Friday, February 22, 2013

Snitch: An engaging surprise

Snitch (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.22.13

Despite what’s suggested by the publicity art, Snitch is not another shallow action flick, but instead a grim, thoughtful and quite tense drama about an honest man’s foolish and extremely dangerous descent into the forbidding world of narco-trafficking.

Having done his part, by exposing an exchange made by a mid-level drug dealer,
John (Dwayne Johnson, right) is surprised when this isn't enough for U.S. Attorney
Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). She's after bigger fish, even though DEA agent
Billy Cooper (Barry Pepper) insists this would put John in far too much danger.
It's also an impressive step forward for star Dwayne Johnson, mostly known until now for, well, shallow action flicks. Until this moment, his notion of “playing against type” meant silly comedies and family-friendly adventures along the lines of Tooth Fairy and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. His work here is in another league entirely, demonstrating acting chops that few would have expected.

Don’t expect Johnson to bust heads and wreak havoc, the way he has done since TV wrestling shows granted access to the likes of The Scorpion King and the remake of Walking Tall. Writers Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh go for credible drama here, and while the results certainly fall short of, say, Traffic, Waugh — also serving as director — ably delivers a believable cautionary tale along the lines of Midnight Express.

I’d like to believe that at least a few naïve and stupid teenagers might think twice about their own ill-advised activities, after watching this consequence-laden saga.

Life-changing disaster arrives in the blink of an eye, as this film begins, when 18-year-old Jason (Rafi Gavron) foolishly accepts delivery of a package, as a “favor” to a friend, knowing full well that the box is filled with illicit drugs. The thing is, Jason never quite agrees to this scheme, but he does sign for the package. And then he opens it, at which point he’s busted in a police sting.

The “friend” rolls over on him immediately, and suddenly Jason faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in a federal prison. His only avenue toward earlier release would involve deliberately setting up other friends and classmates, perhaps even fabricating evidence — against people he’s not even sure do drugs — and that’s an act of betrayal he’s not willing to commit.

(One cannot help hearing echoes of the post-WWII House Un-American Activities Committee trials, with their — often successful — attempts to persuade Hollywood directors, producers and writers to “rat out” fellow Communists, lest their own careers be destroyed. Breeding a culture of state-enforced snitches never produces a healthy social dynamic.)

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beautiful Creatures: A sumptuous charmer

Beautiful Creatures (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for carnal behavior, violence and mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.15.13

Fantasy fans mourning the departure of the Harry Potter and Twilight series will find plenty to enjoy in director/scripter Richard LaGravenese’s lush, well-mounted adaptation of Beautiful Creatures, the first novel in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Caster Chronicles tetralogy.

Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons, left) doesn't like the fact that his niece, Lena (Alice
Englert), seems to be falling in love with Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich). For a time, Macon
won't explain why this is such a bad idea, but that doesn't really matter; not even the
older man's unusual powers will prevent Ethan from pursuing the girl of his dreams.
The contemporary Southern Gothic setting is irresistible, right from the start, and production designer Richard Sherman has a ball with Ravenwood Manor, the mysterious estate that looms at the fringes of this small South Carolina town. The atmosphere borrows slightly from both Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) and Charlaine Harris (the Sookie Stackhouse novels that led to HBO’s True Blood), but you’ll also detect elements of Dark Shadows and The Addams Family.

Along with, I’m delighted to report, a fairly strong echo of Ray Bradbury’s various tales of the supernatural Elliot family, introduced in the 1945 short story “The Traveler” and, ultimately, earning a novel, From the Dust Returned, in 2001.

Quite a delectable collection of ingredients.

As we’re informed by 17-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), his home town of Gatlin never quite made it to the 21st century, and many of the town’s small-minded, Bible-quoting citizens seem unwilling to embrace the modern world.

“There are only two kinds of people in our town,” Ethan cheerfully tells us, as off-camera narrator, “the stupid and the stuck. The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go. Everyone else finds a way out.”

Ethan endears himself to us immediately, thanks to his fondness for reading everything on the community’s copious banned books list. The film begins at the advent of a new school year, with Ethan plainly having outgrown the holier-than-thou conceit of former girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch). He’s much more intrigued by new student Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), whose presence immediately scandalizes Emily and her equally stuck-up, self-righteous best friend Savannah (Tiffany Boone).

Because, as everybody knows, Lena lives in Ravenwood Manor.

Safe Haven: A truly delightful surprise

Safe Haven (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Films made from Nicholas Sparks novels tend to follow a predictable — and quite irritating — pattern.

Could anything be more cute and cuddly? Having finally learn to trust the joy of getting
to know new people, Katie (Julianne Hough, center left) finds herself falling in love with
Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his two children, Josh (Noah Lomax) and Lexie (Mimi Kirkland).
Alas, Katie's past threatens to catch up with her, a development that could mean ... ah,
but you'll have to discover that for yourself.
We meet two or more engaging characters in the first act, often but not always young people, at least one of whom carries a Heavy Burden. A relationship develops in the second act, often built on a foundation of Valentine’s Day-perfect dialogue that overcomes initial shyness or mutual wariness. Written correspondence often (always?) plays a key role.

We get to know and like this couple, and feel they deserve happiness. Then whoosh, fresh tragedy strikes — sometimes unbelievably contrived (remember what happens to Richard Gere, at the end of Nights in Rodanthe?) — that leads to a bleak and shattering epilogue. But that’s okay, y’know, because those left behind are grateful for the experience, having grown into better human beings.

Lather, rinse and repeat.

Message in a Bottle was the first Sparks novel to hit the big screen, back in 1999; true to form, it concludes on a grim note. Things improved with The Notebook, due both to that novel’s structure and the 2004 film’s sensational cast. But since then, we’ve slogged through a series of soggy, manipulative and increasingly unsatisfying tear-jerkers, often selected as vehicles for up-and-coming young stars: Dear John (Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried), The Last Song (Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth) and The Lucky One (Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling).

Great stuff for folks who enjoy having their emotions yanked about, I suppose, but far too much been there, endured that for the rest of us.

No surprise, then, that I greeted the impending arrival of Safe Haven with very little enthusiasm.

Which simply goes to show the folly of assumptions. The thoroughly enjoyable Safe Haven is by no means typical of Sparks’ overworked formula; indeed, if I hadn’t known of his involvement going in, I’d have assumed that some other writer had concocted the tale. (Until the epilogue, anyway, at which point we smile, nod and say Ah, yes, there’s the Nicholas Sparks touch. But that’s okay in this case.)

A Good Day to Die Hard: A bad way to spend an evening

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity and relentless violence
By Derrick Bang

The results of the 2013 Geezer Action Flick trifecta are in, and the winner remains the first contestant out of the gate: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who displayed the good sense to insist upon solid supporting characters and a reasonably logical script in The Last Stand, while poking good-natured fun at his own advanced age.

Let's go do what we do best, John McClane (Bruce Willis, left) cheerfully advises long-
estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney). What they do best always involves lots of running,
jumping and gunplay, which rarely musses their hair. Ah, the life of a movie star in a
laughably stupid action flick...
Sylvester Stallone remains dead last, his laughably stiff granite features unable to breathe any life into Bullet to the Head, a tawdry, nasty excuse for tasteless, tawdry brutality.

Which brings us to Bruce Willis, only marginally better than Stallone, due to an impressively stupid script that eschews any semblance of plot logic, while wreaking havoc with the natural laws of physics and numerous other well-known areas of science.

Hollywood has made an art of brain-dead displays of mayhem, but A Good Day to Die Hard may be in a class all its own. I can’t recall ever seeing so much personal property destroyed during the course of a 97-minute movie, and I’m certain this display of wretched excess sets a new record for smashed, crushed and otherwise mangled moving vehicles.

Mind you, the human bodies involved in all this carnage should be reduced to pulped hamburger dozens of times over, and yet everybody — good guys and bad — somehow survives multi-story falls, endless hails of bullets, hard landings within construction sites, shard-laden plunges through plate-glass windows, and accelerated spins into the air during highway pile-ups involving multiple vehicles (no air bags in sight) ... with no more than a few scratches and minor contusions.

Really, Willis should just acknowledge the obvious and don the blue uniform and red cape. At least that would explain his character’s apparent invulnerability.

Have you noticed, over time, how the military-grade weapons used in movies of this nature have gotten larger, faster and deadlier ... and all concerned still can’t hit the broad side of a barn? Not even armor-piercing sniper rifles can draw a bead on Willis’ immortal John McClane, and if that isn’t silly enough, he’s also able to avoid batteries from Russian Mi:24 and Mi:26 attack helicopters, as if engaged in nothing more troublesome than a spirited round of dodgeball.

It reaches a point — rapidly, in this flick — when all the on-screen carnage just becomes silly and tiresome. Even for a live-action cartoon, Skip Woods’ mess of a script goes way beyond dumb.

When one despicable fellow confronts our hero while smiling and chomping on a carrot — an affectation apparently intended to display the villain’s bad-ass nature — I honestly expected him to say “What’s up, John?”

Heck, that would have drawn a more generous laugh than any of the clumsy lines that pass for humor in this mess.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Amour: Dull, dreary and beyond endurance

Amour (2012) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, painful intimacy, brief profanity and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.8.13

However impressive Emmanuelle Riva’s starring role in Amour — and her work transcends mere words such as brave and raw — the film itself is a colossal yawn.

The moment comes without warning: Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) suddenly
discovers that his wife isn't present in her own skin, as if her soul has been
extinguished. Moments later, she's back, unaware that anything is wrong ... but this
initial stroke is merely the first indication that her body will, in time, betray her in the
cruelest way possible.
At all times, and in every possible way, writer/director Michael Haneke refuses to grant access to these characters; they’re little more than two-dimensional ciphers. Dialogue is sparse, Haneke often preferring the intimate intensity of searching gazes amplified by extreme close-ups. He and cinematographer Darius Khondji also favor faraway compositions, with people occupying only a small portion of an otherwise quiet and static room.

Haneke holds, at great length, on the most mundane behavior — unpacking groceries, donning clothing, eating meals — to a point well beyond aggravation. This really isn’t a film, or a least not a narrative in the conventional sense: more a lengthy tone poem or mood piece.

The wafer-thin story could be scrawled on a postcard: Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Riva) are enjoying their twilight years in a spacious city apartment laden with culture: books, music, a piano. She suffers a sudden stroke, then in time endures a second, much more crippling one; she declines before her husband’s eyes. And ours.

He insists on caring for her, coping as best he can. Which, ultimately, isn’t too well.

That’s all, folks.

So yes, fine: Haneke’s emphasis on the routine and commonplace underscores the degree to which Anne finds it harder and harder to accomplish any of the thousand-and-one little tasks that we take for granted each day. Dressing, eating, moving across a room. Going to the bathroom.

Their refined artistic tastes aside, Georges and Anne are rendered “ordinary” by Haneke’s detached approach. Strokes are equal-opportunity: They can hit anybody, at any time, and life changes in an eyeblink. Thanks to Riva’s wholly realistic transformation, as Anne slides further away from her “normal” life, we can’t help reflecting on that silent prayer: There, but for the grace of God, goes my partner. My child.


Identity Thief: Two hours stolen from our lives

Identity Thief (2013) • View trailer
One star. Rating: R, for violence, vulgarity, relentless profanity and frequently crude sexuality
By Derrick Bang

Some things just aren’t funny, and identity theft is high on that list. Any veteran of the struggle to reclaim bank accounts, credit ratings and the rest — and that’s quite a lot of people, at this point — will be thoroughly disgusted by an effort to paint the process as “amusing.”

Having just caught up with the woman (Melissa McCarthy) who hijacked his bank
account and good name, Sandy (Jason Bateman) spoils her day by revealing his
genuine driver's license. Alas, that won't cut much ice; he's a few seconds away
from a sucker-punch to the throat. 
But that didn’t stop scripters Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten from trying to fashion a comedy out of this topic, a task at which they failed miserably.

Identity Thief signals its tawdry, numbnuts lack of redeeming virtues almost immediately; it’s one of those gawdawful flicks that has you scanning for exits before 5 minutes have passed, in case rapid flight is the better part of valor.

Trust me: It’s your best option.

Seth Gordon has gone nowhere but down since coming to Hollywood’s attention with 2007’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a whimsical and thoroughly fascinating documentary about an unemployed Washington teacher’s attempts to break a longstanding record in the arcade game Donkey Kong.

Since then, Gordon has burnished his rep with clumsy, badly paced and thoroughly humorless junk such as Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses. He seems to fancy himself a low-rent Judd Apatow wannabe, trolling in projects that offer the same uncomfortable blend of profanity, vulgarity, moron slapstick and “funny” violence.

Yes, indeed: Nothing elicits chuckles like the sight of a woman being smacked by an SUV and then hurled, like a sack of potatoes, to the side of a highway ... after which she gets up and dusts herself off, apparently having bruised no more than her dignity. Uh-huh.

The degree of Gordon’s miscalculation, in that scene alone, can be clocked by the gasps of horror as the woman was hit ... and the muted, barely there wisp of nervous laughter when she stood up and made light of the incident. You lost a theater filled with viewers there, Seth.

Actually, that’s not true; you lost ’em a good hour before that.

Jason Bateman is a reasonably funny and competent actor cursed by the worst taste in projects, often ghastly attempts at romantic comedy such as Couples Retreat and The Switch. He also was part of Gordon’s Horrible Bosses debacle, and these aren’t even the most awful; all three of his 2012 films — The Longest Week, Hit and Run and Disconnect — barely achieved theatrical release. Never heard of them? Consider yourself lucky.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The 2013 Oscar Shorts: Small but mighty

The Oscar Shorts (2012) 
Four stars. Rating: Not rated, and suitable for all ages (animated) and older children (live action)
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.1.13

The Oscar-nominated live-action short subjects traditionally lean toward gloomy and often politically charged topics, but this year’s crop is relentlessly grim, even by those standards.

After viewing the first two or three, you’ll be tempted to go home and run a razor blade across your wrists ... but the act would be redundant, because the next film begins as a character does that very thing.

And that’s the only genuinely funny entry among the five nominees.

Mordantly funny, anyway.

But don’t misunderstand me. The themes may be ultra-heavy, and it’d be hard to classify the collective viewing experience as “fun,” but every one of these short films is sharply scripted, deftly directed and well acted ... in some cases, by inexperienced amateurs.

The five nominated animated shorts, I’m happy to report, are much lighter fare ... and no less engaging.

Indeed, I’ve often been unimpressed by one or two entries in each category, but all 10 films this year are quite strong.

Until quite recently short subjects were little more than titles and fleeting film clips during the annual Academy Awards broadcast; jes’ plain folks had no access to them. It wasn’t always that way; during Hollywood’s golden age, a “night out at the movies” was a lengthy evening comprising two features, a newsreel, a dramatic short and one or two animated shorts.

Let’s not forget that Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon was a short subject, when released back in 1956; it’s now regarded as one of the best little movies ever made.

Multiplexes and an economically driven desire to turn over audiences as many times as possible — thus maximizing snack bar sales — eventually spelled the end of double features, newsreels and short subjects. Happily, though, shorts once again hit our radar during the first decade of the 21st century, thanks to their availability online — via iTunes, YouTube and other providers — and packaged “road show” engagements at venues such as Sacramento’s Crest Theater.

This year’s live action category features entries from all over the world. Two focus on young boys; these also are the most politically provocative entries.

Writer/director Bryan Buckley’s Asad stars Harun Mohammed as the title character, a young Somali boy just now old enough to choose between two worlds: on the one hand, life as a fisherman, encouraged by a wizened old man who believes the boy is capable of catching “great things”; on the other hand, the violent option of joining the Somali pirates who prey on passing boats and ships.

Bullet to the Head: Somebody stop this guy, before he "acts" again...

Bullet to the Head (2013) • View trailer
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity, nudity and constant violence
By Derrick Bang

The surprise success of 2010’s The Expendables had an unpleasant side effect: It gave Sylvester Stallone the impression that he had a career to revive, and now we’re stuck with vulgar trash such as Bullet to the Head.

Real men don't settle their differences with guns; they use axes. Apparently having
decided that his film isn't violent enough, director Walter Hill tries for the gold when
professional assassin Jimmy Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) goes one-on-one with
the towering Keegan (Jason Momoa).
The other depressing surprise is the depth to which director Walter Hill’s career has sunk. The once-promising young stylist — who, back in the day, impressed us with The Warriors, The Long Riders and 48 Hrs. — has been reduced to exploitative sleaze that I’d normally expect to debut as a late-Friday-night Cinemax original.

But while Stallone and Hill bring nothing worthwhile to this dumb crime thriller, the lion’s share of blame belongs to so-called screenwriter Alessandro Camon, whose efforts here don’t even qualify as creative typing. He has adapted French writer Alexis Nolent’s three-part graphic novel series, Headshot (aka Du plomb dans la tête), with a complete absence of grace, wit and plot logic.

Nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing — in Camon’s narrative makes sense. Various low-level characters are introduced solely so Stallone’s James “Jimmy” Bonomo can blow them away. The pattern is repeated ad nauseum: Some guy is found, he blusters profanely before giving up the name of the some other guy; he takes a bullet to the head. And then on to the next one.

And I won’t even attempt to describe the plot “surprise” that occupies the blood-soaked climax, at which point Camon’s scribblings truly enter cloud cuckoo-land.

I keep reminding myself that well-paid executives at Warner Bros. apparently found merit in this swill. What were they smoking that day?

Hill signals his tawdry sensibilities with the opening scene, as some insignificant goon inhales dollops of cocaine, chases it down with a pint or so of vodka, and heads toward the naked Russian hooker waiting perkily in the shower. (It should be mentioned that only two significant female characters inhabit this story, both apparently present so they can flash their boobs.)

This wholesome scene is interrupted by Jimmy and partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda), who wave badges and stride into the hotel room, as their unhappy host babbles about warrants and lawyers. Ah, but Jimmy and Louis aren’t cops; they’re professional killers. One dead scumbag later, they’re on their way, Jimmy rather inexplicably having failed to kill the witnessing hooker as well.

Could this have been a mistake? Moments later, while chilling at a bar, Louis is killed by Keegan (Jason Momoa), a towering mercenary who tries — but fails — to off Jimmy as well.

Elsewhere across town, visiting detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) checks in with New Orleans cops Lebreton (Dane Rhodes) and Towne (Marcus Lyle Brown). Kwon is pursuing a lead that got his partner killed back in Washington, D.C.; Lebreton and Towne aren’t inclined to be helpful, but they don’t object when the newcomer expresses interest in this hot-off-the-griddle hotel killing.

Thanks to frequent phone chats with an amazing departmental researcher (never shown) back in D.C., who always gets results in seconds, Kwon quickly hooks up with Jimmy and proposes an uneasy alliance: They both lost partners, so how ’bout teaming up to defeat the common enemy? Jimmy makes a great show of declining — Stallone’s granite-faced scowl struggling mightily to express anything resembling a flicker of actual emotion — but of course they immediately become allies.

And start up the criminal food chain, in the manner previously described, to Kwon’s ongoing horror.

“You can’t just shoot a guy like that!” he protests, the first time (or was it the third?).

“I just did,” Jimmy replies, in what passes for banter in this numbnuts script.

The final link in said chain is Robert Nkomo Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a ruthless financier who fled some African country (!) in order to become a shady developer in New Orleans. He’s assisted by Baptiste (Christian Slater), a crooked lawyer who fancies himself an Old World aristocrat and loves to throw hedonistic parties.

Jimmy and Kwon catch up with Baptiste at the latter’s lavish masked ball, where — wouldn’t you know it — many of the women apparently forgot their costumes.

Kwon manages to take a bullet in the shoulder (no, not in the head) somewhere along the way, at which point Jimmy brings him to a low-rent tattoo parlor, where sexy needle artist Lisa (Sarah Shahi) patches up the poor boy, employing the skills she learned during her single year at medical school. Turns out Lisa is Jimmy’s daughter — goodness, what a surprise! — and of course she’s the one thing in this world that he truly cares about, blah, blah, blah.

Cue Lisa’s abduction by Keegan. Normally, you’d be able to write the rest of this silly story the way a 5-year-old connects the dots, but an unexpected — nay, deranged — impulse on Keegan’s part changes the dynamic a bit. Not for the better. Maybe that plot hiccup played well in Nolent’s graphic novel, but it sure is stupid here.

Stallone’s “performance” in this flick is a joke, the few acting chops he possessed, eons ago, obviously have abandoned him. One has to wonder if cosmetic surgery has left him with nothing but the brooding, sleepy-eyed glower that is his sole expression throughout this entire film.

Kang, probably recognized from the Fast and Furious franchise, has plenty of presence and acting talent; in a better project, he’d obviously shine. But this script makes Kwon a walking joke who repeatedly behaves like a moron; there simply isn’t any reason Jimmy wouldn’t whack this interloper and be done with him. Try as he might, Kang can’t earn any sympathy or respect here.

Momoa, the former Baywatch hunk who recently failed to re-ignite the Conan franchise, comes off a bit better as Keegan. He makes a pretty good hovering menace: the sort of secondary baddie sent off to do all the dirty work at the behest of a James Bondian megalomaniac. (Indeed, Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Morel has that cartoonish aspect.)

Shahi shows some resourceful spunk as Lisa, but it’s another thankless role; she functions mainly as a Woman In Peril. Slater simply wastes his time in, yes, yet another under-developed part.

Nobody else remains on camera long enough to worry about.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent attempt to revive his career — The Last Stand — at least had the good sense not to take itself seriously; Arnie also was smart enough to surround himself with reasonably well-drawn supporting characters and Johnny Knoxville’s comic skills. Bullet to the Head, in great contrast, is as humorless and unwaveringly tedious as Stallone’s frozen-faced mug.

Rubbish this incompetent will serve only to stoke the fires of publicity-minded politicians eager to castigate the rising levels of violence in cinema. This flick is bound to make the top of such lists ... with a bullet.