Friday, October 28, 2011

Puss in Boots: The cat's pajamas

Puss in Boots (2011) • View trailer for Puss in Boots
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.28.11

I greeted the impending arrival of Puss in Boots, roughly a year ago, with a skeptical eye.

Popular sidekicks, putting too much faith in their perceived importance, occasionally make a bid for personal stardom. The effort rarely succeeds, although Hollywood seems to encourage such behavior; the television landscape is littered with the remnants of secondary characters spun off into their own shows ... which generally tank in record time.
Having climbed a most unusual beanstalk and reached a verdant land above the
clouds, our mercenary heroes — from left, Humpty Dumpty (disguised as a
golden egg), Kitty Softpaws and Puss in Boots — part the vegetation and
glimpse a most amazing sight.

The reason? Basic chemistry. Supporting characters who “work” as part of an ensemble fail on their own because the formula’s other equally important ingredients have been left behind.

Exceptions exist, but several dozen bombs such as The Ropers (from Three’s Company) and The Tortellis (Cheers) exist for every Frasier (also Cheers) and Angel (Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But despite such dreadful odds, folks keep trying.

Nor is the big screen immune to such behavior; The Scorpion King, derived from the recent Mummy series, certainly did nothing for Dwayne Johnson’s career.

Granted, things are different with animated characters: no egos involved. All of which brings us to Puss in Boots, named for the suave feline sword-wielder from the Shrek series, voiced with such hilarious swagger by Antonio Banderas ... and he’s no less entertaining here. Put simply, Banderas was born to voice this character; he’s one cool cat.

Chalk up this spinoff, then, under the “successful” column. Director Chris Miller’s prequel — these events take place before Puss meets up with the jolly green ogre — offers a solid plot and all the snarky humor that has made the Shrek entries so much fun.

That said, Puss’ roster of supporting players isn’t quite as memorable. Zach Galifianakis’ Humpty Dumpty is a pale shadow of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey, and we don’t get nearly as many incidental storybook characters to spice up various scenes. But — credit where due — Salma Hayek contributes plenty of spunk as the saucy, catty Kitty Softpaws, a spirited hellcat with the allure to corral Puss’ roving eye and make his fur fly.

Banderas and Hayek easily hold this film together, even when dealing with the generally bland and annoying Galifianakis.

All good-hearted rogues of classical myths are wronged heroes, and Puss is no different. We meet him as a wanted fugitive; the details behind his “crime” date back to his origins as an orphan in the hard-scrabble town of San Ricardo, where as a kitten he befriends a shunned young egg dubbed Humpty Dumpty. The two become inseparable best buds, sharing a dream involving fabled magic beans that, if planted properly, will produce a beanstalk that rises to a giant’s castle ... and, most importantly, a goose that lays golden eggs.

In Time: Fast-paced sci-fi thriller

In Time (2011) • View trailer for In Time
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, sexuality, fleeting nudity and profanity
By Derrick Bang

Andrew Niccol has quite an imagination.

The New Zealand-born writer/director landed with a splash in 1997 with Gattaca, an intriguing sci-fi thriller that has aged well. Then Niccol really caught my attention with his Oscar-nominated script for The Truman Show, the following year: truly a work of genius.
Will (Justin Timberlake, center), out of his element in fancy dress, and
surrounded by wealthy people who instinctively realize that he doesn't belong,
nonetheless catches the eye of the headstrong Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried),
daughter of corporate titan Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser).

The Truman Show anticipated the realty TV craze that subsequently infested the world; Niccol’s next film, S1m0ne, explored the ethical parameters likely to emerge if computer-enhanced substitutes replace actual film and television stars (an issue that subsequently hit the headlines when advertising companies began to use dead celebrities such as John Wayne and Fred Astaire, shilling for — respectively — Coors Light and Dirt Devil).

All of which brings us to In Time, Niccol’s intriguing sci-fi spin on our real world’s increasingly deplorable divide of wealth between the have-nots and the have-everythings. Such social commentary notwithstanding, though, the approach here is more exploitative than contemplative; this is a B-thriller in fancy dress.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; plenty of gritty — and quite entertaining — action flicks have made excellent use of sci-fi elements, from 1973’s Soylent Green to 2009’s Echelon Conspiracy.

Here, in Nichol’s rather disturbing view of the future, immortality has been achieved: Everybody ages normally to 25, and then never looks a day older. One’s mother, sister and daughter become de facto physical peers ... which leads to some amusingly disorienting issues.

But the world’s resources are finite, and the entire population cannot be allowed to live forever. Ergo, time has become money ... literally. Somehow, everybody is born with a body clock embedded within the lower left arm. (We cannot ask how this occurs, or was allowed to happen; reasonable questions have no role in this scenario.) On a person’s 25th birthday, an inner clock starts ticking downward for one final year of life.

Except that it’s far less than a year, because everything in this world — food, clothes, lodging, entertainment — also costs time: an hour for a bus ride, several hours for a meal. This “price” is withdrawn electronically from one’s inner time-meter; should that meter drop to zero, heart failure and instant death follow.

The rich and powerful never need to worry about time; they control its use — and frequently misuse — in the manner of rapacious Wall Street brokers. Working-class citizens are a different story; they rarely have more than 24 hours on their body clocks, and must toil every day, in factories, to earn another day of precious life. Many fail.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Johnny English Reborn: Sporadically silly spy spoof

Johnny English Reborn (2011) • View trailer for Johnny English Reborn
Three stars. Rating: PG, for mild action violence, occasional rude humor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.11

Rowan Atkinson’s expressions are to die for, and his best moments in Johnny English Reborn are priceless.

Alas, moments do not a movie make.
While junior agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya, right) watches from a discreet
distance, MI-7 director Thornton (Gillian Anderson) warns Johnny English
(Rowan Atkinson) that times have moved beyond the unacceptable behavior
of traditionally chauvinistic secret agents, and that — as a result — she won't
tolerate any of his old, cheeky ways.

I first encountered Atkinson in 1983, when he had the small but quite memorable role as the hapless Nigel Small-Fawcett, a bureaucratic drone supporting Sean Connery’s last hurrah as James Bond, in Never Say Never Again. Despite being surrounded by the usual action-laden 007 escapades, Atkinson’s role felt designed for his specific comedic talents.

Sad to confess, I somehow missed Atkinson’s career-making work in Blackadder. He next hit my radar in 1990 or ’91, when one of his first Mr. Bean sketches popped up as a short prior to a movie screening; this was at least a year before HBO began importing this series to the States.

Rarely have I laughed so hard at a five-minute comedy bit.

Now convinced, I caught up with Blackadder and started clocking his occasional big-screen efforts: highly memorable supporting roles in The Tall Guy, The Witches, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually and a few others.

Then he brought Mr. Bean to the big screen: the first time not too well, the second time more successfully.

By this point, Atkinson’s predicament had become apparent. Like Tim Conway, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams, Atkinson is funniest when allowed to improvise and play to his own comedic strengths, which are considerable. That’s why his movie guest spots are so successful; he essentially plays variations on the hapless Mr. Bean or the sneering Edmund Blackadder.

But if welded to a script — or to the requirements of a specific genre — Atkinson winds up out of his comfort zone. Part of the problem, and this is a tragic thing to say, is that Atkinson is far better as a supporting player than a star. He can own short, individual moments of slapstick genius; carrying a film is a different matter.

That’s why 1997’s big-screen Bean was such a disappointment. The original Mr. Bean sketches ran no more than 10 or 15 minutes; the best ones were even shorter. The character wasn’t designed for an 85-minute movie, and the sequences between priceless bits dragged like the chains behind Marley’s Ghost.

2007’s sequel, Mr. Bean’s Vacation, did a better job of playing to the character’s strengths, but — because a full-length movie demands as much — Mr. Bean still was forced to develop relationships. Which simply isn’t in the character’s nature.

Margin Call: Grim tidings

Margin Call (2011) • View trailer for Margin Call
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Moving into the third act of writer/director J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, I was reminded of the war room discussions in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 adaptation of Dr. Strangelove, particularly when Peter Sellers’ U.S. President Merkin Muffley and George C. Scott’s Gen. Buck Turgidson argue over “collateral damage.”
Having survived a devastating company layoff, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto)
attempts to settle down for a "normal" day's work. But a financial time bomb is
ticking away in his pocket: the parting gift from a veteran risk analyst who was
escorted out of the building that same morning. Eventually, as day turns to night,
Peter will examine the files on that flash drive ... and then nothing will be the same.

“Mr. President,” Turgidson finally insists, “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

The point, of course — delivered with every possible ounce of chilling satire — is that nobody in this room, filled as it is with people responsible for the safety of the entire United States, has the faintest idea what would happen during an all-out nuclear war. And yet they still argue over “acceptable losses.”

Just as everybody in the board room of the fictitious investment firm in Margin Call debates the acceptable losses certain to arise in the wake of a proposed we’re-first-into-the-lifeboat desperation ploy.

Hell, it’s worse than that. They’re not simply commandeering the first lifeboat; they’re scuttling all the others.

I’m not sure the public is ready for this suggestion of how the 2008 financial crisis kicked off; my own interest was guarded, upon entering the theater. It’s simply too soon: The real-world wound remains too fresh, the resulting carnage still plain in every drawn and desperate face, every freshly foreclosed and empty home that once contained a family that still believed in the American dream.

I worried that Chandor would trivialize actual history, or — worse yet — attempt to build sympathy for the greedy, soulless bastards who fiddled while Wall Street burned.

But, as it turns out, Chandor is much smarter and shrewder than that. He’s also a sharp scripter and a damn fine director, and Margin Call is an extremely impressive feature debut for a fellow whose sole previous credit was a short back in 2004.

Granted, Chandor also had the good sense to assemble an impressive cast ... but a director still needs to know how to encourage excellent work. And he draws fine performances from all concerned.

Chandor’s most brilliant stroke, however, was to resist the temptation to imagine what truly occurred in the late summer of 2008. We can assume that his script evokes Lehman Brothers, and that the two days depicted here offer a guess as to what may have gone down behind closed doors, before that august firm filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008.

But it doesn’t really matter. Chandor’s build-up is absorbing, and the subsequent character interactions generate the intensity of a solid, well-acted stage play. We eventually share the horror of those who recognize a catastrophe only after it’s too late to attempt a recovery.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Big Year: For the birders

The Big Year (2011) • View trailer for The Big Year
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.14.11

The combined billing of Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black immediately suggests wild ’n’ crazy one-upsmanship, but — happily — The Big Year is rather sweet, leaning more toward mild whimsy than unrestrained slapstick.
The battle lines are drawn quickly, when three dedicated birders — from left,
Kenny (Owen Wilson), Stu (Steve Martin) and Brad (Jack Black) — decide to
try for a "Big Year," by spotting more bird species in 365 days than anybody
else. But will the result be worth the necessary sacrifices?

Credit director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me), who clearly understands the importance of reasonably grounded characters. Then, too, Frankel also has a can’t-miss premise in Howard Franklin’s screenplay, which is “inspired by” Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book.

Obmascik was a journalist with the Denver Post when he wrote this more-or-less factual account of a rather bizarre “extreme sport” among birders, known as the North American Big Year. Participants spend 365 days chasing across the continental United States and Canada, compiling bird sightings and hoping to spot more species than anybody else. There is no prize, beyond the thrill of the hunt and the glory of peer acknowledgment.

Obmascik followed three top contenders in the 1998 challenge; these men, in turn, have been brought to life — more or less — by Martin, Wilson and Black.

The reigning Big Year champion, with an all-time high score of 732 sightings, is Kenny Bostick (Wilson), a contractor by trade who is looking to defend his title ... much to the dismay of his wife, Jessica (Rosamund Pike), who’s looking to start a family. Bostick is simultaneously the object of admiration and scorn among birders; they love to hear his stories, and they grudgingly admire his success.

But they also loathe his smug, know-it-all attitude. Everybody would love to see Kenny lose his crown; at the same time, there’s no question that he displays a level of single-minded dedication that deserves to be recognized.

Stu Preissler is a wealthy industrialist who, thus far, has let work interfere with family life and personal dreams. He has twice retired from the company he founded and built into a corporate titan; he hopes, this time, to walk away clean and make a serious bid for Big Year fame. Stu’s wife, Edith (JoBeth Williams), couldn’t be more supportive.

Last — and, in his own mind, least — is Brad Harris (Black), a nuclear plant software coder who hates his dead-end job and pines for some way to make a more significant mark. Brad looks back at a failed marriage and earlier failed careers; he lives at home with a mother who adores him (Dianne Wiest, as Brenda) and a father (Brian Dennehy, as Raymond) who regards him as a no-account doofus unable to see anything through.

Trouble is, Brad secretly fears that his father may be right.

Footloose: A bit TOO loose

Footloose (2011) • View trailer for Footloose
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sensuality, violence, and teen drug and alcohol use
By Derrick Bang

Those with the chutzpah to re-visit an older film need to remember the essential rule of remakes: They’d better be at least as good as — if not better — than the original. Otherwise, what’s the point?

And since few filmmakers are interested in remaking bad films, that generally sets the bar pretty high.
Ariel (Julianne Hough, center) loves showing off her hot little body, much to
the amusement of Ren (Kenny Wormald, at her right), and a massive country
line dance is a great place to kick up one's heels. Although this dance sequence
and others display plenty of energy, this remake doesn't have nearly as much
heart — or savvy restraint — as the 1984 original.

Director Craig Brewer broke the rule.

At first blush, he seems an odd choice for a remake of 1984’s Footloose. Brewer’s most visible credentials include 2005’s Hustle and Flow and 2006’s Black Snake Moan, both quite gritty, vulgar and sexually charged. The latter, thanks to an eye-popping star-slut turn from Christina Ricci, is almost a masterpiece of hilariously bad behavior.

And, in fact, misguided dollops of vulgarity are the first problem with Brewer’s update of Footloose. Most of the off-color remarks spring from the lips of Willard (Miles Teller), the cornpone best bud whom Boston-bred Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) cultivates after a forced moved to Hicksville USA, otherwise known as the sleepy town of Bomont.

Willard’s of the opinion that Bomont would be more tolerable with regularly scheduled wet T-shirt contests, and he’s not above asking a waitress — during a brief visit to a rowdy big-city nightspot — whether the barmaids serve drinks stuffed between their boobies. Actually, he may have said titties, but it scarcely matters; the line fell with the thud of cast iron.

Not that a kid like Willard wouldn’t have said such a thing; it’s probably perfectly in character, in the real world. But not for this character, and not in this story.

Brewer — who also takes a co-scripting credit, for “expanding upon” Dean Pitchford’s original story — thumbs up the volume of the original film’s core elements, apparently assuming that this is the difference between life in 1984 and life in 2011. As a result, the plot elements are meaner, and everybody here is louder, cruder, nastier and — with respect to some of the patronizing adults — more aggressively stupid.

Dennis Quaid needlessly hammers the arrogantly pious mien of the Rev. Shaw Moore, a role handled with much better grace and subtlety by John Lithgow, back in ’84. The villain of this story, a thuggish lout named Chuck, challenged Ren to a tractor duel back in ’84; this time — with Chuck given homicidal inclinations by Patrick John Flueger — it’s a four-way demolition derby with tricked-up school buses, in a scene that rather oddly evokes Mad Max and The Road Warrior.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Real Steel: A knock-out

Real Steel (2011) • View trailer for Real Steel
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action, brief violence and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.7.11

Well, color me surprised.

Previews for Real Steel made it look like an unholy marriage between Rocky and Transformers, with the worst qualities of both.
Unable to control their robot via the usual headset or touchpad interface, Charlie
(Hugh Jackman, left) activates its "shadow" mode, which allows the machine to
mimic every move it sees. Young Max (Dakota Goyo) understands the
significance of this decision: It means that Charlie will rely on his own boxing
skills. But will they be enough?

And, true enough, this new robot boxing film does resemble a mash-up of those two elements, with dollops of The Champ thrown in for good measure ... not to mention a rather clever nod to the original Richard Matheson story.

The patchwork result shouldn’t work ... but it does. Real Steel is hokey and cornier than a Frank Capra melodrama, but it’s a crowd-pleasing delight nonetheless. Tuesday evening’s preview audience cheered in all the right spots; the enthusiasm level was so high, rolling into the third act, that folks couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.

Stars Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo deserve a lot of credit. So does John Rosengrant, for his smashing animatronic robot designs.

But the real star is director Shawn Levy, who has moved beyond his usual broad slapstick — Night at the Museum, Date Night and the Pink Panther revival — to put genuine heart into this crazy-quilt flick. Levy deftly avoids the overstated farce that characterizes (and often ruined) most of his previous films, and coaxes heartfelt performances while maintaining the proper atmosphere for the hybrid narrative scripted by John Gatins, from a story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (based on the aforementioned Matheson piece).

Like Cowboys and Aliens, Real Steel is a blend of disparate elements, in this case futuristic robotics and contemporary working-class angst. That was true of Matheson’s original short story, as well, which was made into a nifty 1963 episode of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, with Lee Marvin in the role more or less inhabited here by Jackman.

The “near future” 2020 setting is an odd mix of technology and old-fashioned rodeos, carnivals and inner-city training gyms. The vehicles, clothes, social behavior and architecture feel quite contemporary, but the sport of boxing has been declared off-limits for human beings, who’ve been replaced in the ring by 8-foot battling ’bots.

No more loss of life or permanent brain damage ... and besides, as any kid who ever owned a set of Mattel’s Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots knows full well, watching ’bots bash each other is way cool.

Even so, washed-up former prizefighter Charlie Kenton (Jackman) hasn’t adjusted to the change. Now reduced to touring the underground boxing circuit, trying to secure matches for dilapidated rejects from the World Robot Boxing League, Charlie is forever one step ahead of various creditors who’d cheerfully break his legs in lieu of cash.

Worse yet, Charlie isn’t very adept at the robot remote controls. Unable to translate his hard-learned skills to joysticks and touchpads, he has the sad habit of coming out a loser.

The Ides of March: Predictable political maneuvering

The Ides of March (2011) • View trailer for The Ides of March
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang

Despite some powerhouse acting and well-sculpted characters, The Ides of March ultimately delivers a message that hardly comes as a surprise: Politicians will lie, cheat and betray with impunity. Angel-eyed claims to the contrary, they’d toss their grandmothers under a bus in exchange for a few points in the polls.
Press spokesman Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling, center) feeds some sample
questions to Democratic presidential primary candidate Mike Morris (George
Clooney, far left), while members of the campaign staff watch. Such rehearsals
are essential, since Morris must be able to deflect any question posed by the
public or members of the press ... and Myers must anticipate such questions.

No ... really?

The story — adapted by Beau Willimon, George Clooney and Grant Heslov from Willimon’s play, Farragut North — concerns one man’s loss of idealism, but even that isn’t news. Unchecked passion has been dangerous for centuries, because — particularly in the political animal — it inevitably allows one to believe that the end always justifies the means, no matter how ultimately misguided the latter.

The Ides of March is Clooney’s third time in the director’s chair, and it’s easy to see why he was drawn to Willimon’s play; Clooney never has been shy about his political activism. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the fact that he has chosen a narrative that speaks less to the homespun optimism of, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and more to the dirty-tricks cynicism running throughout All the President’s Men.

Ultimately, though, the significant plot points here — and particularly the resolution — aren’t nearly as captivating as Good Night and Good Luck, which Clooney also directed and co-scripted with Heslov. That film painted a far more intriguing picture of Edward R. Murrow and the tempestuous early days of television news: a time when it did seem possible for integrity and virtue to triumph.

No more, alas.

Ryan Gosling, enjoying a phenomenal year, stars as Stephen Myers, press spokesman to Democratic presidential primary candidate Mike Morris (Clooney, granting himself this deliberately — and misleadingly — superficial supporting role). Myers has the gifts of gab, finesse and sincerity; he works the media like a veteran conductor extracting the best from each member of an orchestra.

Myers has the added benefit, this time, of believing in his cause. He regards Morris as the real deal; as New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) notes, with more than a little surprise, Myers has “drunk the Kool-Aid.”

The story is set during the tempestuous week leading up to the Ohio primary, where Morris — coasting with a comfortable lead in delegates — is campaigning against underdog Sen. Pullman (Michael Mantell). The latter is a relatively clumsy Democratic candidate, since he insists on playing the Christianity card; Morris, thanks to his own good instincts and scripted answers fine-tuned by Myers and campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has little trouble deflecting his opponent’s religiously loaded questions.

1911 Revolution: Tedious history lesson

1911: Revolution (2011) • View trailer for 1911: Revolution
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for war violence
By Derrick Bang

Although quite emphatically a nation-changing war drama writ large, 1911: Revolution is advertised with star Jackie Chan’s dignified image dominating all poster art. Additionally, much is being made of the fact that this is his 100th movie.
Having witnessed and survived another failed uprising by revolutionary forces
overwhelmed by the superior weaponry of the corrupt Qing dynasty's so-called
New Army, military strategist Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) and his wife, Xu
Zhonghan (Lee Bing Bing) contemplate the horrific loss of life and wonder
what the next step possibly could be.

This sets up certain expectations, particularly in this country, where Chan is known for his balletic Hong Kong martial-arts flicks and his more recent American action comedies. Indeed, Chan is his own cinematic sub-genre; he’s as unique to martial-arts movies as Fred Astaire was to dance films in the 1930s and ’40s.

And, like Astaire, Chan has turned to more serious roles as he has aged. To his credit, he handles such parts reasonably well ... but fans need to understand that 1911: Revolution is not graced with his signature athletic prowess. (Well, he gets one quick skirmish; I guess he couldn’t help himself.)

Chan and Li Zhang share directing credits on this film, the latter debuting in that role after a successful career as a cinematographer on historical dramas such as The Banquet and the two-part Red Cliff series. Zhang’s attempted transition is clumsy, to say the least.

Although 1911: Revolution clearly is a labor of love, with a huge cast and an ambitious historical tapestry, Zhang’s style is simply wrong. This is a very serious story — the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which led to the fall of the 250-year-old Qing Dynasty and the (sadly brief) rise of the first Republic of China — but the tone here is operatic, the performances baroque and often overstated.

The realistically grim battlefield sequences are at odds with the maneuvering and deal-making taking place behind closed doors, particularly all machinations involving the Qing Empress Dowager Longyu (Joan Chen) and her imperial court ministers. These characters are so exaggerated — with over-the-top “acting” designed for the back row of the second balcony — that they’re essentially held up as figures of ridicule.

(Longyu speaks for emperor-to-be Puyi, still a young child during these events; to put this into cinematic context, Puyi is the title character of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 Oscar favorite, The Last Emperor.)

Longyu and her ministers were corrupt and despicable, to be sure, but they were no less dangerous; mocking them undercuts the difficulties that faced Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao), as he attempted to plead China’s potential as an emerging republic to doubtful investors in Europe and the United States. Similarly, Longyu and her ministers are responsible for the thousands of lives lost as various early Chinese uprisings sputtered and died after facing the Qing court’s massive New Army.