Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush: Quite a ride

Rush (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, sexual content, brief drug use and disturbing images

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.27.13

Friends tell you what you want to hear. Enemies tell you what you need to know.

Director Ron Howard’s Rush isn’t merely the fact-based account of an intriguing sports rivalry; it’s also the most exciting auto racing movie to roar into theaters since 1971’s Le Mans ... which, given Steve McQueen’s passion for authenticity and the superb efforts of cinematographers René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser — not to mention a team of five (!) editors — is high praise indeed.

The calm before the storm: No love is lost between rival racers James Hunt (Chris
Hemsworth, foreground left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), each determined to
out-drive the other en route to a Formula 1 World Championship. But that isn't the
whole story by any means: Their saga is the stuff of sports legend.
No matter. Howard’s collaborators — cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill — are up for the challenge. They’re also given a sensational assist by sound designers Danny Hambrook and Markus Stemler, whose ear-splitting attention to detail delivers everything except the pungent, eye-watering stench of high-octane fuel. Which you’ll probably imagine anyway.

But while the visceral exhilaration is palpable, it’s mere backdrop; this film gets its emotional heft from the fascinating narrative crafted by British scripter Peter Morgan, whose well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Frost/Nixon and The Queen — not to mention his work on The Last King of Scotland, The Damned United and quite a few others — demonstrate considerable skill when it comes to sketching characters through well-composed dialogue.

James Simon Wallis Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth), British to the core, and Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) meet — and immediately clash — as ambitious Formula 3 drivers. They couldn’t be more different: Hunt is a womanizing, hedonistic toff who wears flamboyant aristocratic superiority like a cloak, while Lauda is solemn, remote and blunt to the point of insolence. Hunt is the pluperfect London playboy, Lauda the Teutonic precision; neither apologizes for his behavior, or would think of doing so.

Hunt loves the champagne-hazed thrill of victory, and is happiest when posing for photographs as he clutches an award. Lauda quite famously gave his trophies to a local garage, as “payment” for having his car washed and serviced.

But they both take racing seriously, albeit from different sensibilities. Hunt is as bold and reckless on the track as in real life, embracing the challenge for its romantic, death-defying aura; Lauda, meticulous to a fault, calculates odds and works them to his favor. Hunt relies on the largess of sponsors he can impress; Lauda drives mechanics crazy by ordering design changes ... which inevitably prove advantageous.

As a result, Morgan’s script focuses on the attitude of racing, as much as the sport itself. At a time when drivers were expected to die every season — as Brühl’s Lauda informs us, in his dryly ironic, off-camera narration — professional racers truly were a breed apart. (It could be argued that NASCAR, with its ever-safer vehicles and protective body gear, has stripped some of the rogue spirit from auto racing.)

Enough Said: Whimsical ode to second chances

Enough Said (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sexual candor and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang

This is a sweet little dramedy: the gentle saga of two lonely middle-aged people attempting to establish a second act with each other. Despite taking full advantage of its upper-middle-class Los Angeles setting, Nicole Holofcener’s intimate, conversation-laden film easily could be a stage play, where I suspect it might have more success finding an audience.

Albert (James Gandolfini) really isn't ready for a new relationship; neither is Eva (Julia
Louis-Dreyfus). Somehow, though, not being ready together begins to work. Alas, an
unexpected complication is destined to interfere with their growing bond; the question
is whether they can survive the fallout.
Even during these calmer days of early autumn, with the bombastic summer behind us, films such as Enough Said struggle for viewers.

That’s a shame. Far too few movies explore the quiet isolation of late fortysomethings who worry that life has passed them by: that they’re no longer entitled to the happily-ever-after that once seemed an essential clause in the contract of adulthood. In that respect, Holofcener’s film is refreshing merely by its very existence; that it explores this subject with honesty and candor is a bonus.

Holofcener has based her artistic career on serio-comic examinations of modern American women in crisis, starting with 1996’s Walking and Talking, and continuing with Lovely & Amazing (2001), Friends with Money (2006) and Please Give (2010). She clearly has an artistic rapport with Catherine Keener, who starred in all four of those films, and also has a strong presence in this new one.

But Keener takes a supporting role this time; the central character, Eva, is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a strong TV presence — most famously in Seinfeld, currently in Veep — whose big-screen career has been restricted mostly to voicing characters in animated features. That’s a shame, because her wry, self-deprecating shtick is an ideal defense mechanism for her character here.

(That said, a few of Louis-Dreyfus’ comebacks do sound too much like a stand-up routine; Holofcener could have reined her in just a little bit.)

Eva works as a professional masseuse and has adapted, if reluctantly, to life as a single mother. She remains on reasonably cordial terms with her ex, and has custody of their teenage daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway). We meet Eva during the strenuous routine of an average day, as she schleps her unwieldy portable massage table from one client to the next, obviously deriving no joy from these regular encounters with often self-absorbed people.

But it’s a living, and Eva can take solace from regular contact with best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and her husband, Will (Ben Falcone). And we sense that Eva has worked hard to derive comfort — if not satisfaction — from her workaday schedule. Unfortunately, that stability is about to be shattered, because Ellen is days away from leaving for college. Eva, her very soul wrapped up in her daughter’s constant companionship, is fraying visibly around the edges.

Don Jon: Love's labors lost

Don Jon (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue, nudity, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang

Fledgling writers have a tendency toward overkill, a problem that repeatedly plagues this film.

When Barbara (Scarlett Johansson, standing center) insists on meeting her new lover's
friends, Jon (Joseph Gordeon-Levitt, standing center) obliges by arranging a gathering
at a local club. Barbara, obviously pleased, is all sweetness and smiles ... but, in truth,
this is merely the latest in what will become a string of one-sided little victories.
Although dissecting the nature of True Love has been a laudable quest since stories were told via cave paintings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt — making his debut here as a big-screen writer and director — wields a meat cleaver when a scalpel would have sufficed. He has a solid sense of what’s funny, and a good ear for relationship dynamics, but his hammer-handed approach is guaranteed to alienate the very people likely to be most touched by this story’s core moral, and its outcome.

He also falls into another common trap. Repetition rarely enhances a lesson; we merely get bored. Or, in this case, disgusted.

In this particular case, it simply isn’t necessary to share what his porn-addicted character views during every spare moment; we don’t need to watch with him. The first montage of taut breasts, erect nipples, firm butts and willing mouths is sufficient; from that point forward, we know what he’s watching every time he sits in front of his laptop screen.

Indeed, all we need is the familiar F-sharp-major start-up chime, which Gordon-Levitt unerringly employs for maximum comic effect ... but then he ruins the moment, each time, with yet another tiresome display of thrusting bodies and naughty bits.

And vulgar off-camera commentary. Gordon-Levitt also beats that affectation to death.

The story, then:

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) is a blue-collar New Jersey late twenty-/early thirtysomething bartender who takes enormous pride in his apartment, his car, his appearance and his ability to score with the ladies. Thanks to this latter talent, guy pals Bobby and Danny (Rob Brown and Jeremy Luke) have nicknamed him “Don Jon.”

Trouble is, Jon doesn’t enjoy women for their companionship or relationship potential; he objectifies them to the extreme and is interested in sex strictly for its own sake. But that isn’t satisfying; he can’t “lose himself” in lovemaking with a flesh-and-blood female partner, the way he experiences a brief “happy zone” with the assistance of an ideal Internet porn clip.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Prisoners: We cannot escape our nature

Prisoners (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, torture and disturbing violent content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.20.13

Revenge thrillers have become a violent — often tawdry — Hollywood staple.

Not this one.

When Alex (Paul Dano, on his back) is released for lack of evidence, Keller (Hugh
Jackman) angrily confronts the younger man, convinced that he knows more than he's
telling about the disappearance of two little girls. Given time to think and plan, Keller
will continue this "conversation" in a less public setting, and with a decidedly more
dangerous intensity.
Prisoners is a brooding, atmospheric slow burn: part character drama, part mystery, part thriller ... and all-consuming. It has a distinctly European feel despite the small-town Americana setting: very much in the unsettling mode of French director George Sluizer’s 1988 chiller, Spoorloos, which he remade five years later with an American cast, as The Vanishing.

Prisoners comes from the capable hands of Québec-born director Denis Villeneuve, whose résumé includes tension-laden dramas such as Maelstrom and Polytechnique, and who garnered an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Incendies. Point being, Villeneuve has a superb sense of atmosphere and a knack for making the most innocent scene feel enshrouded by a blanket of malevolence.

He also has a gift for drawing persuasively authentic performances from his actors, and that’s certainly the case here. While the entire cast is compelling, stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are sensational. Both are gifted actors; both have been fine before. Under Villeneuve’s capable guidance, they’re even better.

The story opens on a cold, overcast Thanksgiving Day in a working-class Pennsylvania suburb: the kind of town where kids set up lemonade stands. The homes and yards are tidy but looking a bit distressed: fading paint and weather-beaten vehicles a testament to folks barely hanging on during the tough economy.

Out in the nearby woods, Keller Dover (Jackman) offers a solemn prayer to God before encouraging teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) to squeeze the trigger and claim his first deer. It’s a clean shot; as they drive the carcass home, Keller — a survivalist by nature — explains that they must be prepared at all times, must be their own strongest advocates, must expect to take charge when others inevitably fail.

Keller collects his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich); the family strolls up the street to celebrate the holiday with best friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). Ralph pairs off with teenage Eliza (Zoë Soul), who disapproves of the elder Dover’s fondness for hunting; Anna and 7-year-old Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) play together with the exuberance of small children.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera ... hovers. We feel nervous: can’t explain why. Even as the adults relax after the huge meal, Franklin sharing his lamentable trumpet skills, the utter normality of this staunchly American ritual — playing out, we know, in similar homes across the entire country — is pregnant with building tension.

And yet it’s simply an ordinary celebratory tableau. All is right with the world.

Until, suddenly, it isn’t.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Flight of the Butterflies: Truly soars

Flight of the Butterflies (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.13.13

Nature is always awesome, but sometimes she’s jaw-droppingly unbelievable.

Then, if we’re lucky — if the right wildlife saga intrigues the right filmmakers — the results can be mesmerizing.

Monarch butterflies lay eggs, emerge as caterpillars, grow until they "hibernate" in a
chrysalis and then emerge as adult butterflies to begin the cycle anew. You probably
thought this entire process occurs within a relatively small geographical radius, such as
within our city limits, right? Way, way wrong ... as this film demonstrates.
Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins wasn’t merely a marvelous film and the surprise hit of the 2005 movie season; it also was a Hollywood game-changer, proving that well-made documentaries could hold their own against big-budget dramas. Walt Disney had demonstrated as much between 1948 and ’60, with his studio’s True-Life Adventures series, but — several generations later — the non-fiction genre had fallen out of mainstream favor, until Jacquet’s mind-bogglingly patient Emperor penguins came waddling along.

Out of favor, perhaps, but definitely not extinct.

IMAX theaters have been screening documentary shorts since 1971’s Tiger Child, slowly assembling an impressive library of titles that included hits such as 1984’s Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets, 1990’s Blue Planet and 1995’s The Living Sea. IMAX projects have grown even more impressive as filming techniques have improved, and the giant-screen format definitely came into its own with 1998’s one-two punch of Everest and T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous.

Suddenly, IMAX movies were cool.

All of which brings us to Flight of the Butterflies, just now fluttering into Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX theater. And while these delicate winged insects admittedly aren’t as cute as tuxedo-clad penguins, they’re quite remarkable in their own right, as director Mike Slee’s 40-minute film makes abundantly clear.

At its core, Flight of the Butterflies is a lepidopterist’s mystery story, which Slee and co-scripter Wendy MacKeigan weave into a compelling depiction of the monarch butterfly’s unusual life cycle and amazing migratory habits.

Charles Foster Kane had his Rosebud; Fred Urquhart’s world changed as a result of PS 397.

And therein lies a tale...

The Family: Dysfunction reigns

The Family (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for violence, considerable profanity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang

Comedy is hard. Dark comedy is much harder.

Giovanni (Robert De Niro) and Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer, back to ccamera) naturally wish
to know how their children fared, during their first day at a new French school. Warren
(John D'Leo) and Belle (Dianna Agron) downplay their activities, unwilling to admit that
their larcenous instincts — a family quality — will allow them to own the school by the
end of the week.
In theory, this film is the droll saga of a Mafia family trying to maintain the low profile demanded of the Witness Protection Program, while too easily sliding into former bad (i.e. violent) habits, much to the ongoing consternation of their FBI handler. That’s a premise with considerable comedic potential, particularly when the handler is played by Tommy Lee Jones at his morose, long-suffering best.

And things would have been fine, had our protagonists confined their lethal behavior to the various goombahs trying to find and whack them, and if said goombahs had limited their nasty tendencies toward each other.

But far too many innocent bystanders get killed along the way, sometimes quite unpleasantly. It’s rather hard to chuckle when another inquisitive neighbor gets shot between the eyes. That simply isn’t funny, and it, ah, kills the mood. Repeatedly.

The trouble is, veteran French action director Luc Besson doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie to make this time; his script — co-written with Michael Caleo, from Tonino Benacquista’s comedic novel Malavita — keeps sliding back and forth between the grim “straight” drama of La Femme Nikita or The Professional, and the far lighter, satiric tone of The Fifth Element. These styles are mutually incompatible, and the result is rather a mess.

Caleo, I note, co-wrote one episode of TV’s The Sopranos with that show’s creator, David Chase. That may have been the serio-comic mood Besson hoped to achieve, since Chase masterfully blended sarcastic humor with heinous violence in his groundbreaking show. And, at times, Besson and Caleo almost get there ... but then they spoil it with another dollop of brutal behavior.

Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) and his family have spent years on the run, at various locations in the States and now France, due to the persistence of mob bosses infuriated by his having ratted them out. Giovanni’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), has grown accustomed to packing and unpacking; teenagers Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) have resigned themselves to the constant uprooting faced by military kids.

Now, newly ensconced in a sleepy French village in the Normandy countryside, saddled with the fresh identity of “Fred Blake,” Giovanni attempts, once again, to blend. On impulse, he greets neighbors by claiming to be a writer of history; trouble is, the locals know far more about his fabricated topic — the D-Day invasion — than he does.

FBI handler Robert Stansfield (Jones) isn’t amused; that’s precisely the sort of sloppy thinking that could get “Fred” exposed as ... well, as somebody other than who he claims to be.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Austenland: What would Jane say?

Austenland (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and inneundo
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.6.13

This film is completely bonkers.

In the best possible way.

Determined to take control of her fantasy vacation, Jane (Keri Russell, foreground) bats
her eyes at "Col. Andrews" (James Callis, left), while an irritated "Henry Nobley" (JJ Feild,
right) prepares to bolt. These shenanigans are viewed with alarm by Mrs. Wattlesbrook
(Jane Seymour, right rear), whose carefully orchestrated plans seem to be going awry.
Austenland is a gleefully barbed swipe at über-fans who take their passions far too seriously, to the point of becoming social outcasts.

Initially restricted to Trekkies who’d craft elaborate costumes for sci-fi conventions, such behavior recently has accelerated through the mainstream, captivating (afflicting?) fans of pop-culture properties ranging from the Twilight books to, yes, Jane Austen’s novels. Indeed, Austen has begat her own sub-category of worship, whether affectionate or twisted: Bridget Jones’ fixation on Mark Darcy, in Helen Fielding’s two books, or Karen Joy Fowler’s clever Jane Austen Book Club (all of which have been made into films), and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (also on its way to the big screen).

So while one might imagine that the events depicted in the adorably embroidered Austenland are the stuff of exaggerated farce ... well, maybe not. I’m perfectly willing to believe that such a business model could exist, and perhaps quite profitably. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke overestimating the rabid devotion of obsessed Americans.

And while a college-level study of Austen’s books probably isn’t essential to the enjoyment of director/co-scripter Jerusha Hess’ charming comedy, a passing familiarity with the milieu will greatly enhance the experience.

Mousy Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), unhappy with her drab life, has taken solace in the elegantly romantic early 19th century British setting of Austen’s novels. Jane’s obsession has blossomed even further of late, her devotion to Colin Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice making it impossible for any 21st century boyfriend to compete.

Riddick: Back to basics

Riddick (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, profanity, sexual candor and occasional nudity
By Derrick Bang 

Richard B. Riddick is the Timex watch of action antiheroes: No matter how bone-crunching the licking, he keeps on ticking.

Armed with no more than a large bone club, Riddick (Vin Diesel) attempts to survive
his encounter with a particularly large "mud demon." This creature is between him and
access to a safer part of this wayward planet, so Riddick is determined to win this
little skirmish. Rest assured, though: This won't be the last he sees of mud demons.
You’ve got to admire a guy who can survive a fall of several hundred feet (perhaps even more) while getting buried beneath a massive rock avalanche ... with no more than some cuts, bruises and a leg fracture that he sets himself, by jamming metal pins into the surrounding muscle.

Granted, this character’s otherwise cartoonish invulnerability is made almost palatable by Vin Diesel’s growling, glowering performance; one can imagine Riddick is fueled by ’tude alone. Bottle the stuff, and he’d made a fortune selling it to up-and-coming action hero wannabes.

Diesel follows in the well-stomped footsteps of earlier strong, monosyllabic types played by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger; like them, Diesel has made a virtue of his limited acting range. He’s a dour teddy bear on steroids: an apparent bad guy — introduced, back in 2000’s Pitch Black, as a “notorious convict” — who nonetheless respects honor, reluctantly protects the weak and disenfranchised, and turns into a coldly efficient predator only when dealing with Those Who Deserve It.

Even when chained and (apparently) helpless, Riddick can issue threats with a layer of menace that Diesel sells quite persuasively.

Like I said, you gotta admire the guy.

Riddick has become an intriguing franchise for Diesel and writer/director David Twohy. Following Pitch Black — which Twohy scripted from a story by Jim and Ken Wheat — they re-teamed for 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick and, that same year, an animated short called Dark Fury (Diesel voicing his character, Twohy supplying the story). But Chronicles was an overblown box-office bomb, its complicated narrative adding far too much extraneous stuff to the first film’s plain-vanilla, survive-the-threat template.

No surprise, then, that Twohy has gone back to basics with this new film, which sports the appropriately simple title of Riddick. Wisely dumping the second film’s Egyptian-esque, Necromonger intrigue that felt swiped from 1994’s Stargate, Twohy gives us the same basic, one-against-impossible-odds story that made Pitch Black such a nifty little B-thriller.

Indeed, at times the echoes of Pitch Black are so loud, that this “new” film almost could be considered a remake.