Friday, April 27, 2012

To the Arctic: Awesome footage, sobering message

To the Arctic (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.27.12

Everybody falls in love with the up-close-and-personal footage of a mother polar bear and her two cubs, but my favorite sequence comes as the mom investigates a robot-controlled IMAX camera artfully concealed to resemble a floating chunk of ice.

With "land ice" breaking apart sooner each year, polar bears are forced to swim
much greater distances in order to hunt for the food needed to sustain not only
themselves, but their families. This mother polar bear has the additional
challenge of feeding two cubs; it's rare for more than one to survive this long.
The bear, not fooled by this subterfuge for a second, hauls the contraption out of the water — all this activity caught by a second camera — and casually pries the bits apart. The final act? The bear bats the now exposed, globe-shaped camera cover like a beach ball, before finally crushing it to a sad mechanical death.

Pretty darn funny.

And also quite illuminating: Clearly, polar bears aren’t merely ferocious — when necessary — they’re also ferociously intelligent.

To the Arctic is the newest awesome IMAX documentary from the filmmaking team of Greg and Shaun MacGillivray, who previously brought us The Living Sea, Dolphins and Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk. As might be surmised from the titles, MacGillivray films lean toward environmental activism, and this one is no different; To the Arctic is an unabashed plea for the world to pay more attention to the implacable effects of global warming.

The cause can be debated from now until doomsday — which, if naysayers continue to rule the argument, may well be the case — but the phenomenon itself is an established, observable fact that has a direct and dire impact on the polar bears, caribou, walruses, seals and birds profiled in this breathtaking film.

The summer Arctic ice pack has decreased in size by 25 percent since 1979; unless unchecked, it could disappear entirely by 2050. In the long term, the cold water run-off will supercharge the currents of the “great ocean conveyor belt” that moderates weather everywhere. Additionally, that missing ice cap no longer will function as a climate-balancing shield that reflects 80 percent of the sun’s energy back into space ... and, frankly, nobody fully knows what that might cause.

In the short term, as quite clearly depicted in this film, ice platforms — from which polar bears traditionally hunt seals — once extended for miles over the ocean. That’s no longer true; the earlier the ice melts, the more restricted the bears’ territory becomes, giving them limited access and less time to find seals, and farther to swim without rest.

The latter is hardest on cubs, which lack their mothers’ strength and stamina. We watch a mother and cub set out on just such a journey — a possible “journey to nowhere,” as narrator Meryl Streep calmly informs us — and when the mother eventually makes landfall, she’s alone.

The Five-Year Engagement: Can't commit

The Five-Year Engagement (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and fleeting nudity 
By Derrick Bang

The engagement itself staggers along for five years, and it takes about that long to watch this film.

Or so it seems.

The morning after a delightful engagement party, which allows Violet (Emily
Blunt, left) and Tom (Jason Segel, second from left) to announce their pending
marriage, they're surprised to discover that his best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt),
and her sister, Suzie (Alison Brie), spent the night together. Truth be told,
Alex and Suzie are equally surprised by the situation.
A sweet, amusing and saucy romantic comedy is buried somewhere within the leaden mess of The Five-Year Engagement, which occasionally flickers into life and reveals The Film That Might Have Been. With the benefit of tighter editing and the objectivity needed to jettison some of the wandering narrative detours that just hang on the screen, like limp laundry, director Nicholas Stoller — who co-wrote the script, with star Jason Segel — might have delivered a decent result.

But at 124 minutes, this inexcusably self-indulgent exercise in slow torture feels interminable. The story goes on and on and on and on, until we’re ready to scream at the contrivance of yet another emotional roadblock that separates our two main characters, and thus prevents the film from finally grinding to its fitful conclusion (a wholly predictable outcome, I might add).

Stoller and Segel previously collaborated on 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another comedy of love’s labors that adopted a similar kitchen sink approach to its core storyline. The problem, in both cases, is a lack of focus; Segel, the writer, needs to be reined in and persuaded that he’s not necessarily the best judge of what works for Segel, the actor.

We’re introduced to Tom (Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) on the happiest day of their made-for-each-other relationship, as he honors the one-year anniversary of their first “date” — actually a midnight kiss at a New Year’s Eve party, where they met — with a proposal. Actually, he intends to surprise her with a adorably elaborate setting for this proposal, but he’s not good at keeping secrets, and fumbles the approach.


There’s a world of difference between an actor fumbling dialogue, in character, and an actor merely fumbling dialogue. Pay attention to this opening scene, as Segel and Blunt navigate these first few pages of script. The line deliveries are awful, the timing equally poor; the sequence plays more like a first rehearsal — and a bad one, at that — than a take preserved for use in the finished movie.

Much of The Five-Year Engagement suffers from such clumsiness, as if Stoller abdicated his directorial responsibilities and let random set visitors vote on which take to accept. However it happened, the result is a film that repeatedly starts, stops and stalls without warning, like a junker that can’t quite make it off the used-car lot.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Raid: Redemption — Leaves you breathless!

The Raid: Redemption (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and relentless strong, brutal violence 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.20.12

This sucker hits the ground running — literally — and never lets up.

Cinema has a grand tradition of stylish few-versus-many action thrillers, with notable highlights including Zulu, Rio Bravo and John Carpenter’s career-making remake of the latter, Assault on Precinct 13.

Having battled his way into the lab where a local crime lord processes drugs,
rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais, left) discovers that the chemists — rather
vexingly! — also happen to be dangerous martial arts experts. The resulting
skirmish is merely one of many stylish interludes on route to Rama's climactic
confrontation with this story's Big Bad.
The Raid: Redemption is just as likely to make a star of writer/director Gareth Evans. This is the third feature helmed by the Welsh filmmaker, and the second set in Indonesia, amid the nastier elements of Jakarta’s underworld.

It’s also Evans’ second collaboration with Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais; the two met at the latter’s pencak silat martial arts school, when Evans was scouting Indonesian locations in 2007, while making a documentary. To say that Evans was impressed would be an understatement; he and Uwais have been a filmmaker/actor team ever since.

Plenty of martial arts champions have embraced acting, but success in that realm involves more than smooth moves; one must possess camera presence ... not to mention the ability to credibly deliver a line. It’s also a collaborative art; a good director is necessary, in order to frame the performer in a manner that makes him — or her — look iconic.

No surprise, then, that many answer the call, but few achieve the fame of, say, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li or Tony Jaa. Uwais reminds me of Jaa; both are grimly ferocious fighters, well able to tailor their jaw-dropping moves within the confines of a camera frame.

Not that Uwais needs to worry much about confines. Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery move the camera as inventively and aggressively as a given scene demands, traveling through windows — and doors, walls and floors — to keep pace with the action. But — and this is important— without the irritating “shaky-cam” jiggle that has become so ubiquitous these days.

Evans also handles the editing, and he knows when to temper the frantic pursuit of a chase with fixed camera placement, so we can better appreciate the explosive physical mayhem. Most importantly, he doesn’t “build” fight scenes in the editing bay, with sharp cuts; as with Fred Astaire’s best dance scenes, the pandemonium here unfolds during extended takes, so we can better appreciate the physical talent on display.

Chimpanzee: Just sorta hangs there

Chimpanzee (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages 
By Derrick Bang

Oscar is a little bitty thing: adorable but otherwise not such a much.

The same can be said of his film.

Little Oscar is cute as a bug, as this flimsy documentary constantly
reminds us. More instructive detail about chimpanzee behavior would
have been appreciated; this film's script turns superficiality into an
Chimpanzee, the fourth entry in Disney’s revived nature film series, is a throwback to the studio’s original True-Life Adventure documentaries, most particularly with respect to a contrived storyline that exists solely for the benefit of Tim Allen’s whimsical narration.

The original True-Life Adventures began with 1948’s Seal Island, which brought Disney an Academy Award for live-action short subject. It was followed by classics such as 1950’s Beaver Valley, 1953’s Bear Country and 1959’s Mysteries of the Deep, among others; after their original theatrical runs, they all became required viewing in baby-boomer classrooms for the next several decades.

When the series concluded with 1960’s Islands of the Sea, every kid in America regarded ongoing narrator Winston Hibler as a favorite unseen uncle; his friendly, instantly memorable voice was both a comfort and one of the series’ strongest assets.

Those short subjects — and the occasional feature, such as 1953’s The Living Desert and 1954’s The Vanishing Prairie — were highlighted by stunning cinematography and a strong sense of being right there, in the midst of whatever drama Hibler extracted from the onscreen events.

Granted the benefit of hindsight and maturity, it’s easy to see that most of the “drama” was assembled via clever editing, the footage sequenced in order to fit a narrative designed for a blend of family-friendly peril and droll “comedy bits” punctuated by orchestral rim shots in the soundtrack. In some cases, the animal behavior was exaggerated — or even fabricated — in order to fit the storyline.

I’m not sure that plays today, in the wake of pure nature documentaries such as 2005’s March of the Penguins and a host of IMAX films. At a time of stronger conservationist instincts and a rising awareness of endangered species, we demand more integrity and honesty from our nature documentaries. Chimpanzee feels frivolous and larkish: a project assembled solely to spend some time with an admittedly endearing baby chimp who couldn’t be cuter if he tried.

And, yes, Martyn Colbeck’s cinematography is impressive, as is the sense of intimacy granted by long-range lenses that place us alongside this film’s simian stars. We can only marvel at the patience displayed by these filmmakers, as they spent hours, days and possibly even weeks in order to get just the right shot. Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield certainly understand the territory, having collaborated on the lavish BBC documentaries Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, the latter having just made its way to our shores as these words are typed.

Indeed, watching Frozen Planet further emphasizes the compelling authenticity and informative detail that are absent from Chimpanzee ... which, rather vexingly, tells us very little about chimpanzees. This film is no more than a children’s picture book brought to life. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, although it sure doesn’t set the bar very high.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods: Ghoulish and giddy

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for strong, gory horror violence, profanity, drug use, sexuality and brief nudity 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.13.12

Folks will chortle — quite enthusiastically — about this one for awhile.

Although looking every inch like a standard exercise in snuffing attractive young performers in the usual macabre ways, The Cabin in the Woods is less a conventional horror flick and more an effort to return imagination, suspense and genuine surprise to a genre recently infested with distasteful (and often misogynistic) torture-porn.

When a basement trap door suddenly slams open, who could resist descending
those darkened stairs? Well, anybody with a reasonable sense of self-preservation,
which apparently doesn't include, from left, Marty (Fran Kranz), Curt (Chris
Hemsworth) and Jules (Anna Hutchison).
Filmmakers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have succeeded, and then some. This cheerfully lunatic fantasy is as much a genre game-changer as John Carpenter’s original Halloween, back in the day.

But make no mistake: The Cabin in the Woods may be intellectually exhilarating, but it’s no less gory. Indeed, the first 10 minutes of the third act are as gleefully deranged as the infamous lawnmower climax to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. (Movie buffs who associate Jackson solely with The Lord of the Rings, and aren’t familiar with his early-career 1992 shocker, are advised to tread carefully.)

Its clever premise and unexpected plot twists notwithstanding, The Cabin in the Woods also gets considerable juice from the nervous gallows humor that laces the dialogue, which bears the unmistakable Whedon stamp. He and Goddard met when the latter became a writer on TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel; they became best buds and — following Goddard’s big-screen scripting success with 2008’s Cloverfield — looked for something to do together.

They came up with an homage-laden concept with a difference; they co-wrote the script, and Goddard made his directorial debut during a three-month shoot in the spring of 2009. A 2010 release was planned, but then MGM — the studio to which the project was attached — fell into bankruptcy, and The Cabin in the Woods wound up in a nightmarish limbo far nastier than anything found within its storyline.

Two years later, MGM’s financial difficulties finally set right, The Cabin in the Woods has been unleashed to mess with our minds. Good thing, that.

The set-up will be recognized by those with a fondness for 1981’s The Evil Dead: Five rambunctious college friends flee civilization for a debauched weekend in an isolated backwoods cabin. Their route takes them through a mountainside tunnel; a raptor, lazily following the vehicle from outside the tunnel, suddenly slams into an invisible force-field ... a marvelous bit of well-staged disconnect on par with the spotlight that falls from “nowhere” and nearly brains Jim Carrey, at the beginning of The Truman Show.


Bully: Riveting advocacy cinema

Bully (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity 
By Derrick Bang

The most perceptive comment comes from the best friend of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, who took his own life rather than continue to endure continued torment at the hands of his schoolyard persecutors.

“If I were king of the United States,” the grieving, angry boy declares, “I’d do away with popularity.

Poor Alex, at 12 having not the slightest notion how to attract friends, finds
that his efforts aren't merely rebuffed; they make him the target of repeated
physical and verbal abuse at the hands of tormentors who've come to believe
that they can continue to get away with such cruel behavior ... for the simple
reason that nobody ever stops them.
“Because then everybody would be equal.”

If only it were that simple.

Filmmaker Lee Hirsch’s searing documentary, Bully, is a raw, almost invasively intimate portrait of five families, five children and the long-established pattern of youthful harassment that has made their lives a nightmare.

Two of the children were shadowed during the course of a school year, sometimes interviewed at random moments, sometimes merely observed. One is profiled from within the confines of a juvenile detention facility. Two aren’t able to speak at all; the distraught parents must supply a sense of their absent sons.

Ty Smalley shot himself in May of 2010, on the same day he was suspended from school ... for fighting. The superintendent of Ty’s Oklahoma school insisted, when interviewed, that there was “no indication” that any bullying had occurred.

Tyler Long, 17 years old, hanged himself in October 2009, after years of abuse from high school classmates. His parents, David and Tina Long — who receive considerable face time in Hirsch’s film — have sued Georgia’s Murray County Schools and high school principal Gina Linder in federal court, claiming that school officials knew about the harassment and failed to prevent it.

The school officials not only deny their failure to act; they insist that no bullying took place. Their lawyers claim that Tyler’s suicide was prompted by alleged “personal and psychiatric problems” and the fact that he suffered from Asperger’s, neither of which is mentioned in this film.

(From the outside looking in, this sounds both disingenuous and tone-deaf, carrying the stench of a “blame the victim” mentality. It’s also ironic: Murray County officials are arguing in favor of a scenario that would have made Tyler far more likely to be targeted for abuse.)

The lawsuit, proceeding as these words are typed, is too current to be included in this film, but an earlier incident is quite damning: The Longs held a public forum on bullying in 2010, making a point to invite Murray County School officials. None showed up, and Hirsch’s film crew was present to note their absence.

Judging by the number of concerned and sympathetic parents who do pack the hall — and a distraught public statement made by a young boy quite clearly a target of hazing himself — Tyler Long’s situation was, and is, by no means unique.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

American Reunion: Diminishing returns

American Reunion (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless crude and sexual content, profanity, nudity, brief drug use and teen drinking 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.6.12

High school reunions, in great part trading on nostalgia, promise much but inevitably disappoint.

Everybody wants things to be the same, sort of ... and they are, sort of, which is the problem. The bad memories are amplified; the good memories are impossible to recapture in precisely the same way. Life is fresh only the first time; although the thought of going home again is irresistible, it’s like visiting a paler shadow of what we enjoyed so much, back in the day.

Wanting to help his father (Eugene Levy, center) out of a depressed funk, Jim
(Jason Biggs, left) unwisely brings him to a pre-reunion bash thrown by Stifler
(Seann William Scott). Unwise, that is, because Stifler decides that Jim's Dad
can best appreciate the party after half a dozen stiff shots.
And so it is with late-entry movie sequels. American Reunion, 13 years removed from the mixed delights of 1999’s American Pie, carries the strong whiff of wistful yearning; it’s also infected with the less savory smells of the raunch demanded by its script template.

It’s nice to see the entire gang again, particular after several key characters were left behind in 2003’s American Wedding. And, to their credit, the writing/directing team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — veterans of the Harold & Kumar series — occasionally interrupt the obligatory vulgarity for plot sidebars involving genuine feelings, in an effort to reproduce the blend of sweet and sour that made scripter Adam Herz’s 1999 original fitfully charming (usually despite itself).

Unfortunately, the brand has been sullied during the past decade, thanks to a jaw-dropping series of direct-to-video “sorta-sequels” such as American Pie Presents Band Camp, American Pie Presents the Naked Mile and American Pie Presents Beta House (and I probably missed one or two others). Long on explicit tastelessness and short on anything else, these stiffs may have set up expectations — in the wrong direction — that this newest, true series sequel can’t fulfill.

Best buds Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), each mildly — or greatly — dissatisfied with the direction life has taken, enthusiastically anticipate their upcoming 13th reunion at East Great Falls High School. It’ll be a chance to visit the ol’ town and enjoy some quality bonding time.

Jim and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), thanks to the demands of a cute 2-year-old son, suffer the malaise of all first-time parents: Shared intimacy has become a thing of the past, replaced instead by individual efforts at self-satisfaction (depicted in unnecessary detail, of course).

Kevin is married as well, in a vaguely defined, submissive way to Ellie (Charlene Amoia): a plot element that never goes anywhere. Oz, trying to breathe fresh life into an acting career tarnished by a guest appearance on Celebrity Dance-Off, is trapped in a Hollywood-style relationship with Mia (Katrina Bowden), an oversexed sybarite who probably cheats on him three times a week.