Friday, June 29, 2012

Magic Mike: No rabbit in this hat

Magic Mike (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for pervasive sexual content, profanity, drug use and fleeting graphic nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.29.12

For perhaps 15 minutes, Channing Tatum’s title character seems an honorable fellow, deserving sympathy and worthy of our hope that he might escape the unusual lifestyle into which he had trapped himself.

Despite his best efforts, Mike (Channing Tatum) can't get Brooke (Cody
Horn) to take him seriously: no surprise, really, since his "best efforts"
at sincerity inevitably ring hollow. Which begs the crucial question:
Would it actually be a good thing if this independent young woman
were to fall in love with this jerk?
But that, it soon became clear, was giving far too much credit to Reid Carolin’s vacuous, soulless and utterly pointless screenplay. Magic Mike is worse than disappointing; it’s boring. It can’t even succeed as a titillating guilty pleasure, and that’s a harsh indictment for a project so consumed with the world of male strippers.

We’re never made to care about any of these guys, let alone the few women who revolve around their self-absorbed orbits. Nobody deserves redemption, and not even Tatum’s Mike deserves happiness; he does nothing to earn it. Carolin’s core plot is as old as Hollywood’s hedonistic hills — dewy-eyed innocent gets seduced and quickly overwhelmed by the sybaritic delights of his new occupation — and this slog of a film does nothing to freshen up the material, or make it interesting in any manner.

All of which is quite a surprise, considering that the man at the helm is Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh. What a waste of time and talent.

We must remember, though, that Soderbergh comes in several different flavors. He’s the consummate observer of human nature who brought us exceptional dramas such as King of the Hill, Erin Brockovich and Traffic; he’s also the crowd-pleasing entertainer who delighted us with star-studded confections such as Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight and The Good German.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, Soderbergh is the kink-obsessed voyeur and stylistic renegade who began his big-screen career with 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, and then tortured us 13 years later with the jaw-droppingly inept and deadly dull Full Frontal, truly one of the worst films ever made by an A-list director.

That's the guy who made Magic Mike.

This film’s most irritating stylistic tic surfaces quickly, with Soderbergh’s reliance on a seemingly spontaneous approach to dialogue delivery. All his actors fumble and stumble through their lines, obviously deliberately, as if to suggest verisimilitude by mimicking the way ordinary people talk to each other in real life. Our speech often is punctuated by pauses and struggles for the right words, as opposed to the sparkling, perfectly timed bon mots traditionally delivered in movies.

OK, fair point. But it simply doesn’t work here; too often these actors — most particularly Tatum — look and sound as if they can’t remember their lines. Or, worse yet, like they’re improvising dialogue on the spot, and doing a truly terrible job of it.

There’s a world of difference between naturalistic and incompetent, and Magic Mike too frequently feels like the latter.

Ted: Not cuddly enough

Ted (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for crude and sexual content, pervasive profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang

This is a one-note Saturday Night Live sketch stretched way beyond its limits.

John (Mark Wahlberg) should be at work; he also should be paying
more attention to his long-suffering girlfriend. But John seems quite
content to get stoned with his stuffed companion, Ted: a pattern
that this film beats far beyond the point of endurance.
Granted, the technology employed to animate this short, stuffed teddy bear is amazing. I particularly admire the attention to little details, such as the way his fur bristles during moments of stress, or the little shadow that falls on the ground — at the proper angle to the sun — as he walks along a park pathway.

But Ted wastes far too much time hammering the same tired joke: potty-mouthed teddy bear who likes to get stoned, and loves to dally with disreputable ladies. The novelty of that gag wears thin almost immediately, and yet this film’s script — credited to Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild and director Seth MacFarlane — keeps ringing that same bell.

Look how funny this is, MacFarlane repeatedly insists. A teddy bear who cusses like a dockworker!

Yeah, yeah, yeah ... we get it, we get it. Now get on with something else.

Alas, “something else” is a long time coming.

Ted begins with a lengthy flashback, narrated gravely — and quite drolly — by Patrick Stewart, which centers on John Bennett, a lonely little boy with no friends. After receiving a cuddly stuffed teddy bear on Christmas Day, John makes A Big Wish. The following morning, to his delight, Ted has come to life.

Ted becomes an overnight celebrity: darling of news reports, honored guest on Johnny Carson’s late-night talk show (nice bit of revisionist clip-editing, there). Initially a sweet, angelic companion just right for a little boy, Ted “matures” into a slacker dope fiend as John grows older (now played by Mark Wahlberg).

The point, a bit long in coming, is that Ted’s presence has kept John in an arrested adolescent state: not good for a 35-year-old guy.

Despite this, John has won the heart of Lori Collins (Mila Kunis), a professional woman with a real job. John, in contrast, has a dead-end position at a car-rental agency, where — at the slightest provocation — he’ll blow off work to sneak home and get stoned with Ted.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Brave: Loses its way

Brave (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and somewhat generously, for rude humor and considerable scary action
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.22.12

All Pixar animated films are lush, impeccably mounted productions — every backdrop fine-tuned to the height of available imaging technology, every scene timed to comic perfection — and Brave is no different.

With her disapproving mother and doting father looking on, far right,
Merida demonstrates archery skills that are far superior to all the other
clan lords and their sons: from left, Lord Macintosh and Young
Macintosh, Wee Dingwall and Lord Dingwall, and Lord MacGuffin
and Young MacGuffin.
The long, long ago and far, far away Scottish Highlands setting has a verdant ambiance granted even greater verisimilitude by the careful application of 3D cinematography; the resulting full-immersion sensation is as breathtaking to us, in these early years of the 21st century, as William Garity’s ground-breaking multi-plane camera work was for audiences of Disney’s early 1930s and ’40s animated classics.

The characters here are fun and feisty, often exaggerated for comic relief, and led by Merida, a resourceful and headstrong heroine who is voiced fabulously by Kelly Macdonald. Merida’s pluck, determination and stubborn defiance of tradition are matched only by her flaming, flowing red tresses: as much a part of her presence and personality as her oh-so-familiar teenage angst.

All the elements are in place ... except one.

The most important one.

However well Brenda Chapman’s original story may have flowed, as first conceived, it has become something of a mess in the hands of screenwriters Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Irene Mecchi and Chapman herself, along with (no doubt) the uncredited participation of many, many more Pixar staffers. The result plays less like a cohesive, thematically consistent narrative and more like a committee effort calculated to hit all the essential demographic targets.

In the mid-1970s, before attempting his first thriller, physician Robin Cook thoroughly analyzed then-best-selling novels to determine what they had in common; he then sat down and wrote Coma, which incorporated what he had learned. Despite reading like a soulless product, it became a smash hit and kick-started Cook’s second career as a successful author.

Brave has that same sense of having been crafted from a laundry list of “what works” ... which is a shame. Pixar’s best films are truly original creations that establish their own trends; Brave, in contrast, too often echoes bits and pieces from other sources.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter: Sharp-edged alternate history

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for considerable horror violence, brief sensuality and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang

The only thing more audaciously lunatic than this film’s skirmish atop — yes, atop — a panicked herd of horses, is the climactic battle royale aboard a speeding train.

Say what you will about this storyline’s cheeky absurdity; director Timur Bekmambetov has style to burn.

Having beheaded and otherwise dispatched most of the vampire
minions in his undead host's New Orleans mansion, Abraham Lincoln
(Benjamin Walker) suddenly must face the far more deadly
Vadoma (Erin Watson).
Actually, Bekmambetov has built his entire career on visual pizzazz; the trouble — until now — is that the scripts for his various projects have been seriously flawed. The Russian-born director came to our attention with his bizarre, often incomprehensible vampire franchise, Night Watch and Day Watch. Both films were massively popular in his native country; on our shores, however, they felt quaintly retro.

But they looked fabulous and boasted plenty of creative touches, even when it was difficult to follow the seemingly random, fever-dream narratives.

Hollywood took note, and Bekmambetov made his American film debut with 2008’s similarly flamboyant adaptation of Wanted, based on the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones comic book series. Again, though, the frenetic editing, sleek cinematography and loopy action scenes overwhelmed the ill-defined characters and insufferably haphazard script.

Happily, things are much better with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay, adapted from his own impudent novel, establishes solid characters and progresses through a clever re-boot of 19th century American history.

This saga belongs to the new literary sub-genre that Grahame-Smith founded with his first parody novel, 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (due to hit the big screen next year). Although Jane Austen undoubtedly rolled over in her grave — and let’s hope she stayed there! — Grahame-Smith definitely tapped a fresh vein in the zeitgeist; if TV shows like Glee can mash up new pop songs with old classics, why not do the same with written genres?

More to the point, if Quentin Tarantino can employ his own gonzo talents to re-write history so that a squad of Jewish U.S. soldiers successfully assassinates Adolf Hitler, in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds — while also scoring an Academy Award for co-star Christoph Waltz — then surely Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith can achieve the same results by giving “Honest Abe” something other than wood to chop, with his trusty axe.

And, frankly, Grahame-Smith’s narrative is rather clever. Once we accept the notion that 19th century vampires infiltrated the United States, with the hopes of helping the South preserve slavery — in order to maintain a readily available food supply — then everything else falls into place quite neatly. Grahame-Smith borrows just enough authentic history to help certain plot points look and sound familiar; beyond that, we simply hang on for dear life.

Safety Not Guaranteed: Satisfaction certain

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Established writers, when doing the obligatory meet-and-greet with fans — at book signings or lectures — know that, sooner or later, somebody will ask the predictable tired question:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Darius (Aubrey Plaza), worried about spooking the odd man that she
and her fellow magazine staffers — Arnau (Karan Soni, center) and Jeff
(Jake M. Johnson) — have staked out, doesn't want to follow the
guy too closely. More to the point, she's beginning to question her
motives; can her objectivity survive, if she develops feelings for
their target?
Neil Gaiman used to claim a subscription to the Idea-of-the-Month Club. Harlan Ellison generally cites Poughkeepsie. Joe King, son of Stephen King and now an established author in his own right, has a different geographic source: “Schenectady. They have ’em on a shelf in a Mom & Pop on Route 147.”

The point, of course, is that it’s a silly question ... except when it isn’t.

Back in 1997, readers found a rather bizarre classified ad on page 92 of the September/October issue of Backwoods Home magazine. It read, in part, “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke ... You’ll get paid after we get back. Safety not guaranteed.” Replies were directed to a Post Office box in Oakview, California.

The ad became a national phenomenon. The guys on National Public Radio’s Car Talk read it aloud; it also was mentioned on other NPR shows. Jay Leno read it on his late-night TV show. Eventually, bewildering and delighted by all the fuss, Backwoods Home staffer John Silveira confessed authorship, explaining that the magazine often used “fillers” when the classified ad section came up short, and that this had simply been a throwaway joke.

Few people ever read Silveira’s explanation, though, and the ad’s sense of enchanted whimsy merely intensified, when it later went viral on the Internet ... which is where it came to the attention of aspiring screenwriter Derek Connolly, until then known solely for the pilot episode of a never-sold TV sitcom, Gary: Under Crisis.

Which brings us to the present day, with Connolly’s debut movie script — Safety Not Guaranteed — having just won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Connolly’s wry, endearing and hilariously arch screenplay would be reason enough to see this charmer, but the film’s highlights don’t stop there. It’s also deftly directed by Colin Trevorrow, who clearly understood the tone required by this gentle slice of whimsy. The result is thoroughly delightful: a mildly peculiar, frequently snarky ode to misfits, very much in the mold of Gregory’s Girl or Benny & Joon.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Rock of Ages: Somewhat chipped

Rock of Ages (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite generously, for sexual content, lewd behavior, profanity, revealing clothing and nonstop alcohol abuse
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.15.12

This film is a shotgun wedding of Moulin Rouge and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a bit of Phantom of the Paradise (remember that one?) sneaking in from beneath the woodpile.

When club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin, right) finds himself without an
opening act for the evening's big event, new waitress Sherrie (Julianne Hough)
suggests her boyfriend, Drew (Diego Boneta, background), and his band. Dennis'
assistant, Lonny (Russell Brand), thinks this is a great idea ... but Dennis isn't
as certain.
At its best, the result is raucous, exuberant and quite funny, notably when the tag-team of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand take the screen. But all that cheeky energy aside, Rock of Ages sags badly at times; it’s much too long and self-indulgent. The third and final act, when we finally cruise into it, feels more like the fifth; the wafer-thin story isn’t strong enough to support all the glitter and musical bombast.

The film is adapted from Chris D’Arienzo’s rock/jukebox musical of the same name, which opened in Los Angeles in 2005. A short Off-Broadway run eventually followed in late 2008; the show transitioned to Broadway in the spring of 2009 and has remained a popular draw ever since.

Sadly, that happy fate probably doesn’t await this big-screen adaptation.

The time is 1987, a musical breakpoint in terms of both art and commerce: LPs are on their way out, rapidly being forced off store shelves in favor of new-fangled CD “longpacks.” Similarly, glam, heavy metal and power-rock are being threatened by the onset of grunge, rap and (God help us) boy bands.

Perky Sherrie Christian (country singer Julianne Hough), seeking fame and fortune, departs Tulsa, Okla., with a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Her destination: the Bourbon Room, a landmark but now dilapidated rock ’n’ roll club (probably suggested by the Troubadour). Historically, the club is famed for having introduced many now-famous acts, none more celebrated than Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), lead singer of the band Arsenal.

But the Bourbon Room is in trouble these days; owner Dennis Dupree (Baldwin) faces a whopping unpaid tax bill. And although Dennis’ right-hand man, Lonny Barnett (Brand), insists that rock ’n’ roll will never die, such pronouncements won’t keep the IRS at bay. And as if this weren’t bad enough, Dupree and his club have been targeted by Patricia Whitman (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the ultra-conservative wife of newly elected Mayor Mike Whitman (Bryan Cranston).

Sherrie’s barely off the bus when she loses her possessions to a mugger, but that’s all right; she’s just as quickly “rescued” by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rocker who works behind the bar at the Bourbon Room. Just like that, Sherrie has a new job, a new boyfriend and close proximity to the music scene she loves so much.

Only in the movies, right?

Moonrise Kingdom: Casts a gentle glow

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, and needlessly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

All kids — particularly those who read books — dream of having adventures in faraway lands, ideally with exotic companions. Adults rarely figure into such fantasies, except as vague background entities, and the imagined adventures generally exist in a heightened reality that might look familiar, but isn’t quite our workaday world.

Having ditched the adults in their lives, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and
Sam (Jared Gilman) ponder a map of tiny New Penzance island, to
work out the best route to a sheltered cove that will become their
runaway home from home. Sam, you'll notice, is properly equipped
for a long hike. Suzy ... not so much.
We grow up, we get “serious” — not always a good thing — and cast aside such childhood reveries.

Clearly, filmmaker Wes Anderson escaped that fate and remains firmly in touch with his inner child. Moonrise Kingdom offers ample proof: It’s a droll, stylized, kid-oriented fable about misfits, underdogs and blossoming young love. By turns adorable and unapologetically weird, this film nonetheless charms from beginning to end.

That’s not always the case with Anderson’s eclectic oeuvre. Every engaging hit (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) has been followed by self-indulgent junk that verges on the unwatchable (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited). That’s an occupational hazard for a filmmaker so clearly obsessed with exaggerated characters who play out their anxieties in tightly enclosed little worlds that can tilt far left of center.

Greet a neighbor cheerfully on an average morning; if he regards you gravely and replies, a propos of nothing, that the howling wolves kept him awake last night — and the nearest wolf is hundreds of miles away — then you’re dealing with a Wes Anderson character.

Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), both 12 years old, live on New Penzance, a tiny island off the coast of New England. The year is 1965, as an on-camera narrator (Bob Balaban) meticulously informs us, and we’re a few days away from a cataclysmic storm that will wreak havoc along the entire coast.

Although precociously intelligent and a gifted camper and woodsman, Sam — an orphan — is dismissed as an outcast, constantly humiliated by the other kids in his foster home. Even as a Khaki Scout, in an element where he should shine, Sam is taunted by his young peers.

Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) clearly has a soft spot for Sam, but that’s not enough to prevent the boy from feeling isolated and deeply lonely.

Lola Versus: Undone by a bogus script

Lola Versus (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Lola (Greta Gerwig) wanders aimlessly during the year following her 29th birthday, her fickle and frequently self-destructive behavior often destroying any good will she establishes during brief flashes of actual maturity.

When best friend Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones, left) encourages Lola (Greta
Gerwig) to jump back into the dating pool, the waters suddenly seem
full of sharks and minnows ... neither of which is good news for a
mildly desperate woman on the rebound.
The same can be said of the film she inhabits.

Lola Versus opens with promise, but rapidly devolves into an overly talky quagmire that feels (and sounds) like a bad Woody Allen film. Co-scripters Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein introduce Lola as a self-assured and obviously intelligent woman — not everybody has the smarts to be inches away from a Ph.D. — but then subject her to an escalating series of bad decisions and stupid choices, not to mention enough drug and alcohol binging to send the next half-dozen people into rehab.

In short, it becomes impossible to retain our sympathy for Lola, despite Gerwig’s heroic effort to showcase her character’s quirky charm.

Then, too, the dialogue exchanges concocted by Lister-Jones and Wein are too arch, too contrived, too knowingly earthy and too faux trendy. Granted, nobody in real life talks like the folks on the big screen, but — best-case scenario — we viewers at least can delight in witty, sophisticated banter when it’s delivered with well-timed snap. Too much of the conversational chatter here is ostentatiously smutty, as if Lister-Jones and Wein are taking their cues from the gals in Sex and the City.

Sorry, but talking like Kim Cattrall’s Samantha is not the height of chic refinement. Not even close.

We meet Lola on her aforementioned 29th birthday, an event celebrated in the arms of longtime boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman), who climaxes the milestone by proposing. Cue several weeks (months?) of excited wedding planning, with some decisions second-guessed by Lola’s fashionably cool parents, Robin and Lenny (Debra Winger and Bill Pullman).

Pullman is a hoot: one of the film’s stronger elements, actually, and I wish we could have spent more time with him. Lenny is recently retired and loving this opportunity to hang loose and embrace social media and all the other “with it” joys of the early 21st century; he and Lola also enjoy a frank and loving relationship.

Winger’s Robin is perhaps somewhat controlling, but Lola is strong enough — and savvy enough — to maintain the necessary barriers.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Intouchables: Guaranteed to touch your heart

The Intouchables (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.8.12

On June 27, 1993, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo — fifth son of Duke Pozzi di Borgo, and acting director of France’s Pommery Champagne — was seriously injured while paragliding. The accident broke his spine and left him a quadriplegic, unable to sense or move anything below his neck.

Wanting to make a good impression on a first date, Philippe (François Cluzet,
center) tolerates a wide variety of clothing options, with Yvonne (Anne Le Ny)
and Driss (Omar Sy) granting nods of approval or snorts of disgust.
Three years later, his beloved wife Beatrice lost her struggle against a prolonged illness. That was one tragedy too many; Philippe sank into a depression and abandoned the will to endure each new day.

Until the arrival of his “guardian devil,” an Algerian-born career criminal named Abdel Yasmin Sellou, who became the wealthy man’s caregiver.

Nobody likes to stand out for the wrong reasons; those who draw stares inevitably wish for the invisibility of the ordinary. And that, in a nutshell, is what Abdel gave Philippe: pragmatism and brutal truth.

Abdel brought Philippe back to vibrant life in every sense of the word; the latter detailed this unusual relationship in a popular 2001 book, The Second Wind. That led to a 2003 TV documentary, A la vie, à la mort (In Life, Death), which in turn inspired filmmakers Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano to make the big-screen drama The Intouchables, a smash hit in France and now newly released on our shores.

“Inspirational” simply isn’t a strong enough word for this enchanting film.

The saga’s rougher edges have been smoothed out, particularly with respect to the caregiver’s dodgier backstory. (Rather oddly, he has been transformed into a Senegalese immigrant named Driss here.) The goal clearly was crowd-pleasing entertainment, and Nakache and Toledano side-stepped any details too grim to interfere with that tone. But they haven’t skirted any of the day-to-day challenges involved with attending a quadriplegic; indeed, that’s where much of the story’s cheerful outlook resides.

Following a droll prologue, the story opens as Philippe (François Cluzet, well remembered as the endangered lead in the sensational 2006 thriller, Tell No One) and his secretary/assistant, Magalie (Audrey Fleurot), consider applicants for the position of his 24/7 caregiver. These interviews, the overlapping responses staged for comic effect, are deftly edited — Dorian Rigal-Ansous, take a bow — in the manner of countless “tryout scenes” from films as diverse as All That Jazz and The Commitments, among many others.

Driss (Omar Sy) stands out like the proverbial bull in a china shop: too tall, too brutish, too unrefined, too brusque, too loud, too ... street. And, indeed, he’s present only to collect a signature that demonstrates the token job-application effort needed to qualify for his next welfare check.