Friday, January 25, 2013

The Impossible: A compelling battle for survival

The Impossible (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, horrific mass injury and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.25.13

Félix Bergés and Pau Costa have been deservedly lauded for their special effects; the replicated tsunami — which killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, on Dec. 26, 2004 — is completely terrifying, as depicted here on the screen.

Battered by a wall of water, and injured in ways they haven't yet realized, Maria (Naomi
Watts) and her eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), struggle just to keep their heads
above the surface. As for the rest of their family ... they've absolutely no idea.
But these images, although breathtaking and grim, aren’t the strongest element of director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film. That honor belongs to Oriol Tarragó and Marc Bech, who designed and edited the chilling sound effects. Indeed, that’s how The Impossible opens: on a black and silent screen, with a rising, gurgly sort of rumble that intensifies until we scarcely can stand it, wondering precisely what the sound signifies.

We imagine the worst, our minds racing in ghastly directions, this directorial choice far more powerfully placing us “in the moment” than what might be shown.

Then we nearly jump out of our seats as a passenger jet screams into the suddenly illuminated frame, taking our protagonists to what they expect will be an idyllic Christmas holiday in Thailand.

This won’t be the last time Bayona unsettles us with his imaginative application of sound and sound effects. He plays us masterfully, utilizing every element at hand: visual, aural and psychological. The result is impressive, if arduous: often quite difficult to watch.

And it sure makes the star-laden, so-called “disaster flicks” of the 1970s look damn silly and superficial, by comparison.

Sergio G. Sánchez’s screenplay is based on the events as experienced by María Belón, Quique Alvarez and their three sons: Lucas, Tomas and Simon. They’re played here, respectively, by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor (renamed Henry), Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. The actual family is Spanish; the script’s one major deviation from fact is to re-cast them as British.

This isn’t merely a concession to box-office popularity, Watts and McGregor undoubtedly being perceived as a draw. This cinematic family’s pale skin and clearly privileged manner — Henry’s high-level job in Japan allowing the luxury of their global travel — more visibly shorthands the cultural divide, once tragedy strikes.

And that’s important, because — as recently confirmed by Simon Jenkins, who was 16 when the tsunami hit, and was compelled by this film’s release to write a letter to The Guardian, over in England — this casting decision stirringly amplifies the generous, selfless behavior of the Thai survivors who, in the immediate wake of the catastrophe, did everything they could to offer assistance.

Jenkins’ letter speaks glowingly of the “profound sense of community and unity” that he experienced: “The Thai people had just lost everything — homes, businesses, families — yet their instinct was to help the tourists.”

Parker: Solid adaptation of a literary anti-hero

Parker (2013) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity, sexual candor and nudity
By Derrick Bang

The best film Jennifer Lopez has made thus far remains 1998’s Out of Sight, director Steven Soderbergh’s slick adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel that introduced feisty bounty hunter Karen Sisco.

Parker (Jason Statham), posing as a wealthy Texas oil tycoon, accepts Realtor Leslie
Rodgers' (Jennifer Lopez) offer to show him various properties in Palm Beach. She
thinks he's looking for a house to buy; he's actually trying to figure out where some
former associates might have gone to ground ... because he'd really like to see them.
(Sisco, obviously too cool a character to drop, resurfaced — this time played equally well by Carlo Gugino — in a woefully under-appreciated 2003 ABC television series that ran only seven episodes, out of the 10 completed, before the plug was pulled. Fans wait in vain, to this day, for DVD afterlife.)

Crime thrillers appear to be Lopez’s forté, as opposed to the limp romantic comedies into which she invariably gets cast. I say that on the basis of her similarly slick and engaging work in Parker, based on an equally gritty novel by yet another veteran American thriller writer: the recently late and much lamented Donald E. Westlake.

A bit of history: Westlake employed the pseudonym Richard Stark when writing his Parker novels, from 1962’s The Hunter through 2008’s Dirty Money. The debut novel has been brought to the big screen twice: in 1967, as Point Blank, with Lee Marvin as “Walker”; and in 1999, as Payback, with Mel Gibson as “Porter.” Other Parker novels have been adapted for stars such as Robert Duvall, Jim Brown and Peter Coyote, all of whom played the character under a different name (Westlake having insisted on that, to retain control of his creation).

Although the revenge motif employed in this new film strongly echoes The Hunter, it’s actually based on a much later novel, 2000’s Flashfire. Scripter John J. McLaughlin deserves credit for a slick, polished and deliciously snarky adaptation, while Hackford gets to resurrect thriller chops he hasn’t exercised since 1984’s Against All Odds.

Let it be said, however, that Jason Statham owns this film, as is the case with pretty much everything the rugged action star embraces. His British origins notwithstanding, he’s the ideal personification of Parker: appropriate age, ideal physical presence, proper attitude. Marvin and Gibson weren’t bad, but Statham delivers just the right blend of resourceful arrogance, foolhardy stubbornness and wounded pride.

Parker’s all about commitment: If you promise to do something, you’d damn well better do it ... or risk the consequences. He’s also a career thief and cold-hearted killer, if a situation demands it: definitely a template for later series characters such as Lawrence Block’s Keller and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. And, like those other modern-day warriors, Parker isn’t a psychopath; he’s capable of kindness — after a fashion — and bears no ill will toward the innocent.

Statham nails that duality, as well.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Last Stand: Solid comeback vehicle for Schwarzenegger

The Last Stand (2013) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for considerable violence, gore and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.18.13

The New Year seems to have brought a run of transplanted Westerns.

Last week, the Magnificent Seven template wound up in 1950s Los Angeles, as Gangster Squad. This week, Howard Hawks’ iconic 1959 John Wayne oater, Rio Lobo — which John Carpenter riffed, just as suspensefully, as 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 — has been transformed into a modern-day mission to stop a notorious Mexican drug kingpin from making it back to the safety of his native country.

When screwball Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville, being carried) gets pinned down by
gunfire, Frank (Rodrigo Santoro) charges into the thick of battle in a rescue attempt.
Things have gotten out of hand in the sleepy little town of Sommerton Junction, and
they're about to get even worse...
The only thing in his way: the helplessly outnumbered and outgunned citizens in the pokey little border town of Sommerton Junction.

The Last Stand marks the American directorial debut of South Korean director Kim Jee-woon, perhaps known on these shores for A Tale of Two Sisters and his genre-bending Oriental Western, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which was Korea’s top box-office hit in 2008.

No surprise, then, that Kim would favor us with a variation on a classic American Western known for its blend of suspense, deftly sketched characters and snarky humor (in this case, quite dark at times).

Frankly, Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t have selected a better comeback vehicle, at this point in his career. Andrew Knauer’s story — clearly shaped by the earlier Hawks and Carpenter films, with scripting assists from Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi — plays to Arnie’s advancing age, while amply demonstrating that movie action heroes never die, they just find more inventive ways to get the job done.

Mind you, this scenario is wholly outlandish and ludicrous, and no laws are broken more than the basic laws of physics. But it’s all in good fun — if unexpectedly gory at times — and you’ll have no trouble embracing Kim’s all-stops-out rhythm.

Events kick off late one evening in Las Vegas, as grim-faced FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) oversees the transfer of drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) via a special prisoner convoy. Borrowing a gag from James Bond’s You Only Live Twice, Cortez makes an impressive escape; within minutes, he’s speeding from the scene at 250 miles per hour (!) in a tricked-up Corvette ZR1.

Worse yet, Cortez has a hostage handcuffed in the passenger seat: FBI Agent Ellen Richards (Genesis Rodriguez).

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: The ultimate manhunt

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for considerable violence, torture and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.11.13

Osama bin Laden was executed on May 2, 2011. Given the realities of Hollywood development time, production and post-production work, this film’s arrival in the waning days of 2012 is nothing short of remarkable.

When the SEAL mission finally comes together, Maya (Jessica Chastain) scarcely can
believe it. All her years of research, and of trying to persuade CIA superiors that she
really might have a lead on Osama bin Laden's location ... and now her work may
bear fruit. Or has she been pursuing a useless lead all this time?
That the result is this riveting, is icing on the cake.

It’s easy to understand why director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would select this project as a follow-up to their Oscar-laden triumph with 2009’s The Hurt Locker. Although lacking that film’s nail-biting intensity, Zero Dark Thirty carries the same suspenseful atmosphere of docu-drama verisimilitude. Given the topic, American audiences also can’t help experiencing more than a little cathartic exhilaration.

Unseemly or not, it’s hard to resist the impulse for an exultant “Hell, yeah!” as we hit the story’s payoff.

Despite the perception that fact-based, politics-laden “procedural thrillers” (for want of a better term) are box-office poison, we’ve recently been gifted with two crackling efforts: this one and Argo. Both manage the impressive feat of generating tension and building to exciting climaxes, despite our knowing the respective stories’ outcomes long before entering the theater.

That’s no small thing. Scripter William Goldman’s handling of 1976’s All the President’s Men remains the superlative template for depicting dull-as-dirt research work in a manner that becomes not just fascinating, but downright compelling; Boal obviously took its lessons to heart. Zero Dark Thirty spends a great deal of time watching a lone CIA analyst beat her head against a vague investigative wall, yet these efforts never seem dull or repetitive.

In part, that’s because we know the stakes involved from recent history, and we’re genuinely curious to learn more about what went into this impressively successful covert operation: how the key pieces of information were determined and then properly analyzed. And if Boal takes some dramatic license along the way, well, that’s fine; cinema places its own unique requirements on narrative flow, not the least of which is building our emotional involvement with these characters.

Which brings us to the best weapon in Bigelow’s capable filmmaking arsenal: star Jessica Chastain. As the CIA analyst in question, she drives this story with — by turns — calm intelligence and righteous fury. She’s never less than wholly persuasive, whether cycling grimly through surveillance footage or standing up to overly cautious superiors too concerned about their political reputations.

Even Chastain’s quiet moments are laden with emotional depth, when she sinks, exhausted, into the austere quarters that have become “home.” We understand that this woman has no true home: no family, no friends, no lovers. Nothing but The Mission.

Gangster Squad: Cheeky, audacious portrait of 1950s Los Angeles

Gangster Squad (2013) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for nonstop violence, gore and profanity
By Derrick Bang

It’s a can’t-miss formula that goes back to the days of vintage Hollywood Westerns: the few against the many, particularly in a righteous cause.

Electronics nerd Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi, center) overhears some delectable
information from the bug he planted in mobster Mickey Cohen's home, while squad
members John O'Mara (Josh Brolin, left) and Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) determine
how best to use this revelation.
This already engaging dynamic was enhanced by turning the underdog heroes into rag-tag misfits, with the genre expanding to include war and crime (or the war on crime). Some of the best examples have become cinema classics, such as The Magnificent Seven — and its forbearer, The Seven Samurai — and The Dirty Dozen. My own list of personal favorites includes Where Eagles Dare.

Director Brian De Palma upgraded an early 1960s TV show and brought Sean Connery an Academy Award as the moral center of 1987’s The Untouchables. A decade later, that film’s 1930s Chicago setting shifted to 1950s Los Angeles with director Lee Tamahori’s stylish handling of Mulholland Falls. Even post-WWII crime thrillers weren’t quite this noir.

All of which brings us to director Ruben Fleischer’s energetic Gangster Squad, based on Paul Lieberman’s book of the same title, and adapted with snap by Will Beall, who employs the same crisp sparkle he has brought to several episodes of television’s Castle. The dialogue sizzles, the dames are delectable, the actors chew their lines with the snarling fury of a hungry lion tearing into a steak, and the action has the rat-a-tat ferocity of the Tommy guns wielded on both sides.

Although Lieberman brought veteran journalistic skills to his well-researched account of gangster Mickey Cohen’s attempt to seize control of Los Angeles during the 1950s, this film probably bears no more relation to actual history than Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Some of the names will be recognized, but the execution here feels more like Mission: Impossible and L.A. Confidential, with a soupçon of 21st century sass.

And — sad to say — plenty of violence and some unnecessary gore. The story may demand a vicious streak, but must we really watch a man torn in half after being chained to two cars accelerating in opposite directions? Surely that image could have been left to our imaginations, rather than splattered across the screen ... along with the yummy glimpse of wild dogs tearing into the remains.

But then, Fleischer also is the gleeful maniac who upped the snark count in walking dead flicks, with 2009’s Zombieland, so I guess it’s in his genes. And, in fairness, everything that follows the aforementioned dismemberment — a prologue, of sorts, to set the mood — involves somewhat more palatable gunplay. And a few knives. And some acid. And ... well, you get the idea.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Promised Land: Rock-solid advocacy cinema

Promised Land (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.9.13

Matt Damon hasn’t written many scripts since 1997’s Good Will Hunting, his Academy Award-winning debut effort with Ben Affleck. His prudence is understandable; where does one go, from up?

Hoping to undo the doubts raised by a local farmer who warns that fracking is anything
but a safe means of obtaining "clean" natural gas, Steve Butler (Matt Damon) takes
the microphone during a McKinley town meeting. Unfortunately, his usual smooth
patter will fail him a bit here, leading to a divided community ... and displeasure on the
part of Steve's corporate bosses.
Good Will Hunting was directed by Gus Van Sant; no surprise, then, that they collaborated on Damon’s next script, 2002’s little-seen (with good cause) Gerry.

Perhaps chastened by that experience, Damon put his word processor in the closet for a decade, while crafting an impressive acting career as both action hero — the Bourne series — and overall international film star.

But writers never quit; telling stories is in their blood. No doubt Damon was waiting for just the right property, and he certainly got it with Promised Land. Once again under Van Sant’s capable guidance, this captivating drama gets its juice from well-crafted characters, tart dialogue, a solid ensemble cast and a hot-button scenario ripped from real-world headlines.

Damon shares scripting duties with John Krasinski, a rising film star making good on the promise he has shown for so many years, on television’s The Office. Krasinski isn’t known as a writer — unless once includes 2009’s best-forgotten Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — but he certainly rises to the occasion here. He and Damon have deftly adapted a story by Dave Eggers, who burst on the scene a few years ago, with scripts for Away We Go and Where the Wild Things Are.

Good screenplays get their power from many elements. It’s not enough to craft piquant one-liners; they must be true to a well constructed plot. (They also must be delivered well by actors who understand how to maximize the impact of crisply timed dialogue, and that’s where we credit Van Sant.) The characters themselves must be interesting, efficiently sketched and cleverly integrated with all the other players on stage. We must care about them, either as good guys or bad guys.

Most of all, they must change — mature, regress, whatever — as a result of what happens to them.

A tall order all around.

Factor in a desire to be relevant — to indict a topic of the day — and most writers fail to juggle all those fragile eggs.

Damon and Krasinski, in welcome contrast, never err. Even casual exchanges of dialogue have consequences; watch for the payoff on a passing reference to a little girl selling lemonade outside a high school gymnasium. Goodness, it could be argued that she carries the moral weight of the entire film. That is sharp scripting.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Not Fade Away: Only if we're unlucky

Not Fade Away (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity, considerable drug use, sexual candor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.4.13

Viewers born after 1965, or thereabouts, won’t have the faintest idea what writer/director David Chase is trying to express in this film.

Expecting yet another generation gap-inspired lecture, Douglas (John Magaro, right)
is surprised when his father (James Gandolfini) genuinely opens up to him. Enjoy this
scene, as it's the only truly impressive display of acting, writing and directing in an
otherwise inane and deadly dull drama.
Heck, I lived through this transitional period just like he did, and I barely followed this storyline.

Chase apparently assumes that the 1960s’ musical revolution, and all it involved, are somehow grafted into the brain cells of every American, regardless of age. Granted, the obvious high points have become (in)famous: the long hair, the mod clothes, the casual sex and even more casual drug use, the ever-widening generation gap made worse by mounting contempt for the violent quagmire in Vietnam.

But these are mere backdrop elements, against which the main characters in Chase’s Not Fade Away play out their restless angst ... and that’s where this film falls apart.

We’ve absolutely no sense of the young people at the heart of this story: no concept of what they’re thinking from one moment to the next, or why some of them are so rude and self-centered, or why others are self-destructive. We get no back-stories, no insightful clues, no confessional moments of lucidity. These characters speak in non-sequiturs — when they speak at all — and free-associate stray thoughts with snarky contempt, as if daring us to make sense of anything.

Chase apparently expects us to read everybody’s mind, but that’s impossible; his stars haven’t the acting chops to get anywhere near the level of introspective clarity we so desperately need. And, as if aware of this problem, Chase and cinematographer Eigil Bryld rely tediously, tiresomely on sulky, coldly aloof close-ups, as if searching for significance in the pores of each face.

Where is the fire, the acting gusto, that Chase brought to his work on HBO’s The Sopranos?

And slow? Oh, goodness; trends could rise and fall during the time it takes this morose, 112-minute film to drag to a conclusion.

The topper is an elliptical “conclusion” that arrives several scenes after Chase blows an opportunity to stop at a much more logical moment. Like several other recent films, Chase hasn’t the slightest idea when to stop, and instead gives us several false endings before settling on the least of the bunch.

I have learned, through long experience, to be wary of intimate projects that are deeply personal to filmmakers; in most cases, they can’t get out of their own way. The results are disappointing at best, mawkish self-indulgent at worst. Not Fade Away most often leans toward the latter.