Friday, September 30, 2011

50/50: Beats the odds

50/50 (2011) • View trailer for 50/50
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, drug use, sexual candor and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.30.11

Flip a coin. Heads, you live; tails, you die.

Shuffle a deck of cards — remove the jokers first — and deal the top card onto the table. Red, you live; black, you die.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is mildly uneasy when he learns that his
therapist is three years younger than he is. His uncertainty increases further when
he discovers that the inexperienced Katherine (Anna Kendrick) has had only
two previous patients.

We all exist under the shadow of survival odds; it’s how insurance companies stay in business. Most of us, though, are blessed by never knowing how good or bad our odds have become, from one moment — day, week, month — to the next.

Those receiving unexpected news regarding a deadly disease aren’t that lucky. In a heartbeat, they enter a world of statistics and percentages. Life becomes ... challenged.

Director Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is a thoughtful, frequently funny and unexpectedly sensitive movie about a young man’s response to cancer. Will Reiser’s script is sharp, acutely perceptive and — regardless of outcome — richly life-affirming. The result is another impressive tightrope act of tone and balance: the second such film I’ve seen in the past week.

And, as with director Mona Achache’s handling of The Hedgehog, Levine’s approach to 50/50 is every bit as skilled. Frankly, I’m impressed; after a weak start with the forgettable horror flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Levine has fulfilled the promise he demonstrated with his far better — albeit unjustly ignored — sophomore effort, The Wackness.

Granted, 50/50 isn’t without flaws. A little bit of Seth Rogen goes a very long way, and at times he threatens to hijack the film. But Levine clearly perceives the fine line of Too Much, and he rarely lets Rogen step over it. Not an easy task, when dealing with such a comedic force of nature.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an increasingly accomplished actor of the “quiet” school, stars as Adam, a 27-year-old guy living an unremarkable, unthreatening “B-minus” life, in producer Ben Karlin’s words. Adam wouldn’t view it that way, but he’s definitely the mildly withdrawn and “safe” counterpoint to his wild ’n’ crazy best friend, Kyle (Rogen).

The guys live in Seattle (the film actually was shot in Vancouver, B.C.) and work at the local National Public Radio station, where Adam has been editing a feature on volcanoes long past the point of perfection. Adam takes pride in his craft; Kyle can’t understand why he’d bother with a piece that people will hear while driving to work, and then immediately forget. And thus Adam and Kyle’s contrasting personalities are established.

What's Your Number: Close to zero

What's Your Number? (2011) • View trailer for What's Your Number?
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, vulgar humor, sexual candor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang

The one bright spot in last year’s otherwise atrocious Dinner for Schmucks was the main character’s hobby of creating adorable little “mouseterpiece” dioramas.

The one bright spot in this week’s otherwise atrocious What’s Your Number is the main character’s hobby of creating adorable little “clay people” dioramas.
Ally (Anna Faris) can't believe how easily Colin (Chris Evans)
is able to track down some of her ex-boyfriends. You won't
believe how little is made of this story premise, or how badly
this 106-minute misfire needs to be shorteneed. To perhaps
25 minutes.

I’ve no idea what this proves, except that perhaps the producers of vulgar, numbnuts comedies might consider basing an entire movie on the figures in little dioramas. I’m pretty sure they’d wind up with better films.

What’s Your Number is the most recent example of what will, lamentably, become a trend for the next few years: sex comedies featuring potty-mouthed women. In the wake of the $281 million scooped up by Bridesmaids — on an initial budget of only $32.5 million — we’re simply doomed. Hollywood doesn’t ignore returns like that.

Meanwhile, we have What’s Your Number as a wincing example of star Anna Faris’ misuse of her 15 minutes of fame. She rose through the ranks as a supporting player in the Scary Movie franchise — fitful spoofs of the already spoof-laden Scream series — and delivered some acceptable television work in Friends and Entourage before breaking out in 2007’s rather deplorable The House Bunny.

Despite being a stinker, that flick pulled in $70 million. These days, careers are based on much less.

Since then, Faris has lent her voice to a pair of animated hits — Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel — and starred in three flicks that came and went so quickly, you can be forgiven for wondering if they ever saw release: Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, Observe and Report and Take Me Home Tonight. All were bombs, and she contributed her fair share of the carnage.

The plain, hard truth is that Faris isn’t very talented. Her “acting” is forced, stiff and clumsy, her body language sub-par summer stock, her voice somewhere between shrill and braying. She has no comedic timing whatsoever: rather ironic, given her work thus far. Her one asset is a rockin’ little bod that was made for sex, which she shrewdly refuses to bare completely; she does, at least, recognize the allure of the provocative tease.

If only director Mark Mylod and the writers of this mess understood such restraint.

What’s Your Number is scripted by Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden, both veterans of TV sitcoms such as Jesse, Scrubs, Everybody Loves Raymond and Arrested Development. Apparently not content with the constrained environment of network TV, they’ve teamed here to adapted Karyn Bosnak’s novel, 20 Times a Lady, a sharp-edged chick-lit entry from the Candace Bushnell Sex and the City school.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moneyball: Thoughtful slugger

Moneyball (2011) • View trailer for Moneyball
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.23.11

You just can’t beat the romantic, almost spiritual atmosphere of a good baseball movie.

Other sports-themed dramas — football, basketball, tennis, whatever — simply don’t deliver the emotional oomph of The Natural, Field of Dreams, The Pride of the Yankees and many, many others. Baseball movies — like the sport itself — aren’t merely about the game; they’re more akin to a religious experience.
Forced to wait in the outer office like some no-account hired hand, Oakland
Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) suspects that his efforts to
trade players with the Cleveland Indians will come to nothing ... but, at the
moment, he sees no other options. That view is about to change, as will
Beane's entire vision of how best to create a winning baseball team.

Moneyball belongs in their company: a rather unconventional entry, to be sure, but one suffused with its own type of magic.

Director Bennett Miller’s thoughtful drama, ostensibly a profile of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), actually concerns one man’s quixotic quest to re-write the fundamental principle that had driven baseball for decades: the notion that the best team could — would — be assembled by obtaining the best players money could buy.

And for “best,” insert “most expensive.” After all, a player commanding an eight-figure salary must be worth every penny, right?

Ah, but is a collection of ego-inflated prima donnas actually a team? Therein lies the question.

Scripters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), working from a story by Stan Chervin — who, in turn, adapted Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game — have quite cleverly written the All the President’s Men of baseball, and made the result equally fascinating. Just as William Goldman spun espionage and intrigue from the grinding research and day-to-day fact-checking of newspaper reporters, Sorkin and Zaillian have made a rich, engrossing brew of economics, statistics and charts.

An impressive feat, to say the least.

Miller has made it even better with a well-cast collection of realistic characters: dreamers, pragmatists, visionaries and stubborn naysayers. Change doesn’t come without pain.

We meet Beane and his Oakland Athletics in the aftermath of the 2001 season, just as their best players are cherry-picked by other franchises with deeper pockets. The A’s are left gutted, with Beane nearly apoplectic over the realization that his team is little more than a candy store for the Yankees and other wealthier rivals. The playing field isn’t level, and he resents it.

A humiliating attempt to horse-trade with the Cleveland Indians draws Beane’s attention to somebody who seems out of place in that office: a quiet, couch-potato nebbish whose opinion inexplicably carries some weight. Beane tracks this individual to his desk — a delightful scene, well staged by Miller — and thus meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).

The Hedgehog: Surprises concealed within

The Hedgehog (2009) • View trailer for The Hedgehog
4.5 stars. Rating: suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

The Hedgehog is a story about the transformational power of kindness.

Director/scripter Mona Achache’s delicate little drama — inspired by Muriel Barbery’s best-selling novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog — is just this side of a small miracle. It’s sweet, poignant, mildly suspenseful, funny and tremendously wise by turns; it’s also one of the most impressive balancing acts I’ve ever seen.
When Kakuro (Togo Igawa) invites Renée (Josiane Balasko) to dinner at his
apartment, she very nearly refuses; why would a cultured gentleman want to
waste time with a concierge? She quickly discovers that some people are kind
by nature, and that all people — even concierges — deserve to be happy.

One false step — one overplayed scene — and the story’s fragile, graceful structure would collapse like a punctured soufflé.

But Achache never errs. She guides this rather unusual coming-of-age saga with the skill of a master chef, coaxing rich, wholly credible performances from her three primary cast members. The result is as sharp, satisfying and bittersweet as the dark chocolate enjoyed by its title character.

The story, set in a French city — could be Paris; doesn’t matter — takes place in a massive building that houses five truly huge luxury apartments. The property is managed by a dumpy, grumpy concierge named Renée (Josiane Balasko), who handles all the scut-work and remains more or less invisible to the tenants who overlook her, much the way 19th century British aristocrats never acknowledged their servants.

Renée plays her role to perfection, and we gradually learn that this is precisely what she’s doing. She looks and acts the part of a dowdy janitor, and does so deliberately. But Renée has secrets, starting with a fondness for reading; she conceals an impressive library behind a closed door in her much smaller downstairs unit.

But although Renée is the title character — the prickly “hedgehog” — she’s not this story’s key protagonist. That would be Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a bored 11-year-old who lives in one of the lavish upstairs apartments. Paloma is disgusted by her wealthy, condescending parents, and disenchanted with her own existence; she’s a moody, deeply philosophical and amazingly artistic girl with neither friends nor passion.

And, so, she decides to kill herself.

Paloma narrates her story while making a movie of her whole, useless life; she films family members and fellow apartment dwellers with or without their consent. She also films herself, and thus informs us that when she turns 12 — in 165 days — she’ll end it all. The method will be easy; her manic-depressive mother — a woman more comfortable talking to her plants, than to people — has a ready supply of pills that will deliver a painless suicide.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Point Blank: Taut thrills

Point Blank (2010) • View trailer for Point Blank
Four stars. Rating: Unrated, but contains R-level violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.16.11

This one hits the ground running and never lets up.

Seriously, I’ve not seen this much sprinting since 1998’s equally breathless Run, Lola, Run.
Pursued by the police and rival criminals, somehow involved with a high-
profile murder that he has nothing to do with, Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) wants
only to remain free long enough to find and rescue his kidnapped, very pregnant
wife. The odds — to put it mildly — are not in his favor.

Director/co-writer Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank is a slick thriller in the classic Hitchcock mold, with an innocent protagonist pursued by bad guys, good guys and several others in between. The set-up is compelling, the execution riveting.

And brief. Cavayé’s film is an economical 84 minutes, and he doesn’t waste a second. Rarely have I seen a filmmaker so adept at getting on the stage, orchestrating a gripping show and then getting off again. Take the bow, fade to black; everybody’s happy.

I can think of several American directors whose bloated vanity projects would benefit from this sort of discipline.

French thrillers have been getting better lately. I’ve long admired the work of Luc Besson, although his efforts — The Professional, La Femme Nikita and the Transporter series — are more slick fantasy than gritty noir. But director Guillaume Canet’s 2006 adaptation of American novelist Harlan Coben’s Tell No One really made us sit up and take notice; it was one of that year’s superior films.

Point Blank belongs in its company.

(I should mention, in passing, that this film has no relation to the 1967 Lee Marvin thriller of the same title.)

The story begins aggressively, as a wounded man — Roschdy Zem, as Sartet — is pursued by two gun-toting thugs with murder on their minds. One ghastly traffic accident later, Sartet is en route to the hospital.

This is perhaps the film’s most glaring flaw, since Cavayé seriously oversells this collision; ain’t no way anybody could have survived such an impact. But we’ll let that go.

Drive: Stalls after the first lap

Drive (2011) • View trailer for Drive
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for brutal violence, gore, profanity and nudity
By Derrick Bang

Attitude and fuzzy storytelling will go only so far; eventually, one must deliver the goods or risk being exposed as a fraud.
Movie stunt driver by day, criminal getaway driver by night. Ryan Gosling's
unnamed protagonist has a workable life carved out, but his iron-hard exterior
cracks after meeting an attractive neighbor who arouses his sympanthy. And,
just like that, we know this guy is doomed ... along with lots of other folks.

And even when the minimalist acting comes from Ryan Gosling — far more interesting than most, particularly when he channels the “king of cool” as some sort of latter-day Steve McQueen — the pregnant pauses and long, motionless camera takes wear thin after awhile.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, making his American film debut, errs badly — his first mistake of many — with a slick, crisply executed prologue that the rest of his film fails to match. Nothing could top the smooth tension and cleverly choreographed maneuvers within this early heist/chase sequence, and that's a shame; Drive demonstrates considerable promise on the basis of this introduction, and then turns vague, moody and needlessly contrived.

Gosling is introduced as an impeccable getaway driver: a consummate pro who knows the greater Los Angeles area's mean streets like the back of his hand. He comes complete with a well-practiced speech that defines his area of involvement — no guns, no waiting, just driving — and is delivered by Gosling with an iconic élan that matches Clint Eastwood's “I know what you’re thinking” warning, way back in the first Dirty Harry film.

By day, our deliberately unnamed protagonist works as a film stunt driver; off hours, he repairs cars at an auto shop run by longtime friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston, at his scruffy best). Every so often, local goombah Bernie (Albert Brooks) routes an extracurricular assignment through Shannon, which our Driver-With-No-Name accepts with scarcely a change of expression.

The driver lives alone in an apartment that betrays no personality; he has grown quite comfortable with a nomadic, no-strings-attached existence. Then capricious fate interrupts the flow with an attractive neighbor — Carey Mulligan, as Irene — who catches his eye once, then twice, then a crucial third time.

Gosling conveys the wheels turning in his character's brain: weighing options, calculating consequences. He knows he should ignore her; even something as innocuous as a lift home comes freighted with significance. It's a spark: a connection.

He succumbs. And, just like that, we know he's doomed. The only questions are how, when and the likely number of collateral casualties.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Attack the Block: Thrills in the 'hood

Attack the Block (2011) • View trailer for Attack the Block
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, gore, pervasive profanity and drug content, much involving children
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.9.11

Audacity and enthusiasm count for a lot in filmmaking, and this flick has plenty of both.

Writer/director Joe Cornish, crafting an impressive big-screen debut after some work in British TV, makes the most of a modest budget and delivers a rip-snortin' action comedy that hits the ground running and never lets up.
Having made it to the relative safety of their high-rise apartment building, our
unlikely heroes — clockwise from lower left, Jerome (Leeon Jones), Brewis
(Luke Treadaway), Sam (Jodie Whittaker), Moses (John Boyega) and Pest (Alex
Ismail) — carefully peer down the corridor before stepping out of the elevator.
They don't know much yet, but they do know that whatever's hunting them
down can move very quickly.

Rarely will you find a film that makes such slick, economical use of its just-perfect 88 minutes.

Attack the Block will be embraced by fun-loving genre fans who enjoyed the blend of giggles and grue found in Shaun of the Dead. And while Cornish's film isn't quite as gory, this cheeky saga has its moments; the faint of heart should proceed with caution.

Cornish works a lot into his alternately whimsical and savage script: intriguing character dynamics, a clever understanding of reproductive biology — don't worry, that'll make sense in context — and even some perceptive social commentary. This is a tale of stepping up to the plate: of heroes so unlikely that they're basically ... well ... thugs.

John Carpenter understood the fascinating character interaction that could result from such a mix, when he turned a criminal into an unlikely champion in 1976's Assault on Precinct 13 ... which, in turn, was merely an urban remake of classic Howard Hawks westerns.

Cornish opens his film as trainee nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home late one night: not the smartest move, since she lives in an inner-city South London tower block. No surprise, then, when she's mugged by a quintet of masked, hooded teenage thugs, led by the knife-wielding Moses (John Boyega).

The encounter is uncomfortable and explosive; rape — or worse — seems seconds away. But Sam is saved by an unlikely interruption: a bright meteorite that smashes into a nearby parked car. Sam flees; Moses and his crew investigate, only to be attacked by a small but vicious something. Moses, sensing a possible loss of face, tracks the creature to a small shed and kills it.

So far, Cornish's approach has been gritty, scary and mean. But now the tone softens, as the boys shed their hoods — revealing most of them to be much younger and "smaller" than expected — and drag the alien carcass to the top of the block, making sure that everybody sees how they've defended their "territory."

As for what this dead thing actually is ... well, these poor lads haven't a clue. They're not equipped to even guess, between (probably) no better than a grade-school education and an inclination to get stoned whenever possible.

Indeed, nobody believes that the dead thing is real. The local drug lord — a truly dangerous, gun-toting psychopath dubbed Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) — thinks it's just a movie-prop puppet. Veteran stoner Ron (Nick Frost), who runs a cannabis-growing farm on the council house's top floor, can't really be bothered to venture an opinion.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Debt: Honorably paid

The Debt (2010) • View trailer for The Debt
Four stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.2.11

Until this film came along, I hadn't realized how much I've missed intelligent, well-acted espionage thrillers.

The Debt hearkens back to the best of the 1960s and '70s spy entries: The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, Three Days of the Condor and anything made from a John Le Carre novel. Wonderful stuff.
Stuck in an East Berlin apartment, responsible for guarding a bound and gagged
Nazi villain for an unspecified period of time, three Mossad agents — from
left, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam
Worthington) — find their nerves fraying, as they begin to argue about how
best to handle the situation.

This new film, tautly paced by director John Madden, is an English-language remake of Israel's equally engrossing 2007 original, Ha-Hov. Madden's interest in the material is understandable; the Israeli screenplay — by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum — is clever and suspenseful, while also confounding expectations on several occasions.

In other words, it keeps us on the edge of our seats and keeps us guessing. You can't expect more from a well-crafted espionage saga.

This remake — scripted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan — covers the same essential territory, with just a few modifications; the new writers obviously saw no reason to mess with a winning formula. Madden's contribution is plenty of tension: from events as they unfold, and also from twists that set up an entirely unexpected third act.

Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is introduced in 1997, as she attends a book-launch party for her daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). Sarah, an investigative journalist, has documented a clandestine 1960s Mossad operation that resulted in the apprehension and death of Dieter Vogel, the notorious "surgeon of Birkenau" who killed and maimed thousands of Jews during World War II.

The mission put three young Mossad agents behind the Berlin Wall in 1965: Rachel, Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds). They returned to Israel as heroes, although — we soon learn — the emotional cost was high. When Rachel is pressed to read a section of her daughter's book, during the launch party, her stance is anxious and uncomfortable; Mirren's face conveys considerable unease.

Her reaction is understandable, as we're swept back to 1965, and to the moment that her younger self — now played by Jessica Chastain — was forced to deal with an unexpected hitch in the assignment.

Madden subsequently cross-cuts between these two time periods: at first concentrating mostly on puzzling encounters in 1997 — the tension between these three former colleagues clearly having reached a boiling point, over the intervening years, for reasons as yet unknown — and then taking us back to the mission itself.

Seven Days in Utopia: In the rough

Seven Days in Utopia (2011) • View trailer for Seven Days in Utopia
Three stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Although cleverly marketed to resemble a "spirit of the game" golf drama — such as, say, The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Greatest Game Ever PlayedSeven Days in Utopia actually is concerned with an entirely different sort of spirit.

The heavenly spirit, to be precise.
Figuring that he has nothing to lose, disenchanted golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas
Black, left) agrees to a rather unorthodox, weeklong "program" suggested by
one-time pro Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall). The apparent goal: to help Luke
find his game. The actual goal: to help Luke find something much deeper.

Director Matt Russell's earnest little film is a Christian drama, which is to be distinguished from a drama with Christian characters. Christian dramas have only one purpose: not to entertain, but to proselytize. In fairness, Russell's film does this better — by which I mean, less stridently — than most, but that's not saying much.

Although faith-based movies have been a cinematic subgenre pretty much from day one, they've rarely played in mainstream theaters, and with good reason; while usually well-meaning, most have been contrived, poorly scripted and badly acted. As a result, they've remained a mostly fringe experience, much the way exploitative 1960s "drive-in movies" rarely escaped their rural origins.

But faith-based movies have been on the rise during the past decade, driven in part by a quite reasonable desire to provide a family-friendly alternative to Hollywood's increasingly vulgar, violent fare. Writer/director Alex Kendrick, a steady player in the Christian cinema market, has improved his game since debuting with 2003's Flywheel; he scored some respectable mainstream attention with 2008's Fireproof ... in part because of star Kirk Cameron's name visibility. (The film itself, sadly, was simply too shamelessly solemn and sincere to be taken seriously.)

Kendrick's next entry, Courageous, is scheduled to debut Sept. 30; perhaps it, too, will be an improvement on its predecessors.

Meanwhile, we have Seven Days in Utopia, the study of young golfer Luke Chisolm (Lucas Black), who is at an emotional crossroads after having choked during his debut on the pro circuit. The result: a very public meltdown and an angry drive through the wide open spaces of Texas, until Luke is faced with two road signs at a T-intersection. He makes the seemingly random choice to head into the tiny town of Utopia, population 373, and his life changes forever.

Ah, but is the choice random? Subtlety isn't one of this film's strong suits, and the script — adapted from David L. Cook's clandestinely evangelical Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia — certainly wears its virtuous heart on its sleeve. Even at his most frustrated, Luke never loses his good manners; he's unfailingly polite to all the kind folks he meets in Utopia, as they are to him.

Luke is immediately embraced by weather-beaten Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall), a retired pro golfer who quit "the circuit" but couldn't give up the game itself; he therefore built his own driving range in the middle of a cattle field. Crawford can tell that Luke's got game; the younger man simply can't find it.

Give me seven days, the ol' coot tells our young protagonist, and I'll get you turned around.