Archive for 2003

Pieces of April

Monday, December 22nd, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-turned-moviemaker Peter Hedges (who adapted his own novel into the script for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and Nick Hornby’s book into “About a Boy”) is not on his game in “Pieces of April,” a tepid Thanksgiving-themed tearjerker that plays like a character study without any interesting characters.  Selecting an overworked and unoriginal concept – the dysfunctional family reunion on Turkey Day – Hedges pours on the clichés like so much gravy, and the result is an undercooked mess that fails to satisfy any intelligent moviegoer’s appetite.

As the titular April Burns, the black sheep of her family, too-beautiful-for-words Katie Holmes struggles to play against her good girl type by plastering on the eyeliner, pulling on the clunky boots, and sporting multiple piercings and neck tattoos.  Desperate to impress her dying mother with a homemade feast, April’s frantic preparations are intercut with the tragi-comic road trip of her family (far too reminiscent of Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers”) as they slowly but surely make their way from the suburbs to April’s disastrous Lower East Side apartment.  While cancer-stricken Joy (Patricia Clarkson, great as always) fights fatigue and nausea, patriarch Jim (Oliver Platt) struggles to put on a brave face.  Also in tow are senile Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond), space cadet son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) and bitter daughter Beth (Alison Pill).

Hedges spends the majority of the movie’s brief running time simultaneously sketching the details of Joy’s illness and depicting April’s farcical readying of the dinner, but surprisingly, he manages to skip out on dealing in any meaningful way with the animosity directed from mother to daughter.  The audience comes to understand that April has made a mess of her life, but depth and resonance are frustratingly absent.  Instead, the director throws in a feeble subplot involving April’s boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) as he attends to some obscure “errands” that, by all unfortunate appearances, hint at the possibility of a drug deal.

Shot on consumer-grade digital video, “Pieces of April” looks totally terrible on the big screen.  Some proponents of the still unproven format might argue that videographer Tami Reiker handles the electronically-generated images with artistic attentiveness, but the flat, grainy, washed-out palette reveals no sense of dimensional space, and the picture constantly appears as it if it straining to shift into sharp focus.  The portability of Mini-DV also seems to invite handheld shooting, and April’s ceaseless running up and down the stairs of her building frequently results in an addled, groggy, headache-inducing ride.

Certainly, Holmes continues to prove that she has the talent to match her looks, but as a character, April is too flimsy and one-dimensional to be taken seriously.  The deepest characterizations belong to Clarkson, who manages to get plenty of mileage out of the rage and confusion attending the knowledge that this will likely be her last Thanksgiving, and Platt, who nails the kind of helpless cheerfulness that is required of people in his dire situation.  “Pieces of April” tries a little bit too hard to straddle the fence that divides poignant weepy from quirky comedy, and the utterly predictable ending is as hard to swallow as the canned cranberry sauce that ends up in April’s garbage can.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/22/03. 

Love Don’t Cost a Thing

Monday, December 15th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

During the opening credits of “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” a title appears indicating that the film is based on a screenplay by Michael Swerdlick.  The earlier movie, known to a generation of cable and home video rental fans, is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” starring Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson.  Neither film is really any good, and one begins to wonder almost immediately whether going to the trouble of a remake was ever a wise idea.  While “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” purports to address the perennial issues of high school popularity, friendship, and the importance of being a good person, the movie is lifeless and shallow from start to finish.

Nick Cannon plays geeky Alvin Johnson, an engineering wizard who divides his time between cleaning pools for cash and designing car engines for a GM-sponsored national scholarship competition.  Sporting an anachronistic (and hopeless) sense of style, Alvin vents his frustrations about being unpopular to his fellow nerds – a trio of walking stereotypes whose dialogue wouldn’t convince a kindergartner.  Alvin also worships cheerleader Paris Morgan (Christina Milian) – the most popular girl in the school – from afar, but to her, he’s vapor.

Alvin’s big chance arrives in the shape of a dented SUV fender when Paris accidentally dings up her mother’s wheels and needs someone to help her with a quick fix.  Unwisely, it would seem, Alvin offers to repair the auto himself.  In exchange, he gives Paris $1,500 and essentially blackmails her into pretending the couple is an item.  A woman of her word, Paris agrees, and shockwaves ripple through the cafeteria as Alvin is transformed into one of the beautiful people.  Of course, things are not quite what they seem: Paris is not a cruel snob, and begins to genuinely fall for Alvin (even though he is too naïve, or stupid, to realize it).

Sadly, the movie turns Alvin into a clueless jerk the second he trades in his thrift store apparel for Sean John.  He mistreats his friends, he misreads Paris, and he makes a genuine ass of himself at home and at school.  Lightweight, formulaic teen fare like this demands that lessons be learned, but Alvin is so clueless, rude, and repugnant, his comeuppance and turnaround are a classic case of too little, too late.  Additionally, Troy Beyer’s direction is stilted and ill-paced – the reasonably brief running time feels like double its actual length.

Worst of all, “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” is unfunny.  Steve Harvey, playing Alvin’s perpetually horny father, generates only a few tepid laughs in a handful of clumsy, labored scenes in which he teaches his son about the importance of condom use.  Alvin’s dad, vicariously reliving his own teen years through Alvin, dances around to Al Green on 8-Track whenever he is not pumping his son for information about Alvin’s sexual experiences.  Only Christina Milian, with charm to spare, manages to rise above the wretched premise.  It’s too bad that the movie didn’t spend more time with her character and less time with Nick Cannon’s buffoonish Alvin.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/15/03. 

Honey

Monday, December 8th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Watching “Honey,” the latest in a long tradition of movies about wholesome, misunderstood kids who put on a talent show to save a community center and fulfill their dreams, one is initially struck by the central character’s inexhaustible energy and drive. Honey Daniels, played by perky Jessica Alba, divides her time between tending bar, teaching hip hop classes for youngsters, going on dance auditions for music videos, and working at a record shop. While the logistics of all these time commitments might otherwise cause one’s mind to boggle, the straightforward simplicity of “Honey” surely is in no position to tax anyone’s brain.

Like one of the frothy cocktails that Ms. Daniels serves at the dance club, “Honey” is an amalgamation of “Fame,” “Flashdance,” and “Strike Up the Band.” The movie also (inadvertently?) cribs large sections of the practically forgotten, but memorably titled, 1984 hip hop flick “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” right down to the finale. Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson have written a script that maintains its slick sheen for the duration of the movie, and “Honey” never aspires to confront any real dramatic conflict. Even hot-shot video director Michael Ellis’ (David Moscow, suitably smarmy) sleazy advances on Honey seem perfunctory and toothless.

The film also fails to develop any significant relationship between Honey and her nominal love interest, hard-working barber Chaz (Mekhi Phifer). Chaz seems to show up only when his protection or help is required, and his character remains frustratingly flat from beginning to end. Phifer is far too talented an actor to be left without meatier scenes to play, and it is a shame director Bille Woodruff did not recognize this. Instead, too much time is squandered on impossibly adorable moppet Raymond (Zachary Isaiah Williams), a little boy who takes a shine to Honey at the community center.

Like Honey, Raymond’s older brother Benny (Lil’ Romeo, surprisingly comfortable onscreen) is a talented dancer, but he has been recruited to sell drugs by a local dealer. The saintly Honey is desperate to keep Benny out of trouble, and dotes on him and Raymond whenever she is not pouring drinks or choreographing Ginuwine videos (the movie’s best unintentionally funny line is Honey comforting Raymond with an offer for a frozen treat: “I’m fiendin’ for a milkshake”). The film manufactures a crisis of conscience for Benny, but his honorable character is never really in doubt.

“Honey” subscribes to the Horatio Alger-like fantasy that a little talent and a lot of elbow grease can take anyone from just another face in the crowd to the champagne toasts of celebrities in private VIP rooms. Sure, Woodruff offers the audience a whiff of the idea that the cutthroat, fast-paced entertainment industry might cause one to lose a grip on personal values and ethics once the fat paychecks start rolling in, but as a veteran music video director himself, he is not going to bite the hand that feeds him. In addition to Ginuwine, several hip hop artists appear as themselves, including Jadakiss and Missy Elliott. Elliott is nearly as irrepressible on film as she is on her blazing records, and she provides plenty of humor in relation to her scant screen time.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/8/03.

Bad Santa

Monday, December 1st, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Bad Santa” could have been a really excellent movie. With its relentless profanity, ruthless social agenda, and cynical bite, Terry Zwigoff’s film gleefully wallows in its own misanthropy. Along the way, however, the old cracks of “script by committee” begin to show and the last few scenes negate all that has come before by violating the established tone. Of course, this only proves that Hollywood has a difficult time working outside of convention, but for people who go to the cinema every week, that is no surprise. Yes, “Bad Santa” can be blisteringly funny, but the downside is a list of problems that ultimately land the movie on the naughty list.

Billy Bob Thornton, all too willing to prove again and again that he is one of film’s most fearless performers, plays Willie, a broken-down, alcoholic waster whose only income arrives annually when he and his partner Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as a department store Santa-and-elf team in order to pilfer cash, jewelry, furs, and Manolo Blahniks after hours. The scam has worked well for years, but right away one can see that Willie is at the end of his tether. Constantly drunk, Willie alternates between urinating in his Santa suit and hissing contemptuously at the children unlucky enough to sit on his lap.

While Willie continues to punish his liver, he meets up with bouncy bartender Sue (Lauren Graham), a directionless young woman with a kinky Santa fetish (which is the only thing that could explain why she would be attracted to a filthy, malodorous souse nearly twice her age). While the pair forms an unlikely bond, Willie crosses paths with another loner, an overweight, elementary school-aged misfit initially known only as “the kid” (it would not be fair to give up his name; it’s one of the big laughs of the movie). Played perfectly by Brett Kelly, the kid is a withdrawn sad-sack attended only by his near comatose grandmother. He sees Willie as a potential friend and confidante. Willie sees him as an easy mark.

Director Zwigoff, who has directed the wonderful documentary “Crumb” and the winning adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World,” clearly has a thing for oddballs who live on the edges of society. His purposefully ugly depictions of suburban homogeneity add much to “Bad Santa.” Where his previous movies had character to spare, however, “Bad Santa” is surprisingly light on depth and subtext. This could be the fault of screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, but in any case, one longs to be able to get to know any of the movie’s potentially interesting inhabitants beyond the superficial presentation offered.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of “Bad Santa” is the twisted idea that families might wander into the movie by mistake, assuming it is some kind of companion piece to “Elf” – at one screening, a grandmother and her grandson squirmed uncomfortably every time Willie unleashed a new torrent of obscenities or fornicated in the department store dressing rooms. In fact, none of the actors shy away from the most contaminated, abusive coarseness imaginable; the late John Ritter plays a small-minded manager and Bernie Mac draws plenty of laughs as a polyester cowboy in charge of mall security. All of the vulgarity – which is always very funny – would have been more resonant had it been in the service of a movie with something worthwhile to say.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/1/03.

The Station Agent

Monday, November 24th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Finbar McBride, played with incredible depth and charm by the marvelous Peter Dinklage, stands just under four and a half feet tall.  As the central character in writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” Fin spends a great deal of time avoiding people in order to spare himself the indignities of constant questions about his dwarfism.  McCarthy shrewdly makes certain that Fin’s diminutive size is only one piece of this character’s puzzle, and spends the majority of the film focused on Fin as an ordinary human being.

A railroad aficionado, Fin works in a model train store with his best friend Henry (Paul Benjamin), meticulously crafting and detailing colorful engines from bygone days.  When Henry passes away, Fin is surprised to learn that he has been included in the old man’s will.  Henry has left his protégé a weather-beaten train station in the tiny outpost of Newfoundland, New Jersey.  Mourning the loss of his mentor, Fin packs his belongings and moves to the remote station, which immediately attracts the unwanted attention of Joe (Bobby Cannavale), an unyieldingly talkative food truck proprietor who peddles coffee and sandwiches right next to Fin’s new home.

Refusing to take no for an answer, Joe doggedly pursues a friendship with Fin, no matter how often the door is literally shut in his face.  McCarthy mines a certain sweetness in Joe’s refusal to give up, and Cannavale knows exactly what buttons to push in order to win the sympathy and affection of the audience.  Slowly but surely, Joe’s charm reveals itself to Fin, and the two end up forming a pleasant alliance.  Another element is added to the mix in the enigmatic form of painter Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, top notch as always).  Mourning the loss of her child, Olivia cute-meets Fin when she nearly plows him over with her car.

Clarkson is so good, her mere presence guarantees that “The Station Agent” will yield something delectable and worthwhile.  Her Olivia immediately becomes the glue that bonds Joe and Fin, and the careful manner in which they all negotiate their evolving relationship resonates deeply.  McCarthy diverts our attention away from the primary trio long enough to set up a romantic subplot involving Fin and local librarian Emily (Michelle Williams).  Emily’s interest in Fin unfortunately turns out to be the murkiest element of “The Station Agent,” and this is really too bad, since a thorough exploration of the Fin/Emily connection certainly could have been accommodated by the story’s running time.

McCarthy occasionally tackles scenes that explode with rage or sorrow, but for the most part, “The Station Agent” remains a quiet character study of a compelling person.  Following a number of standout performances, Dinklage is finally able to take advantage of a perfect star vehicle, and he delivers a knockout punch.  With his penetrating gaze and calm, measured voice, Dinklage is unfaltering in his hold on Fin.  The actor almost effortlessly communicates to us why Joe would be so attracted to the solemn introvert, and McCarthy instinctively allows Fin’s smoldering presence to anchor nearly every single scene in the movie.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/24/03. 

Love Actually

Monday, November 17th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-turned-director Richard Curtis, the romantic comedy machine who cranked out the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” seems so smitten with his own cleverness that he forgets to offer his audience any opportunity to catch its breath during “Love Actually,” the filmmaker’s horribly-titled directorial debut.  Juggling what feels like an army of popular British screen personalities and a few odd-Yanks-out, “Love Actually” tries to cram too many messy storylines into its padded running time.  The result is a crass, shallow, and awfully stale pop-tart of a holiday movie that mistakes its mawkish sentimentalism for genuine emotion.

“Love Actually” drifts from story to story without any clear sense of where it needs to go, but at the center is longtime Curtis-muse Hugh Grant, sporting a coiffure meant to suggest a much more attractive version of Tony Blair and playing – no kidding – the new prime minister of England.  His first day on the job, the PM walks into 10 Downing Street and manages to fall in love at first sight with tea girl Natalie (a winning Martine McCutcheon) – a turn of events that brings out the fire in his belly when the lecherous U.S. president (a grinning Billy Bob Thornton) makes a play for her during an official visit.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s younger sis Karen (Emma Thompson) begins to suspect that her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) might be about to have an affair with his secretary.  Another of Harry’s employees, Sarah (Laura Linney, utterly underserved by the story and her director), dreams of mustering the courage to ask out her longtime office crush.  Widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) nurses his own broken heart while trying to coach his stepson through a painful bout of puppy love.  If that’s not enough, Colin Firth (saddled with arguably the weakest of the film’s segments) plays cuckolded Jamie, a novelist who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper.

And those are only the main plotlines.  Curtis just keeps piling it on, with Bill Nighy (delivering the movie’s only antidote to the buckets of treacle) as a crotchety, over-the-hill pop star pimping his latest crappy Christmas single, Keira Knightley as a newlywed who doesn’t realize her husband’s best man carries a torch for her, and Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as a pair of body doubles or soft-core performers – Curtis never really clarifies which – who fall for each other only after they have spent hours with each other sans clothes on the set of a movie.  Oh yeah – there is also totally unnecessary thread that follows the moronic goofball who assumes that Wisconsin girls with loose morals will immediately hop into bed with any bloke who speaks with a British accent.

Once Rowan Atkinson shows up, you get the distinct feeling the rest is going to be downhill.  Ultimately, Curtis should have held on to the three or four strongest tales and developed them into individual movies.  The director is so calculating in the presentation of “feelings” that he forgets his sardine-canned ensemble is left with absolutely no time to adequately explore their characters in any detail.  The result is one of the biggest misfires of the year.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/17/03.  

Elf

Monday, November 10th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

When popular SNL alum Will Ferrell left the show for the treacherous waters of feature filmmaking, he followed a long line of performers whose careers have met with varying degrees of success. For every Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Mike Myers there are dozens of black holes representing the likes of Joe Piscopo, Kevin Nealon, and Victoria Jackson. Ferrell was in fine form in “Old School,” but that was a supporting role in an ensemble frat comedy. “Elf,” the first major vehicle for the comic, is the movie by which his immediate job security will be measured.

The good news, for Ferrell fans, is that “Elf” works – and it works because of Ferrell. Based on the movie’s previews – human manchild grows up at the North Pole thinking he is an elf – there was good reason to be skeptical. Every holiday season, a handful of appalling, feel-good, “family” comedies turn up at the movie house, struggling in vain to be the next “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street.” While most of this distressing slag (think “The Santa Clause” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – the Ron Howard feature, not the great1966 animated TV version) makes you want to cry out “humbug!” in your loudest Alastair Sim impression, “Elf” manages to be cheerful, fun, and full of fancy.

Following a visually dazzling extended prologue in which Papa Elf (a dry, delightful Bob Newhart) explains the back story of his adopted human son, Buddy (Ferrell) decides he must seek out his biological father, a crass children’s book publisher who works in the Empire State Building. Ferrell does the usual fish out of water routine in Manhattan, trying to make friends with jaded New Yorkers, congratulating the proprietors of a greasy spoon that claims to serve the “world’s best cup of coffee,” and running himself silly in revolving doors. Once the major sight gags are exhausted, Buddy takes a job as – what else? – a department store elf.

Ferrell breathes life into the most implausible of characters, but it is Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, Buddy’s co-worker and love interest, who completes the audience buy-in. Jovie is a wise-beyond-her-years cynic with enough wit and sass to slice through the phony goodwill expected of everyone during the holidays. Unfortunately, David Berenbaum’s script misplaces her for a good chunk of the movie, but when she is onscreen, the movie sparkles (the singular highlight of “Elf” is a sweet duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” between Deschanel and Ferrell).

The plot of “Elf” is as predictable as they come, but director Jon Favreau (who also enjoys a cameo as a doctor) clearly relishes working with such talented performers, and vets James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Ed Asner look like they are having a blast. Peter Dinklage, wonderful in “The Station Agent” earlier this year, practically steals the movie as a hotshot author insulted by the naïve Buddy at a book pitch session. It is Ferrell, though, who conjures up consistent laughs with his unique characterization. He plays Buddy absolutely straight, and in the process manages to convince the audience of the overgrown Elf’s conviction and sincerity.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/10/03.

In the Cut

Monday, November 3rd, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jane Campion’s movies are always interesting to watch, even when they don’t entirely satisfy the expectations of her ardent fans. This is once again the case with the director’s latest work, an adaptation of a Susanna Moore novel starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. “In the Cut” struggles to transcend the limitations of its well-worn genre: the combination police procedural/psychodrama/serial killer thriller. Campion works double-time to squeeze in an abundance of colorful and unconventional dialogue, sweaty cinematography, and sepia-toned surrealist dream sequences, but the end result is terribly disappointing: a formulaic exercise with an obvious “twist” that can be figured out long before the conclusion by anyone with even a trace of a clue.

Ryan, eschewing her usual sunny vivacity for a sexed-up romp as a disoriented wreck, plays Frannie, a writing instructor who flirts a little too much with her students. As part of a steady stream of coincidences only a detective could love, some “disarticulated” remains of a young woman show up in Frannie’s garden and she is subsequently questioned by James Malloy, Ruffalo’s deceptively low-key homicide cop. As it turns out, Frannie thinks she might have seen the victim in a shadowy bar, performing oral sex on a man with a tattoo identical to the one on the investigating police officer’s wrist. From there, things merely get more and more weird.

Lonely Frannie has also been dating red herring John (Kevin Bacon, sleazy), an emotional pressure-cooker with the lid on too tight, but is happy to send him packing for Malloy, who exults in his skills at cunnilingus, and practically gloats after bringing Frannie to an apparently long-overdue orgasm. Ruffalo and Ryan throw off plenty of sparks in their frequent onscreen couplings, and the sexual relationship that develops between their two characters turns out to be the only halfway compelling thing about the film.

Campion strains to visualize Frannie’s confused mental state by simultaneously developing cockeyed subplots involving the long-ago courtship of Frannie’s mother by a charming rake and the literal writing on the wall in a series of subway poems that Frannie chooses to read as bad omens. Additionally, Frannie makes the mistake of taking advice from her perpetually groggy half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, punchy), a somewhat promiscuous pleasure-seeker who lives, a little unconvincingly, above a strip club.

While the obsessive relationship between Frannie and Malloy heats to a steady boil, the supporting cast is integrated with all the subtlety and smoothness of a runaway jackhammer. Frannie’s student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) alternates between mumbling constantly about the innocence of child-killer John Wayne Gacy and coming on sexually to his teacher. Malloy’s partner Rodriguez (Nick Damici) tracks dirt through every one of his scenes. Add all this to Bacon’s vein-popping outbursts and Ruffalo’s nonchalant egocentrism, and one begins to wonder why Frannie even bothers to get out of bed each morning. Frannie’s suspicion of Malloy is critical to the suspense, and in a way, that’s too bad – “In the Cut” might have been an altogether better movie had it dealt more with a kinky hookup between two alluring characters and less with the mechanics of the stock whodunit.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/3/03.

American Splendor

Monday, October 27th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Professional V.A. hospital file clerk and underground comics legend Harvey Pekar is the subject of “American Splendor,” a phenomenal film that recounts his life story after the fashion of Pekar’s own autobiographical comic book series. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini trust in Pekar’s potent personality enough to blend fiction with fact, and then double it all back on itself. Pekar appears in the movie as himself, but is also brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti. At other times, pen and ink animations of Pekar take over the screen. The movie smartly indulges these doppelgangers because they are a perfect reflection of the fractured way in which Pekar is illustrated in the comics.

A world-class ranter and curmudgeon, Pekar began documenting the mundane, everyday struggles and humiliations of his minimum-wage Cleveland existence after meeting fellow record collector R. Crumb at a garage sale. Unable to draw more than a stick figure, Pekar enlisted Crumb, and eventually a number of other illustrators, to visualize his world of plebeian despair. “American Splendor” reminds viewers of Terry Zwigoff’s excellent documentary “Crumb,” and actor James Urbaniak nails both Crumb’s old-fashioned sartorial sensibility and his awkward vocal mannerisms.

“American Splendor” finds its odd romantic center with the appearance of Pekar’s soul mate, Joyce Brabner (wonderfully channeled by Hope Davis under oversized glasses and severe black bangs). The movie, like Pekar’s stories and the L.A. play that was produced about the courtship, highlights the most perversely enjoyable aspects of the unlikely coupling. Upon arriving from Delaware following a pen-pal flirtation, Joyce is immediately informed by Harvey that he has had a vasectomy. As soon as the pair arrives at Pekar’s filthy apartment, Joyce vomits up the terrible “yuppie food” she had consumed at a cruddy restaurant Harvey had picked out. Naturally, she proposes, and a week later they are getting married.

The filmmakers perfectly regulate the weird cycle of celebrity and obscurity that has defined Pekar for decades. During the 1980s, Pekar appeared frequently as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman,” fielding the host’s barbs in exchange for publicity for his comics. Real footage of Pekar sparring with Letterman is intercut with Giamatti and a mostly unconvincing Letterman soundalike, but the entire “Late Night” saga, which ended with bitterness and acrimony, provides one of the most fascinating sequences within the movie.

The irony of “American Splendor” is that it celebrates and venerates the achievements of a person who has carefully constructed his miserable, underdog persona. At one point, the real Brabner admonishes Pekar’s sourpuss worldview, but a twinkle in Harvey’s eye gives away at least a small part of the game: Pekar is on some level happy with his downheartedness. His seemingly cheerless life has been marked by some amazing accomplishments: winning awards, beating cancer, raising a child, steady authorship, etc. Maybe the secret is that Pekar’s dejection is reassuring when it is juxtaposed against the wistful image of the man at his retirement party, surrounded by friends, enjoying a piece of cake and a hug from his loved ones.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/27/03.

Mystic River

Monday, October 20th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Mystic River,” Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, is certain to receive at least a handful of important nominations come award season.  Selected to kick off the New York Film Festival, Eastwood’s movie is a careful, meditative study of loss and pain so somber and grim the entire experience is reminiscent of the way a cold, rainy day can dredge up forgotten memories of long-ago regret.  Set in the tough neighborhoods of blue-collar Irish Boston, “Mystic River” demonstrates total confidence in its milieu, and for that the audience is rewarded.

Focusing on a trio of long-estranged childhood friends who find themselves linked together in middle age by a terrible crime, “Mystic River” is part police procedural, part art film.  Sean Penn, in another of his smoldering performances, is Jimmy, an ex-con and all around hard case who has settled with some uncertainty into partial respectability as the owner of the local corner store.  Dave (Tim Robbins) is now married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), but still suffers from the unspeakable childhood trauma of being kidnapped and molested by two men posing as cops.  Sean (Kevin Bacon) has mostly left the old neighborhood, but returns as a police detective with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) to investigate a homicide.

It turns out that Jimmy’s beautiful teenage daughter Katie (Emily Rossum) has been murdered, her beaten body discovered in a park.  Eastwood takes his time throughout this early exposition, and the result is an almost unbearable timeline in which the bad news methodically snakes its way from the discovery of the body by the authorities to Jimmy’s unsuspecting family, celebrating the first communion of one of Katie’s younger siblings.  The whole sequence showcases Eastwood’s talent for pacing, and is complemented by Penn’s own tonal shifts, from father’s worry at his daughter not showing up for an important event, to eventual anguish at the knowledge that she is gone forever.

Eastwood, directing from a script by Brian Helgeland, balances and attenuates the level of audience privilege.  At times we are trusted (perhaps tormented) with awful knowledge that other characters do not have, but the identity of Katie’s killer is as mysterious to us as it is to Sean and Whitey.  The plot provides us with two compelling suspects: Dave, who not only saw Katie just before she disappeared, but also arrived home the night of the murder covered in blood and nearly incoherent, and Brendan (Thomas Guiry), Katie’s boyfriend, who was planning to elope with her to Las Vegas.

While “Mystic River” remains ultimately committed to the narrative conventions that Eastwood sees as critical to his respect for the audience, the filmmaker also masterfully plays with notions of truth versus the willingness to accept something as truth.  Eastwood knows that people are capable of a wide, shaded range of identifying characteristics: it is even possible to harbor good and evil simultaneously.  Early on, Jimmy calmly explains that he intends to find the person responsible for Katie’s murder, and we are both comforted and horrified by the conviction of that statement.  By the time the final scene of “Mystic River” unfolds – a stunning set-piece that gathers the main characters together at a parade – Eastwood has left us with much to ponder, and much to mourn.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/20/03.