Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Unchained: The West as it should have been?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Reacher: This film don't know Jack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Les Misérables: A slightly tarnished dream

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

This Is 40: Fractured family frolic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An impressive journey

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

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

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

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

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

All this said, questions have been raised.

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

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hitchcock: Not an entirely good eve-ning

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

2012 has been a banner year for Alfred Hitchcock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing for Keeps: Toss it back

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

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

The same can be said of this film.

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

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

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

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

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

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