.

Ewan McGregor belongs in their company, for his rich, quietly layered and subtly precise work in writer/director Mike Mills’ Beginners. This is a compelling, persuasively nuanced study of personal pain and the cautious attempts at recovery. Mills clearly understands the process, and his story resonates with the utter truth of personal experience. He really nails the process: It’s like learning to exist all over again, and figuring out how to re-assemble the pieces of one’s psyche, because a large chunk has been removed. Permanently.

But navigating grief is only half the equation here; the rest derives from the shock of confronting change so massive that it disrupts one’s sense of the universe ... and, to a great degree, of self.

The time is 2003; we meet Oliver (McGregor) as he embraces the ritual of sifting through another’s possessions — the books, clothes, furniture and boxed clutter that somehow shape an entire life — after having just lost his father to cancer. It’s a doleful process, made even worse by the occasional discovery that prompts an involuntary smile. Oliver shares this experience with Arthur, an expressive Jack Russell Terrier that was his father’s constant companion. Now, with his former master absent, Arthur cannot leave Oliver’s side.

This dog, it must be mentioned, is a treasure: one of the great screen canines, giving a performance every bit the equal of his two-legged co-stars. Actually named Cosmo, this pooch was trained by Mathilde de Cagny, who nurtured another famous Jack Russell — Moose, who played Eddie — during 11 seasons of the TV series Frasier.

Transformers 3: How 'bout changing into something decent?

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011) • View trailer for Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for prolonged action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for occasional profanity and fleeting sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Michael Bay doesn’t make movies; he assembles big-screen video games.

His characters don’t even have the depth of those found in 1960s Saturday morning cartoon shows. An average episode of Scooby-Doo generated more suspense and emotional impact.
After climbing a high-rise office building in order to get a better shot at a
complex beam-generator thingie, Sam (Shia LaBeouf) and his soldier buddies
find their plan derailed when a nasty, coiling Decepticon pushes over the
entire top half of the building. Boy, the good guys just can't catch a break!

His Transformers series makes the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise look like high art.

Bay, obviously operating under the assumption that more is more, clutters his action scenes with so much stuff that it’s impossible to focus on any single person or set of characters. Impossible to separate our heroes from half a dozen nameless hangers-on who have such wafer-thin character depth that they’d vanish, if turned sideways.

A typical Michael Bay good guy is introduced simply by striking a macho pose and growling something unintelligible. Rarely do we get names or even one-note distinguishing references (the fat one, the nasty one, etc.). We’re apparently supposed to be impressed simply because cinematographer Amir M. Mokri properly centers the guy in the frame. Then this gung-ho warrior joins other similarly anonymous combatants, and we wonder: Are we supposed to care about any of these guys?

Apparently not, since Ehren Kruger’s so-called script doesn’t bother with character depth, emotional resonance or sensible narrative structure. It’s just one big battle scene after another, most involving the destruction of as much real estate as possible. (Say farewell to the entire city of Chicago.) At close to three hours, it all becomes numbing: more endurance test than vicarious thrill ride.

I keep reminding myself that Kruger had us gnawing fingernails with his slick 1999 big-screen scripting debut, Arlington Road. Now, that was a nifty flick. Heck, I even liked his script for 2000’s Reindeer Games: not as good by a long shot, but still a slickly paced B-thriller.

But then Kruger sold his soul and got sucked into the increasingly tedious American remakes of Japan’s Ring horror entries, after which he was scooped up by Bay for the Transformers series. I guess we shouldn’t expect much from a big-screen franchise stitched together from a line of toys, but still; wouldn’t a little effort be warranted?

Thirteen people — 13! — are credited as producers on this mess, from Bay and Steven Spielberg (two of the four executive producers) to “3D producer” Michelle McGonagle. Golly, with all those producers, you’d sure think they’d ... well ... produce something.