Archive for April, 2003

Confidence

Monday, April 28th, 2003

2003confidence

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Cons and capers can make for terrific screen entertainment. From “The Sting” to “The Grifters,” “Paper Moon” to “Catch Me If You Can,” scam artists at work on the fringes of respectable society fire the imaginations of us regular folk who only dream about being clever enough to fix the ultimate haul. Even recent movies like “Heist,” “Ocean’s 11” and “The Score” demonstrate that high-stakes gamesmanship isn’t likely to disappear from the cinema any time soon. Director James Foley’s “Confidence” is another, lesser entry in the genre, but it is not without its beguilements.

“Confidence” stars the perpetually hoarse Edward Burns as master swindler Jake Vig, a career crook with a practically superhuman aptitude for separating suckers from their money. Working with a seasoned team of role-players, Vig accidentally cheats a major Los Angeles crimelord known as “The King” out of a rather substantial sum. Under the threat of unspeakable harm to his person, Vig agrees to restore the King’s cash by hatching a major con involving an elaborate series of perfectly-timed deceptions that promise to net him five million bucks. Better yet, the loot will be pilfered from one of the King’s most despised arch-rivals.

Foley, whose resume includes the film version of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” has both the necessary experience for this kind of material and the visual gusto to breathe colorful life into the blue neon signs and rain-slicked streets of the L.A. underworld. Foley’s vision is only compromised by the lackluster scripting of Doug Jung, who comes close, but never quite pushes the story into a place that would distinguish “Confidence” from movies with similar agendas. Despite its carefully orchestrated double and triple crosses, the movie exudes an air of familiarity along the lines of “been there, done that.”

Edward Burns’ poseur-cool and somnambulistic presence desperately necessitate a hearty supporting cast, and on this count “Confidence” delivers. The sensational, often overlooked Paul Giamatti sprinkles in enough comic relief to give the movie a pulse where it is most needed, and Rachel Weisz is so good it is a shame her smooth-operating pickpocket is lamentably underutilized (but then, what do you expect when testosterone levels are so high, women are literally called “skirts”?). Donal Logue, along with the indispensable Luis Guzman, turn up as a pair of cops on the take, and Andy Garcia is ideal as the mysterious fed pursuing Vig and his crew.

In the role of Winston “The King” King, however, Dustin Hoffman upstages leading man Burns in every scene in which he appears. Hoffman’s role is not much more than a glorified cameo, but the veteran puts on a clinic for his young co-stars. Affecting an amorphous, indeterminate sexuality (you’re never quite certain, but King seems to enjoy hitting on both genders in equal measure), Hoffman is a livewire, chewing gum with zeal and peering out at the world from behind a pair of librarian’s eyeglasses. Aside from Giamatti, Hoffman is the only actor in the movie who understands that this is the sort of stuff that is not meant to be taken seriously. By the time the trigger is pulled on the last hustle, you find yourself wishing you had seen less Vig, more King.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/28/03.

House of 1000 Corpses

Monday, April 21st, 2003

House1000corpses

Movie review by Greg Carlson

For a few years now, horror fans have eagerly awaited the release of rock-auteur Rob Zombie’s feature-filmmaking debut, the colorfully titled “House of 1000 Corpses.” Originally prepared for Universal Studios (a shrewd move considering the parade of references, visual and otherwise, to Zombie’s beloved, classic Universal horror film cycle), the movie was completed in 2000 and then dumped, apparently because its content was expected to earn it a rating of NC-17. Following a flirtation with MGM, the movie finally limps into theatres under the aegis of the less fearful Lion’s Gate. Unfortunately, “Corpses” was decidedly not worth the wait.

Zombie, who boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century trash, horror, and exploitation culture as well as a keenly developed visual sensibility honed while making a series of clever music videos, seems at first an ideal candidate to resurrect the flagging fright genre. For the first half hour or so, “Corpses” even holds the promise of being able to deliver the kind of experience deserving of a “Famous Monsters of Filmland” cover story. Too soon, however, it becomes painfully apparent that Zombie is a much better visual stylist than he is a writer, as one tired cliché after another rears up to insult the audience. The only “shock” here is the realization that Zombie’s imagination has painful limitations.

If “Corpses” artfully explores Zombie’s predilection for drive-in movies, circus sideshows, 16mm bondage loops, and late night TV horror show hosts, its story borrows too heavily from Tobe Hooper’s landmark “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its first sequel. A quartet of young adults runs out of gas (natch) during a rainstorm (ditto) on Halloween 1977. The travelers locate the service station of one Captain Spaulding (perfectly played by veteran freakshow Sid Haig), and while no explanation is given for the Marx Brothers reference, the crafty entrepreneur invites the two couples to partake in his Grand Guignol dark ride, a biographical homage to sadists and killers like Albert Fish, Lizzie Borden, Ed Gein, and the fictional Dr. Satan, a psychopath lynched for his unauthorized operations at a local hospital.

Surprisingly, the kids make it out of Spaulding’s roadside museum without a scratch, but unwisely pick up sexy hitchhiker Baby (Sheri Moon, very good in her feature debut), who invites everyone back to her neglected, decaying, ramshackle homestead. Greeted by the voluptuous horror of Karen Black as Mother Firefly, the waylaid innocents are soon introduced to the rest of the family, a gallery of revolting malefactors ready to systematically victimize the sitting targets with every conceivable excruciating torture and humiliation. At this point, “Corpses” immediately begins to rot, as one boring contrivance after another merely provides opportunity for unrelenting abuse and gore, devoid of anything resembling wit or skill.

“Corpses” expires with very little to recommend it to even the die-hard horror fanatic. While Zombie stages some intriguing and disturbing scenes (including an inspired lip-synch of Baby crooning “I Want to Be Loved By You” and the execution of a cop in a grisly, time-suspended tableau), his screenplay fails him at every turn. Zombie enthusiasts are likely to enjoy the music (composed by Zombie and Scott Humphrey), which includes the bizarre pairing of the director and Lionel Richie on a souped-up remake of “Brick House.” Those who find little to like in the necromancer’s tunes, however, will be equally hard-pressed to discover anything redeemable in the movie itself.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/21/03.

Anger Management

Monday, April 14th, 2003

2003anger

Movie review by Greg Carlson

As evidenced by the numbers of people turning out to see it, “Anger Management” is as close to a sure-fire success as you can get. The inspired teaming of the legendary Jack Nicholson and the, well, not legendary Adam Sandler covered a wide enough demographic for the honchos at Sony Pictures to start salivating even before the weekend totals started rolling in. The only problem with the movie is that it is not very funny. Or entertaining. “Anger Management” looks reasonably sharp and clever on paper, but on the big screen, the movie is clearly more “Big Daddy” than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

A quick scan of the credits indicates that, sadly, “Anger Management” is just another clone from the well-oiled Sandler machine, a Happy-Madison production brought to you by the team behind “The Animal.” In the movie, Sandler plays human doormat Dave Buznik, a meek loser who toils away in cubicle hell as a designer of clothing for overweight housecats. Despite his intrinsic timidity, Dave inexplicably dates the dishy, sweet Linda (Marisa Tomei, treated like an afterthought), who doesn’t seem to mind that the rest of the world walks all over her man.

Following a series of misunderstandings on a plane during a business trip – one of the only marginally comical sequences in the movie – Dave is sentenced by a judge (the late, great Lynne Thigpen) to anger management class. Administrated by author and anger expert Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), Dave’s class is populated by an odd assortment of apoplectic lunatics that range from a pair of lesbian porn stars to a traumatized veteran of the Grenada invasion. Dave quickly figures out that Buddy is just as nuts as his patients, but, facing jail time as an alternative, he is forced to go along.

Once the cockamamie premise is firmly established, with Buddy literally moving in to Dave’s apartment and sharing his bed, the Sandler-Nicholson interplay takes over, and the two performers lay it on with relish, lurching through a contemptibly daffy string of unfunny bits, poorly staged by director Peter Segal, whose resume includes “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.” Screenwriter David Dorfman also earns his share of the blame, relying on pathetic clichés and ill-conceived confrontations that wouldn’t even draw a chuckle from most kindergartners.

One segment, for example, finds Dave and Buddy descending on a Buddhist monastery to settle a score with Dave’s childhood nemesis. Even with the considerable talents of John C. Reilly at the filmmakers’ disposal, the best they can do is a tired physical slapstick that ends with a head-butt and an orange-robed wedgie. In addition to Reilly, “Anger Management” enlists a parade of stars in cameo performances, to no avail. From Bobby Knight, John McEnroe, and Rudy Giuliani to Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Woody Harrelson, Heather Graham, and Harry Dean Stanton, the movie comes off as downright desperate to please. The supporting players do nothing, however, to enhance the movie’s minimal coherence, and “Anger Management” ends as it began: a irreparable, pointless goner.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/14/03.

Phone Booth

Monday, April 7th, 2003

Phonebooth1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer Larry Cohen and director Joel Schumacher are both known for peddling pulp fictions to audiences who may or may not want the wares, and now, following a decades-long gestation period, Cohen’s strident and nutty story has been realized on the big screen.  Schumacher, grasping the anachronism of a man trapped in a phone booth, justifies the break in logic by raining down a shower of opening images that bounce from the teeming masses on their cell phones to the satellites on high that provide the connections.  Kieslowski did the same thing much better in “Red,” but Schumacher understands that he has to hit the ground running if he is going to hook the audience.

Scruffy Colin Farrell is well-cast as PR hustler Stu Shepard, the devilish offspring of Sidney Falco from “Sweet Smell of Success.”  A wannabe kingmaker, Stu struts the pavement of Times Square, browbeating his fawning toady of an assistant while juggling an endless stream of calls from clients, magazine editors, and other pretenders.  Stu has a crush on one of his marks, adorable actress Pam (Katie Holmes), and calls her daily from the last working phone booth in his orbit, because he is married, and knows his wife checks the cell phone bills.

Even with its breakneck set-up, “Phone Booth” hits the wall as soon as Stu picks up the ringing phone following one of his many calls to Pam.  A voice on the other end of the line (Kiefer Sutherland, at his smarmiest) calmly explains that he has a high-powered rifle, and will kill Stu if he dares to hang up.  Stu’s incredulity evaporates along with his swagger when the sniper proves he is not joking around.  An innocent bystander is shot, and soon the entire street is swarming with cops, news vans, and curious onlookers rolling tape in their camcorders.  Fortunately for our protagonist, attending officer Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker) is able to figure out that Stu is the victim and not the killer.

What follows, is messy, ill-conceived, and woefully set-bound, as Stu and the sniper play a verbal game of cat and mouse.  Farrell, sporting an occasionally spotty Bronx accent, rips it up with reckless abandon: crying, sweating, screaming, and begging, his Stu is an actor’s dream role.  Ditto for the unseen Sutherland, who just sits back and pours it out like honey.  The relationship of the two men is problematic, however, as the sniper feels that Stu’s lack of compassion, honesty, and responsible moral behavior is enough to mark him for death.

What “Phone Booth” chooses to sidestep, to its detriment, is any reasonable explanation as to why the sniper knows so much (or even cares) about Stu in the first place.  Tantalizing details of Stu’s moral shortcomings are peppered throughout the phone conversation, and occasionally Stu takes a wild guess at the sniper’s connection to him, but the movie purposefully elects to leave the information a secret.  Maybe Cohen and Schumacher want to keep the movie’s themes in the realm of fable.  If so, the filmmakers left out one important ingredient: a reason why we should care about Stu Shepard in the first place.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/7/03.