Friday, November 26, 2010

Love and Other Drugs: Good medicine

Love and Other Drugs (2010) • View trailer for Love and Other Drugs
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, strong sexual content, profanity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.26.10

Early into Love and Other Drugs, novice pharmaceuticals rep Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) shadows Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria) as a means of currying favor with this potential client.

Dr. Knight has something of a mischievous streak – not to mention a fondness for attractive women – and therefore allows Jamie to attend a routine exam with new patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway). She doesn’t think anything of Jamie’s presence, assuming an intern/doctor relationship; the situation turns eyebrow-raising when, as the exam concludes, she asks the doctor to take a quick look at one of her breasts.
Maggie (Anne Hathaway) can't stand Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) at first sight, but
of course that'll change; how could any woman resist his endearing, aw-shucks

The scene is staged for its erotic potential – Jamie about to enjoy a quick glimpse of forbidden fruit – and we figure, hey, it’s Anne Hathaway; director Edward Zwick will shoot the scene from behind her, preserving the actress’ modesty and allowing us to see Gyllenhaal’s Jake try not to appear lecherous. Plenty of comic potential there.

But no: The camera doesn’t cut to a different angle as Hathaway slips out of her top, and suddenly we become complicit in Jamie’s sneak peek … and the resulting scene, handled with bland insouciance by Hathaway, becomes even more erotic.

This scene is typical of Zwick’s approach in this film, which soon becomes unexpectedly, deliciously earthy and carnal in the manner of a cheerful French sex romp: a tone very few American-made films ever pull off. The film’s three screenwriters – Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick, loosely adapting Jamie Reidy’s book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman (and no doubt that little nugget of information just made your eyebrows shoot up) – understand that young couples in the throes of a new relationship spend a lot of time in bed, and also spend a lot of time OUT of bed, but still in the buff, rejoicing in their shared exposed selves.

Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, bless ’em, are game for anything; as a result, we connect with these characters at a level of intimacy that seems at odds with the film’s often mocking tone.

It’s a deft juggling act, but Zwick pulls it off. Love and Other Drugs veers wildly from one mood to another, ranging from playful sexiness and blatant comedy to increasingly powerful poignance. We watch the story itself blossom from adolescent foolishness to adult maturity, much the way Maggie helps Jamie grow up and become a better person.

Jamie is introduced as the ne’er-do-well member of an otherwise accomplished family, bright but self-destructive, and running a distant second to a dweebish younger brother – the hilarious Josh Gad – who scored a big hit with an Internet start-up. It’s the 1990s, and such things remain possible; the trouble is, Jamie has only one talent: scoring with chicks.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tangled: Misses by a hair

Tangled (2010) • View trailer for Tangled
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite unnecessarily, for cartoon violence
By Derrick Bang

Secretariat only won races. Maximus saves an entire movie.

Theatergoers will recognize that Tangled, Disney’s arch re-working of “Rapunzel,” suffers from a serious first act problem. The pacing is off, the characters are introduced somewhat haphazardly, and this animated musical’s first several songs – music by veteran hit-maker Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater – are rather underwhelming.
Flynn, accustomed to being in control of every situation, finds that he has his
hands full with Rapunzel and her impressively lifelike hair. And as if that
isn't enough to worry about, Flynn also must contend with Maximus, an
unusually intelligent horse, and an equally perceptive chameleon named Pascal.

Indeed, the early songs stop the show in the worst sense, as was the case with the weakest and most contrived movie musicals of the 1960s: the type where an otherwise dramatic scene pauses, the orchestra swells, and we all roll our eyes because we know some character is about to warble.

Then a fascinating thing happens in Tangled, right about the time our roguish good-bad-guy, Flynn Ryder (voiced by Zachary Levi, well recognized as TV’s Chuck), is pursued by the king’s guards after stealing a rather valuable – and plot-important – bauble from the palace. The Captain of the Guard (M.C. Gainey) leads the chase, astride a mighty white stallion named Maximus.

And within 15 seconds, the entire film turns around.

To say that this horse has more personality than any other three characters in this story would be an understatement. I know, from longtime experience, that different animators handle individual characters in a film of this sort; well, the team behind Maximus deserves an extra cookie after dinner for the next month.

Maximus is more dog than horse: ferociously intelligent, resourceful and shrewd; a master tracker, able to snuffle out any hidden sneak thief; and blessed with the split-second comic timing of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Aladdin’s blue genie.

Maximus introduces an energy that this film has been lacking, and the result is funny: It’s almost as if all the other characters in this bent fairy tale get jealous, and start to work harder. The music also picks up noticeably, with the next song – “I’ve Got a Dream,” a show-stopper in the truest Broadway tradition, sung by a motley crew of tavern thugs – bringing down the house.

Color me surprised, because I’d just about given up on this one.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1: Deathly still

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) • View trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.19.10

Much has changed since this film series began in 2001, starting with its young stars, who’ve grown up – along with their characters – while we watched.

Think back to 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone … Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were so young.
Cornered within the Malfoy estate, with an injured Hermione (Emma Watson)
barely able to stand, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, left) and Ron (Rupert Grint) must
place their fate in the hands of Dobby, the house elf (behind the group).

The most telling transformation, however, has been subtle and a lot more disturbing. The frivolous, kid-oriented delights and challenges of that first book and accompanying film – sorting hats, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, quidditch matches, petulant bullies and 12-foot trolls running rampant in the Hogwarts girls’ bathroom – have given way to child-abusing adults, soul-sucking phantasms, the vicious insanity of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, such a chilling villainess), the malevolent plots of He Who Must Not Be Named (Lord Voldemort, brought to nightmarish life by Ralph Fiennes) and the ill treatment, torture and even death of secondary characters.

With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the first of two halves, at any rate – filmgoers now know what J.K. Rowling’s fans found out, when they devoured this seventh and final book upon its release in the summer of 2007: We definitely ain’t in Kansas any more.

The nasty, world-shattering behavior once left at the edges, and then generally tempered by young love and other teen-oriented pursuits, has taken center stage. Dark times have erupted, and Harry, Hermione and Ron seem utterly helpless to do anything about it.

And that’s rather a problem.

Our three young heroes spend a serious chunk of this picture on the run, camping out in various desolate locales while hoping to evade Voldemort’s followers. Harry and his two best friends bicker amongst themselves, which frankly became tiresome one or two films ago … and even if this rising mutual antagonism is nurtured by an evil locket, it still feels like a serious case of Been There, Done That.

Mostly, though, we wait for something to happen, much the way Harry and his friends await the worst. Although the opportunity for character development is welcome – particularly since it has been too frequently absent, during the more recent films drawn from Rowling’s ever-longer novels – director David Yates never convinces me that this entire film, all 146 minutes of it, is little more than a lenthy prologue for The Good Stuff to come in the second half, due out next summer.

Yep, this one’s just a time-filler, to whet the appetite. That’s rather irritating.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Unstoppable: Unrelenting

Unstoppable (2010) • View trailer for Unstoppable
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.12.10

There’s something about trains.

In the same way that baseball movies are far more interesting than football movies, thrillers set on trains are much more involving than similar stories set on planes, ships, cars or buses. Call it the romance of the rails; call it whatever you like. The simple truth is that train movies touch us profoundly.
Hey, it's a movie about a runaway train ... which means that veteran brakeman
Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) eventually will wind up climbing on top of
the beast and trying to make his way to the engine. Think he'll make it?

Some actors shy away from sharing the screen with children or small animals, lest they be upstaged. Trains can be added to that list; it’s almost as if they’re living, breathing entities with souls of their own.

Buster Keaton dazzled viewers all the way back in 1926, with the train-oriented comedy of The General. Cinema’s avowed master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, understood the power of trains; one of his very first talkies, 1932’s Number 17, climaxed with a furious train and car chase (using a tabletop model train set for much of the “action,” but hey; he did his best). Hitch perfected the template a few years later, with 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, and we’ve thrilled to slick, well-designed train epics ever since.

All of which explains why Unstoppable is such an engaging, hell-for-leather experience … even though director Tony Scott and writer Mark Bomback have crafted a manipulative, overwrought, at times laughably melodramatic Hollywood experience in every sense of the phrase.

Doesn’t matter. It’s a train movie, and an impressively mounted one. Surrender your cynical skepticism, sit back and prepare to enjoy the ride, ’cause Scott orchestrates this thriller with the seasoned hand of a master conductor.

Although an opening crawl suggests that the story to follow is “inspired” by actual events, that should be taken with a grain of salt. Bomback’s screenplay is Tinseltown artifice through and through, although it does unfold due to the sort of numb-nuts carelessness that resulted in the October 2008 Metrolink commuter train crash in California, when its engineer distracted himself by texting … and plowed into a freight train, killing himself and 24 other people.

Fair Game: Cheaters prosper

Fair Game (2010) • View trailer for Fair Game
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

I can’t imagine how he did it.

You’re wakened in the middle of the night by soft rustling and an empty spot in the bed; you hasten downstairs just in time to catch your wife quietly leaving, suitcase packed. She smiles apologetically, sorry to have bothered you, explains that all the necessary details for the next few days are on a note on the refrigerator.
After her life has been ruined by a heinous news leak, Valerine Plame (Naomi
Watts) and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), argue over how best to
"fight back" ... and, indeed, whether it's even possible to successfully wage
a war of words against the White House.

You stare at each other. You finally break the silence, voicing the thoughts that must run through your mind every time this scenario takes place: Where are you going? How long will you be gone? How would I even know if something went wrong?

Her gaze softens; she pauses, then gives the answer that is part rote, part edict, part private joke: “I’m going to Cleveland.”

Except she isn’t, and you both know it.

Valerie Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, must have repeated this ritual scores of times. She never went to Cleveland; as a member of the CIA’s covert ops team, she’d frequently wind up halfway around the world. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as leader of the agency’s Joint Task Force on Iraq, she was responsible for infiltrating Saddam Hussein’s weapons program.

Back at home, though, Plame was simply a wife and mother, raising two young twins with Wilson: a former ambassador to Niger, acknowledged hero after facing off Hussein in the immediate wake of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Their friends knew her as a venture capitalist; she tended to remain quiet during the politically charged conversations that took place when they invited folks over for dinner.

Director Doug Liman and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth begin Fair Game quietly, almost casually, sketching the workaday dynamic between Plame (Naomi Watts) and Wilson (Sean Penn). They’re polar opposites in temperament: She’s calm and methodical; he’s brash and impulsive. She knows how and when to remain silent; he can’t help calling somebody an idiot if the conversation moves into “stupid territory.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Morning Glory: Partly Cloudy

Morning Glory (2010) • View trailer for Morning Glory
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

I’ve got good news for those who’ve waited years for a smart, personable young starlet to inherit the Romantic Comedienne Throne left vacant ever since Meg Ryan flamed out after 1998’s You’ve Got Mail.

Good news, in the form of two words: Rachel McAdams.
Whether appealing to his integrity, brow-beating or begging, the perky and
persuasive Becky (Rachel McAdams) can't get Mike (Harrison Ford) to climb
off his high horse long enough to become an active participant in her
morning TV show.

She fits the job requirement to perfection, and tosses in a few charming ingredients all her own. Her fireball performance in Morning Glory can’t help being the center of attention; hands down, she’s always the most interesting person in the room.

Her career-driven character in this story is endearing despite our frequently wanting to strangle her: playfully erotic while somehow tantalizingly unapproachable; whip-smart and savvy although possessing not the slightest clue about how to put her own best foot forward. Hard-charging, yet vulnerable. Dedicated, determined, loyal and utterly oblivious to negative vibes that would send lesser mortals shrieking to a safer realm.

The “realm” in question here is the dog-eat-dog world of a fourth-ranked television morning show: the happy-chat purgatory that disgorges perky “infotainment” delivered by on-air talking heads surgically unable to stop smiling.

The modern TV creation where actual “news” long ago perished from malnutrition.

Aline Brosh McKenna’s script doesn’t dwell overmuch on network TV’s complicity in the dumbing-down of America, but the implication is felt. The game has changed because the goals have changed: Where once the industry respected and rewarded journalists who dug up and reported stories of merit and substance, and the race reflected a healthy desire to scoop everybody else with the next Watergate or Valerie Plame scandal, now it’s just a sprint to the overnight and weekly ratings … and if that means cooking segments, stupid pet tricks and sending desk anchors out in funny costumes, well, devil take the hindmost.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: Not Much Sting

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2010) • View trailer for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and smarmy content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.5.10

Continuity of vision may not be essential when adapting a rigorously interlaced series of books to the big screen … but it’s certainly desirable.

The guiding hands of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh obviously contributed to the richly textured success of all three Lord of the Rings films. And who but Francis Ford Coppola could have interwoven the two timelines of Godfather Part II so seamlessly into its predecessor?
Although accused of murder and facing the possibility of renewed
imprisonment in a psychiatric ward, Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) refuses
to compromise the image that has served her so well ... and struts
into the courtroom in full punk regalia.

Vexingly, the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who books, although made almost concurrently, are scripted by three different writers and directed by two different individuals. Daniel Alfredson, who helmed the middle installment, has returned for the final chapter in the trilogy.

I don’t understand this revolving-door approach; surely a savvy producer should have recognized the value of artistic continuity. After all, those same guiding hands were smart enough to hang onto Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist – both still in top form, as the emotionally damaged Lisbeth Salander and her hard-charging journalistic champion, Mikael Blomkvist – so why not take similar care behind the scenes?

The unhappy result of such scattershot filmmaking is the realization, now that the trilogy has concluded with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, that Alfredson simply isn’t right for this material. His handling of this film is even less viscerally involving than the previous entry, and Ulf Ryberg’s screenplay is a discouraging disappointment: an overly talky thriller that might have been fine with a different set of characters, but not these characters, darn it!

In fairness, Larsson’s third novel is partly to blame; the author obviously suffered from a (not unreasonable) desire to wrap up his saga with exhaustive detail. But here, again, we perceive the value of more talented hands: Director Niels Arden Oplev and screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg brilliantly condensed Larsson’s dense prose while making the first film, wisely concentrating on developing suspense and the character interplay between Lisbeth and Mikael, while downplaying Larsson’s tendency to over-write. (Let’s face it: The second hundred pages or so of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are a truly tedious slog.)