Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained: The West as it should have been?

Django Unchained (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for relentless violence and gore, profanity, nudity and considerable ghastly behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.28.12

Since Jews were given the vicarious opportunity to blow up Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi goons in 2009’s alternate-history Inglourious Basterds, we shouldn’t be surprised that cinematic bad boy Quentin Tarantino would grant African Americans similar cheap thrills, by scolding the pre-Civil War, slave-holding South in the same cheeky manner.

Django (Jamie Foxx, left) believes that he and his partner have successfully tricked
Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) into accepting their feigned roles as slave traders.
Alas, Candie isn't quite as dense as he seems, and his fury builds to fearsome
proportions when the ruse is exposed. As for what happens next ... well, let's just say
that it's vintage Tarantino.
If Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles made you wince, by milking broad comedy from racism, this one will freeze your blood.

But make no mistake: Although Django Unchained definitely scores points in the ongoing debate about American race relations, at its heart this film is gleefully exploitative trash: giddily violent, gratuitously blood-soaked and unapologetically self-indulgent.

And yet ... undoubtedly a guilty pleasure. You just can’t help admiring Tarantino’s chutzpah.

He remains a walking film encyclopedia, with a particular fondness for the campy, low-budget sleaze of the late 1960s and ’70s, which ranged from the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, to the blaxploitation flicks that made minor-league stars of Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Tamara Dobson and others.

Tarantino evokes them all in Django Unchained, a revisionist western that takes its title from a 1966 Sergio Corbucci rip-off of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars — which, in turn, ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo — and starred Franco Nero as a coffin-carrying pistolero who blows into a town-turned-battle zone by feuding Mexican bandits and (you gotta love it) KKK members.

No surprise, then, that Nero himself pops up in a small part here; Tarantino loves to honor his predecessors. He also gets a kick out of “rescuing” familiar film and TV B-actors, and so you’ll spot the likes of Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley and Michael Parks.

And you’ve gotta love the parts assigned other visiting day players: Russ Tamblyn pops up as Son of a Gunfighter — a nod to the title of his own 1966 Spanish oater — which allows Amber Tamblyn an eyeblink appearance as “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” And speaking of the KKK, Jonah Hill is cast as “Bag Head #2” in a sequence played for high comedy, which mercilessly depicts clan members as the dim-bulb morons they undoubtedly were.

But all this comes later. As was the case with Leone’s similarly sprawling 1966 epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tarantino — both writer and director here — takes his time setting up this narrative. It’s two years prior to the opening shot of the Civil War, and the story begins as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling dentist of questionable repute, encounters a couple of horse-riding toughs leading a small line of chained slaves, one of them Django (Jamie Foxx).

Jack Reacher: This film don't know Jack

Jack Reacher (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, profanity, fleeting nudity and some drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.2.13

Director/scripter Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher is a serviceable thriller: standard-issue Hollywood suspense, with Tom Cruise delivering his usual charm while working his way through a murder mystery that unfolds with the customary blend of plot twists, car chases, gunplay and bare-knuckle fist fights.

After a brief stint in the slammer, Reacher (Tom Cruise, left) collects his meager
belongings, while defense attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike) wonders what their
next move should be. Take note of the desk sergeant signing off on Reacher's
release: That's author Lee Child.
In other words, a reasonably diverting way to spend two hours.

That said, fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels will hate this film. With good cause.

His star wattage notwithstanding, Cruise is wrong for the role. Reacher is, quite famously, 6 feet 5 inches tall; he sports a 50-inch chest, weighs between 210 and 250 pounds, and has hands “like two supermarket chickens.” When Reacher chooses to attack a thug, the impact — to borrow from Child’s prose — is akin having a mountain fall on the guy.

Cruise is 5 feet 7 and might hit 170, dripping wet. To say he lacks Reacher’s all-essential physical presence is gross understatement.

At one point during this film, as investigating police are trying to determine whether Reacher is staying at a particular motel, the desk clerk immediately suggests a specific room, insisting they “couldn’t miss this guy.” That line might have made sense in the book, when describing the actual Reacher; it’s a daft bit of dialogue here, when referencing Cruise.

During the months leading up to this film’s release, Child — well aware of the casting controversy — made the magazine and talk-show rounds, attempting peremptory damage control. He pointed out that Reacher has three salient characteristics: He’s always the smartest guy in the room; he’s still and quiet, yet menacing; and he’s huge. Child quite reasonably pointed out that Hollywood inevitably is about compromise, and that getting two of out three should be acceptable.

Fair enough, and yes: Cruise’s Reacher moves stealthily, even when at rest, and he radiates an intriguing aura of latent menace. And yes, he always seems to be the smartest guy in the room.

But that’s only because most of the other people in the room, in this film, are idiots.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Les Misérables: A slightly tarnished dream

Les Misérables (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.26.12

Anne Hathaway’s performance, by itself, is worth the price of admission.

Having finally realized that his failure to intervene earlier has cost Fantine (Anne
Hathaway) her dignity and a great deal more, Valjean (Hugh Jackman) promises to do
better. Sadly, aside from the fact that his actions on Fantine's behalf likely will be too
late, he doesn't even know about her young daughter, also in desperate need of rescue.
Her climactic solo on “I Dreamed a Dream” may be the best musical moment ever captured on film. Nay, one of cinema’s finest five-minute scenes, period.

Words cannot convey the power of her performance, which director Tom Hooper wisely, amazingly, captures in a single long take. Hathaway starts out gangbusters, never taking cover in the multiple edits that have become ubiquitous in too many of today’s lesser musicals, and she simply gets better, stronger, more poignant and powerful as the tune continues.

This is no standard-issue pause for song; Hathaway emotes throughout, never losing her character’s heartbreaking anguish, instead using the lyrics themselves, pouring body and soul into every syllable, as the scene builds, and builds, and builds, until achieving a level of intensity that grabs us by the throat. Her work is positively wrenching.

When she concludes, finally, we sink back with exhaustion. Truly stunned. Blown away. Aware of having witnessed a movie moment for the ages.


I can’t say that Hooper achieves the same level of excellence throughout all of this long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables, but he certainly draws similarly superb performances from most of his cast. His film is highlighted by numerous show-stopping songs: some solos, others displaying the exquisite harmonies woven into Claude-Michel Schönberg’s often complex score.

Hugh Jackman is well cast as the stalwart Jean Valjean, the tragic hero whose destiny changes first with an act of kindness by a clergyman, and then again after accepting responsibility for an orphaned little girl. Hathaway is sublime as the doomed Fantine; Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide ample comic relief as the greedy, grasping Thénardier and his wife.

Their production number, “Master of the House,” is another marvelous set-piece, this one an imaginatively choreographed display of larcenous behavior that evokes fond memories of Fagin’s “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” in 1968’s Oliver!

Friday, December 21, 2012

This Is 40: Fractured family frolic

This Is 40 (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless crude humor, sexual candor, pervasive language and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.21.12

Some perceptive truths about marriage, mid-life crises and parental angst linger around the edges of This Is 40, but they tend to be overshadowed by Judd Apatow’s reflexive insistence on vulgar humor, crude slapstick and bewildering plot detours. Obviously, he just can’t help himself.

Pete (Paul Rudd), having failed to realize that Debbie (Leslie Mann) could use some
help while getting their daughters ready for school, attempts to recover from this tactical
error while Sadie (Maude Apatow, far left) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow) watch with
wary amusement.
Nor should he, I suppose, since many of his films — either as producer, director or writer — tend to be crowd-pleasers. But we must remember that his lengthy 21st century résumé reads very much like the gag quotient in any one of his projects: Every Bridesmaids or Superbad follows on the heels of a bomb such as Drillbit Taylor, Funny People or Get Him to the Greek ... just as the truly funny bits in This Is 40 are bookended by stuff so forced and ill-advised that we can’t help wondering what Apatow was smoking that day.

Maybe that’s why This Is 40 runs a ridiculously self-indulgent 134 minutes. With that much time on his side, and that many comedic shots in the barrel, some of the humor is bound to stick.

Although Apatow oversees a busy comedy empire, This Is 40 is only his fourth feature as director, following The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and the tediously morose Funny People. This new film, something of a peripheral sequel to Knocked Up, focuses on the five-years-later lives of Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), that film’s sidebar characters.

Except that Katherine Heigl, who played Debbie’s sister Alison in Knocked Up, is nowhere to be seen here. Apparently she got lost in translation.

As this new film’s title suggests, events center around the ramp-up to Pete’s impending 40th birthday. He’d normally share this milestone with Debbie, but a refusal to face the onset of middle age has prompted her to deny her own birthday; indeed, she even rolls back the clock and claims a younger age, a running gag that becomes truly hilarious during a routine doctor’s office visit, when various nurses and receptionists try to nail down her birth year.

That scene works, by the way, because Apatow goes for subtle underplaying, rather than his usual, last-row-of-the-upper-balcony broad strokes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An impressive journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for considerable violence, action and relentless dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.12

A decade after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and its stunning — but definitely well-deserved — 11 Academy Awards, director Peter Jackson has lost none of his ability to amaze and delight.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman, center) can't imagine why so many dwarves — including, from
left, Bifur (William Kircher), Dwalin (Graham McTavish), Bofur (James Nesbitt) and Oin
(John Callen) — have decided to join him for dinner on this otherwise average evening.
The poor hobbit is about to find out, which won't ease his mind any.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is breathtaking in every sense of the word: a glorious return to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, with its heroic little folk, their unlikely and often quarrelsome allies, and a host of dire and deadly creatures, each more ghastly than the last.

Jackson and his numerous production teams certainly had nothing to prove, when it comes to world-building; their Lord of the Rings trilogy delivered the true “sense of wonder” that made 21st century filmgoers appreciate what it must have been like, a century ago, when audiences first glimpsed the moving images of primitive one-reelers. We can only lament that Tolkien himself never had the opportunity to witness the grand and glorious means by which Jackson brought his imaginative prose to the big screen.

And yet, amazingly, Jackson has upped the ante again with this first installment of The Hobbit (with two more to follow, in successive Decembers, as before). All the realms of Middle Earth are back, as if we’d never left them; one imagines that some massive chunk of Jackson’s New Zealand simply has remained, wholly transformed, for all this time.

All this said, questions have been raised.

Turning Lord of the Rings into three expansive films made sense: one for each book. But The Hobbit is a single, much slimmer volume, with a kid-friendly story that (by design) lacks the narrative complexity of Tolkien’s heftier trilogy. Pundits have wondered whether the decision to turn THIS saga into a nine-hour experience might be more than a little self-indulgent.

Ah, but Jackson and his co-scripters — veteran Middle Earth colleagues Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with newcomer Guillermo del Toro, a masterful fantasist in his own right — had a secret weapon. We tend to forget that Tolkien concluded his Lord of the Rings trilogy with 125 pages of notes and appendices that also added considerable back-story to The Hobbit: more than enough to justify this unexpectedly ambitious big-screen adaptation.

Additionally, as James Cameron did with Avatar, Jackson has taken advantage of technological advancements to deliver a whole-immersion experience that’s almost too real at times ... and definitely will startle folks (about which, more in a moment).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hitchcock: Not an entirely good eve-ning

Hitchcock (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violent images, sexual content and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.7.12

2012 has been a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock.

The London Symphony Orchestra debuted composer Nitin Sawhney’s innovative score for a sparkling new print of 1926’s silent suspenser, The Lodger — regarded as the first true “Hitchcock thriller” — at London’s Barbican Center on July 21. 

Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, left) guides Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and
Anthony Perkins (James D'Arcy) through an early scene in Psycho, as Marion Crane
and Norman Bates have a mildly flirtatious conversation that will trigger the awful
events to come.
1924’s The White Shadow — a silent melodrama long thought lost, on which Hitchcock served as scripter, assistant director, editor and art director — was found (mostly intact!) in mislabeled film canisters by a researcher at the New Zealand Film Archive, and has been lovingly restored and posted online, for all to enjoy.

And the past month has seen not one, but two quasi-biopics set during Hitchcock’s prime in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

That sort of attention can be a mixed blessing, particularly when the first of these projects — The Girl, which debuted Oct. 20 on HBO — was little more than character assassination. Toby Jones may have been persuasive as Hitch, but Gweyneth Hughes’ tawdry script plumbed truly deplorable depths, while clearly overstating the degree to which the director’s infatuation with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) became unhealthy and sadistic during the making of The Birds.

Happily, the newly released Hitchcock is a more palatable brew. Scripter John J. McLaughlin — working from Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho — doesn’t have any axes to grind, and he also benefits from the genuinely fascinating, behind-the-scenes back story.

Psycho was a landmark production in all sorts of respects, from the shrewdness with which Hitchcock outmaneuvered the censorious Hays Office — one of the early artistic assaults that illuminated the growing irrelevance of that body of ultra-conservative bluenoses — to the film’s brilliant marketing campaign, which kept people out of their showers for weeks, just as Jaws would keep them away from the ocean in 1975.

Hitchcock benefits from several great performances, starting with Anthony Hopkins’ dignified depiction of the Master of Suspense, and Helen Mirren’s feisty reading of his wife and longtime creative collaborator, Alma.

They’re merely the tip of the iceberg. James D’Arcy’s portrayal of Anthony Perkins, who starred as Norman Bates in Psycho, is so authentic that it’s startling; at times, D’Arcy seems more like Perkins than Perkins himself. Scarlett Johansson is similarly striking as Janet Leigh, who winds up taking that fateful shower in a scene that has been imitated and spoofed countless times. Johansson doesn’t try for mimicry as much as D’Arcy, but she definitely conveys the way Leigh walked, acted and struck a pose; close your eyes slightly, to silhouette D’Arcy and Johansson, and it genuinely looks and sounds like Perkins and Leigh rehearsing a scene.

Playing for Keeps: Toss it back

Playing for Keeps (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Former soccer star George Dryer, stalled in the well-worn rut of an arrested adolescent, can’t figure out what to be when he grows up.

The same can be said of this film.

An echo of happier times: Young Lewis (Noah Lomax, center) is delighted to see that
his divorced parents, Stacie (Jessica Biel) and George (Gerard Butler), still seem to
enjoy each other's company. And, yes, George definitely is trying to woo Stacie
back ... although she insists that would be a waste of time. 
Rarely have so many top-flight supporting actors been handed such poorly defined roles, and given nothing to do with them. Robbie Fox’s screenplay is a mess; even when the dialogue occasionally sparkles, and genuine chemistry ignites as it should in a romantic comedy, a moment’s thought reveals that logic and continuity are all over the map, if not absent entirely.

We probably shouldn’t expect more; Fox made his Hollywood rep in the early 1990s with low-low-lowbrow Mike Myers and Pauly Shore comedies such as So I Married an Axe Murderer and In the Army Now. Following the latter, Fox went off the grid for almost two decades until reappearing with Playing for Keeps.

Perhaps he should have waited longer, to further refine his craft.

In fairness, though, Fox can shoulder only part of the blame. Director Gabriele Muccino is equally at fault, bringing little to this party beyond some solid father/son scenes between Gerard Butler and Noah Lomax.

After establishing a solid reputation in his native Italy, with well-received rom-coms such as 2001’s The Last Kiss, Muccino made a splash in the States when he teamed with Will Smith for 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Their next project, however, was a ghastly miscalculation; Seven Pounds was the coal in 2008’s Christmas stocking, with its unsettling blend of fairy tale and real-world angst, all building to a thoroughly unpleasant conclusion that was intended to be uplifting.

Playing for Keeps has similar problems. We want to like these characters, and we’re clearly intended to ... but damn, it sure is difficult. Once again, Muccino’s desire for a sparkling holiday cracker — he seems to like releasing his films in December — has fizzled.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Anna Karenina: A tale oddly told

Anna Karenina (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for mild sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.30.12

Artistic vision is captivating — or clever — to the point at which it calls too much attention to itself, and interferes with the story.

Try as she might, Anna (Keira Knightley) cannot shake her growing infatuation with the
dashing Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The resulting affair will prove scandalous in
every respect ... not that this heavily stylized film makes us care a whit.
In effect, the tail then wags the dog; we’re too frequently aware of the artifice, at the expense of plot and character development. Empathy and identification become difficult, if not impossible.

Director Joe Wright’s handling of Leo Tolstoy’s venerable Anna Karenina is radiant and ferociously inventive, thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s luminescent cinematography and, most notably, Sarah Greenwood’s brilliant production design. The film is a thing of great artistic beauty, and we cannot help being enchanted — initially — by its sheer, magnificent theatricality.

But the artifice soon becomes tiresome, which exposes the oddly flat and vexingly mannered performances. Celebrated playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard undoubtedly deserves equal credit (or blame) for this vision; I’m disappointed, however, that this abbreviated, heavily stylized handling of Tolstoy lacks the narrative snap and sparkling dialogue that brought Stoppard a well-deserved Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love. (He also was nominated, along with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown, for writing 1985’s Brazil.)

Indeed, despite all the bosom-heaving melodrama present in Tolstoy’s novel, this newest adaptation of Anna Karenina is a curiously bloodless affair.

Wright’s approach best can be described as a stylized blend of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (absent the music), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and the popular stage farce Noises Off. Luhrmann’s flamboyant musical told its story as the characters improbably broke into song; Greenaway’s saga unfolded as the camera tracked horizontally, apparently seamlessly, between events taking place in various settings ... as if characters wandered into and out of fully dressed stages in half a dozen impossibly connected theaters.

Toss in Noises Off, for its behind-the-scenes antics — the stuff we’re never supposed to see — and the result is, well, fascinating. For a time.

The primary set piece, then, is a once-beautiful but now decaying theater, intended to represent the aristocratic rot of 1870s Russian high society; this building’s various sections, dressed appropriately, serve as the story’s many locales. We find Anna (Keira Knightley) and her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), at home in one corner of the massive stage; as Anna — for example — exits the room, she wanders “backstage” between curtains, scrim and backdrops, perhaps changing her wardrobe in order to be properly garbed as she enters the setting for the next scene.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook: A heart of gold

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for sexual candor, brief nudity and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.23.12

Mental illness isn’t funny, and — thankfully — Hollywood has matured past the point of believing otherwise; standard-issue “loony-bin comedies” have gone the way of lovable drunks. When cinema tackles the topic these days, it’s generally with warmth and compassion, as with (for example) Adam and The Soloist.

Although Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to help Pat (Bradley Cooper) win back his
ex-wife, this assistance comes at a price: Pat must agree to train with Tiffany for an
upcoming dance competition. Needless to say, this is not an endeavor with which
Pat feels comfortable...
But every individual’s life is equal parts hilarity and heartbreak, which also goes for people battling emotional disorders. The key is to craft a story that acknowledges but doesn’t exploit the situation, at which point we can comfortably laugh with, and not at, the characters; the marvelous Benny & Joon is an excellent example.

All of which brings us to Silver Linings Playbook, directed and scripted by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Flirting with Disaster), and based on Matthew Quick’s debut 2008 novel. Russell’s cinematic approach can be quite eclectic, and he has a tendency to drift toward the heightened wackiness of Wes Anderson, but with lesser results; happily, Russell mostly eschews such tendencies here.

At first blush, his approach to Silver Linings Playbook is as tense, jittery and nervous as its badly damaged protagonist, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), whom we meet as his mother (Jacki Weaver, as Dolores) checks him out of a state institution. The details emerge gradually; Pat’s eight-month stay resulted from a plea bargain that kept him out of jail after he came close to beating a man to death (with cause, it might be argued).

Pat has anger management issues, which is blindingly obvious from the moment we lay eyes on him. He grew up with undiagnosed bipolar mood swings, somehow holding things together long enough to finish school, obtain a teaching credential and marry ... but then the inner demons became too much.

Now, as we confront Pat’s manic ups and downs — Cooper so explosively forceful, so potential dangerous, that we can’t take our eyes off him — his mother’s optimistic decision to bring him home seems naïve, perhaps even hazardous. We sweat every scene, wondering if Pat will go off like a time bomb.

Pat is the worst-case scenario: perceptive enough to recognize that the meds that control his symptoms also diminish his ability to experience any joy. He’s required by law to take the meds — a condition of his release — but he doesn’t want to, because he knows that he loses himself. He prefers, as a result, to rely on a daily regimen of mental and physical exercise that seeks the “silver lining” in any given situation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Life of Pi: Sliced a bit too thinly

Life of Pi (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and scary images; young viewers may find it much too frightening
By Derrick Bang

Lyrical novels recounted by a sole narrator are notoriously difficult to translate into movies; the work-arounds designed to impart essential information can be clumsy, and we always lose the rhythm and sweep of the author’s prose.

Although he has survived a shipwreck, Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds that he is far from safe,
because his lifeboat has been commandeered by a ferocious tiger ... whose appetite
forces the young man to construct a "raft" from stray bits of survival equipment.
Factor in a substantial religious element, as the protagonist grapples with his concept of God, and the task becomes well-nigh impossible.

Director Ang Lee and scripter David Magee therefore deserve considerable credit for the care they’ve taken with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. While the film is far from perfect, Lee shrewdly employs all manner of cinematic ingenuity to convey this story’s blend of surreal whimsy and harsh deprivation, along with an exotic, at times supernatural atmosphere that strongly evokes portions of Slumdog Millionaire.

Claudio Miranda’s cinematography deserves considerable credit as well, in terms of adding to this saga’s aura of mystery and magic realism. You’ll be moved to awe more than once, starting with the first things we see: simple establishing shots of animals at play in a small zoo in Pondicherry, India. This montage suggests a cheerful innocence that speaks volumes, and belies events to come.

Or my favorite shot: a sharply focused glimpse of bathers relaxing in lounge chairs at the edge of the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris, France. Only when a swimmer cuts across our field of vision, do we realize that we’ve been observing all these people through water: proof of the pool’s crystal clarity.

Borrowing a leaf from Martel, whose book unfolds as if it had been told to him by its subject, Magee begins this narrative by introducing us to an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), whose comfortable life in Toronto, Canada, is pleasantly interrupted by an expat American writer who — at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance — has traveled all the way from India to meet him.

Patel, our writer is told, is a man with a story. Patel readily acknowledges this claim, adding that his saga will demonstrate proof of God’s existence. This is a tantalizing assertion, and a simple statement that could be ruined if improperly scripted or shaded. But Khan’s utter sincerity is evident in the actor’s every expression and gesture; we — and the visiting writer – can’t help being intrigued.

Their relationship thus established, Patel is free to narrate his story, which (for the most part) removes the awkwardness of the voice-over device used from this point forward. The subsequent tale therefore unfolds as a lengthy flashback.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sessions: The power of love

The Sessions (2012) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: R, for strong sexuality, graphic nudity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.16.12

Berkeley-based poet, author and journalist Mark O’Brien died in 1999, just shy of his 50th birthday. His collections of poetry included Love and Baseball and Breathing, and he wrote essays, book reviews and features for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the National Catholic Reporter and numerous other outlets.

Having progressed through the early stages of gentle physical contact, Cheryl (Helen
Hunt) decides that Mark (John Hawkes) is ready for the next step. But Mark is
terrified, remembering too many humiliations resulting from his frail, polio-disfigured body.
His commentaries were broadcast by National Public Radio, and — two years before his death — he also co-founded a small press dubbed Lemonade Factory.

Most notably, O’Brien was an inspirational figure in the blossoming late-20th century movement to encourage disabled people to lead independent lives. He contracted polio at the age of 6; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and able to control only three muscles: one in his right foot, one in his neck and one in his jaw. He spent most of his adult life in an iron lung, able to “escape” only for brief intervals.

He initially dictated his works to attendants, then typed them with a mouth stick.

Born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, O’Brien moved to Berkeley in 1978, when he was accepted as a freshman at UC Berkeley. He graduated in 1982, then — after initially being turned down — was admitted to Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. By then, he was a familiar fixture in Berkeley, charging about the streets in a Stanford-built electric gurney that he controlled — badly — with his left foot. Because of the way his spine had been curved by polio, he never was able to sit up in a conventional wheelchair.

Writer/director Ben Lewin’s remarkable film, The Sessions, opens with some vintage KPIX Channel 5 Eyewitness News footage of O’Brien, as he navigates city streets and the UC Berkeley campus. The editing is coy; we’re never quite able to see O’Brien’s face, and as a result there’s no disconnect when this dramatized story opens in his apartment, as a cat enters an open window one bright, sunny morning and uses its tail to tickle Mark’s face into wakefulness, his body cocooned by the iron lung.

Of course, Mark can’t scratch the resulting itch. The moment is both mildly tragic and unexpectedly amusing, the latter in great part because of the passion actor John Hawkes puts into Mark’s effort to “will” the itch away.

Lincoln: The greatness of a man

Lincoln (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for grim war violence, dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, fueled both by Tony Kushner’s lyrical screenplay and Daniel Day Lewis’ astonishing performance, may be one of the finest period dramas ever brought to the big screen.

A delegation from the Confederacy is en route with an offer of peace that could end
the four-year Civil War, but Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, right) knows that if the Southern
states return to the union, all hope of passing the 13th Amendment will vanish. He
therefore plays a dangerous waiting game, despite the warning from Secretary of State
William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), who worries that any public hint of this delay
would blossom into a public relations nightmare.
It’s akin to time travel: Our 19th century United States comes to vibrant life, thanks to impeccable work by production designer Rick Carter (an Oscar winner for Avatar), costume designer Joanna Johnston and, most particularly, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). You can practically feel the dust, grit and coal smoke coming off the screen.

Kushner’s dense script demands — and receives — a massive cast, with scores of speaking parts. The role call is a Who’s Who of names we remember from history class, and the driving narrative often unfolds with the confrontational snap of TV’s West Wing.

And yet...

For all its authenticity and casting excellence, Spielberg’s 150-minute film is long, slow and occasionally ponderous. It’s also claustrophobic at times, with some dialogue exchanges seemingly designed for stage presentation (no surprise there, I guess, since Kushner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who “moonlights” in cinema).

The focus is narrow, as well. Although based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Kushner concentrates exclusively on the events of January 1865, with a brief epilogue in April of that same year. The goal, during this climactic point of Lincoln’s presidential career: passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in order to abolish slavery. Permanently.

The novel twist, which conflicts juicily with Lincoln’s generally accepted image: the degree to which he risked delaying the Civil War, already a four-year conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of young soldiers on both sides, in order to win passage of that amendment in the House of Representatives.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall: Shaken and stirred!

Skyfall (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action sequences, sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.9.12

Daniel Craig’s stint as James Bond has been about rebirth and re-invention, and Skyfall is no different, albeit with an intriguing twist: It feels more like John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

Somehow, Daniel Craig's James Bond, left, always seems to wind up tied to a chair,
and forced to listen as the villain — in this case, Javier Bardem's Silva — shares his
nasty plans. But this is no ordinary villain, and Silva has no intention of destroying the
world's economy, or igniting a war with Russia or China. This maniac's mission is much
more personal, and it'll cut to the very core of Britain's venerable intelligence agency.
As also was the case with Casino Royale, things get personal.

The formula seems the same at the outset, with an audacious, action-laced pre-credits teaser set in Istanbul, which finds Bond and a fellow field agent (plucky Naomie Harris, as Eve) in hot pursuit of a baddie who has ambushed some MI6 colleagues and stolen a vitally important computer hard drive. First on foot, then in cars and motorcycles, and finally atop a moving train, Bond relentlessly pursues this fellow, ultimately with the assistance of a backhoe (!), all to an exhilarating orchestral score from composer Thomas Newman.

Then, at the climactic moment ... things take an unexpected turn.

And not just in terms of plot, as the scripting trio — returning scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (their fifth 007 epic), allied with Oscar-nominated playwright John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo) — moves the narrative into increasingly un-Bondian waters. Director Sam Mendes gradually shifts the tone as well, utilizing the obligatory exotic locals as a means of moving the action from London to Scotland — the long way around — for a stripped-down third act very much akin to his masterful 2002 adaptation of The Road to Perdition.

An unusual approach, for our big-screen imbiber of cocktails shaken, not stirred? Indeed. But there’s a reason for the madness concocted by Mendes and his writing team: an artistic flourish that suitably honors this 50th anniversary outing in cinema’s longest-running continuous franchise. (Dr. No opened in London on Oct. 5, 1962.)

There’s also plenty of madness elsewhere, in the form of Silva: an adversary who stands among the most memorable of Bondian megalomaniacs, and is brought to chilling life by Javier Bardem. And if we see a bit of his horrific Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men, that’s probably no accident.

Bond villains too frequently have felt like pretend scoundrels with fancy dress and fancier accents — particularly during the spoof-laden Roger Moore years — but Bardem’s Silva is the real deal. His introductory soliloquy on the feral nature of trapped rats probably is the best scene-stealing debut ever granted any Bond baddie, and Bardem sells the moment masterfully.

And this fellow isn’t out to rule the world; he merely wants revenge.

For what, precisely? Ah, therein lies the tale.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph: A sweet surprise

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for kid-level rude humor and mild action/violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.2.12

I haven’t had this much fun since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit blended classic Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters in a similarly madcap adventure.

After crashing his way into the candy-laden realm of the game Sugar Rush, the clumsy
and destructive Ralph only wants to retrieve his hard-earned gold medal. Alas, impish
Vanellope von Schweetz has her own plans for that medal, and they involve her own
desire for "street cred" among her peers.
Wreck-It Ralph, like numerous fantasies before it, concerns the activities of playthings after pesky humans have gone to bed (or otherwise departed the scene). Pixar owns this sub-genre most recently, with its Toy Story franchise, but the concept is much older, dating back to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet and Victor Herbert’s 1903 musical, Babes in Toyland. Both have been staged and filmed many, many times.

To my knowledge, Wreck-It Ralph is the first such storyline set in the world of arcade gaming. It boasts a sharp script by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, the latter responsible for writing last year’s delightful Cedar Rapids. Most crucially — and as is the case with the Toy Story films — Wreck-It Ralph takes place in a colorful world that is laden with goofy characters, but includes plenty of droll and clever dialogue.

The result: It will delight both youngsters and their parents, and the latter also will recognize all sorts of inside jokes and familiar references.

The action unfolds at Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade, where — as longstanding tradition demands — local kids reserve next-play status by lining up their quarters. Game choices include everything from the cutesy-poo, animé-flavored Sugar Rush, where players race adorable girl avatars through a track bordered by gumdrops, cotton candy and all manner of sweet stuff; to the hyper-realistic, first-person shooter thrills of Hero’s Duty, a nightmarish storyline right out of Starship Troopers, where a combat platoon battles scary cy-bugs that threaten to annihilate the universe.

Somewhere in between is the retro appeal of Fix-It Felix Jr., a 1980s game mildly reminiscent of Nintendo’s original Mario Bros. (whose characters, perhaps tellingly, are not in this film). The game’s villain, Ralph, is a 643-lb. man monster who is determined to destroy the apartment building that the game’s Nicelanders call home. Players (in our real world) control plucky little Felix, whose magic hammer repairs all the damage. Successfully completing the level means that Ralph gets tossed into a nearby mud puddle.

Unhappily, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is a sensitive soul, and has grown tired of always being the bad guy, and of living his off-duty hours alone in a brick pile. He even joins a support group, Bad-Anon, where familiar villains from various games (Street Fighter, Altered Beasts) share their tales in sessions hosted by Clyde, the orange ghost from Pac-Man.