Friday, September 28, 2012

Hotel Transylvania: Monster Mash

Hotel Transylvania (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor and some scary images
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.28.12

Funniest sight-gag I’ve seen in years: The Invisible Man attempting to convey a clue during a spirited round of charades.

Hotel interloper Jonathon, left, concealing his human-ness behind pale makeup and
an orange hairstyle, can't help falling in love with Mavis, Dracula's adorable daughter ...
and the attraction definitely is mutual. But this can't be a good idea, and Dracula
himself would much rather see his little girl stick to (ahem) her own kind.
Hotel Transylvania is generously laden with similar knee-slappers, many piling one atop the next in the rat-a-tat-tat manner of a classic Road Runner cartoon. But this is no seven-minute short; director Genndy Tartakovsky and editor Catherine Apple successfully maintain an exhilarating pace without sacrificing the character elements necessary to hold our interest.

It’s an impressive feat, no less so when considering the involvement of five credited writers: Peter Baynham, Robert Smigel, Todd Durham, Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman. That many cooks generally spoil the magic potion, but in this case everybody’s sensibilities mesh nicely. The result is a light-hearted spoof of familiar movie monster traditions, blended with wry takes on young love and an unusually extreme generation gap.

Long, long ago, in a haunted forest far, far away, Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) constructed a lavish “five-stake resort” that he dubbed Hotel Transylvania: a posh refuge for monsters and their families to vacation, far from curious — and potentially dangerous — eyes. As has become typical of our 21st century re-evaluations of fantasy creatures, these poor monsters are the world’s maligned and misunderstood, hunted and killed by the humans who fear and hate them.

Bearing that last thought in mind, Dracula’s massive sanctuary also has been designed as a place where his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), can grow up safely. Dracula has particular reason for this parental concern; a century and change ago, his beloved wife — Mavis’ mother — was killed by just such a human mob.

But Mavis is celebrating her 118th birthday, and — just like the tower-bound Rapunzel, in 2010’s Tangled — she yearns to explore and experience the outside world. Until now, Dracula has managed to delay her desire, in part through the distraction of ever more elaborate birthday parties.

This one is destined to be no exception, with a guest list that includes Frankenstein (Kevin James) and his brassy wife, Eunice (Fran Drescher); Wayne (Steve Buscemi) and Wanda (Molly Shannon), a couple of loving werewolves who have produced litter after litter of pups; Griffin, the Invisible Man (David Spade); Murray (CeeLo Green), a boisterous, jive-talking mummy; and Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz), the hotel’s temperamental head chef, never seen without his loyal rat assistant, Esmeralda.

Looper: What goes around, comes around

Looper (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, gore, profanity, nudity, sexuality and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Clever time travel stories can be intriguing head-scratchers; I just wish Looper weren’t so vicious, nasty and morally bankrupt.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, right), a professional assassin for a mob boss in the year
2044, should have killed his future self, "Old Joe" (Bruce Willis), in order to retire
gracefully on his hard-earned savings. But Old Joe isn't interested in being offed, and
in fact offers a partnership with his hot-headed younger self, in order to tackle a
bigger enemy whose activities will affect them both. Confused yet? The time-travel
issues only get more complicated...
This is one of those stories populated solely by thugs, killers and other assorted low-life scum; by the time our one truly sympathetic character steps onto the stage, we’ve been numbed almost senseless.

Writer/director Rian Johnson is known for his off-center sensibilities, which have ranged from the whimsically eccentric (2008’s The Brothers Bloom) to the downright brutal (a few episodes of TV’s Breaking Bad). His career-making debut, 2005’s Brick, starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenage loner who turns amateur Sam Spade in order to figure out who killed his former girlfriend; rarely has high school looked so corrupt and seamy.

Johnson re-unites with Gordon-Levitt for Looper, another in a recent line of science-fiction concepts that takes place in a near future where society and compassionate behavior have gone straight to hell. (See In Time, Repo Men and the remake of Total Recall, among others.) Such films borrow strongly from Blade Runner, but generally without the intelligence, wit and fascinating ethical undercurrents of that 1982 classic.

That said, I give Johnson credit for an intriguing premise. The year is 2044, the setting a major American metropolis that has failed, its dilapidated infrastructure barely able to support the 99 percent who now appear to live in slums, and look with envy upon the few sophisticates wealthy enough to purchase things such as slick hover vehicles. The economy has fallen apart, and manufacturing appears to have stopped; as a result, the “common folk” drive old cars and live in apartments that could have sprung from a 1950s-era Raymond Chandler novel.

And, as with the sci-fi/western mash-up Joss Whedon concocted for his short-lived but much-loved TV series, Firefly, the weapons of choice are 19th century pistols and a shotgun-esque nightmare known as a blunderbuss.

Time travel doesn’t yet exist, but it’s known to have been invented 30 years in the future, where it’s illegal and available only on the black market. Since disposing of a dead body is near impossible in 2074, mobsters employ time travel in order to “vanish” their enemies. The hapless victims pop up at pre-determined spots in 2044, where a “looper” — a hired killer — blows them away and then cremates the remains. No muss, no fuss.

Won't Back Down: Belongs in detention

Won't Back Down (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

Advocacy cinema is nothing new, and in some cases serendipitous timing can help raise public awareness of an important issue; the most famous example remains The China Syndrome, and its coincidental proximity to the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, which took place 12 days after the film was released.

When Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, left) and Nona (Viola Davis) team up to take over
the local public school and — hopefully — build it into something bigger and better,
they're faced with an avalanche of paperwork: reams of forms that need to be
filled out properly, lest their proposal never even leave the starting gate.
But dramas that trivialize significant real-world issues can be extremely irritating, particularly when the filmmakers resort to ludicrous dollops of soap-style melodrama, as is the case with Won’t Back Down.

The American public school system has become a national tragedy, and the many teachers’ unions do themselves no favors by adhering to hard-line policies that favor their own employment over the desperate need for reform and bureaucratic streamlining. Yes, it’s a complicated issue, with economic malaise, parental hostility and student indifference deserving their share of the blame.

But those fires of parental hostility have been stoked, in great part, by the system’s apparent refusal to consider reform, let alone embrace it. And since art always imitates life, we wind up with the likes of dramas “inspired by actual events” ... which is to say, thinly suggested by real-world activity but mostly made up.

The passion at work here is laudable, as are the performances by stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But director Daniel Barnz’s film is clumsy and one-sided, his script — co-written with Brin Hill — as unbalanced as kid-centric TV sitcoms that score points by making all adults look like blithering idiots.

It’s perhaps telling to recall that Won't Back Down was a can’t-miss event at both the Democratic and Republican conventions, where it drew applause and prompted lively follow-up panel discussions. And that seems to have been Barnz’s primary goal: to score political points, rather than to make a good movie.

But people rarely are persuaded by material that offends their intelligence — and/or pisses them off — and that’s the core problem here. Few things are more irritating than a filmmaker who piles on contrivance and artificial tension with a trowel.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Enchanting coming-of-age drama

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for drug and alcohol use, sexual candor and brief violence
By Derrick Bang

Judging by the number of perceptive, achingly poignant high school misfit dramas produced over the years, being unpopular must’ve been a whole lot more popular than it seemed at the time.

After unknowingly devouring some marijuana-laced brownies, Charlie (Logan Lerman,
center) unintentionally becomes the hilarious star of his first party. But new friends
Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller) ignore this opportunity to humiliate him,
instead taking care to ensure that Charlie survives the experience with his dignity
(mostly) intact.
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, published in 1999, has sold more than a million copies and become something of a modern Catcher in the Rye (an earlier classic, perhaps not coincidentally, said to be a favorite of Chbosky’s young protagonist). Perks also has the distinction of being one of the top entries in the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged and banned books, in 2004 and from ’06 through ’09 (where it peaked, at No. 3) ... which, in my mind, merely proves that Chbosky did an excellent job.

Hollywood naturally came calling, but Chbosky held onto his baby, mindful of the many horror stories revolving around successful authors who had seen their popular works destroyed by other hands. Meanwhile, he nurtured his varied talents by scripting the 2005 film adaptation of Rent and creating, writing and producing the 2006-08 TV series Jericho. A decade earlier, he also wrote, directed and produced The Four Corners of Nowhere, a little-seen 1995 indie film which I suspect is about to be rescued from obscurity.

Point being, Chbosky earned the right to script and direct Perks, and has done a commendable job. His angst-ridden saga of emotional isolation is well cast, impeccably acted, sensitively directed and — no surprise here — impressively faithful to the book. The film will be embraced both by young readers who devoured the epistolary novel, and by older movie fans who remember seeing themselves in John Hughes’ equally insightful teen dramas of the late 1980s (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and others).

Perks is, in short, destined to become one of the defining teen dramas of the early 21st century.

The year is 1991, as the precocious but socially awkward Charlie (Logan Lerman) begins his first morning as a freshman at Pittsburgh’s Mill Grove High School. He arrives in quiet terror, already counting down the days until he can flee as a graduating senior.

He’s smart and perceptive, easily able to answer his English teacher’s introductory questions ... but only privately, in his opened notebook, rather than risking peer censure by raising his hand and branding himself a teacher’s pet. But the instructor, Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd), notices; a tentative bond is formed.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Trouble with the Curve: Just about out of the park

Trouble with the Curve (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity and some sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.21.12

Even the most familiar material will become vibrant in the hands of seasoned pros.

Randy Brown’s impressive debut script for Trouble with the Curve turns this film into a quiet little charmer that focuses on both sports and the angst-laden trauma of a long-estranged father and daughter. Along the way, Brown also scores perceptive points about loyalty, workaholics, the ageist contempt of youth, and the soul-grinding aggravation of growing old.

Veteran baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) is having trouble with his vision, but he
dares not acknowledge this, lest he lose his job. Enter Mickey (Amy Adams), his
long-estranged and only child, who reluctantly serves as her father's eyes while
attempting to re-kindle a bond once characterized by love and a shared devotion
to their favorite sport.
Star Clint Eastwood continues to be at the top of his game, delivering another riff on the “crusty ol’ coot” persona that has served him well in projects ranging from the light-hearted Space Cowboys to the far more serious Gran Torino. His work here slides between those two extremes; Gus Lobel has become too cranky to be actually likable — the ravages of old age merely amplifying his less pleasant qualities — but we sympathize with him nonetheless.

Gus is an old-style baseball scout, long employed by the Atlanta Braves, who loves hunkering in the bleachers and bathing in the magic of the sport’s “true, sweet sound.” He’ll never accept computer-driven stats as a replacement for his devotion to poring over newspapers and tip sheets, and then watching the players, in order to draw his own conclusions.

He is, in short, a dinosaur: an object of ridicule to number-crunching Braves associate scouting director Phillip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists that computers can do it faster and far more accurately. Pete Klein (John Goodman), chief of scouts and also Gus’ longtime best friend, is finding it harder and harder to defend the “old ways” to Braves General Manager Vince Freeman (Robert Patrick).

At this crucial moment, with Gus’ contract due to expire in three months, things get even worse as his eyesight begins to fail; an expanding circle in the center of his vision has grown blurry. A reluctant trip to his optometrist confirms the worst: glaucoma and macular degeneration.

The timing couldn’t be worse, because Gus’ next assignment involves a trip to North Carolina, to observe hot Swannanoa High School prospect Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill). The Braves really, really want this kid, and Sanderson is leading that charge; Gus, not to be rushed, wants to reach his own conclusions ... but that’ll be difficult, if he can’t see how Bo handles a pitch.

Enter Gus’ long-estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), a tightly wound associate at a high-powered Atlanta law firm, who has sacrificed everything to sprint along the fast track toward partnership. Mickey essentially has no life outside the office, but this is less a function of ambition, and more a self-defensive coping mechanism.

Once upon a time, long ago, Mickey and her father were inseparable, of necessity; her mother died when she was 6. Gus subsequently hauled his only child along on all his scouting assignments, and she grew to love the male-dominated atmosphere of swearing, joshing and drinking straight whisky. She also adores baseball to every possible degree, having reluctantly sublimated her talent for player stats in favor of torts and legal precedents.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Arbitrage: A fascinating, high-stakes poker game

Arbitrage (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.14.12

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for this trick.

Deranged Robert Walker, intended to plant incriminating evidence — a cigarette lighter — to unjustly implicate Farley Granger in a murder, accidently drops the item into a storm drain while nearing the scene of the crime. We viewers should be delighted; if Walker loses the lighter, then Granger triumphs: Good wins out over evil.

Increasingly troubled by irregularities in their company books, Brooke (Brit Marling) shares
her concerns with her father (Richard Gere). But his efforts to reassure her ring hollow,
forcing this intelligent young woman to wonder why he's being so evasive. What might
he be hiding?
And yet, perversely, as Walker stuffs his arm through the grate during this climactic scene in Strangers on a Train, his fingers not quite able to reach the lighter, we’re on the edge of our seats ... wanting him to succeed.

In Frenzy, serial killer Barry Foster disposes of his latest victim in a potato sack that is dumped into the rear of a truck filled with such sacks. Shortly thereafter, Foster realizes that his monogrammed stick pin, lost in the struggle, must be clasped in the dead woman’s hand. Foster tears off after the truck, climbs inside and starts pawing through burlap sacks.

We shouldn’t root for him; failure means that the wholly innocent — but circumstantially accused — Jon Finch will go free. But, again, we become emotionally invested in Foster’s search, and feel relieved when he finds the body ... and calmly breaks her fingers in order to retrieve the pin held tight in her fist.

In writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s richly nuanced Arbitrage, uber-wealthy New York hedge fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere) cheats on his wife, and has embezzled funds in order to conceal a $420 million shortfall that would derail the sale of his company to a bank. Just to dig the hole deeper, he flees the scene of a road accident in order to evade responsibility.

Make no mistake: Miller is a bad guy ... a smug, self-serving reprobate at best, and a conniving, soulless, law-breaking bastard at worst. And still, almost against our wills, we cheer him on, hoping that he’ll somehow keep all these tottering plates spinning, and somehow extricate himself from this ever-widening disaster of his own creation.

Jarecki’s clever premise and archly savvy script deserve considerable credit, as does Gere, giving the performance of his often under-appreciated career. But he’s not the only person tearing up the screen; solid supporting performances also are turned in by Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth and young Nate Parker.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Robot & Frank: Unconventional buddy saga

Robot & Frank (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather needlessly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.7.12

Science fiction isn’t solely devoted to opulent spaceship battles and grim post-apocalyptic survival sagas, despite Hollywood’s best efforts to suggest as much.

At first, Frank (Frank Langella) can't stand having to share his home
with a mechanical "nurse" that monitors what times he gets up each
morning, in addition to dozens of other intrusive edicts. But Frank's
new companion has other, far more intriguing talents ... and
friendships have been built on much less.
Some of our best cinema sci-fi has been much quieter and more deeply moving: gentle parables that employ only modest futuristic touches in order to confront universal truths — often uncomfortable ones — about the human condition.

These days, as aging baby boomers contemplate the frightening implications of mental and/or physical deterioration, we’re seeing a corresponding focus on gerontology issues. Science fiction has responded in kind.

Robot & Frank is a whimsical, charming and poignant character study: a film school short expanded into a full-length feature that enchanted this year’s Sundance Film Festival audience and went home with the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. The tone of Christopher D. Ford’s original script — his first big-screen effort — feels very much like that of a Ray Bradbury story: thoughtful, occasionally poetic and willing to tackle unsettling topics.

But this slice of elder life is disarmingly cloaked in the trappings of a mild-mannered comedy, and the story’s more serious elements sneak up on us. Director Jake Schreier, also making an impressive feature film debut, paces the narrative quite skillfully; he also draws persuasive performances from his cast members, most notably star Frank Langella.

The result, at times, feels like an intimate stage play. The action is confined mostly to two locations, with a resulting, subtle sense of claustrophobia that echoes our main character’s confusion over the way memory loss is shrinking his world.

The setting is “the near future” in the upstate New York community of Cold Spring. Frank (Langella) lives alone in an increasingly cluttered home that is nestled in the woods, a comfortable walk from town. Frank’s grown children, Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler), have grown worried about his apparent inability to care for himself; his fading memory also plays tricks on him, such as an ongoing desire to dine at a long-absent local restaurant.

He’s also a kleptomaniac, occasionally pocketing trinkets from a gift shop and then squirreling them away in his home wall safe.

The Words: They fail

The Words (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang 

I cannot imagine why anybody ever thought this thuddingly dull script could have made an interesting film.

When Rory (Bradley Cooper) finds a battered — but somehow
dignified — old briefcase in a cluttered Parisian shop, his wife (Zoe
Saldana, as Dora) insists that it's just the sort of thing that he needs
to have. Rory is, after all, a would-be writer; surely a briefcase like
this would be a good-luck charm? Alas ... maybe not.
Writer/directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have concocted the sort of pretentious twaddle that snooty English department college professors publish for each other in stuffy academic journals. The first miracle is that they secured the interest of a mid-size film studio; the second miracle is the involvement of A-list actors such as Jeremy Irons, Bradley Cooper and Dennis Quaid.

Utterly astonishing.

You’d think the result would be worth viewing, with those folks on board. You’d be mistaken. This tedious study of morality — as it pertains to literary cheating — keeps dangling the promise of some “great revelation” in the final act, but the conclusion is frustrating, anticlimactic and ambiguous to the point of inciting a riot among viewers.

The tone was quite evident among the unhappy audience members at Tuesday evening’s preview screening: All that purple prose and soap opera-style build-up ... for this?


The narrative occupies three timelines, each with different sets of characters, all nested within themselves like Russian dolls ... or, if you prefer cinematic comparisons, like the layered dreams within Inception. We spend the most time with Rory Jansen (Cooper), a young writer introduced on the eve of a posh awards reception for his critically acclaimed first novel.

Rory and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), are very much in love. Rory seems overwhelmed by the suddenness with which he has been thrust into the spotlight ... at least, that’s our assumption. In truth, Rory’s emotions are a great deal more complicated.

We slide back five years, to the moment when Rory and Dora, as a freshly minted couple, move into an impossibly small New York studio apartment. He writes constantly, hoping to impress the world with his narrative panache; we never get a sense of what Dora does outside the apartment. Does she have a job? A career? Plans for same? Beats me.

But they adore each other, and make do with occasional financial infusions from Rory’s father (J.K. Simmons, obviously snagged for a single day’s worth of quick scenes).