Archive for February, 2003

Old School

Monday, February 24th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Todd Phillips, the writer-director whose perpetual fixation with all things (academics excepted) collegiate has served him from the documentary “Frat House” to the surprisingly funny “Road Trip,” takes another run at it with “Old School,” a mildly entertaining comedy with some unfortunately lengthy stretches in between the laughs. Based on the well-worn premise that recapturing one’s youth is as worthy an endeavor as anything related to growing up, holding a job, and spending time with your family, “Old School” coasts by on the charm of its lead trio, funnymen Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn.

While the thought of three dolts in their mid-thirties starting up a college fraternity in order to avoid eviction is not likely to capture any prizes for originality, the film displays a relatively high level of enthusiasm from its leads, despite the turgid, bottom-feeding script. Phillips’ direction is leagues below “Road Trip,” feebly cobbling together ideas that might have sounded humorous in the planning stage, but fail in the execution. Misogyny is practically required in sex comedies targeted at young males, but the women in “Old School” – especially the lead romantic interest for Wilson’s character – are ignored to the point where they virtually disappear.

As dull, cuckolded businessman Mitch, Luke Wilson has the least colorful role to play. Mitch leaves his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis, appearing in one of the movie’s many cameos) after discovering her predilection for group sex with complete strangers. He moves into a large home near his alma mater, soon to be joined by Ferrell’s Frank and Vaughn’s Beanie (each one suffering from nebulous, unspecified marital miseries). Vaughn riffs on his signature smug persona, this time as a soccer coach, father of small children, and owner of a regional electronics chain. As a relative newcomer to the big screen (having pulled the ripcord on his SNL parachute), Ferrell shows considerable big screen promise, delivering even the most suspect dialogue with excellent comic timing.

The biggest problem with the movie is not its vulgarity, but its complete lack of unity and coherence in plotting and pacing. Add to that the weak and aimless screenplay, which never bothers to offer a good explanation for the disparate types of pledges recruited for the upstart fraternity, and you’ve got a spotty hour and a half. The oddball assortment of wannabe frat boys includes an octogenarian, a morbidly obese young man, and a bunch of nameless, faceless clods too old to be in college; it adds up to nothing but an arbitrary way to generate “comedy.” Worst of all, Jeremy Piven is saddled with the humiliating task of playing the stereotyped evil-creepy school administrator who stands in the way of the good guys.

Following a thoroughly inept sequence where the ragtag frat must negotiate a series of scholastic and athletic challenges to prove its worth to the powers that be (the same thing was done much better in “Revenge of the Nerds”), the story quickly, inconsequentially winds itself down. Other name brand talent shows up in cameo roles, most notably Andy Dick as an in-home fellatio instructor, Craig Kilborn as a philandering cad, and Seann William Scott as a mullet-coiffed petting zoo proprietor. Snoop Dogg practically phones in his fleeting spot, arriving just long enough to perform a few seconds of a song at a raging party. Only Ellen Pompeo, as Mitch’s high school crush, manages to shine despite being perpetually upstaged by beer kegs and nude streaking.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/24/03.

Talk to Her

Monday, February 17th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Aglow with the recent surprise Academy Award nomination for its masterful director Pedro Almodovar, “Talk to Her” finds itself immediately in the front rank of the Spanish filmmaker’s impressive list of credits. With “Talk to Her,” Almodovar has topped his excellent “All About My Mother” (1999) and perhaps drawn even with the film many consider to be his masterpiece, the audacious, irrepressible “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988). Assuming Almodovar is just getting warmed up – he is only in his early fifties – his many admirers must be salivating at the prospect that the next phase of his career might deliver yet another series of fantastic movies.

Almodovar’s films – which typically carom between slapstick and serenity with astonishing ease – often hinge on the kinds of coincidences beloved by soap operas, but the practically fearless director always manages to locate emotional complexity in the inhabitants of his colorful ensembles. Outrageous things are expected to happen to Almodovar’s characters, but throughout it all, these people remain hopelessly and gloriously human. Best of all, Almodovar consistently demonstrates a sublime level of comfort with even his most obsessive, wrong-headed, misguided, and forlorn characters, offering them empathy where most would find only contempt.

This is certainly the case with Benigno (Javier Camara), the troubling, sexually-ambiguous mama’s boy who attends the bedside of beautiful, comatose ballerina Alicia (Leonor Watling) with the kind of zeal and devotion one usually finds reserved for the Virgin Mary. Benigno, we come to learn, has fallen madly in love with Alicia after seeing her rehearse at the dance studio across the street from his apartment. Following the freak traffic accident that renders Alicia catatonically lifeless, Benigno uses his experience as a nurse to become Alicia’s primary caregiver in the hospital where her psychiatrist father assumes she will receive the best care.

Meanwhile, journalist and travel-guide writer Marco (Dario Grandinetti) begins a relationship with a female bullfighter on the rebound from a painful breakup with another toreador. Lydia (Rosario Flores) is as full of life and energy as Alicia is without, but by a perfectly Almodovarian twist, the torero ends up in a coma and is placed in the same hospital as Alicia. Benigno and Marco become friends, bonding over the bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves. Along with Almodovar, the audience begins to relish the remarkable irony that these two women are completely unaware of the affectionate dedication and concentrated commitment the two men lavish upon them.

Almodovar mirrors the ardor of Benigno and the perseverance of Marco with a jaw-dropping homage to silent film that depicts a kind of forerunner to “The Incredible Shrinking Man” by way of Ferdinand Zecca, Georges Melies, and J. Stuart Blackton. In the piece, a tiny lover demonstrates his complete faithfulness and fealty to the woman responsible for his altered state by doing something nearly unprintable (and certainly too fun to spoil here). Despite the wild inclusion of this fantasy diversion (the film also includes magnificent side-trips to take in Pina Bausch’s dance theatre and Caetano Veloso performing a song), “Talk to Her” is fairly tame by Almodovar standards. It is also one of the best films of the year.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/17/03.

The Hours

Monday, February 10th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

At its best, Stephen Daldry’s screen version of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Hours” is a cinematic tour de force – a delicately handled meditation on those elusive, solitary Woolf-ian intelligences that resist even adequate treatment in the cinematic format. At its worst, the movie is an operatic muddle – an occasionally overrated disarray of an actor’s showcase, providing more than the usual supply of opportunities to set fire to the scenery. The intersections of madness and genius are perennial catnip to the givers of awards (see the ridiculous, already dated “A Beautiful Mind”), and on that count, “The Hours” is sufficiently mobilized.

Operating as a shored-up triptych that doesn’t always gel, the film covers three women in three time periods: uber-writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman and prosthetic nose) in 1923 composing “Mrs. Dalloway” while fighting off the demons of her mind, suburban housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951 finding her own fragile hold on marriage and motherhood coming unglued even as her life is transformed by reading “Mrs. Dalloway,” and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in 2001 loosely acting out the part of a modern day Mrs. Dalloway as she prepares for a party to honor her former lover, a poet now dying of complications from AIDS.

The agenda of “The Hours” is decidedly grim, and Daldry meets the challenge head-on with an opening set piece that imagines Woolf’s suicide by self-drowning in March of 1941 as a languid, romanticized Pre-Raphaelite painting. Weighed down with stones in the pockets of her coat, Woolf’s submergence is attended with thanatological fervor: gliding along underwater, her shoe comes loose in a fetishized tableau that would do John William Waterhouse proud. Taking one’s own life is firmly established as a central motif, and the succeeding stories will attend to the sad topic in ways both expected and surprising.

While Kidman (false proboscis and all) excels at capturing subtlety and nuance in her handling of a difficult role (witness, for example, an exquisite, heartbreaking train station scene between Virginia and husband Leonard, played by Stephen Dillane) and Streep is as peerless as ever, Julianne Moore’s segments are easily the film’s most troublesome. For some reason, Daldry chooses the 1951 setting as a staging ground for the most artificial and extravagantly over-designed theatrics of the movie, and despite Moore’s noble efforts, too much information is missing to connect all the dots. With the exception of a few quotations of Woolf’s, screenwriter David Hare has done away with voiceover – an admirable choice that proves a hindrance in at least this portion.

The supporting cast is almost uniformly impressive, featuring some memorable work by Ed Harris (who takes it a little too far a little too often) as Clarissa’s former lover, Jeff Daniels (in what amounts to an extended cameo), Claire Danes as Clarissa’s daughter, and Allison Janney as Clarissa’s partner. Moore is assisted by her old colleague John C. Reilly, whose presence always makes even the best-staffed films more interesting, as well as Toni Collette, in what has to be the movie’s oddest diversion. Besides the terrific Dillane, Kidman’s scenes are fleshed out by the presence of Miranda Richardson as Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell. The movie remains firmly in the grip of its three leads, however, and audiences looking for a fearless plunge into the heart’s darkest reaches should be pleased by the results.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/10/03.

The Pianist

Monday, February 3rd, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

With “The Pianist,” master filmmaker Roman Polanski delivers one of his most engaging and fully realized movies in ages. An uncompromising, unsentimental adaptation of concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of surviving the Holocaust, “The Pianist” affords Polanski an opportunity to explore some of what one imagines are the most painful memories of his own childhood (the director’s mother died in the gas chambers while the young Polanski lived by his wits on the streets of Krakow). In fact, Polanski has not worked in Poland since the time of his debut feature, “Knife in the Water,” which he made in 1962.

One need only examine the film’s opening scene to appreciate the uniquely skewed worldview of Polanski, who depicts Szpilman (an excellent Adrien Brody, arguably turning in his best performance to date) at work in a Warsaw radio station, elegantly and serenely engrossed in Chopin as the windows are rattled by the explosions of German shells. Szpilman refuses to cease playing, even as the technicians in the sound booth pack up and head for cover. Not until a percussive blast literally knocks him from his bench does the pianist decide he should leave. Szpilman’s defiance – marked by a standoffish distance he maintains with others – will ultimately aid and hinder him in equal measure.

Like other wealthy families, the Szpilmans are totally convinced that the Nazis will be stopped by the Allies before things become unbearable. Together, they make the tragic, catastrophic decision to remain in their home, even as the Germans establish control of the city. Swiftly, absurdly, they are forced – along with nearly 500,000 other Jews – into the tiny Warsaw ghetto. Polanski details the progression of events with a chilling economy: privately, the Szpilman family angrily resists the Nazi edicts printed in the local paper. On the streets, however, they wear Star of David armbands and step over corpses as they try to carry on in the face of unimaginable horror.

“The Pianist” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May, and arguably, it deserved the accolade. The film struggles, particularly in the second half, to maintain the stunning parsimony that characterizes the breathless early sections (Szpilman’s solitariness and isolation become utterly relentless). Szpilman’s relationship to his music – a central motif that results in a number of the film’s most memorable incidents – often disappears into the background when it should be driving his instincts for survival. Thankfully, Polanski does not overlook the music when it counts the most, and the concluding portions of the movie provide much needed closure.

“The Pianist” is certainly in keeping with Polanski’s preoccupation with alienation and fear, and its subject matter offers audiences their best opportunity yet to connect with the director’s most unifying themes. Employing large-scale studio sets (in Germany) and computer-assisted special effects that conjure up, among other things, miles of bombed-out buildings, Polanski finds some unforgettable images amid the wreckage. The simplest ones remain the most effective: a lingering shot of the empty Umschlagplatz, the square where people were gathered prior to being loaded onto trains headed for concentration camps, is difficult to shake off. Strewn with suitcases but no people, it is a forceful reminder.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/3/03.