Friday, November 25, 2011

Hugo: A true sense of wonder

Hugo (2011) • View trailer for Hugo
4.5 stars. Rating: PG, and too harshly, for mild peril and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.25.11

This Thanksgiving weekend is impressively stuffed with family films, and the best is the one you’ve heard the least about.

Hugo isn’t merely a great film; it’s a spellbinding experience: one of the most loving, heartfelt valentines to the art of movie-making since 1988’s Cinema Paradiso.
After Hugo (Asa Butterfield, left) finally wins the grudging tolerance of the train
station toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), the older man delights the boy with
sleight-of-hand card tricks. As Hugo soon is to discover, this gruff gentleman
possesses a wealth of hidden talent.

It’s also stunningly gorgeous, from cinematographer Robert Richardson’s first sweeping pan of France’s Gare Montparnasse train station — the story’s primary setting — to the luxurious vistas of a postcard-perfect Paris. It’s the sort of heightened-reality Paris that never really existed, except in the minds of those who adore the city ... and in on-screen fantasies such as An American in Paris, Amélie and this year’s Midnight in Paris.

Indeed, director Martin Scorsese’s sparkling approach here strongly evokes the playful, exquisite oeuvre of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has granted us access to his creatively whimsical dreams in films such as Amélie, City of Lost Children and Micmacs.

I hesitate to explain too much about Hugo, because much of its charm derives from not knowing where John Logan’s captivating screenplay will go next. Those familiar with Brian Selznick’s 2007 Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret — on which Logan based his script — will know, but everybody else deserves an opportunity to be swept along for a truly enthralling ride.

Hugo is one of those rare films that truly exploits the medium. This isn’t merely radio with pictures; you’ll want to savor every frame, every inch of production designer Dante Ferretti’s opulent sets. Too few movies deliver a true sense of wonder; this one does.

The year is 1931: a time of euphoria for those who believed that “the Great War” had put an end to conflict between nations. The year also is significant as the last gasp of silent filmmaking, before talkies would take over: a fact central to this story.

The Gare Montparnasse hustles and bustles with arrivals and departures, the waves of humanity tempted to linger at the little shops, stalls and cafés deposited, almost capriciously, within the cavernous building’s maze-like corners and hallways.

High overhead, unobserved by all those below, young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) tends the station’s many clocks, making his way along a concealed rabbit warren of tiny corridors, narrow stairways and dangerous ladders in order to oil, wind and repair — as necessary — all the magnificently detailed clockwork mechanisms that help travelers reach their destinations on time.

Hugo has the scruffy, ill-kempt appearance of a boy on his own: a life to which he has become accustomed, for reasons we’ll eventually learn. He has the station’s rhythm down to a science, and has become proficient at the art of snatching warm croissants and the occasional bottle of milk.

The Muppets: Being green is fun again

The Muppets (2011) • View trailer for The Muppets
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

The new Muppets film quite cleverly addresses a real-world puzzler that has vexed fans for years: Where have Kermit and all his friends been hiding?
Gary (Jason Segel, right) and Walter do everything together, as would be
expected of any two devoted brothers. But as the years have passed, Walter has
become increasingly aware that he's, ah, a bit different from Gary and their
other two-legged friends and neighbors. The solution? An unlikely road trip,
during which Walter will get to meet others of "his kind."

The colorful felt creations who ruled television with The Muppet Show from 1976 through ’81, simultaneously jumping to the big screen with an equally popular series of films, have been missing in theaters since 1999’s rather odd Muppets from Space. Occasional TV specials such as 2005’s ill-advised The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz have done little to keep the brand alive.

True, Kermit and his pals have rather mischievously — and memorably — popped up in whimsical YouTube shorts. But when it came to the movies, I’d begun to wish that Pixar’s John Lasseter would step in and exert some of his can’t-miss creative control.

Jason Segel beat him to the punch.

Yes, the Jason Segel best known for his roles in crass, numbnuts comedies such as Knocked Up and I Love You, Man, and for his ongoing run on television’s saucy How I Met Your Mother, and for rather oddly going full-frontal as the lovesick loser in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Not exactly the first fella who springs to mind, when contemplating a revival of the Muppets.

But it turns out that Segel has been a fan, like, forever, and he currently wields enough industry clout to help make dreams come true. Which brings us to The Muppets, which at its best definitely captures the sweet, silly, family-friendly hijinks and unlikely adventures experienced (and endured) by a gentle frog, a feisty pig and their dozens and dozens of colorful cohorts in crime.

Credit also goes to (human) co-star Amy Adams, who brings her own trouper’s “enchanted” spirit to several of the deliberately corny song-and-dance numbers that populate this gaudy farce. Most of these tunes are wincingly inane — one hopes that songwriter Bret McKenzie intended them this way — and performed, particularly by Segel, with a wide-eyed earnestness that will elicit either hysterical giggles or gape-jawed stares of disbelief.

In fairness, this is a longtime element of the successful Muppet formula; the original TV series delighted in putting celebrity guests into unlikely production numbers, and the line of willing “victims” certainly never got shorter during the show’s enormously popular five-year run. Segel and his behind-the-scenes cronies try hard to echo that manic vibe, and at times they catch the magic.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Like Crazy: Sweet and revealing

Like Crazy (2011) • View trailer for Like Crazy
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.18.11

Raw, painfully vulnerable intimacy has become a calling card in recent indie dramas, with 2008’s Rachel Getting Married and last year’s Blue Valentine — and its shattering portrait of Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams and a marriage in crisis — setting a very high bar.
Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) can't get enough of each other,
as their relationship blossoms; they hunger for the intimacy of every shared
moment. The question, though, is what will happen when circumstances
interrupt this courtship at its most fragile juncture: the point when infatuation
ordinarily would transition into deep, abiding love.

Those films now are joined by Like Crazy, a poignant and richly drawn study of young love and the cruel toll extorted by unfortunate timing. Director Drake Doremus — who co-scripted this alternately charming and heartbreaking courtship saga with Ben York Jones — has a masterful eye for the little moments and small, spontaneous gestures that inform a relationship. No surprise, then, that his film took the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Better still, this story is beautifully depicted by stars Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, who wholly inhabit characters that look, sound and move like smitten couples we’ve all known in the apartment next door. Jones and Yelchin share chemistry, impeccable timing and an engaging, naturalistic closeness that transcends the artifice of acting; at times we feel like we’re eavesdropping on something intensely personal.

That said, Doremus’ pacing is slow at times, and his directorial flourishes occasionally overwhelm — and detract from — the emotions bared in this quiet, delicate little charmer. Many of Doremus’ pacing and editing touches are brilliant; others — such as his jump cuts in early scenes — are merely irritating. But he does establish an engaging narrative flow, and Felicity Jones and Yelchin ensure that we’ll be drawn into the story.

Jacob (Yelchin) and Anna (Jones) meet during a college class. He’s intrigued by the intelligent, provocatively worded essay she reads aloud; she notices his doodles of chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture. He’s a California native; she’s an exchange student from London. Drawing upon her creative strength, she “stalks” him with a lengthy letter slipped under his car’s windshield wiper.

Charmed, he calls her; they meet for coffee. Right here, the film’s core strength becomes evident: This awkward, sorta-kinda first date is punctuated by the weird non-sequiturs we all slip into such conversations, when not wanting to reveal too much of ourselves too quickly, but at the same time wanting to come across as, well, brilliant and perfect.

John Guleserian’s camerawork catches all the essential details: Anna’s shy, nervous expressions; Jacob’s somewhat more self-assured replies. (What guy wouldn’t be pleased by the attention of such an intelligent and attractive young woman?)

They easily slip into the giddy early days of a relationship: the free-spirited outings; the initial tingling frisson of those first kisses; the eventual sweet, mutual surrender late at night, as the lights go out. He makes her a chair; Jones’ squeal of delight — of total, enchanted surprise — could melt steel. She makes him a book of shared memories from their time together: tickets, receipts, photographs and other ephemera, all catalogued with her captivating, adoring prose.

This is Love writ large: infectious, overwhelming, breathtaking.

Friday, November 11, 2011

J. Edgar: Too contrived an agenda

J. Edgar (2011) • View trailer for J. Edgar
2.5 stars. Rating: R, and rather stupidly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.11.11

A fascinating film could be made about the life of notorious FBI autocrat J. Edgar Hoover.

J. Edgar, sadly, is not that film.
As Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, background left) and J. Edgar Hoover
(Leonardo DiCaprio, background center) look on, FBI "wood expert" Arthur
Koehler (Stephen Root) carefully examines bits of the ladder used when the
Lindbergh baby was kidnapper. Koehler insists that he can match the ladder to
the plant where the wood was milled, and therefore confine the kidnapper's
movements to a specific geographic area.

Scripter Dustin Lance Black’s approach to this seminal 20th century figure is boring. Yawningly, crushingly boring.

I expected much better from Black, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay to 2008’s Milk. Unfortunately, in this case he focuses far too much on the clandestine affair between Hoover and longtime associate/companion Clyde Tolson.

Yes, we can lament the fact that Hoover and Tolson lived during unenlightened times, when “the love that dare not speak its name” was something to be concealed, particularly by men in power. And Black certainly intends that we consider the irony that one of the country’s most powerful men, a trader in dirty secrets himself, kept a whopper of his own.

But that would presuppose that Hoover is a man worthy of our sympathy, which isn’t the case. His intelligence, determination and maniacal patriotism notwithstanding, Hoover was — and is, as portrayed here by Leonardo DiCaprio — a venal, arrogant control freak, blackmailer and political kingpin every bit as corrupt as the headline-making gangsters his nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation helped bring down in the 1930s.

Hoover does not deserve our compassion, nor does he deserve the strawberry-lensed portrait that director Clint Eastwood grants him. And this Hoover certainly doesn’t merit the gentle keyboard theme that dominates the soundtrack: a lyrical eulogy that sounds much like the poignant piano ballads Eastwood composed for The Bridges of Madison County or Million Dollar Baby, but is completely out of place here.

The leaden pacing aside, this film’s other major problem is tone and focus: Both are completely wrong. Black suggests that the complicated relationship with Tolson was the single most important element of Hoover’s character, closely followed by his equally troubled relationship with a domineering mother (Judi Dench, at her waspish best) who’d rather have a “dead son than a daffodil.”

This is one view, and certainly a contributing factor to the elements that stoked Hoover’s growing paranoia, desperation and thirst for control. But Hoover obviously was far more than that, and Black utterly fails in his depiction of the man’s professional career: his genius for organization, his sharp political savvy, his quite accurate insistence that agents of law enforcement need investigative resources superior to the criminals they hope to apprehend.

What emerges is no more than a truncated, Readers Digest Condensed Books version of a very complex life: little more than surface gloss given minimal depth by DiCaprio’s performance.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene: Portrait of paranoia

Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (2011) • View trailer for Martha Marcy Mae Marlene
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, profanity, rape and nudity
By Derrick Bang

If a film’s influence is judged by its ability to linger in the mind, days and weeks later, then Martha Marcy May Marlene is incredibly powerful. Quite some time later, I still can’t get some of its images from my head.
Try as she might, Lucy (Sarah Paulson, left) can't break through the barrier with
which younger sister Martha (Elisabeth Olsen) has surrounded herself.
Something awful happened to Martha, and unless she finds a way to confront
and move past this trauma, it may haunt her forever.

Writer/director Sean Durkin’s psychological drama is at first intriguing, then mildly unsettling and finally downright creepy: far too close to real-world parallels to be dismissed as casual entertainment. (Not that “entertaining” is a word I’d use in the first place.)

That said, both Durkin’s sluggish pacing and his movie’s low-budget origins betray it; the film stock is distractingly grainy, and Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is too dark at times, with a few scenes literally nothing but murk. Much of the dialogue is spoken quietly, and either looped poorly in post-production or not at all; as a result, some of the conversations are difficult to discern.

Fortunately, star Elizabeth Olsen does most of her acting via complex, haunted expressions and phenomenal body language; this is the best portrayal of an irrevocably damaged spirit that I’ve seen in a long time. Olsen is both mesmerizing and unforgettable: quite appropriate, then, that her face is the last thing we see, before the story fades to its final blackout (rather chillingly, I might add).

Durkin opens his film with an idyllic overview of a farming commune somewhere in the woods of upstate New York. This silent montage is bucolic and utopian, with men and women working various chores while young children seek fun in mud puddles.

But this tranquil sequence has a darker side. The first disconcerting sign comes as dinner is served: The men eat first at the single table, taking their time with the meal, while all the women wait — silently — in the next room. After the men leave the table, the women are released to enjoy their own food. The implication is that they get scraps.

The following morning, a lone figure rises early from a “bedroom” strewn with blankets, sleeping bags and ramshackle beds, prone bodies all but lying atop one another. Martha (Olsen) quietly heads downstairs, slides out the front door but is spotted by another young woman; Martha flees into the nearby forest, pursuit not far behind.

She escapes. (Perhaps.) With nowhere else to turn, she phones her long-estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who drops everything to collect Martha and bring her back to a lush, lakeside Connecticut summer home.

Details emerge slowly: much more slowly than they would in real life. This is by design; Durkin parcels out bits of information parsimoniously while cross-cutting between Martha’s terrified flight in the “now,” and her experiences in what eventually emerges as more cult than commune, in the “recent past.”

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tower Heist: Quite a steal

Tower Heist (2011) • View trailer for Tower Heist
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity and snarky sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.4.11

I had to check my calendar, to make sure it wasn’t 1982.

There was Eddie Murphy, as fresh, feisty and funny as he was back in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places. No preening. No mugging. No vanity turns.
Josh (Ben Stiller, far left) and his unlikely crew — from left, Mr. Fitzhugh
(Matthew Broderick), Enrique (Michael Peña), Charlie (Casey Affleck) and
Slide (Eddie Murphy) — case the luxury tower condominiums across the
street, seeking a way to evade FBI agents, police officers and regular staff
members while somehow making their way to the penthouse, where they hope
to find and steal $20 million.

Honestly, Murphy hasn’t been this entertaining in a live-action film for ... well, decades. He’s been an arrogant, self-centered glory hound for so long that I’d forgotten he could be anything else.

And Tower Heist is the perfect vehicle for this vintage, everything-old-is-new-again Eddie Murphy. In many ways, director Brett Ratner’s film even feels retro, as if it might have been made back in the 1970s or ’80s, during the glory days of heist comedies such as The Hot Rock and The Thief Who Came to Dinner.

Yep, this film is that much fun.

Ratner knows this territory, having helmed After the Sunset — a nifty, under-appreciated 2004 heist flick with Pierce Brosnan — in between Rush Hour and X-Men entries. Ratner delivers just the right breezy, light-hearted tone, while granting us a despicable villain to loathe: a guy we’re begging the heroes to take down.

More crucially, Ratner and his four writers — Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage — pay careful attention to every member of an engaging ensemble of characters. And, in the grand tradition of such storylines, they’re the most unlikely “burglars” since Dick Van Dyke oversaw an aristocratic household of larcenous servants in 1967’s Fitzwilly.

The vintage atmosphere notwithstanding, the setting is completely contemporary: a luxury New York Central Park condominium complex dubbed The Tower, where manager Josh Kovaks (Ben Stiller) commutes from Queens — rising at 4:30 a.m. each day — in order to ensure that every last little detail is perfect for each tenant.

That’s every detail, whether dog-sitting an elderly woman’s pampered pooch, warning a philandering husband that his wife has returned three days early from an overseas trip, or running interference as bank officials try to evict destitute former Wall Street broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick).

Josh also enjoys matching wits during chess games played via the Internet with investment titan Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who lives in the penthouse, where his many pleasures include a daily swim in the rooftop pool.

Much as the tenants depend on Josh, he also is respected by his own staff: the beloved elderly doorman, Lester (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who shares old jokes with anybody who will listen; a feisty maid, Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe, well remembered from Precious), who takes guff from nobody; the evasive Miss Iovenko (Nina Arianda), clandestinely studying for the bar while insisting she’s doing no such thing; and newly hired Enrique Dev’Reaux (Michael Peña), a bellhop/elevator operator-in-training delighted to have traded up from his former position at Burger King.

Oh, yes: and Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s brother-in-law, who works as The Tower’s concierge and isn’t nearly as savvy as he imagines himself.