Friday, March 30, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Quite a catch!

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for mild sexual content, brief violence and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.30.12

The British film industry’s gift for gentle whimsy is as inherently cultural as French cinema’s way with erotic comedies: in both cases utterly captivating, and absolutely impossible to reproduce on our shores (although, goodness knows, plenty of people have tried).

When Britain's sporting anglers pitch a headline-making fit over the notion of
shipping 50,000 wild salmon to a foreign country, Fred (Ewan McGregor) and
Harriet (Emily Blunt) wonder whether farm-raised substitutes could serve the
same purpose. The problem, Fred fears, is that such commercially bred fish
might not possess the necessary spawning instinct.
Our British cousins have a knack for making fun of themselves in a way that’s both stylish and just barbed enough to demonstrate a level of sophisticated method to the madness. By comparison, American filmmakers inevitably seem crass and adolescent. The Brits give us Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually; we give them The Hangover and — soon — The Three Stooges.


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charmer very much in the vein of Four Weddings, Notting Hill, The Closer You Get, Pirate Radio and numerous other examples that leap to mind. Equal parts romantic comedy, environmental fantasy, faith-based parable and shrewd political commentary, scripter Simon Beaufoy’s handling of Paul Torday’s novel — which I absolutely must read — is brought to the screen with unerring precision by director Lasse Hallström.

Hallström, you will recall, is the sharp-eyed observer of human nature who burst on the scene back in 1985, with My Life As a Dog, made in his native Sweden. He followed that hit with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News and the under-appreciated An Unfinished Life, among others. You’ll note a common theme of misfit characters existing just slightly outside mainstream society, often trying to make their way in a world — or among customs — they’re simply not equipped to understand.

That’s certainly the case with Dr. Alfred “Fred” Jones (Ewan McGregor), an exacting fisheries expert happily ensconced within his own little world, deep in the far-flung bowels of an obscure branch of the British government. You just know that all the pens in his desk drawer face in the same direction, and that’s true ... but he also keeps a collapsible fly rod at hand, which he uses each morning to hurl an inked casting weight, dart-like, toward a picture of his stuffy boss (Conleth Hill). Black smudges attest to frequent bull’s-eyes.

Fred’s comfortable, well-constructed world is interrupted one day by an e-mail from Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), acting as a representative for the enormously wealthy Yemeni Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked). The sheikh maintains a massive sporting estate in Scotland, specifically so he can indulge his passion for salmon fishing. But that isn’t enough: He wants to work an environmental miracle in his home country, bringing water to the inhospitable desert and jump-starting an agricultural Renaissance, hopefully to promote peace and spiritual reflection in a land ravaged by conflict.

And, along the way, introducing salmon for his own pleasure.

Would “Dr. Alfred” be willing to act as a consultant?

Mirror Mirror: A shattering disappointment

Mirror Mirror (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for fantasy violence and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

Ever have one of those days when everything goes wrong?

Tarsem Singh had an entire film’s worth.

Snow White (Lily Collins, right) finds herself quite unwelcome at a lavish ball
given by her evil step-mother (Julia Roberts), who warns the girl — with dire
threats of reprisal — to refrain from crashing any future parties. Alas, we'd have
no story if Snow obeyed this edict, and besides: The next gathering will be
thrown in honor of the handsome prince who just arrived at the castle.
Either that, or the woefully under-prepared director slept through the entire shooting schedule of Mirror Mirror. Rarely has so much gone wrong, in so many obvious ways.

In fairness, there’s plenty of blame to spread among numerous other folks, starting with Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller, and their impressively clumsy script: no more than a “greatest hits” effort to beg, borrow or steal bits, concepts and even atmosphere from far better predecessors.

This is less a screenplay, and more a cynical attempt at formulaic success: the plot-establishing prologue, in a stylized artistic montage, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; a queen’s court comprised of decadent, garishly dressed aristocratic grotesques, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland; the bickering, roughly garbed but technologically adroit dwarfs, from Time Bandits; the occasional exaggerated twinkle of eye or tooth, from Blake Edwards’ The Great Race; and mostly the quirky blend of fairy-tale clichés and contemporary snark, from The Princess Bride.

Heck, I’m pretty sure somebody even says “As you wish,” with the same sort of inflection.

Unfortunately, mimicking so much, from so many earlier sources, is no guarantee of doing it well ... and, indeed, Mirror Mirror merely makes one yearn for all those other, far better films.

In a word, it’s a mess.

A rather boring mess, at that.

Which is a shame, because it’s certainly well-cast. Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane bring the appropriate brio to their ham-on-wry performances as, respectively, the evil queen and her cowering sycophant; Lily Collins deftly matures from fragile, sheltered princess to resolute champion of the kingdom; Armie Hammer is properly virtuous and heroic as the dashing young prince; and the dwarfs — in this case dubbed Grub, Grimm, Wolf, Butcher, Napoleon, Half-Pint and Chuckles (because he never laughs) — are a squabbling hoot.

They give their all, but it’s all for nothing. Because nothing else works.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games: A heroine for the ages

The Hunger Games (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.12

First, the crucial issue: Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen. Every physical characteristic, every delicately shaded emotional nuance.

It’s as if Lawrence stepped off the pages of Suzanne Collins’ novel.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, right) watches footage from previous Hunger Games
bouts, hoping to learn from the successes — and failures — of her predecessors,
while her disillusioned mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and the effete
Effie (Elizabeth Banks) carefully guard their own thoughts.
This comes as no surprise, to those who were mesmerized by Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. That unflinching, Ozark mountains girl possessed the same blend of stubborn, often foolish courage and troubled vulnerability, the latter emerging only when she thought nobody was looking.

Even then, when the film adaptation of Collins’ The Hunger Games was just an anticipatory gleam in Hollywood’s eye, savvy observers knew that the big-screen Katniss had been found.

Lawrence embraces this role — one of the early 21st century’s most iconic young female characters, alongside Lisbeth Salandar and Bella Swan — and makes it her own. She is, even during her quiet moments, so much more interesting than Kristen Stewart’s pouty, bland and detached handling of Bella, in the increasingly disappointing Twilight film series. Even though Bella is — should be — the focus of those stories, Stewart inevitably is the least interesting figure on camera.

Not so with Lawrence, who owns this adaptation of The Hunger Games.

Gary Ross — a sharp writer (Big, Dave) who graduated to writer/director, with Pleasantville and Seabiscuit — has made an honorable adaptation of Collins’ enormously popular novel. This screen interpretation is faithful in much the manner of the early Harry Potter films: All the essential plot elements make it to the screen; all the characters are deftly cast, and play their roles persuasively.

Production designer Philip Messina has done a smashing job with the various settings, from the hard-scrabble mining community that Katniss calls home, to the opulent, cruelly ornamental capital of this alternate reality, where decadent, self-absorbed aristocrats gambol without giving a thought to the deprived, desperate 99 percent.

(Make no mistake: Ross — sharing scripting credit with Collins and Billy Ray — doesn’t miss this obvious opportunity for a pointed jab at our rapidly widening, real-world class divide.)

Costume designer Judianna Makovsky does an equally fine job, particularly with the horridly colorful outfits worn by the mindless, oblivious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). And literally dozens of make-up artists and hair stylists work similar miracles, re-creating the hilariously outrageous fashions sported by the patrician jet-set.

You probably sense, gentle reader, that I’m building up to a “but” ... and, indeed, I am. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Droll search for the meaning of life

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.23.12

I love pleasant surprises.

Ed Helms has a knack for finding indie dramedies with just the right blend of charm and offbeat quirkiness. He scored last year at about this time, with just such a project: the completely adorable Cedar Rapids. Despite its lower profile and far smaller box-office take, it was far more satisfying than his obligatory return to gross-out form a few months later, in The Hangover, Part II.

Pat (Ed Helms) is arrogant enough to assume that he can get away with parking
in a spot reserved for disabled drivers, and is ready to blame the universe when he
gets caught doing it. His brother, Jeff (Jason Segel), a believer in karma and
celestial balance, views this outcome as just desserts ... but is far too polite to
say as much. These differing views of life, the universe and everything will
prove important as these brothers navigate what turns into a most unusual day.
Folks who enjoyed Cedar Rapids will find the same delights in Jeff, Who Lives at Home ... and it isn’t even Helms’ film. Granted, he has a crucial co-starring role, but this whimsically bent effort from the writing/directing team of Jay and Mark Duplass belongs mostly to star Jason Segel.

Although ... no ... that’s not entirely correct. Helms plays an equally important role, as does co-star Susan Sarandon. And Judy Greer. And Rae Dawn Chong.

That’s the secret behind indie hits like this one: The filmmakers pay equal attention to each of the ensemble’s well-crafted characters.

Thirtysomething Jeff (Segel), the eponymous character, has stalled out on the highway of life. To the enduring frustration of his mother, Sharon (Sarandon), he leads an isolated existence in her basement: trapped not by circumstance but more by choice. He’s not agoraphobic — such as the character played by Nicolas Cage in 2003’s Matchstick Men, who feared leaving his house — but merely overwhelmed.

Obsessed by a search for “meaning” in all of life’s events, even the least significant, Jeff is frozen into near-immobility by indecision. The 2002 film Signs has become his personal Bible — beleaguered real-world filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan probably welcomes this unexpected endorsement — and Jeff watches it repeatedly, struck anew each time by how the narrative wraps minutia and trivia into a Highly Significant Outcome.

Watching the film while stoned — Jeff’s state of choice — probably adds to its portent, but he’d regard even this as a lifestyle choice affecting a “big picture” that he’s never able to bring into focus.

Jeff’s brother, alternatively, seems to have adhered to the traditional American career and lifestyle path: Pat (Helms) has a stable job and is married to Linda (Greer). But their relationship is rocky at best, their once-mutual affection now smothered by Pat’s self-centered arrogance, condescension and hair-trigger temper. He is, in short, a jerk ... and a rather unpleasant one, at that. Jeff may be “useless” in the conventional sense, but at least he’s a nice guy.

Quite sweet, actually, and that’s crucial to Segel’s performance. He has a knack for projecting good-hearted gentleness from characters with glaring flaws, which makes him a far better choice for this film than, say, Owen Wilson, who often plays a similar sort of role but invariably comes off looking and sounding insufferably pompous.

We can’t help adoring Segel’s Jeff, despite his obvious shortcomings; he’s like a lost little lamb in a grizzly bear’s body.

Friday, March 16, 2012

21 Jump Street: Frequently stumbles

21 Jump Street (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, crude and sexual content, teen drinking and drug use, and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.16.12

Things must be pretty bad in Hollywood, if this is the week’s pick of the litter.

Having stumbled their way into learning who has been supplying an insidious
new designer drug to high school kids, Jenko (Channing Tatum, left) and
Schmidt (Jonah Hill) duck a ferocious hail of bullets and wonder what to do next.
Although not the thorough train wreck suggested by its previews, 21 Jump Street isn’t much to write home about. It’s yet another exasperating, big-screen “re-imagining” of a vintage TV drama that has — in the hands of writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill (who also stars) — been transformed into a dopey comedy.

I simply don’t understand this trend. We’ve seen it several times before, with equally lame big-screen spoofs of I Spy and Starsky & Hutch. These are not familiar, name-brand franchises, as with Tom Cruise’s much more reverential — and successful — update of Mission: Impossible.

No, only the original fans continue to care about stuff like I Spy, Starsky & Hutch and 21 Jump Street ... and they’re guaranteed to be infuriated by such disrespectful treatment.

Alternatively, the modern target audience coveted by these remakes isn’t old enough to recognize the references, so why bother? Is it that difficult come up with original titles and characters? Is it really necessary to insult folks who carry happy memories of the original small-screen versions?

More to the point, such re-boots would be a lot more tolerable if they were better movies.


The original 21 Jump Street, one of the then-fledgling Fox Network’s first shows, ran from 1987 through ’91; it updated the “cool” premise of an even earlier show, The Mod Squad (1968-73). In both cases, police departments sent baby-faced cops to infiltrate various aspects of youth culture. The trio forming the Mod Squad went after “establishment adults” preying upon groovy counter-culture types; 21 Jump Street enrolled its undercover detectives in a “typical” high school, where they confronted drug pushers, teenage prostitutes and clandestine killers ... you know, the usual high school issues.

Granted, there’s plenty of room for parody here, starting with the belief that twentysomethings could effectively blend with younger, smaller and less mature kids, and this update of 21 Jump Street does have plenty of fun with that concept. (Hill is 28; co-star Channing Tatum is 31.) But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter: Thud and blunder

John Carter (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for relentless fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.9.12

What a slab of meat.

A clumsy, disorganized and bone-stupid script is the biggest problem afflicting John Carter, but Taylor Kitsch’s stiff and wooden starring performance also leaves much to be desired.

After capturing John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, right), the Thark chieftan Tars Tarkas
(center) argues the displaced Earthman's fate with a rival warrior, Tal Hajus, while
the entire tribe waits to see what will happen next.
The young actor, who made such a strong impression as a troubled high school football player on TV’s Friday Night Lights, has made a laughably poor transition to big-screen leading man. Given his much stronger work on the tube, blame must be assigned director Andrew Stanton: an accusation given greater weight by the similarly dismal acting delivered by Kitsch’s co-stars.

When even seasoned professionals such as Ciarán Hinds and Mark Strong look silly, the guy in charge clearly is at fault.

Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) is the second Pixar filmmaker to make the ambitious leap from pixels to flesh-and-blood performers, but he hasn’t done nearly as well as colleague Brad Bird, who recently brought such stylish snap to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Based on this evidence, Stanton can’t direct live actors, period.

But — as mentioned above — that isn’t this film’s worst sin. The haphazard script scarcely makes sense from one action sequence to the next; it feels as if scenes are being fabricated on the fly. Stanton and co-scripters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon have made an absolute mess of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters, not to mention the novel (1912’s A Princess of Mars, first in what became an 11-book series) on which this misfire is based.

Chabon’s participation should raise some eyebrows. You’d certainly think that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who brought us The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay would better understand how to deliver a pulpish sci-fi adventure, but the evidence here suggests otherwise.

Most cruelly, Stanton & Co. have maligned the character of Carter much the way vintage Hollywood films bungled the big-screen adaptation of Burroughs’ other, more famous creation. Tarzan — born John Clayton, later Viscount Greystoke — was a perceptive, noble and impressively intelligent man who rejected the “hypocrisy of civilization” in order to lead a purer life in the African jungle with his wife, Jane.

Needless to say, the archetypical film image of Tarzan — forever cemented by Johnny Weissmuller’s disheveled, monosyllabic jungle warrior — made a mockery of such lofty origins.

The same is true of this film’s concept of John Carter. Granted, the 19th century Southern cordiality is present, as are Carter’s virtuous instincts; he also has been granted a tragic back-story. And, to their credit, Stanton and his fellow scripters retain the clever mystery revolving around Carter’s Earthly “death” in 1881, which triggers a summons to his nephew, Edgar “Ned” Burroughs (Daryl Sabara).

But once Carter gets zapped to Mars by a mysterious amulet, he turns into little more than a Martian version of Conan the Barbarian. Scratch that: Next to Carter, Conan could have been a Rhodes scholar. What follows is pulp-style twaddle at its worst ... and even that might have been all right, if Stanton had acknowledged and embraced such a campy atmosphere.

But no: All this nonsense is intended to be taken seriously, which turns the film into the worst sort of big-screen comic book.

Friends with Kids: The best-laid plans...

Friends with Kids (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Most adult friendships face two crisis points.

Couples signing on for the long term — whether via the bond of marriage, or a less formal commitment — inevitably lose their single friends. All concerned may try to avoid this outcome, but the dynamic invariably fractures. The singletons don’t want to be third wheels; they’re also likely to feel lonely in the face of such love.

When longtime best friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt)
decide to have a baby together, they initially get hung up over how to handle
"the act" itself; after all, they're friends, not lovers. Finally, Julie hits the
perfect solution: "Let's just pretend that we're really into each other," she
suggests. Ah, but is it only pretense?
Then, too, I’ve always suspected that our (former) single friends, back in the day, decided that we just weren’t fun any more.

Okay, so couples make new friends, generally with other couples. The second rift occurs if all your new friends start having children ... but you choose not to take that path. Getting together —enjoying everybody’s company during a raucous night out — becomes impossible, in great part because new parents just can’t do that.

Fine, you think, then why not visit them at home? And yet — somehow — even that never seems to happen.

My suspicion, this time, is that the new parents now regard their childless friends with grim disapproval and jealousy, because they’re not suffering enough.

This is a rich dynamic, and one that writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt mines to excellent comic effect, in Friends with Kids. But while her first few acts are funny, snarky and hilariously vulgar — in the way we now must accept, post-Judd Apatow and Bridesmaids — Westfeldt’s film is far from frivolous. The core premise here comes with an unpleasant catch, and she doesn’t shy away from its consequences.

Although primarily an actress, Westfeldt pops up every so often with perceptive, sharp-edged scripts; she enjoys exploring relationships that involve unusual twists, and she remains well remembered for writing and starring in 2001’s charming Kissing Jessica Stein. Her sophomore writing effort, 2006’s Ira & Abby, wasn’t as successful; Friends with Kids — her third script, and her directorial debut — deserves to do much better.

Although Westfeldt always writes herself the starring role, she’s savvy enough to involve talented colleagues, each of whom is granted an equally rich character. Friends with Kids is no different in that respect, and Westfeldt is doubly lucky to have snagged Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd, all still riding high on the buzz of last year’s Bridesmaids.

Thirtysomething Manhantanites Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) have been best friends for years: each squarely in the other’s corner, come what may. Jason seems content to sail through a series of short-term relationships with well-endowed hotties; Julie hasn’t been able to make things click in the romance department. Despite their devoted bond, they’ve never considered dating each other, perhaps sensing that such an act might destroy their friendship.

Although not really a “couple” themselves, Julie and Jason are part of a convivial sextet that includes the married Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Wiig), and the equally hitched Alex and Leslie (O’Dowd and Rudolph). Outings are lively, profane and cheerfully vulgar: good friends having great times together.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Separation: Appearances can be deceiving

A Separation (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.2.12

Although ostensibly a drama — albeit a rather austere one — writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation also has elements of a classic mystery.

In the aftermatch of a momentarily careless act that has had ominous
consequences, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, right) begins to realize that her father
(Peyman Moadi) may not be a shining pillar of integrity. Few emotions are as
painful as those experienced by a daughter whose faith in her father is called
into question.
It is, as Farhadi explains in his press notes, a detective story without any detectives. “The audience is in charge of solving the puzzles,” he says, “and there will be as many answers as audiences.”

The clever bit comes from the fact that we don’t initially perceive the canny manner in which Farhadi withholds key pieces of information. His narrative appears to progress in a straightforward, linear manner, but we eventually realize that we’re being misled to a slight degree: put in the position of several of these characters, who base their opinions, feelings and assumptions on what they’ve been told, and what they believe they know.

No surprise, then, that Farhadi earned an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay: a rare honor for a foreign film. And while he didn’t triumph in that category, his film deservedly took home the prize as best foreign-language film. Farhadi made the most of his Oscar acceptance speech, as well, with a gently political message he delivered with the same delicacy and dignity that characterize the people in his story.

His film’s title cleverly references the multi-layered schisms afflicting these characters. The most obvious “separation” is the rupture between Simin (Leila Hatami) and her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi). The film opens as the two of them face a judge, with Simin arguing her case for a divorce. She wishes to leaves Iran with their teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi); this seems to have been a long-gestating plan that originally involved the entire family.

But during the months of preparation, Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has succumbed to the helplessness of an Alzheimer’s haze. Nader now refuses to leave the old man.

Our presumptions surface immediately. Simin’s dismissal of her father-in-law’s place in their family seems harsh and callous; then again, we soon realize that she has been expected to provide full-time care for the old man, on top of her career outside the home. We also must be careful about Western assumptions; although Simin and Nader clearly have a progressive relationship, he nonetheless expects a certain degree of fealty from his wife.

When she elects not to provide it, he hurts her in the way guaranteed to do the most emotional damage: He declines to contest her request for a divorce, while insisting that Termeh continue to live with him. Even though Simin angrily leaves and moves in with her parents, Nader knows that she won’t go far without her daughter. The result is an uncomfortable stalemate.

Termeh, by far this story’s smartest and most observant character, recognizes the power she holds ... and hopes to exploit it in order to reunite her parents.