Friday, August 26, 2011

Legends of Flight 3D: Mostly soars

Legends of Flight 3D (2010) • View trailer for Legends of Flight 3D
3.5 stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.26.11

If science class movies had been this cool, I never would have fallen asleep in school.

But, then, IMAX documentaries never have been run-of-the-mill educational films.
The Boeing 787 slowly takes shape in the aircraft design company's enormous
facility at Everett, Wash.: the largest enclosed building in the entire world.

Stephen Low's Legends of Flight offers tantalizing glimpses of aviation history, some nifty aerial footage and an unabashed love letter to Boeing. Indeed, when the final credits unspooled and mentioned that "the producers wish to thank all the fine folks at Boeing," I leaned over to my Constant Companion and murmured, "Um, I think that's backwards; all the fine folks at Boeing should be thanking the producers."

Really, this couldn't be a more blatant valentine to a single corporation.

But while such issues of crass commercialization are vaguely irritating, they don't detract from the sheer, unadulterated joy of the subject itself. From our days in the caves, mankind has dreamed about flying. That has never, ever changed, and we therefore enthuse over anything that conveys the exhilarating sense of wonder certain to be experienced when soaring aloft ... whether in a conventional passenger plane or an eerily silent glider.

Or by simply kicking back in a movie theater seat and vicariously getting a taste of flight, via a massive IMAX screen and cinematographer William Reeve's impressive 3D effects.

More than any other IMAX 3D film — and I've seen numerous — this one truly puts the image in our laps. Even knowing better, one is tempted to grab at stuff that appears to float directly in front of our noses. Reeve gets many amazing shots, whether straight into the spinning heart of a jet engine, or planted alongside the pilot of a passenger airplane, or within eardrum-shattering range as a Harrier Jump Jet takes off.

Indeed, at times we're so close that it's almost overwhelming; the screen image literally spills out beyond the range of our peripheral vision.

Sound editors Michel B. Bordeleau and Peter Thillaye also do a superb job, whether with the ambient noises within an aircraft factory, the roar of engines or the preternatural stillness of a glider in flight above massive, snow-covered mountains.

The "story," per se — it's telling that this film has no credited scripter — follows narrator and Boeing chief test pilot Mike Carriker, who back-stories the 787 program by explaining his company's desire to orchestrate the next big technological leap in passenger aircraft design. The "race" begins just after the turn of the new century, with engineers convinced that design improvements will need to focus on structural materials and wing design, rather than simply relying upon ever-more-powerful engines.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: No chance of that!

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) • View trailer for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence and terror, much of the latter directed at a little girl
By Derrick Bang

To fall back on an indictment that I use with depressing frequency these days, this film boasts a classic example of the so-called idiot plot: The story lurches forward from one improbable event to the next only because each and every character behaves like a complete idiot at all times.
Nobody believes Sally (Bailee Madison) when she insists that evil little pixies
have invaded her huge home. She therefore takes a picture of one — attagirl! —
but then loses her "proof" when one of the critters snatches it away ... at which
point the foolish child turns stupid again, and chases it into a darkened library,
where she can be attacked by dozens of them. You'd think the girl would have
smartened up by this point...

The only saving grace — although this creates an entirely different set of problems — is that our cast of characters is so ludicrously, unnaturally limited, that we need not assume the entire human race has been force-fed dopey pills. It's just these five people.

It's simply impossible to sympathize with characters who are so bone-stupid.

Consider: Your handyman stumbles out of the darkened, obviously sinister basement of your ancient, isolated Rhode Island mansion; he's cut, slashed and bleeding in dozens of places, sharp blades still literally hanging from his body ... with no indication of what or who injured him, or how many attackers were involved.

And you ignore this? Mark it down as an "accident"?

Consider: Our 8-year-old heroine, although admittedly a little girl, is a modern little girl who seems to have all her faculties. She nonetheless displays the intelligence and self-preservational skills of a turnip, forever crawling into and under places that are clearly dangerous. Spooky voices call to her from a nasty, carefully sealed grate in that same malevolent basement ... so what does she do? She opens the grate.

She does not deserve to survive this story; none of these characters does. They don't earn that privilege.

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro — the accomplished horror impresario who wrote and directed Mimic and Pan's Labyrinth, and who produced The Orphanage — has claimed that 1973's made-for-TV flick, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, is the scariest movie he ever saw on the small screen. It has some juice, I'll acknowledge; director John Newland had oodles of experience with TV-size chills in programs such as One Step Beyond, Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But stars Kim Darby and Jim Hutton weren't really right for the material, and I doubt the film would raise gooseflesh among modern viewers.

But if del Toro retains such fond memories, well and good; that should have made him the perfect choice to script a modern remake.

I can't imagine what went wrong. Everything about this script — credited to del Toro and Matthew Robbins — is contrived, ill-conceived, sloppy or just plain daft.

No exchange of dialogue between "loving couple" Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) sounds authentic; every conversation, whether trivial or agitated, rings false. They also share zero chemistry.

Alex professes to be a loving father to 8-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison), a claim hardly validated by any of his detached behavior. And despite obviously disapproving of his ex-wife's tendency to medicate their daughter on the advice of pill-pushing shrinks, when Sally finally wises up and reacts with appropriate levels of stark terror to what is happening in this story, Alex blandly accepts a new psychiatrist's suggestion to shove more drugs into the poor girl. Is this supposed to be tough love?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fright Night: Bloody good fun

Fright Night (2011) • View trailer for Fright Night
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for gore, violence, profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.19.11

1985's Fright Night was a macabre delight: a smart blend of nerd humor and unexpectedly gory shocks, which made it a minor classic in the horror comedy sub-genre.

This one's better.
Fending off an angry vampire (Colin Farrell) with a cross only works if the
wielder truly believes in God's power ... and in this secular age, and
particularly in sin-laden Las Vegas, devout religious faith in hard to come
by. That's likely to be a problem...

I can cite several reasons for this sequel's success, starting with director Craig Gillespie's crisp pacing and Marti Noxon's slick script, cleverly adapted and updated from Tom Holland's 26-year-old storyline. But the true star of this version is, well, the star: Colin Farrell, who makes one of the best, baddest and most bodaciously bloody vampires the genre has spawned.

And mind you, we're talking a long history of fangsters.

Farrell isn't merely spooky; he's primal and feral in a way that suggests he might have been around long enough to give nightmares to our distant, cave-dwelling ancestors. His malevolent, mocking smile is chilling, and his best bit of physical business — amid numerous — is a tendency, at startling moments, to pause, sniff the air and (we know, with sick fear) register the presence of a nearby victim.

He radiates an aura of menace and tightly coiled power, even under apparently mild circumstances. We'd not be the slightest bit surprised if he seized two ends of a motorcycle, effortlessly lifted it off the ground and then ripped it in half.

But while Farrell deserves considerable praise, I don't want to short-shrift the rest of the cast. Everybody here does a great job, whether looking nervously out windows, dispensing mordant one-liners or fleeing for their lives. And, throughout, Gillespie never loses track of the all-important blend of comedy, tension and splattered viscera.

Indeed, Gillespie is a sneaky sod, just like this story's creature of darkness. This film has a deceptively mild first act, lulling us into a sense of false security, until a tension-laden sequence that climaxes with a ghastly surprise that's guaranteed to propel most of you from your seats. (Buy your tickets quickly, before too many twits spoil the surprises.)

Sarah's Key: Unlocking a grim past

Sarah's Key (2010) • View trailer for Sarah's Key
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Curiosity, we all eventually learn, can be highly dangerous.

Sarah's Key, adapted by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner from French author Tatiana de Rosnay's novel — which occupied the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks — is a melancholy, deeply moving but at times unbearably sad drama. De Rosnay's story reminds us that the past, particularly the uncomfortable past, never really goes away ... nor should it.
Seeking the sense of past horrors she cannot wholly grasp, Julia (Kristin Scott
Thomas) visits the Parisian Holocaust Memorial, where she hopes to, in the
words of a man she meets there, "get away from the figures and statistics, to
give a face and reality to each of these lives."

Paquet-Brenner's adaptation of this story — he co-wrote the script with Serge Joncour — is fueled by two unforgettable performances: the always magnificent Kristin Scott Thomas, as a modern woman increasingly obsessed by her search for truth; and Mélusine Mayance, absolutely riveting as young Sarah.

And while these characters and events are fictitious, they're set against a horrific historic event — the notorious 1942 Vel' d'Hiv round-up in France — that exposes yet another Holocaust atrocity probably not too well known in this country.

It's simply impossible to wrap our modern, sheltered, comfortable brains around the stark reality of what the French did to their own citizens; we can only shake our heads with disbelief. And yet, as Scott Thomas' Julia Jarmond says, at one point, how can we know what we would have done, under identical circumstances, if given a choice between complicity and likely death?

Armchair bravery is easy. God forbid it ever should be put to such a ghastly test.

Paquet-Brenner's film occupies two timelines. The first opens on July 16, 1942, as waves of French policemen and civil servants — cooperating with an order from their Nazi occupiers — begin arresting what ultimately becomes more than 13,000 Jewish citizens. Sarah Starzynski (Mayance) is playing with her younger brother in their shared bedroom, when the authoritative knock comes at the door; thinking swiftly, the girl locks the little boy into a concealed cupboard — the "secret hiding place" — and cautions him to remain quiet, promising to come back and let him out later.

Sarah and her parents are hauled off to the nearby Vélodrome d'Hiver, where they join thousands of other detainees stuffed into the filthy, smelly, unsanitary confines of a structure never intended to hold so many people. Sarah develops a fever and falls ill; nobody can help her.

A few days later, now quite sick, the girl and her parents are relocated to the Drancy internment camp, where children are separated from their parents. Despite her illness, Sarah never loses her grip on the precious key to that cupboard.

The plight of Sarah and her family unfolds in stages, intercut with contemporary scenes that follow Julia, an expatriate American journalist living in Paris with her husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), and their teenage daughter. Julia works for a high-tone magazine; she's given the opportunity to craft a lengthy feature story on the Vel' d'Hiv raids. She relishes this chance to shine a fresh spotlight on historic behavior so appalling that French President Jacques Chirac eventually publicly apologized for it, in 1995.

Conan the Barbarian: Quite barbaric

Conan the Barbarian (2011) • View trailer for Conan the Barbarian
Two stars. Rating: R, for strong, bloody violence, gore, nudity and sensuality
By Derrick Bang

You sure didn't want to be a woman during the Hyborian Age.

Or a horse.
Conan (Jason Momoa, left) has just rescued Tamara (Rachel Nichols) from a
bad guy. Conan's now about to beat the stuffing out of said bad guy, while
Tamara cowers in terror. In fairness, Tamara soon will demonstrate quite a bit
more pluck: a good thing, because this gloomy flick needs all the personality
it can get.

The latter, apparently deemed of no value, routinely had their legs cut out from under them, in order to unseat the rider for easier dispatch on the ground.

The former, apparently deemed of minimal value, were enslaved or snatched as chattel, reflexively raped and passed among fellow mercenaries like biscuits at an afternoon tea. Which, from all appearances, seems not to have bothered these usually bare-breasted babes, who enthusiastically accepted their lustful lot in life. (I believe we call this a male-centric point of view.)

Exceptions existed, of course. Some women were lucky enough to train as sequestered monks; they lived a peaceful life until adversity forced them to demonstrate damn impressive fighting skills. (You never can tell about those monks!)

Alternatively, a growing young woman could become a witch, at which point she got to wear Freddy Krueger-style razored fingernails and summon sand demons. While remaining more or less fully clad, which I guess would have been a bonus.

These efforts at mocking levity represent the sole comedy relief you'll get from Conan the Barbarian, as humorless a thud-and-blunder bloodbath as I've seen in awhile. Yes, author Robert E. Howard's iconic warrior has been resurrected yet again: the most recent entry in a revival that began in the early 1970s, when Howard's 1930s Weird Tales novelettes were adapted into a popular Marvel Comics series, which in turn encouraged paperback reprints of the original stories and, a bit later, a 1982 film — and 1984 sequel — that boosted Arnold Schwarzenegger's nascent career.

While this new film's Jason Momoa certainly sports the necessary physique for all this hacking and slashing, he's at best only a marginally better actor than Schwarzenegger was. Young Leo Howard does a much better job as Conan's boyhood self, in this film's first act; for openers, he has a much better scowl.

Not that acting chops are of much significance. Momoa gets by on the sort of monosyllabic grunts and chopped-off sentences that Johnny Weissmuller made famous as the similarly heroic Tarzan, way back in the day. The so-called story here — stitched together by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood — is long on battlefield fury and eyebrow-raising coincidence, and short on plot logic or common sense.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help: The power of friendship

The Help (2011) • View trailer for The Help
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.12.11

Certain historical flashpoints become such an iconic part of our cultural awareness, that we cannot help being engaged by stories that spring from them.
Aibileen (Viola Davis, standing left) observes the uncomfortable power
dynamics while attending to the needs of neighborhood "queen bee" Hilly
(Bryce Dallas Howard, seated center), who easily exerts subtle psychological
control over Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly, left). Even Skeeter (Emma Stone, right),
although fully aware of her "friend's" behavior, understands the need to tread
cautiously; one does not annoy Hilly without expecting serious reprisal.

The Holocaust is an obvious example; its power never diminishes, and I marvel at the fresh viewpoints revealed in recent films such as The Reader, The Counterfeiters and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Another one opens this week: Sarah's Key and its star, Kristen Scott Thomas, are certain to become a topic du jour in the next few months.

Moving closer to home, race relations in the mid-20th century — particularly in the Deep South — exert an equally powerful hold. Harper Lee's rich, poetic prose has much to do with the lasting impact of To Kill a Mockingbird, but its setting and gently instructive message deserve equal credit.

Kathryn Stockett's The Help channels Lee's masterpiece in all the best ways.

Even a casual student of history cannot help being astonished — and sickened — by the deplorable behavior that was a norm, in some parts of this country, a mere 50 years ago. Within my own lifetime. The very notion staggers me.

We often watch British imports such as Upstairs, Downstairs and congratulate ourselves for being a classless society. Don't you believe it: The dividing lines may be subtler at times, but we routinely slot into roles every bit as rigorously defined as those that separated England's serving class from those who were served.

Sometimes the lines aren't even subtle.

Stockett took five years to write what eventually became The Help, beginning in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Then, having accumulated more than five dozen rejection slips, she was ready to abandon the book. She happened to give it to actor-turned-filmmaker Tate Taylor, a longtime friend she had known since their shared childhoods in Jackson, Miss., in the 1970s.

Taylor saw more than potential; he recognized a story that could change lives. In one of those quirks of fate embraced by downtrodden artists, Stockett's manuscript was turned into a script, and put into production, long before Penguin Books got involved. Stockett's novel finally was published in 2009; it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for one week short of two years, occupying the No. 1 spot for six of those weeks.

And now the creative process has come full circle. Taylor has scripted and directed a quiet, tension-charged drama that both respects Stockett's book and provides a memorable showcase for each member of its talented cast. Despite the need to compress events, Taylor's film honors the tale being told, along with its core messages: that an immoral status quo never should be tolerated, and that change can be brought about by determined individuals willing to ignore bone-deep terror while doing the right thing.

That said, the film's tag line — "Change begins with a whisper" — is a bit misleading. I'd call this saga more of a clandestine shout.

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie — Grand, giddy and plenty Gleeful

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie (2011) • View trailer for Glee: The 3D Concert Movie
Four stars. Rating: PG, for thematic elements, mild profanity and some sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Yes, I'm a Gleek. Proudly. Passionately.

But not always indiscriminately. I'll freely acknowledge that some of the recently completed second season episodes were quite weak: bereft of plot and little more than excuses to place more songs on iTunes. At times, this show's commercial tail definitely wags the artistic dog.
Kurt (Chris Colfer), Mercedes (Amber Riley, center) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz)
belt their way through one of many show-stopping numbers, en route to a
glorious, slushy-filled finale.

But when it's on fire ... goodness, it blazes.

As is the case with Glee: The 3D Concert Movie.

This experience couldn't possibly be better at what it set out to be. Glee fans will love it, embrace it, return for multiple viewings and then buy it the millisecond a DVD becomes available. But they'll have only a fraction of the heart-pounding, fist-pumping, dancing-in-the-aisles joy granted by this big-screen sensation.

You want — nay, need — to see this puppy on as large a screen as possible, to take full advantage of the excellent 3D cinematography. And be sure the theater has big-big-big speakers, capable of pumping out enough sound to sterilize frogs in the next county.

This was a planned 3D shoot from the onset. Cinematographer Glen MacPherson and director Kevin Tancharoen made damn sure to avoid the often blurry, always darkened look of retrofitted 3D. The colors literally pop off the screen, and the many costumes are by turns dazzling, cheeky, affectionately retro and audaciously sexy. Naughty schoolgirls never have been this hot.

I'll assume TV show costume designer Lou Eyrich also handled this chore for the "Glee" summer concert tour that became this film; that credit, maddeningly, is nowhere to be found in the press notes. In which case, she deserves to take another bow.

Mostly, though, this film blazes with energy. These kids truly give their all during every one of the 23 songs comprising this high-octane show. One could wish that the mix included a few more quiet tunes, such as Kurt's (Chris Colfer) gentle rendition of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" ... but let's face it; the stand-out moments in "Glee" always revolve around power — and empowerment — anthems.

And yes, calling them "kids" is a bit of a wink-wink-nudge-nudge. Lea Michele (Rachel) is just this side of 25; Dianna Agron (Quinn) IS 25; Naya Rivera (Santana) is 24; and Cory Monteith (Finn) and Mark Salling (Puck) are 29. At 21, Colfer is one of the youngest. Indeed, they've long pushed the envelope by playing high school seniors ... but hey, that's nothing new.

Tancharoen and show runner Ryan Murphy deserve considerable credit for reproducing — to the best degree possible — the fan-generated excitement of the summer concert tour. This film couldn't be fresher; the footage was shot during the cast's two-day stop, June 16-17, at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J.

Another Earth: Celestial salvation?

Another Earth (2011) • View trailer for Another Earth
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Science-fiction films come in several distinct flavors.

Hollywood delights in the most obvious end of the spectrum: the flamboyant space operas filled with ray guns, robots and other ostentatious hardware. Think Star Wars. At the other extreme, we have quieter stories that employ futuristic what-ifs solely as a backdrop to the primary character drama. Cliff Robertson's Academy Award-winning turn in 1968's Charly comes to mind here.
Rhoda (Brit Marling), a young woman desperately trying to flee the mess she
has made of her life, wonders if some sort of solution might be offered by the
mysterious, newly discovered planet that is revealed to be increasingly
Earth-like, as the weeks and months pass.

The latter type always intrigue me, particularly those not immediately recognized as science fiction.

While Fox Searchlight is marketing Another Earth to capitalize on its sci-fi trappings, director Mike Cahill's thoughtful indie drama actually is a study of guilt, and whether any act of atonement is possible in the wake of an unforgivable act. Cahill co-wrote the story with Brit Marling, who also stars. The film took two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why; Cahill and Marling quietly weave a staggering futuristic element into a primarily real-world drama, which leads to an unexpectedly clever denouement.

That said, their film is slow, at times almost leaden. Aside from brief encounters with incidental people, this is primarily a two-character piece without much dialogue. Marling and co-star William Mapother are expected to convey a lot of emotion and anguish via body language and facial expression, and neither has the subtle acting chops to pull that off at all times. Quite often, yes, but not consistently.

Additionally, the film's low-budget origins work against it. Cahill also handles the cinematography and editing, and his cheap, grainy film stock does him no favors. While he might argue that the bland, washed-out color palette is an intentional artistic decision intended to convey his protagonist's drab, day-to-day existence, the inadequate lighting and washed-out visuals are distracting ... and they pull us out of the story.

We meet Rhoda Williams (Marling) as a bright teen giddy over having just been accepted into MIT's astrophysics program. She celebrates this triumph at a party and then unwisely drives home. Distracted further by a startling announcement on the car radio — the discovery of another planet near Earth — Rhoda leans out the window to scan the night sky ... while still driving.

The collision is inevitable, and entirely her fault. She destroys the family in the other vehicle, putting the driver into a coma and killing his pregnant wife and their young child.

Cahill handles this sequence with admirable restraint, allowing us to fill in the details as Rhoda stands, aghast, unable to comprehend what she has done. She cannot move, and as the sound of sirens rises in the background, Marling deftly conveys, without words, this young woman's realization that her bright future has been snuffed out like the lives she has just taken.

Four years pass, in a single black text card.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Change-Up: Same old, same old

The Change-Up (2011) • View trailer for The Change-Up
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive strong crude sexual content and language, nudity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.5.11

The Change-Up makes me want to gather signatures for a petition to be circulated throughout Hollywood, demanding a moratorium on three things:

1) Body-swap movies. I suppose this premise goes back to Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, but it didn't become a movie subgenre until the original Freaky Friday, in 1976. Since then, we've endured All of Me, Vice Versa, Dream a Little Dream, 18 Again, Like Father, Like Son, a remake of Freaky Friday, It's a Boy Girl Thing and ... you get the idea. Enough, already!
Mitch (occupying Jason Bateman's body, center) listens as Dave (occupying
Ryan Reynolds' body) attempts to explain their predicament to his
understandably dubious wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann). Actually, this is one of
the film's funnier scenes ... which doesn't set the bar very high.

2) Flying excrement. Apparently, this is considered the height of vulgar humor these days. And with the initial envelope having been shredded, now we're scraping bottom by making the consequences worse. Ergo, in The Change-Up, dedicated daddy Dave Lockwood (Jason Bateman), pulling late-night diaper duty, winds up with a mouthful of projectile poop. What's next ... being forced to watch the victim involuntarily swallow?

3) Deliberately unpalatable nudity, often blended with kinky sex. Once again, numbnuts writers chase each other down the drain of depravity, looking to break yet another taboo. In this case, career horndog Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds) enjoys getting it on with a 9-months-pregnant hottie. Whom we see in the altogether. Note: The scene is designed not to demonstrate the radiant, healthy sexuality of a pregnant woman — which I'm sure is uppermost on the minds of all pregnant women — but solely for a cheap, gross-out laugh. Making it offensive on two levels.


As expected, The Change-Up is nothing more than yet another of this year's tedious and vulgar moron comedies: a derivative, desperate, deliberately disgusting waste of its stars' talents.

Bateman and Reynolds are funny guys. No question. Reynolds demonstrated quite a flair for physical and situational comedy with 2009's The Proposal, and Bateman has been the best part of numerous misfired flicks that didn't deserve his participation. (Honestly, Jason, you need a better agent.)

Director David Dobkin previously brought us Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus, so he's obviously accustomed to lowest-common-denominator humor. Nothing wrong with that, as long as something about the project feels fresh; casting and energy deservedly turned Wedding Crashers into a hit. But The Change-Up feels like something cobbled together by a couple of junior high school lads seeking to include as much profanity and as many bare breasts as possible ... even when neither is justified.

No surprise there: Scripters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore come to us from Four Christmases and both Hangover entries. I cite all these titles to let fans of the above-mentioned flicks know that they'll be in familiar territory here.

Or perhaps not. The Change-Up attempts to wring a moral from its tired, high-concept premise, and that works against the arrested adolescent hijinks crammed into damn near every scene.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Little Help: Definitely needs some

A Little Help (2010) • View trailer for A Little Help
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn's little film loses its way in the very first scene.

We meet our heroine, dental hygienist Laura Pehlke (Jenna Fischer), in a patient's-eye view as she bends toward the camera with a probe in hand, preparing to scrape the plaque from the teeth of some poor fellow reclining in the chair. The office pet, a gorgeous parrot with a vocabulary of two words — "Rinse, please," repeated over and over — gets on her last ragged nerve. The bird is intended to be soothing for patients; Laura finds it anything but (and who can blame her?).
Remembering the fun they often had while singing along with the radio, Laura
(Jenna Fischer) tries to cheer up her son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) with the same
tactic. But Dennis, having just entered his teenage years, can't be bothered ...
or so he'd like everybody to believe.

The scene is played for giggles: not knee-slapping gales of laughter, but chuckles at the very least.

We take our cues, going into a film, from the way early scenes are composed: atmosphere, lighting, camera angles, dialogue, the physical bearing of anybody in frame. Weithorn thus prepares us for something light and gentle: perhaps a larkish romantic comedy, perhaps a ruefully perceptive sketch of a thirtysomething woman at loose ends.

Instead, a few scenes later, we're doused with poisonous relationship dynamics that qualify as indefensible cruelty: not just to Laura, but to us viewers. Suddenly, we're in Weithorn's riff on the raw, bitter, family-verité vitriol of Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married. The abrupt change of tone is akin to whiplash.

Laura suffers abuse from every quarter: the marriage from hell, the sister and parents from hell. She apparently endures this mistreatment because somewhere, long ago, she resigned herself to it. We've no idea why, nor will we ever find out. Weithorn fails to supply the roughly 45 minutes of back-story that would justify any of this.

Husband Bob (Chris O'Donnell), habitually coming home late from work, obviously is having an affair. Laura plays doormat as she tries to ignore the screamingly blatant signs; Bob parries direct questions with complaints that he'd feel more like making love to her, if she "hadn't let herself go."

Jenna Fischer? Let herself go? Good Lord, she couldn't be any cuter. Hearing Bob claim otherwise makes him sound like an idiot. More disconnect.

Granted, it has become Hollywood custom for gorgeous young actresses to wind up in stories that find them a) unloved; b) unable to find boyfriends or girlfriends; c) deemed "plain"; and/or d) generally cast aside as ugly ducklings who've not yet blossomed. Depending on the film, we either smile in tolerant amusement or roll our eyes with irritation. This one goes way beyond irritation, since Laura's "appearance" is at the core of Weithorn's script.