Archive for June, 2003

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle

Monday, June 30th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” measured against the majority of its summer box office competition, peels out, tires spinning, to take a commanding lead over stiff and stilted killjoys like “Hulk,” “2 Fast 2 Furious,” and “Bruce Almighty,” in the category that counts: big dumb fun. Director McG returns (along with celestial Cameron Diaz, lush Lucy Liu, and darling Drew Barrymore) to do what he does better than the rest – serve up a mind-boggling confection that borders on sensory overload, and make it all look breathlessly easy. McG, whose background as a music video and commercial helmer is a major asset, always keeps an ace up his sleeve: an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, ready to be quoted at the drop of a phonograph needle.

Like the first “Charlie’s Angels” movie, the sequel is packed with perfectly-selected pop songs that cover the action like a kind of sonic wallpaper. Ditto the director’s fondness for movie references, which crop up so often it is easy to lose track of just how many are squeezed in (best one: the nod to “Singin’ in the Rain” via a zealous fan at a big movie premiere). Sure, all the finely-tuned style doesn’t leave much room for anything resembling a developed plot, but who cares? Operating like one giant-sized, big-gulp of a music video itself, the story can only serve as an excuse to set up one dazzling action set-piece or spectacular costume change after another.

If “Full Throttle” falls short of the original, it does so on two counts: first, by aping so much of what had been presented in the first movie, and second, by spreading out the screen time among too many diversions. The second criticism is typical of action-comedy or comic book-type sequels (just think of how the Batman franchise finally collapsed under the weight of too many new characters and villains). This time, we have a new Bosley (Bernie Mac, quite serviceable as a replacement for droll Bill Murray), a fallen angel in the form of Demi Moore (whose much-ballyhooed return to the screen amounts to no great shakes), and a round robin of subplots and scenes for the central trio and their boyfriends (Matt LeBlanc and Luke Wilson both return). Even Crispin Glover reprises his role as The Thin Man. Add to that cameos by Bruce Willis, John Cleese, Jaclyn Smith, Pink, and heck, even the Olsen Twins, and you’ve got a few balls to juggle.

The heart and soul of “Charlie’s Angels,” however, remains the relationship of the titular trio, and producer-star Barrymore can be credited with building a team that feels and acts like a family. As preposterous as it seems, the age-old themes of taking care of each other and looking out for your loved ones bubble up through the otherwise glib winks and nudges. These best friends may bond while dressed as nuns or strippers, but their loyalty to each other transcends their wardrobe, no matter how impressive. Teamwork is merely reinforced by color-coordinated get-ups, from neon moto-cross garb to welders’ outfits, and Natalie, Alex, and Dylan have got the looks that kill.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/30/03.

Hulk

Monday, June 23rd, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Early in Ang Lee’s sorrowful, mannered, and dismal “Hulk,” Marvel comics mastermind Stan Lee and1970s TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno walk out of a building as security guards. The older audience members chuckle in recognition of the nifty cameo, but the fleeting bit turns out to be nothing more than a sore reminder that the green behemoth’s original incarnations in page-bound pen and ink and series television were way more fun and interesting than anything the new big screen version has to offer. Lee, the wonderful director of terrific movies like “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” seems at first like the ideal person to tackle a large budget “event” film like “Hulk.” Surprisingly, he’s not the man for the job.

Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus opted to update Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 1962 comic as a dreary Oedipal pity-party, unwisely focusing large segments of the film on the repressed memories of not one, but two, major characters. The filmmakers clearly glom on to the big green one’s most obvious literary and popular culture precedents, referencing the Freudian dualism of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the man-interfering-with-God themes of the “Frankenstein” mythology, and the beauty and the beast angle from “King Kong.” The results are as ugly as the all-digital brute cobbled together out of pixels by visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and his team.

Weirdly, director Lee takes his sweet time before delivering a healthy dose of what ticket-holders paid to see – it’s almost as if he is taunting us with a sense of self-importance that nearly screams out: “You must take this seriously! I am dealing with big emotional issues!” No matter how hard he tries, however, the retooled origin story creeps along at a snail’s pace, and is interminably boring to boot. Aussie Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner as a gutless, defeated also-ran (I loved how he had already been dumped by hottie labmate Betty Ross before the action of the movie even begins), leaving baddie-daddy Nick Nolte to devour scenery long before he morphs into the ghoulish entity resembling Hulk foe the Absorbing Man.

The hardest pill for fans to swallow, though, is that the Hulk himself is psychologically emasculated (which calls to mind the old joke about how during his transformations, all of Banner’s clothes rip away from his body except for his trousers). Rather than run the risk of doing any real damage, the script makes certain that the furious colossus crumples up mostly government property. And in keeping with the kiddie-cartoon covenants, the occupants of tanks that are tossed several miles by the raging titan always emerge to let us know that everyone aboard is unhurt.

Ultimately distracting is Lee’s choice to clutter up the frames with multiple split screens. Clearly, the intention was to evoke the multi-paneled comic book page, but the technique reveals itself as just another irksome contrivance, distracting when the film calls for more subtlety. Many of the lengthy dialogue exchanges – and there are more than enough to last for two or three more “Hulk” movies – are presented almost entirely in close-up, resulting in a suffocating, claustrophobic screen. Sure, the movie is going to make a small fortune, but many fans will be left weeping as much and as often as Jennifer Connelly’s Betty Ross.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/23/03.

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd

Monday, June 16th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A dreadful, pitiful, and totally pointless exercise in humiliation, the cloddish follow-up to the Farrelly Brothers 1994 smash hit “Dumb and Dumber” – made back when Jim Carrey was focused on being funny instead of gunning for “serious” acting awards – falls flat from start to finish. With virtually zero decent laughs, “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” is an unworthy successor to the original on every level. Granted, not everyone raved about the first “Dumb and Dumber” – more than a few critical doomsayers lamented the end of civilization as we knew it, moaning as they enumerated the high quotient of gags revolving around snot and diarrhea.

Those same critics might wish to take back some of their barbs upon seeing the hell-spawned “prequel” that now languishes on screens nationwide. Despite the movie’s Rhode Island setting, virtually required in Farrelly Brothers movies, “Dumb and Dumberer” has no connection to any of the principal creative staff who worked on the film’s forerunner. Appearing to have sold out to the lowest bidder, Peter and Bobby certainly cannot be pleased with what has become of their creations. Writer Robert Brenner and director and co-writer Troy Miller have failed to understand the most basic property of life in the Farrelly’s world: maintaining genuine warmth toward the characters, no matter the severity of their afflictions.

Worse yet, the new script pathetically tries to ape many of the first movie’s plot devices. You’ll feel déjà vu when a lousy fantasy sequence takes us inside the dimly-lit mind of Lloyd (Eric Christian Olsen, nearly going into overdrive trying to live up to Carrey’s take on the role), or when Harry (Derek Richardson, bombing in the Jeff Daniels part) has a major bathroom mishap. Or when the pair’s friendship is nearly destroyed when a girl comes between them. And on and on.

If nothing else, the Farrelly Brothers proved that being able to effectively make light of extremely stupid people is no mean feat. Director Miller never once strikes a winning note, saddled as he is with a stupendously lame sub-plot that explores the treacherous plan of high school principal Eugene Levy using Harry and Lloyd to garner funding for a “special needs” program. Levy, who is often the highlight in comedies without the comedy, is paired with Cheri Oteri as his lunch lady/mistress, and nary a chuckle is generated between the two.

Weirdly, only Bob Saget, as the father of Harry and Lloyd’s object of affection, seems to understand that he is standing on cinematic quicksand, and he spits out his lines with just the right amount of venom to let the audience know that he is painfully aware that he is doing time in one of the most god-awful movies to come along in decades. The other cast members are negligible, utterly failing to resonate more than two minutes after the merciful conclusion. Luis Guzman, as Lloyd’s dad and Mimi Rogers, as Harry’s mom are given absolutely nothing to do, and it’s a shame considering that they might have been able to salvage something out of this mess if they had been given half a chance.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/16/03.

2 Fast 2 Furious

Monday, June 9th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In a way, it’s too bad that Vin Diesel, whose nearly instant stardom was based in large part on his performance in the original “The Fast and the Furious,” decided to opt out of the inevitable sequel. “A Man Apart,” which Diesel selected instead of “2 Fast 2 Furious” laid an egg critically and commercially, and the once touted “thespian” is quickly losing some of his box office luster. Yep, Diesel could have used “2 Fast 2 Furious,” and the movie sure could have used him. As it is, though, the follow-up manages to get by on the appeal of its pedal-to-the-metal driving sequences and the candy-colored rainbow of hot rods showcased attractively in its sunny Florida setting.

If one were to scrutinize the “2 Fast 2 Furious” story, by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Gary Scott Thompson – and it is not advisable to do so – you might discover that the screenwriters have developed something that resembles a video game more than it does a movie. Characters spit out clipped one-liners in tidy sentences that seem like a bother amidst all the rocket-paced car chases. When the plot occasionally requires behavior approximating other films and television shows, “2 Fast 2 Furious” cribs more from “Miami Vice,” and “Smokey and the Bandit” than from “Bullitt” and “The French Connection.”

Very few of the original personnel returned for the second lap, but wooden Paul Walker (who must be genuinely glad just to be in any movie) picks up where he left off as former LAPD undercover officer Brian O’Connor. For those who kept score on the first film, O’Connor upheld the code of honor in buddy movies instead of his sworn duties as a cop, letting Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto escape following about a hundred minutes of some serious homo-erotic bonding. Now O’Connor whiles away his time in the Sunshine State, street-racing a silver and blue Nissan Skyline GTR with enough power to make hyperspace with the flip of a switch.

Apparently, the FBI doesn’t mind that O’Connor engages in a highly illegal and dangerous hobby, or that he was bounced off the force for aiding and abetting his one-time target. The feds just want him to saddle up for a tour of duty designed to bring down a powerful gangster named Carter Verone (ably, sleazily played by Cole Hauser – who has a real future if he sticks with this kind of role). Natch, our hero agrees, and insists on working with childhood pal and ex-con Roman Pearce (Tyrese, having a grand old time) in order to get the job done.

The rest of the movie essentially takes care of itself, with monster smash-ups and dizzying, 120 mph sprints consuming the majority of the running time. Leftover moments are devoted to O’Connor’s dangerous infatuation with gorgeous undercover agent Monica Fuentes (Eva Mendes), who has infiltrated Verone’s operation. Curiously, director John Singleton (a long way from “Boyz N the Hood”) chooses to downplay the sexuality virtually to the point of banishing it altogether. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that O’Connor was still carrying a torch for Toretto.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/9/03.

Wrong Turn

Monday, June 2nd, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

According to “Wrong Turn,” another predictable entry in the long-stale teen horror genre, West Virginia is the sort of place where generations upon generations of inbreeding has led to a family of anti-social cannibals out to devour any traveler hapless enough to wander through the state’s rural back roads.  Despite protestations by West Virginia Division of Tourism officials, as well as Governor Bob Wise, who opined of the movie “I think it’s trash,” creepy, shack-dwelling hillbillies apparently translate to financial success – especially when mayhem and misadventure are added to the mix.

“Wrong Turn” begins with young med student Chris (Desmond Harrington) en route to a crucial job interview in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Tooling along in his vintage Mustang, everything is peachy until a major highway back-up blocks his path.  Unwisely opting to take a dirt road “short cut,” Chris accidentally collides with a parked SUV (the smash-up, incidentally, is very well-staged), completely disabling his car.  Occupied by a quintet of attractive young campers, including stoner-couple Evan (Kevin Zegers) and Francine (Lindy Booth), freshly engaged Scott (Jeremy Sisto) and Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and the gloomy, recently – and rather conveniently – dumped Jessie (Eliza Dushku), the SUV had been deliberately sabotaged courtesy of barbed wire stretched across the road.

That’s a bad sign, especially when cell phones don’t work and the nearest gas station is a good hike.  Naturally, the kids decide to split up, with Evan and Francine staying behind to watch the vehicles.  As soon as the others are out of earshot, the unfazed pair decides to indulge their libidinous urges.  Splitting up and sex are a literal magnet for homicidal crazies, and before you can say “disembowelment” the movie is off and running – and running, and running.

Fortunately, director Rob Schmidt knows how to build suspense – even when the outcomes of Alan McElroy’s script can be guessed well in advance.  “Wrong Turn” plays like an amalgam of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “Deliverance” (which is name-checked by Sisto’s wise-cracking character) albeit with increased action and much more photogenic victims.  One extended set piece, a nighttime cat-and-mouse chase that takes place high above the forest floor, is nearly worth the price of admission.  Scrambling up trunks and negotiating skinny branches like high-wire daredevils, the protagonists must stay just steps ahead of an ax-wielding marauder.  This scene, as well as a few others, transcend the typical expectations of the horror movie by virtue of their imagination and visual flair.

The downfall of the movie, however, comes ironically at the hand of special-effects wizard and co-producer Stan Winston.  Characters with monikers like Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye are unquestionably scarier when left in the shadows and to the imagination.  Winston should know, with all of his experience and skill, that less is more, but apparently he could not resist whipping up large batches of latex appliances and gruesome dentures.  Unseen, the cackling ghouls are genuinely spooky.  Out where we can view them clearly, the results are disappointing and anything but frightening.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/2/03.