Friday, November 30, 2012

Anna Karenina: A tale oddly told

Anna Karenina (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, and rather harshly, for mild sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.30.12

Artistic vision is captivating — or clever — to the point at which it calls too much attention to itself, and interferes with the story.

Try as she might, Anna (Keira Knightley) cannot shake her growing infatuation with the
dashing Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The resulting affair will prove scandalous in
every respect ... not that this heavily stylized film makes us care a whit.
In effect, the tail then wags the dog; we’re too frequently aware of the artifice, at the expense of plot and character development. Empathy and identification become difficult, if not impossible.

Director Joe Wright’s handling of Leo Tolstoy’s venerable Anna Karenina is radiant and ferociously inventive, thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s luminescent cinematography and, most notably, Sarah Greenwood’s brilliant production design. The film is a thing of great artistic beauty, and we cannot help being enchanted — initially — by its sheer, magnificent theatricality.

But the artifice soon becomes tiresome, which exposes the oddly flat and vexingly mannered performances. Celebrated playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard undoubtedly deserves equal credit (or blame) for this vision; I’m disappointed, however, that this abbreviated, heavily stylized handling of Tolstoy lacks the narrative snap and sparkling dialogue that brought Stoppard a well-deserved Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love. (He also was nominated, along with Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown, for writing 1985’s Brazil.)

Indeed, despite all the bosom-heaving melodrama present in Tolstoy’s novel, this newest adaptation of Anna Karenina is a curiously bloodless affair.

Wright’s approach best can be described as a stylized blend of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (absent the music), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and the popular stage farce Noises Off. Luhrmann’s flamboyant musical told its story as the characters improbably broke into song; Greenaway’s saga unfolded as the camera tracked horizontally, apparently seamlessly, between events taking place in various settings ... as if characters wandered into and out of fully dressed stages in half a dozen impossibly connected theaters.

Toss in Noises Off, for its behind-the-scenes antics — the stuff we’re never supposed to see — and the result is, well, fascinating. For a time.

The primary set piece, then, is a once-beautiful but now decaying theater, intended to represent the aristocratic rot of 1870s Russian high society; this building’s various sections, dressed appropriately, serve as the story’s many locales. We find Anna (Keira Knightley) and her husband, Karenin (Jude Law), at home in one corner of the massive stage; as Anna — for example — exits the room, she wanders “backstage” between curtains, scrim and backdrops, perhaps changing her wardrobe in order to be properly garbed as she enters the setting for the next scene.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook: A heart of gold

Silver Linings Playbook (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for sexual candor, brief nudity and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.23.12

Mental illness isn’t funny, and — thankfully — Hollywood has matured past the point of believing otherwise; standard-issue “loony-bin comedies” have gone the way of lovable drunks. When cinema tackles the topic these days, it’s generally with warmth and compassion, as with (for example) Adam and The Soloist.

Although Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to help Pat (Bradley Cooper) win back his
ex-wife, this assistance comes at a price: Pat must agree to train with Tiffany for an
upcoming dance competition. Needless to say, this is not an endeavor with which
Pat feels comfortable...
But every individual’s life is equal parts hilarity and heartbreak, which also goes for people battling emotional disorders. The key is to craft a story that acknowledges but doesn’t exploit the situation, at which point we can comfortably laugh with, and not at, the characters; the marvelous Benny & Joon is an excellent example.

All of which brings us to Silver Linings Playbook, directed and scripted by David O. Russell (The Fighter, Flirting with Disaster), and based on Matthew Quick’s debut 2008 novel. Russell’s cinematic approach can be quite eclectic, and he has a tendency to drift toward the heightened wackiness of Wes Anderson, but with lesser results; happily, Russell mostly eschews such tendencies here.

At first blush, his approach to Silver Linings Playbook is as tense, jittery and nervous as its badly damaged protagonist, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), whom we meet as his mother (Jacki Weaver, as Dolores) checks him out of a state institution. The details emerge gradually; Pat’s eight-month stay resulted from a plea bargain that kept him out of jail after he came close to beating a man to death (with cause, it might be argued).

Pat has anger management issues, which is blindingly obvious from the moment we lay eyes on him. He grew up with undiagnosed bipolar mood swings, somehow holding things together long enough to finish school, obtain a teaching credential and marry ... but then the inner demons became too much.

Now, as we confront Pat’s manic ups and downs — Cooper so explosively forceful, so potential dangerous, that we can’t take our eyes off him — his mother’s optimistic decision to bring him home seems naïve, perhaps even hazardous. We sweat every scene, wondering if Pat will go off like a time bomb.

Pat is the worst-case scenario: perceptive enough to recognize that the meds that control his symptoms also diminish his ability to experience any joy. He’s required by law to take the meds — a condition of his release — but he doesn’t want to, because he knows that he loses himself. He prefers, as a result, to rely on a daily regimen of mental and physical exercise that seeks the “silver lining” in any given situation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Life of Pi: Sliced a bit too thinly

Life of Pi (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and scary images; young viewers may find it much too frightening
By Derrick Bang

Lyrical novels recounted by a sole narrator are notoriously difficult to translate into movies; the work-arounds designed to impart essential information can be clumsy, and we always lose the rhythm and sweep of the author’s prose.

Although he has survived a shipwreck, Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds that he is far from safe,
because his lifeboat has been commandeered by a ferocious tiger ... whose appetite
forces the young man to construct a "raft" from stray bits of survival equipment.
Factor in a substantial religious element, as the protagonist grapples with his concept of God, and the task becomes well-nigh impossible.

Director Ang Lee and scripter David Magee therefore deserve considerable credit for the care they’ve taken with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. While the film is far from perfect, Lee shrewdly employs all manner of cinematic ingenuity to convey this story’s blend of surreal whimsy and harsh deprivation, along with an exotic, at times supernatural atmosphere that strongly evokes portions of Slumdog Millionaire.

Claudio Miranda’s cinematography deserves considerable credit as well, in terms of adding to this saga’s aura of mystery and magic realism. You’ll be moved to awe more than once, starting with the first things we see: simple establishing shots of animals at play in a small zoo in Pondicherry, India. This montage suggests a cheerful innocence that speaks volumes, and belies events to come.

Or my favorite shot: a sharply focused glimpse of bathers relaxing in lounge chairs at the edge of the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris, France. Only when a swimmer cuts across our field of vision, do we realize that we’ve been observing all these people through water: proof of the pool’s crystal clarity.

Borrowing a leaf from Martel, whose book unfolds as if it had been told to him by its subject, Magee begins this narrative by introducing us to an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), whose comfortable life in Toronto, Canada, is pleasantly interrupted by an expat American writer who — at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance — has traveled all the way from India to meet him.

Patel, our writer is told, is a man with a story. Patel readily acknowledges this claim, adding that his saga will demonstrate proof of God’s existence. This is a tantalizing assertion, and a simple statement that could be ruined if improperly scripted or shaded. But Khan’s utter sincerity is evident in the actor’s every expression and gesture; we — and the visiting writer – can’t help being intrigued.

Their relationship thus established, Patel is free to narrate his story, which (for the most part) removes the awkwardness of the voice-over device used from this point forward. The subsequent tale therefore unfolds as a lengthy flashback.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sessions: The power of love

The Sessions (2012) • View trailer
Five stars. Rating: R, for strong sexuality, graphic nudity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.16.12

Berkeley-based poet, author and journalist Mark O’Brien died in 1999, just shy of his 50th birthday. His collections of poetry included Love and Baseball and Breathing, and he wrote essays, book reviews and features for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the National Catholic Reporter and numerous other outlets.

Having progressed through the early stages of gentle physical contact, Cheryl (Helen
Hunt) decides that Mark (John Hawkes) is ready for the next step. But Mark is
terrified, remembering too many humiliations resulting from his frail, polio-disfigured body.
His commentaries were broadcast by National Public Radio, and — two years before his death — he also co-founded a small press dubbed Lemonade Factory.

Most notably, O’Brien was an inspirational figure in the blossoming late-20th century movement to encourage disabled people to lead independent lives. He contracted polio at the age of 6; the disease left him paralyzed from the neck down, and able to control only three muscles: one in his right foot, one in his neck and one in his jaw. He spent most of his adult life in an iron lung, able to “escape” only for brief intervals.

He initially dictated his works to attendants, then typed them with a mouth stick.

Born in Boston and raised in Sacramento, O’Brien moved to Berkeley in 1978, when he was accepted as a freshman at UC Berkeley. He graduated in 1982, then — after initially being turned down — was admitted to Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. By then, he was a familiar fixture in Berkeley, charging about the streets in a Stanford-built electric gurney that he controlled — badly — with his left foot. Because of the way his spine had been curved by polio, he never was able to sit up in a conventional wheelchair.

Writer/director Ben Lewin’s remarkable film, The Sessions, opens with some vintage KPIX Channel 5 Eyewitness News footage of O’Brien, as he navigates city streets and the UC Berkeley campus. The editing is coy; we’re never quite able to see O’Brien’s face, and as a result there’s no disconnect when this dramatized story opens in his apartment, as a cat enters an open window one bright, sunny morning and uses its tail to tickle Mark’s face into wakefulness, his body cocooned by the iron lung.

Of course, Mark can’t scratch the resulting itch. The moment is both mildly tragic and unexpectedly amusing, the latter in great part because of the passion actor John Hawkes puts into Mark’s effort to “will” the itch away.

Lincoln: The greatness of a man

Lincoln (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for grim war violence, dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, fueled both by Tony Kushner’s lyrical screenplay and Daniel Day Lewis’ astonishing performance, may be one of the finest period dramas ever brought to the big screen.

A delegation from the Confederacy is en route with an offer of peace that could end
the four-year Civil War, but Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, right) knows that if the Southern
states return to the union, all hope of passing the 13th Amendment will vanish. He
therefore plays a dangerous waiting game, despite the warning from Secretary of State
William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), who worries that any public hint of this delay
would blossom into a public relations nightmare.
It’s akin to time travel: Our 19th century United States comes to vibrant life, thanks to impeccable work by production designer Rick Carter (an Oscar winner for Avatar), costume designer Joanna Johnston and, most particularly, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). You can practically feel the dust, grit and coal smoke coming off the screen.

Kushner’s dense script demands — and receives — a massive cast, with scores of speaking parts. The role call is a Who’s Who of names we remember from history class, and the driving narrative often unfolds with the confrontational snap of TV’s West Wing.

And yet...

For all its authenticity and casting excellence, Spielberg’s 150-minute film is long, slow and occasionally ponderous. It’s also claustrophobic at times, with some dialogue exchanges seemingly designed for stage presentation (no surprise there, I guess, since Kushner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who “moonlights” in cinema).

The focus is narrow, as well. Although based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Kushner concentrates exclusively on the events of January 1865, with a brief epilogue in April of that same year. The goal, during this climactic point of Lincoln’s presidential career: passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in order to abolish slavery. Permanently.

The novel twist, which conflicts juicily with Lincoln’s generally accepted image: the degree to which he risked delaying the Civil War, already a four-year conflict that had claimed hundreds of thousands of young soldiers on both sides, in order to win passage of that amendment in the House of Representatives.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall: Shaken and stirred!

Skyfall (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action sequences, sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.9.12

Daniel Craig’s stint as James Bond has been about rebirth and re-invention, and Skyfall is no different, albeit with an intriguing twist: It feels more like John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

Somehow, Daniel Craig's James Bond, left, always seems to wind up tied to a chair,
and forced to listen as the villain — in this case, Javier Bardem's Silva — shares his
nasty plans. But this is no ordinary villain, and Silva has no intention of destroying the
world's economy, or igniting a war with Russia or China. This maniac's mission is much
more personal, and it'll cut to the very core of Britain's venerable intelligence agency.
As also was the case with Casino Royale, things get personal.

The formula seems the same at the outset, with an audacious, action-laced pre-credits teaser set in Istanbul, which finds Bond and a fellow field agent (plucky Naomie Harris, as Eve) in hot pursuit of a baddie who has ambushed some MI6 colleagues and stolen a vitally important computer hard drive. First on foot, then in cars and motorcycles, and finally atop a moving train, Bond relentlessly pursues this fellow, ultimately with the assistance of a backhoe (!), all to an exhilarating orchestral score from composer Thomas Newman.

Then, at the climactic moment ... things take an unexpected turn.

And not just in terms of plot, as the scripting trio — returning scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (their fifth 007 epic), allied with Oscar-nominated playwright John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo) — moves the narrative into increasingly un-Bondian waters. Director Sam Mendes gradually shifts the tone as well, utilizing the obligatory exotic locals as a means of moving the action from London to Scotland — the long way around — for a stripped-down third act very much akin to his masterful 2002 adaptation of The Road to Perdition.

An unusual approach, for our big-screen imbiber of cocktails shaken, not stirred? Indeed. But there’s a reason for the madness concocted by Mendes and his writing team: an artistic flourish that suitably honors this 50th anniversary outing in cinema’s longest-running continuous franchise. (Dr. No opened in London on Oct. 5, 1962.)

There’s also plenty of madness elsewhere, in the form of Silva: an adversary who stands among the most memorable of Bondian megalomaniacs, and is brought to chilling life by Javier Bardem. And if we see a bit of his horrific Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men, that’s probably no accident.

Bond villains too frequently have felt like pretend scoundrels with fancy dress and fancier accents — particularly during the spoof-laden Roger Moore years — but Bardem’s Silva is the real deal. His introductory soliloquy on the feral nature of trapped rats probably is the best scene-stealing debut ever granted any Bond baddie, and Bardem sells the moment masterfully.

And this fellow isn’t out to rule the world; he merely wants revenge.

For what, precisely? Ah, therein lies the tale.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph: A sweet surprise

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for kid-level rude humor and mild action/violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.2.12

I haven’t had this much fun since 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit blended classic Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters in a similarly madcap adventure.

After crashing his way into the candy-laden realm of the game Sugar Rush, the clumsy
and destructive Ralph only wants to retrieve his hard-earned gold medal. Alas, impish
Vanellope von Schweetz has her own plans for that medal, and they involve her own
desire for "street cred" among her peers.
Wreck-It Ralph, like numerous fantasies before it, concerns the activities of playthings after pesky humans have gone to bed (or otherwise departed the scene). Pixar owns this sub-genre most recently, with its Toy Story franchise, but the concept is much older, dating back to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet and Victor Herbert’s 1903 musical, Babes in Toyland. Both have been staged and filmed many, many times.

To my knowledge, Wreck-It Ralph is the first such storyline set in the world of arcade gaming. It boasts a sharp script by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, the latter responsible for writing last year’s delightful Cedar Rapids. Most crucially — and as is the case with the Toy Story films — Wreck-It Ralph takes place in a colorful world that is laden with goofy characters, but includes plenty of droll and clever dialogue.

The result: It will delight both youngsters and their parents, and the latter also will recognize all sorts of inside jokes and familiar references.

The action unfolds at Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade, where — as longstanding tradition demands — local kids reserve next-play status by lining up their quarters. Game choices include everything from the cutesy-poo, animé-flavored Sugar Rush, where players race adorable girl avatars through a track bordered by gumdrops, cotton candy and all manner of sweet stuff; to the hyper-realistic, first-person shooter thrills of Hero’s Duty, a nightmarish storyline right out of Starship Troopers, where a combat platoon battles scary cy-bugs that threaten to annihilate the universe.

Somewhere in between is the retro appeal of Fix-It Felix Jr., a 1980s game mildly reminiscent of Nintendo’s original Mario Bros. (whose characters, perhaps tellingly, are not in this film). The game’s villain, Ralph, is a 643-lb. man monster who is determined to destroy the apartment building that the game’s Nicelanders call home. Players (in our real world) control plucky little Felix, whose magic hammer repairs all the damage. Successfully completing the level means that Ralph gets tossed into a nearby mud puddle.

Unhappily, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is a sensitive soul, and has grown tired of always being the bad guy, and of living his off-duty hours alone in a brick pile. He even joins a support group, Bad-Anon, where familiar villains from various games (Street Fighter, Altered Beasts) share their tales in sessions hosted by Clyde, the orange ghost from Pac-Man.

Flight: Absolutely soars

Flight (2012) • View trailer
4.5 stars. Rating: R, for drug and alcohol abuse, profanity, nudity, sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

I can hear Rod Serling’s laconic précis, were he summoned across the bridge of time to introduce this story:

“Portrait of a man, going down for the third time ... and he doesn’t know it.”

Whip (Denzel Washington) likes Nicole (Kelly Reilly) at first sight, and the attraction is
mutual. Unfortunately, she's a recovering addict, and he remains an unrepentant
alcoholic. She's knows he'd be bad for her — perhaps even fatal — but does she
have the strength to resist him?
Flight will catch people by surprise, the same way Million Dollar Baby took its sharp turn in the third act. Advance publicity has centered on the horrific, mid-flight plane crisis, and the suggestion that something “unexpected” turns up during the subsequent investigation.

But John Gatins’ superb, richly nuanced script is much, much deeper than that; indeed, it probes into the very soul of a profoundly flawed man who expects a single heroic act to compensate for a lifetime of ill-advised behavior. Gatins’ narrative also takes intriguing detours, the first one so disorienting — as a new character is introduced — that you’ll briefly wonder if somebody added a reel from an entirely different film.

Let it be said, as well, that Flight gives Denzel Washington yet another opportunity to demonstrate his amazing range and subtlety. He’s simply fascinating to watch, even when at rest ... because that’s the thing; he never is truly at rest. His fingers twitch; his eyes dart through double-takes; he radiates the nervous tension of a caged animal waiting to bolt.

We can’t take our eyes off him. Don’t want to.

Director Robert Zemeckis, having finally shaken his obsession with motion-capture animation — The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol — returns to the probing, tightly focused, intensely intimate character drama that he delivered so well in Cast Away and Contact. This new film is a raw, unflinchingly uncomfortable portrait of a man who takes for granted his ability to remain in control, a politician’s superficial smile on his face, despite the deeply rooted rage and despair that threaten to overwhelm him.

At the same time, Zemeckis, Gatins and Washington deliver an unnervingly grim study of an alcoholic: a drama so memorable that it deserves to be placed alongside earlier classics such as The Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses and Leaving Las Vegas.

Probably not what people will expect, if they’re drawn to this film by the poster art that shows a capable, if mildly anxious Washington, resplendent in his airline captain’s uniform. Like I said, this one will surprise you.