Archive for May, 2003

Bend It Like Beckham

Monday, May 26th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

As a teenage coming-of-age comedy, “Bend It Like Beckham” is sturdy and reliable, with a conclusion so foreseeable you will likely telegraph it from the opening scenes. Tried and true tropes are firmly in place: a wedding, a love triangle, a passion for something your parents just don’t understand, and a handful of white lies and misunderstandings to keep things chugging along. Despite the movie’s formulaic familiarity, however, director Gurinder Chadha (“ Bhaji on the Beach,” “What’s Cooking?”) has heart to spare, as well as a terrific way with the young actors in her charge.

Jesminder (Parminder Nagra, top-notch all the way) – Jess, for short – loves to play football (soccer, to Yanks), despite the pressure for her to focus on the traditions her Indian family holds dear. Older sis Pinky (Archie Panjabi) is set to be married, and mama Bhamra (Shaheen Khan) insists that Jess learn to cook a traditional meal, find a nice boy, and follow her older sibling to the altar. Jess, however, has little time to think about aloo gobi and potential suitors. She wants only one thing: to bend it like Beckham, that is, put a soccer ball in the net with all the skill of Great Britain’s most famous athlete.

David Beckham, who makes only a fleeting appearance in the movie, is to Brits now what Michael Jordan was to basketball fans in the prime of his career: a superb player with enough natural talent to match his many commercial endorsements. Because Americans in general are not exactly recognized for a wild passion for soccer, Becks is known to some folks over here simply as the husband of Posh Spice. England, however, is a different matter. Like thousands of other young kids, Jess decorates her bedroom as a sort of shrine to Beckham, much to the consternation of her parents, who refer to the footballer as “that bald man.”

Jess is spotted in the park one day by Jules (Keira Knightley), another football-mad young woman who plays for a local club called the Hounslow Harriers. Impressed with Jess’ footwork, Jules recruits her to play on the team. Coached by a handsome Irishman named Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, more likable than he has ever appeared on-screen), the Harriers welcome Jess to their fold, and quickly began to win plenty of games. All the while, Jess keeps her newfound glory hidden from her protective family. You can bet that her deceit will catch up with her sooner rather than later, but getting there is half the fun.

Both Nagra and Knightley manage to exuberantly and convincingly convey a fervent keenness for football, and director Chadha realizes some of her most visually accomplished work during the scenes in which soccer is being competitively played. The supporting cast is also excellent – particularly Rhys-Meyers and Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher, who appears as the stern but patient father of Jess. Chadha also makes time for activities off the playing field, and the staging of Pinky’s nuptials is a delight to both eye and ear, rivaling “Monsoon Wedding” in its colorful energy.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/26/03.

All the Real Girls

Monday, May 19th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

It’s easy, sometimes, to forget that David Gordon Green is still a young man in his late 20s. “All the Real Girls” is only his second feature, following the haunting “George Washington,” but it resonates with a careful, unhurried patience that few filmmakers of Green’s generation are likely to be able to demonstrate to an audience, even if they wanted to. While Green is certainly not the first film school attendee to gulp down extra helpings of Terrence Malick en route to the development of a directorial style, he is undoubtedly one of the best. Both “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” construct tiny universes out of their small, North Carolina milltowns that border on the astonishing in their authenticity.

While “George Washington” dealt with the tragedy attending the accidental death of a child, “All the Real Girls” dissects the heady confusion that swirls around falling in and out of love. Paul (Paul Schneider, who also co-wrote the story with director Green) is a directionless kid who has managed to bed every available young woman in the area – more than twenty by his count – despite the fact that he still lives with his mother. Noel (Zooey Deschanel) is the virginal 18-year-old sister of Paul’s best pal Tip (Shea Wingham, rocking an impressive pompadour).

If you think you can guess with some certainty the sorts of things that will happen next, you would probably be right. But Green is not interested in machine-tooling some kind of contrived revelation or unexpected shock. In his own quietly contemplative manner, he wants to see how his characters will behave under the most usual of circumstances. Respecting the regular, commonplace ordinariness of daily life, Green uncovers both happiness and sadness in the most mundane details of typical conversations. As a screenwriter, Green almost effortlessly taps in to the weird emptiness of the way in which we communicate.

Most of the movie is spent dealing with the intense emotions experienced by Noel and Paul as they draw closer to one another, but many of the supporting cast members are expertly incorporated by the director. Danny McBride is hilarious as Bust-Ass, the sort of person who knows he won’t be any girl’s first choice but hangs in there so he can take advantage on the rebound. The always compelling Patricia Clarkson is wonderful as Paul’s mom, a professional clown who entertains at birthday parties and children’s hospital wards. As Tip, Shea Wingham gets to play one of the best scenes in the entire film, as he discusses fatherhood with Paul.

There is no mistaking, however, that the movie really belongs to Deschanel and Schneider, who share a death-grip on the disorientation and punch-drunk bewilderment that attends falling hard in love. Deschanel, in particular, shows off a deeply convincing vulnerability that lights up the screen. She understands perfectly the irony of how Noel yearns to become more experienced, even as Paul cherishes her innocence as an opportunity for a new beginning. At one point, Noel explains to Paul that, in a dream, she was so happy she invented peanut butter. On paper, this sounds more than a little ridiculous. On screen, Deschanel makes it work.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/19/03.

Laurel Canyon

Monday, May 12th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Laurel Canyon” could have been a really good movie.  Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, whose “High Art” covered some of the same thematic territory, has the right cast, the right setting, and the right crew – especially in cinematographer Wally Pfister, nearly as masterful here as he was in “Insomnia.”  The problem is, Cholodenko provides a tempting set-up and then plays it far too safe when the time comes to really deliver a wallop.  A Valley Girl herself, Cholodenko has an unblurred, almost crystalline lucidity about the bewildering strangeness of greater Los Angeles – a locale that is as much a state of mind as a physical address.

Christian Bale (sporting an almost impossibly bad hairdo) and Kate Beckinsale both tackle American accents as Sam and Alex, a pair of Harvard Medical School graduates who relocate to L.A. from Cambridge.  The uptight, straitlaced Sam has arranged to crash temporarily at his mother’s Laurel Canyon spread while she retreats to her Malibu beach house.  The problem is, mother Jane, a prolific and somewhat legendary record producer (bookshelves are cluttered with photos of her with Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen), has split with her latest beau, and he is holed up in the beach house while Jane toils away with a young band in her home studio.

Reluctantly, Sam agrees to share the space, but insists that Alex look for a place to rent while he puts in long hours at the hospital.  Alex’s enthusiasm for new digs quickly wanes when she is sucked in to Jane’s carefree orbit of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  Abandoning her doctoral dissertation on the reproductive habits of fruit flies, Alex spends more and more time smoking weed, consuming tofu steaks, and lounging around the pool with the musicians.  Meanwhile, at the clinic, Sam’s head is turned by a gorgeous fellow resident (Natascha McElhone) who seems more than eager to seduce him.

There is an unfortunate obviousness about the way in which Sam and Alex drift away from each other, and worse yet, Cholodenko offers zero edge when exploring the sexual transgressions that endanger Alex and Sam’s relationship.  Beckinsale’s Alex seems tame, restrained, and closed off even when she is supposed to be at her most reckless and adventuresome.  As Sam, Bale expertly conveys the aura of a son whose entire childhood was damaged by his irresponsible mom, but short of a pair of acutely focused scenes, the audience is expected to take his bottled-up rage almost for granted.

The film’s saving grace is the superb performance by Frances McDormand as Jane.  Running circles around her young counterparts, McDormand adds another bulls-eye to her remarkable filmography.  McDormand understands that Jane is a woman who pursued, and largely accomplished, her life-dreams with an urgency and sense of mission that few people ever experience, even though she might have been hurt a few times along the way.  Sam resents her for this, but the audience certainly doesn’t: Jane’s good humor and dauntless spirit always trumps her son’s mopey brooding.  Too bad we didn’t get to spend more time with her.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/12/03. 

X2: X-Men United

Monday, May 5th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The good news is that the weakest thing about “X2: X-Men United” is its limp title, another one of those shorthand sequel acronyms bestowed apparently for the benefit of the attention-span challenged or the near-illiterate (see: “T2,” “T3,” MiB 2,” MI:2,” etc.).  Marquee notwithstanding, director Bryan Singer proved the last time out that he was clearly the man for the job – a smart storyteller with an occasionally stunning sense of visual grandeur, and more importantly, deep and abiding affection for the source material.  The consensus among fans was that, for the most part, he got it right.

On the colorful page, one of the hallmarks of Marvel Comics is a preoccupation with brooding, depressed heroes plagued with problems not easily overcome by their awesome powers.  Singer lavished attention on this detail in the first “X-Men,” and healthy doses of the same themes attended both “Spider-Man” and “Daredevil” (the jury is still out on the yet-to-be-released Hulk movie – Ang Lee is a proven director, but that artificial-looking CG in the preview is drawing muffled snickers and shocked gasps).  With its recurring motifs of genocide, oppression, and estrangement, the “X-Men” series manages to strike a timely chord.

“X2” opens with a spectacular set-piece that introduces us to blue-skinned, fork-tailed teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) as he demonstrates how effortlessly he can endanger anyone, even the President of the United States of America.  The reasons for Nightcrawler’s attack on the Oval Office are revealed in time, but suffice it to say that influential people want plenty of ammunition for their initiative to marginalize mutants by drafting legislation that would erode equal rights and privileges (downright eerie how closely the Mutant Registration Act mirrors the real-life Patriot Act).  Fortunately, any semblance of plot is quickly relegated to the background, as Singer rotates the concerns of the movie toward its unique inhabitants.

In addition to the original line-up, “X2” adds Nightcrawler, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford), Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), and a handful of other characters who might figure more prominently in additional installments of the story.  Once the required presentations are made, the balance of the movie is spread out among old favorites like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, very trenchant), who digs deeper into his past in order to piece together gaps in his memory.  Once again, some characters fade into the background: Halle Berry’s Storm isn’t given much more to do than the first time around, and Cyclops (James Marsden) is only trotted out when the plot absolutely demands his presence.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are as good as ever playing rivals Professor X and Magneto.  Villains always get to have more fun, though, and it is McKellen who relishes every droll bon mot in his re-teaming with sexy shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who makes the most of her more expanded role).  The inveterate Brian Cox is also greatly appreciated as a mysterious military man with ties to Wolverine.  While this sizable ensemble presents Singer with a formidable obstacle in the allotment of equal screen time, the director adroitly sketches in just enough for each participant to come alive.  It will be interesting to see where he takes us next time.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/5/03.