Archive for December, 2002

Bowling for Columbine

Monday, December 16th, 2002


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Bowling for Columbine,” the latest documentary from professional provocateur Michael Moore, is as disturbing and heartbreaking as it is funny. Moore’s combination of ironic wit and genuine emotion has been the filmmaker’s trademark since his auto industry polemic “Roger & Me” made him a celebrity in 1989, and his new movie continues the darkly comic tradition. Where “Columbine” departs from the writer-director’s earlier work, however, is in the mission of its inquisitiveness: while nobody is going to mistake Moore for anything but a true blue liberal, the movie is not a so much a strident argument for gun control as it is a study of America’s love affair with mayhem and violence. Moore seems more comfortable on camera than ever, and perhaps that’s because this time he doesn’t know the answers to his questions before he asks them.

Last May, “Columbine” became the first documentary to compete at the Cannes Film Festival in nearly fifty years. The distinction is deservedly earned, as the film quickly establishes itself as vintage Moore, stitching together a heady collection of the director’s typically strange characters alongside the famous folk who always seem to find themselves on the receiving end of Moore’s skewer. While some audiences might not appreciate the film’s disorganized, scattershot approach, many of its scenes are undeniably electrifying. Moore visits with acquitted Oklahoma conspirator James Nichols, who hung out with brother Terry and Tim McVeigh on his farmstead. Nichols comes across as completely unhinged, at one point putting a loaded gun up to his own head. In the same scene, we are treated to one of the film’s most hilarious exchanges: Moore to Nichols: “Why not use Gandhi’s way? He didn’t have any guns and he beat the British Empire.” Nichols to Moore: “I’m not familiar with that.”

Moore is never short on eye candy, bouncing between a 50s TV commercial for Sound-O-Power toy guns, clips from Chris Rock’s standup (the brilliant “Five Thousand Dollar Bullets” bit from “Bigger and Blacker”), the Michigan Militia’s pin-up calendar, a bank that gives away a free gun when you take out a CD (their motto: More bang for your buck), and dozens and dozens of archival clips that range from the horrible (military executions, R. Budd Dwyer’s press conference suicide, and security camera footage of the Columbine shootings) to the eccentric (an industrial promo for a school security company that shows a kid pulling an endless supply of hidden weapons out of his jacket and baggy pants). Fargo’s own KXJB is thanked in the credits for providing tape of Carey McWilliams (a former school classmate of this author), a blind man who received a permit to carry a concealed weapon in October of 2000.

Like Moore’s other movies, “Columbine” showcases a handful of truly unforgettable moments that receive more careful, in-depth treatment than most of the anecdotal segments. Along with a pair of victims of the Columbine shooting, Moore treks to the headquarters of K-Mart in Troy, Michigan, attempting to “return” the seventeen-cent bullets now lodged in the bodies of two young men (the killers had legally purchased some of their rounds at the discount chain). Easily the film’s centerpiece, Moore is rendered speechless – a rare occasion – when his persistence results in a statement from K-Mart agreeing to stop selling handgun and assault rifle ammunition in all of its stores.

Moore finishes his movie with an examination of a school shooting in his hometown of Flint, Michigan that claimed the life of a six-year-old girl. Coming down hard on a “welfare to work” program that forced the mother of the first-grade shooter to spend long hours on a bus to Auburn Hills so that she could make minimum wage at one of Dick Clark’s fast food restaurants (while Clark’s company received tax breaks for using the program), Moore confronts a surly Clark – who has never looked more unpleasant, foolish, or arrogant. Following that exchange, Moore finally hits the mother lode when he is granted an audience with NRA chieftain Charlton Heston. Heston’s ugly, insensitive answers pale when compared to the surprisingly articulate responses of Marilyn Manson, who had spoken to Moore earlier in the film. While the privileged Heston blathers on with his rehearsed “personal freedom” rhetoric, Manson offers a startling answer to Moore. When Moore asks Manson what he would say to the people of Littleton, Colorado, Manson replies that he wouldn’t say anything – instead, he would listen to what they have to say.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/16/02.


Monday, December 9th, 2002


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The great pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” lies in the film’s identity as the most elliptical, thought-provoking, and enigmatic movie released by a major Hollywood studio this year. Few directors other than Soderbergh – who has cannily alternated his projects between narrative-fracturing, low-budget, poetic meditations like “The Limey” and big-name, big-budget, crowd-pleasers like “Ocean’s 11” and “Erin Brockovich” – could get away with such a ruminative, haunting, deliberately challenging piece. Soderbergh does it – with George Clooney in the leading role no less – and delivers in yet another genre previously untapped by the “Traffic” Oscar winner.

Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem and previously made by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, “Solaris” bravely, gamely explores the limitations of human imagination, pushing well past the usual sci-fi questions about humankind’s place in the universe and the existence of a higher intelligence or deity. Clooney plays psychologist Chris Kelvin, a brooding, heartbroken, empty vessel of a man devastated by his beloved wife’s suicide. While attending to his own shattered life, Kelvin receives a message from an old friend indicating that something has “gone wrong” on the Prometheus space station that orbits the mysterious planet Solaris, a churning, volatile orb that changes colors like a chameleon.

Kelvin takes the mission, and upon his arrival at Prometheus, discovers that only two of the original crew continue to draw breath, and neither one seems able to offer much explanation of what recently happened. Understandably perplexed, if not downright shaken, Kelvin retreats to his quarters, and when he opens his eyes the following morning, he has been reunited with his wife – now very much alive. The planet Solaris, it seems, has created a doppelganger conjured up from everything that Kelvin knew about her. Played by Natascha McElhone, Rheya is a marvel both to Kelvin and to herself. In other words, the new incarnation of Rheya has free will, but negotiates her place in the world strictly out of Kelvin’s perceptions of the original – the new Rheya wants to kill herself, for example, but only because Kelvin remembers her as suicidal.

Like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” Solaris spends a great deal of its running time exploring the obsessions of a deluded protagonist who deeply misinterprets his own obsessive love for another person. Emotional catastrophe is inevitable in both films, but “Solaris” makes a worthy peer to Hitchcock’s masterpiece because Soderbergh’s handling of the content is sufficiently absorbing to transcend the outward quietness and stillness so despised by moviegoers who like their entertainment pre-digested, and with little room for imagination. “Solaris” might not be as personal to its director as “Vertigo” was to Hitchcock, but it is remarkable that both films were made by studios, and not independently produced.

“Solaris” is the kind of movie that relishes asking more questions than it answers, and by the conclusion, reality has been smeared into a blur – time seems to double back on itself and the audience is left to ponder whether there are more possible outcomes than the ones eventually reckoned by Kelvin. Some will certainly roll their eyes that Dylan Thomas’ line “and death shall have no dominion” forms a central thematic motif, but perhaps the key to the movie is contained within the poem. Soderbergh, however, is not interested in the definite (his own gorgeously meditative cinematography notwithstanding). The very first thing Rheya says to Kelvin when he makes her acquaintance is “Don’t blow it.” The line is funny – pure Soderbergh – but it is also filled with the idea that the possibilities of what could happen next are without limit.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/9/02.

Igby Goes Down

Monday, December 2nd, 2002


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Movies about smarty-pants teenage boys who think of themselves as tortured, misunderstood souls are not everyone’s idea of a swell time, but filmmakers keep cranking them out – and are not likely to stop in the near future (blame Salinger, I guess). From “The Graduate” to “Harold and Maude” to “Rushmore,” the pissed-at-the-world viewpoint of the sullen young man is catnip to the pissed-at-the-world young movie director, even though by now we are all familiar with the concept that the world isn’t fair, rich people are suspect, adults are generally weak-willed cheats, and pretty girls will make a snack of your heart while you gasp and writhe on the floor.

This is the general idea of Burr Steers (how is that for a movie-perfect name?), whose “Igby Goes Down” introduces us to a family of wealthy, messed-up miscreants and their hangers-on. Young Jason “Igby” Slocumb, Jr. (expertly inhabited by Kieran Culkin) is not yet eighteen, but has managed to find himself booted out of every private school foolish enough to accept his mother’s money. Igby’s orbit includes his snooty older brother Oliver (Ryan Phillipe), his institutionalized dad Jason (Bill Pullman), his overbearing mom Mimi (Susan Sarandon), his serpentine godfather D.H. (a wickedly wonderful Jeff Goldblum, stealing every scene in which he appears), D.H.’s junkie mistress Rachel (Amanda Peet), Rachel’s performance artist pal Russel (Jared Harris), and ice cream sundae enthusiast/Igby’s love interest Sookie (Claire Danes).

While the novel-like structure of the movie allows the viewer to sort out the self-absorption in between the liaisons and blow-ups, Steers works up a sweat in order to gain a few scraps of audience sympathy for the callow Igby. Dripping acid, the director’s own screenplay never misses an opportunity to have its characters say and do things meant to elicit gasps from the audience (the film begins with Igby and Oliver hastening Mimi’s death with a plastic bag over her head). The arch, sarcastic tone is likely to be taken as either the movie’s primary asset or greatest liability – depending on the stomach one has for pitch black comedy. Only a small handful of sympathy-inducing flashbacks to Igby’s childhood (with Rory Culkin standing in for his older brother) lift the veil on the nearly omnipresent bitterness.

The triumph of casting Kieran Culkin in the title role is that he is able to simultaneously irritate and charm as the insufferable Igby. Even though his bad behavior is always neatly explained and excused (via the horrors of his unfortunate upbringing), Igby hones his ironic rejoinders to an edge so fine that they nearly account for his uncanny ability to lure Rachel and Sookie into his bed. And while it is somewhat hard to believe that Igby should prove adorably irresistible to not one but two older women, the casual sexual attitude evinced by the characters contributes to the feeling of wayward emptiness that is the glue of Igby’s fragile lifestyle.

Culkin’s performance proves that what Steers lacks in depth he makes up for in characterization, and the filmmaker’s well-observed takes on the supporting roles elevate the movie above its prima facie shallowness. Goldblum, for example, is so compelling that one could easily imagine a whole movie dedicated to his repugnant adulterer – the scene in which he turns on Igby, for example, is frighteningly believable, as is the stunning moment when he walks out of a restaurant without saying a word to the speechless, discarded Rachel. “Igby Goes Down” is not always this consistent, but at its best, it overcomes its own smugness to reveal a satisfying wit.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/2/02.