Friday, February 28, 2014

Ernest & Celestine: A magical ode to friendship

Ernest & Celestine (2012) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rating: Suitable for all ages, despite the ludicrous PG rating for "scary moments"

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.28.14

“Adorable” can’t convey my depth of feeling for this enchanting little film.

Indeed, mere words seem wholly insufficient.

Once Celestine, left, and Ernest get over their mutual distrust, an increasingly devoted
friendship blooms. But it's also a forbidden relationship in a land where the distinct
communities of mice and bears fear each other, and therefore matters are certain to
take an unfortunate turn.
Despite being one of the 2013 Academy Awards nominees for best animated feature, Ernest & Celestine remains virtually unknown to American viewers, aside from the lucky few who may have caught it at a film festival. Frankly, this film’s obscurity is tragic ... and typical of an emerging pattern in this Oscar category.

For the past several years, since the rising popularity of animated films has prompted a corresponding abundance of nominees, some of them have raised puzzled eyebrows. While the animation branch’s nominating members are to be congratulated for citing entries from outside the United States, that generosity of spirit hasn’t been embraced by American movie distributors ... nor by mainstream American viewers who, already reluctant to subject themselves to live-action foreign films, apparently are even less willing to watch animated foreign films.

Thus, a frustrating pattern has emerged, particularly for dedicated Oscar fans wanting to catch as many nominees as possible, prior to the annual awards ceremony. That has become quite difficult — even impossible — with the animated features, since some of them don’t get released here in the States until weeks after the Oscars.

Back in 2009, the French/Belgian/Irish The Secret of Kells didn’t garner American distribution until mid-March ... and then availability was spotty, at best. In 2011, the same was true of Chico & Rita (Spain and the UK) and A Cat in Paris (France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands).

Never heard of any of them? I’m not surprised. Saturation-booked, high-profile domestic entries from Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks steal all the media focus.

But being louder and more ubiquitous doesn’t make them better than their overlooked and under-appreciated peers.

This year, that same fate has befallen superstar Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and the French/Belgian co-production of Ernest & Celestine. Miyazaki’s film, at least, is being released in our market today; Oscar stalwarts have roughly 48 hours to catch it before Sunday’s awards broadcast.

Non-Stop: Well-executed terror in the air

Non-Stop (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, intense suspense, mild profanity, fleeting sensuality and drug content

By Derrick Bang

This is a taut, tidy and thoroughly engrossing little thriller ... although it won’t do a thing for people already nervous about flying.

The resourceful Bill (Liam Neeson) thinks up several quite clever ways to expose the
identity of the indivisual who keeps sending threatening text messages ... but the
unknown tormentor/terrorist eludes our hero at every turn. Eventually, even Jen
(Julianne Moore) begins to wonder if the situation is beyond Bill's ability to solve.
John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle have concocted a twisty, danger-laden mystery that Agatha Christie would have admired: a whodunit and howzithappening that makes clever use of the claustrophobic setting and modern smart phone technology. Granted, the premise is preposterous, and interior details don’t withstand much scrutiny, but director Jaume Collet-Serra and editor Jim May move things quickly enough to obscure the logical lapses.

I also applaud the casting and sidebar character development, elements usually overlooked in lesser action thrillers. Although this is Liam Neeson’s show, and he commands the stage quite ably, we also get solid work from a dozen or so supporting players.

Neeson and Collet-Serra also worked together on 2011’s Unknown, although that initially suspenseful thriller was undone by its sloppy script. If the improved work here on Non-Stop reflects learning from that earlier mistake, then it’s nice to know all concerned paid attention.

The premise is simple: Veteran air marshal Bill Marks (Neeson) boards a routine flight from New York City to London, and starts receiving cryptic text messages from some unknown sender who demands the transfer of $150 million into a numbered account ... or passengers on the flight will start to die, at 20-minute intervals. It’s immediately obvious, from what the sender knows, that s/he is on the plane.

Bill’s major issue is credibility: How can he possibly take such a crazy ultimatum seriously? And when evidence eventually suggest that this unknown terrorist truly has the means to carry out such threats, how can Bill get anybody to believe him?

Character back-story muddies the water, of course. Bill is a man under a cloud: an alcoholic carrying a heavy personal burden — details of which emerge slowly — and therefore a less than reliable judge of any given situation, in the eyes of his colleagues and superiors. Even his fellow on-flight air marshal, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), finds it difficult to accept Bill’s story at face value.

Bill does everything by the book; he immediately confides in the plane’s captain (Linus Roache) and veteran flight attendant, Nancy (Michelle Dockery). Keeping the situation concealed from the passengers is essential, but that becomes progressively more difficult, as Bill’s invisible cat-and-mouse tormentor escalates the stakes.

Friday, February 21, 2014

3 Days to Kill: Silly spy stuff

3 Days to Kill (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, despite considerable intense violence, profanity and lurid sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.21.14

In theory, teaming French action filmmaker Luc Besson and American action director Joseph McGinty Nichol — who prefers the nom de guerre “McG” — should produce the perfect cinematic marriage.

Once past her initial hostility, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld) decides that she likes having her
father, Ethan (Kevin Costner), back in her life. Unfortunately, their fragile bonding
efforts keep getting interrupted by Ethan's demanding boss, with fresh bad guys for
him to find and kill.
The former is a one-man movie machine well known for (among many others) La Femme Nikita, Jason Statham’s Transporter series and Liam Neeson’s Taken series; the latter is perhaps notorious for the two big-screen Charlie’s Angels entries and 2009’s Terminator Salvation.

Assuming your desires extend no further than noisy, attitude-laden eye candy, what could possibly go wrong when these two fellas get together?

Clashing sensibilities, of course.

3 Days to Kill — directed by McG, written by Besson and Adi Hasak — proudly displays its comic book tone right up front, as veteran CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) and a sizable team prepare to capture nasty international terrorists laughably known only as The Albino (Tómas Lemarquis) and The Wolf (Richard Sammel). The operation goes awry, and the baddies get away, much to the annoyance of CIA handler Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), sent by Washington to monitor the situation.

Worse yet, Ethan gets rather bad news while recuperating from injuries sustained during this fiasco: a diagnosis of advanced terminal cancer that’ll kill him in a few months. Not that this will stop any of the action to come; just as Ali MacGraw became more radiantly beautiful, the sicker she got in 1970’s Love Story, ol’ Ethan loses none of his flair for beating up on baddies twice his size and half his age.

Even so, he’s tired and discouraged, and wants to spend his remaining time with his ex-wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), and long-estranged teenage daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), both living in Paris. But catching up on a decade’s worth of missed birthdays and youthful milestones isn’t easy, and Zoey isn’t about to cut him any slack.

On top of which, Vivi rather inexplicably wants Ethan to finish the botched pursuit of The Albino and The Wolf. I say “inexplicably” because Vivi clearly has the resources, the ruthless attitude and the improbable skills necessary to complete the assignment herself, likely in half the time.

As conceived and audaciously played by Heard, Vivi is equal parts Marvel Comics’ Black Widow, Sidney Bristow (from TV’s Alias) and strip club lap dancer. Why waste time with the dying Ethan, who’s obviously — in Vivi’s mind — long past his sell-by date?

Well, because the script says so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Winter's Tale: A crisp, sparkling fantasy

Winter's Tale (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.14.14

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s novels, particularly Neverwhere and Stardust, will adore this film.

Director/scripter Akiva Goldsman’s luxuriously romantic fantasy offers the same mythic qualities: a setting that’s familiar yet not quite of this world; an incandescent yet oddly witty love story; and mortal characters — of a sort — caught within a timeless duel between agents of good and evil.

Despite having broken into her home with the intent of stealing its valuables, Peter
(Colin Farrell) finds his plans thwarted after meeting Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Her response, to this uninvited stranger? Why, to offer him a cup of tea, of course!
It’s such an odd concoction that one false move — a single line of dialogue too precious, delivered with perhaps too much smug arrogance — and the entire narrative would collapse under the weight of its own contrivance. And yet Goldsman unerringly walks that fine line, delivering a warm, gently humorous and richly poignant adaptation of Mark Helprin’s massive 1983 novel.

Indeed, the first miracle is that Goldsman has captured this huge book’s essence in a film that runs a mere 118 minutes. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given his Academy Award victory for adapting A Beautiful Mind, and his obvious fondness for historical dramas (Cinderella Man) and speculative fiction (The Da Vinci Code, I Am Legend).

Even so, this film’s mere existence represents a second miracle: a most unexpected roll of the dice by Warner Bros. Helprin’s captivating epic is the sort of story that rarely works on the big screen.

The American public is notoriously reluctant to embrace intelligent, adult-oriented fantasy, preferring instead the empty calories of popcorn sci-fi action flicks. Granted, Gaiman is doing his best to help reverse that trend, and Goldsman’s captivating work here could help a great deal.

I frankly hesitate to describe this plot to even a minor degree, because while not a mystery per se, Winter’s Tale derives much of its charm from the many revelations — major and minor — that emerge along the way. Indeed, even the casting offers surprises, all of them pleasant.

Our most unusual protagonist is Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), an orphan with an unusual origin, having arrived in late 19th century New York under quite unlikely circumstances. This is, in fact, the film’s core test: One must accept this startling, almost biblical introduction as a foreshadowing of the storytelling style to come. Having allowed this near-impossible weave of otherworldly thread, the resulting tapestry will be much easier to snuggle into.

Peter grows up poor and uneducated — a skilled thief who also possesses “a way with machines” — and lives on the streets until taken under the wing of a Fagin-like protector, Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). We catch up with these two in 1916, with Peter on the run after some sort of falling out; the furious Soames and his men are hell-bent on cornering and then killing their prey ... slowly and painfully.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Robocop: Just a frail tin man

Robocop (2014) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for constant and intense violence, brief profanity and some drug use

By Derrick Bang

The general rule is fundamental: A remake should surpass or, at the very least, equal its predecessor in all essential respects.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

When Alex (Joel Kinnaman, left) finally regains consciousness after the horrific attack
that left very little of his actual body, he's horrified to discover just how little remains.
Dr. Dennett (Gary Oldman) chooses his words carefully; the next few minutes will
determine how well — or badly — Alex adapts to this transformation.
Director José Padilha’s update of Robocop seems motivated more by the smell of money — Sony Pictures’ desire to revive an iconic character, in the hopes of creating a fresh franchise — than any artistic imperative. And while this film’s primary fault lies more with first-time writer Joshua Zetumer’s sloppy script than Padilha’s direction, the result is inescapable: This new Robocop doesn’t come close to matching Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original for verve, suspense or clever political satire.

Indeed, Zetumer’s vicious, hammer-handed swipes at “heartless American imperialism” are this film’s least successful element: shrill, über-liberal bleats that keep getting in the way of what should be, at its core, a thoughtful parable on the nature of humanity. Granted, this sci-fi drama’s political subtext invites debate, but Zetumer stacks the deck laughably, most visibly in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Pat Novak, a foaming-at-the-mouth, right-wing TV provocateur in the mold of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

Jackson’s Novak also is the first defense of a poor screenwriter: a hackneyed device who pops up every so often, to “instruct” or “remind” us poor viewers precisely how we’re supposed to react to on-screen events. Which suggests that Zetumer and Padilha don’t have much faith in their audience.

And I sure can’t figure out why they choose to conclude their film with yet another rant from Novak: a clumsy coda that makes little sense and does nothing but dilute the story’s mildly satisfying outcome.

People don’t like to be yelled at. Not in person, and certainly not at the movies.

All that aside...

The year is 2028. Uneasy military stability is maintained in Afghanistan and other terrorist-laden hot spots by the ground-level U.S. presence of EM-208 robot soldiers and larger, hyper-aggressive ED-209 sentry units. The primary goal, to avoid the loss of American lives, appears to have been achieved.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Monuments Men: An unfinished sculpture

The Monuments Men (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for relatively mild war violence, and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.14

What a disappointment.

Despite the considerable charm of George Clooney and his fellow scene-stealers, this is a flat and uninvolving film.

Knowing that time is running out, Stokes (George Clooney, foreground) and Granger
(Matt Damon, right) scramble to protectively wrap artworks prior to moving them to
safety. They're assisted by, background from left, Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), Garfield
(John Goodman) and Savitz (Bob Balaban).
The fault lies with the graceless script, which leaves the impression that we’re watching the Reader’s Digest condensed version of a much longer miniseries. This two-hour film dips only briefly into a dozen or so potentially fascinating incidents, any one of which could have been expanded into a taut, exciting narrative; as it is, we get only the “calm” bits, leaving the impression that all exciting scenes were confiscated and dumped elsewhere.

Clooney deserves the blame; aside from starring and producing, he also directed and co-wrote the script with longtime colleague Grant Heslov. They’ve done a poor job of adapting the 2010 nonfiction book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.

Edsel also co-produced the 2006 documentary, The Rape of Europa, which covered the same territory in a vastly more satisfying manner.

Part of the problem is Clooney’s apparent desire to transplant the droll Ocean’s Eleven vibe into this grim World War II setting, while also conveying the barbaric behavior of Nazis who cheerfully practiced human and cultural genocide. It’s a bit jarring to smile at some witty banter between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban at one moment, and then, in the next, be confronted by barrels containing gold fillings extracted from the teeth of thousands of holocaust victims.

Mostly, though, I lament the utter absence of suspense. This is a fascinating, fact-based story that should have kept us at the edge of our seats. Clooney’s film, however, is a jokey affair that meanders throughout Western Europe: more travelogue than drama.

The saga begins in 1943, when Harvard art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) briefs President Roosevelt on the pressing need for the Allies to avoid destroying European civilization, in their efforts to save it. By this, Stokes means that more care must be taken to preserve the cultural heritage of these various countries: their art and museums; their churches, cathedrals and synagogues; their architectural marvels.

As Edsel mentions, in the press notes, the Allies very nearly destroyed, entirely by accident, da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in August 1943.