Archive for September, 2003

Duplex

Monday, September 29th, 2003

duplex

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even though Danny DeVito was not the first director selected for helming duties on “Duplex” (he replaced Greg Mottola), the movie certainly resonates with the macabre sensibility of some of the director’s earlier, better work, like “Throw Momma From the Train” and “The War of the Roses.” DeVito, who is absolutely hilarious in Woody Allen’s latest, doesn’t have the same good fortune behind the camera on this outing, despite the potential for a gruesome good time. “Duplex” is not a bad movie – many audience members might be surprised at just how many solid laughs it contains – but it is not particularly good either.

Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play Alex and Nancy, a young, upwardly mobile couple looking to trade their tiny apartment in the heart of the Big Apple for something more spacious. Their dreams apparently come true when real estate agent Harvey Fierstein steers them in the direction of a stunning Brooklyn brownstone with high ceilings, built-in shelves, three fireplaces, original stained glass windows, and hardwood floors. Even the price is right, but there’s a hitch: the upstairs of the duplex is occupied by an ancient Irish woman protected from eviction by rent control regulations.

The sweet little old lady is played with demented glee by octogenarian Eileen Essel, and one of the strengths of “Duplex” is that the aged actress is game for anything the screenplay throws at her, no matter how revolting or repugnant. As the story progresses, Nancy and Alex quickly realize that they have made a giant miscalculation in their decision to purchase their new dwelling: Essel’s Mrs. Connelly is beyond irritating. The old bat harangues and bedevils the whippersnappers with constant intrusions. She plays her TV at ear-splitting volume in the middle of the night. She cajoles Alex into taking her for groceries and prescriptions, interrupting his writing schedule even as a big deadline looms. She claims that rats have invaded her kitchen. And so on.

Larry Doyle and John Hamburg’s script, which takes a turn for the worse at the end of the second act, fails to make Mrs. Connelly nasty enough for the audience to believe that Alex and Nancy are ready, willing, and able to commit murder for the sake of their sanity. It is on this point that “Duplex” never really takes flight as a black comedy. Yes, it is hysterical to witness the myriad ways in which the irksome Mrs. Connelly shakes up her new landlords, but there is no emotional investment the audience is allowed to make that justifies, for example, the hiring of a hit man to exterminate the badgering neighbor.

Stiller and Barrymore try their best to keep up with the sprightly Essel, and for the most part, they deliver – in one outrageous sequence Alex deliberately gets infected with a harsh flu virus in the hopes that he can pass it along to Mrs. Connelly. In another, a plugged up sink leads to a spectacular display of vomiting that will either leave you rolling or retching. The inconsistency in the story’s tone, however, extends into the staging of the humor, and “Duplex” often resorts to broad slapstick when subtlety is required.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/29/03.

Anything Else

Monday, September 22nd, 2003

2003anything

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Woody Allen is so reliably prolific as a writer-director of New York City-based tales of cosmic humiliations and bittersweet relationships, seeing one of his films is often like pulling on a comfortable, well-worn sweater. Even when his newer work fails to live up to the spectacular golden age that delivered pictures like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” it is still a bracing antidote to much of the poison being sold as caviar in the current cinema. The old, dependable formula is in full-swing in “Anything Else,” a funny riff on Woody’s regular obsessions with difficult girlfriends, anti-Semitism, and occupational failure.

Jason Biggs is in fine form as Jerry Falk (the role Woody would have played had the movie been made some time ago), a young comedy writer represented by a struggling, past-his-prime agent (Danny DeVito, in a small, but wonderfully comic part). Jerry is mentored and guided by fellow writer David Dobel (Allen), a neurotic conspiracy theorist hell-bent on assembling the perfect survival kit for the inevitable Armageddon. Dobel dispenses misguided life-advice to Jerry on a daily basis, often summarizing his personal philosophy through antique vaudeville one-liners and other ancient witticisms. Meanwhile, Jerry is tied up in knots over Amanda (Christina Ricci), a dangerous man-magnet and all-around reckless, free-spirited flake.

Despite the obvious hazard of making Amanda a nightmarish femme fatale, Allen sidesteps the potential charges of misogyny by allowing Ricci to craft a sly and subtle performance that propels the film forward. Sure, Amanda is an obvious liar and cheat, but she is also forthcoming about many of her eyebrow-raising lifestyle choices. There is also the little matter of how Jerry hooked up with her in the first place – via an illicit affair begun while both parties were involved with significant others. In other words, Allen makes it abundantly clear that Jerry is responsible for the generous servings of misery he chokes down after getting involved with Amanda.

Like many of Allen’s character-driven movies, “Anything Else” plays as a series of comic vignettes dependent upon the chemistry of the actors. Individual scenes draw solid laughs, including the sight of Allen’s Dobel weakly trying to smash out the windows of a car following a chastening at the hands of a pair of thuggish louts, a sidewalk exchange in which Jerry’s plans for a fancy anniversary dinner are spoiled when Amanda informs him she has already eaten, and the tour de force spectacle of DeVito’s character having a disruptive meltdown in a nice restaurant.

Even as he ages, Woody Allen enlists extremely talented directors of photography in order to keep himself, his actors, and his beloved Manhattan looking as attractive as possible. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (adding his name to a long list of venerable DPs to shoot for Allen) practically makes his locations glow from within, and the many scenes set in Central Park are gorgeous. Ricci and Biggs have also never looked better on film than they do here. Nobody is going to argue that Allen or DeVito are in line to win any beauty contests, but co-star Stockard Channing (taking an uncharacteristically flimsy role) also receives the Khondji touch.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/22/03.

Matchstick Men

Monday, September 15th, 2003

Matchstickmen1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

For those who love the con-artist genre, it is difficult to take in any new stories without the cautious, attentive, knowledge that at some point, the old switcheroo is going to pulled on the audience as well as on the characters in the narrative.  Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men,” adapted from the novel by Eric Garcia, is no exception to this rule, but the richness and depth of the primary performances softens a great deal of the typical frustration one feels as a victim of the “Jamaican Switch.”

Nicolas Cage, as an artful dodger with a satchel full of neurotic tics, twitches, and nervous mannerisms, is the center of the movie’s universe.  His Roy Waller belongs in the pantheon of over-the-top screen depictions of fanciful phobics.  Stuttering, blinking, and hiccupping his way through a sensational performance on par with his very best work, Cage’s turn might occasionally remind you of his Academy Award-winning role as self-destructive alcoholic Ben Sanderson in “Leaving Las Vegas,” or his recent double-duty as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation.”  This sort of stuff is what Cage does best – he’s the Miles Davis of the mentally maladjusted.

Stars are only as good as the actors with whom they are surrounded, and Cage is aided and abetted by Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman.  Rockwell equals the insouciant, oily charm of his Chuck Barris impersonation in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” as Roy’s partner-in-crime, Frank Mercer.  Frank is as loose and slovenly as Roy is clenched and meticulous – he’s the kind of guy who scarfs down cheeseburgers over Roy’s perfectly manicured carpet even when he knows the crumbs drive his pal to distraction.  Lohman is, without second thought, the film’s not-so-secret weapon.  A 23-year-old playing a 14-year-old (the actress turns 24 on September 18) Lohman is dazzling as Angela, Roy’s long-lost daughter, and steals every scene in which she appears.

Ridley Scott, clearly taking a much needed break from the overbearing bombast of flicks like “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” shrewdly steps back and lets his actors have at it.  With players as good as these, it is a delight to just watch them strut their stuff, but Scott also understands pacing, rhythm, design, and the value of parallel storylines.  The “big con” that Frank and Roy are pulling on a mark named Frechette (inhabited by on-the-nose Bruce McGill) supposedly drives the story, but the scenes in which Roy bonds with Angela are a sublime cut above.  Once Roy begins to teach Angela the tricks of his trade (she is, of course, a natural born grifter), the movie takes flight and manages to soar for nearly the majority of its remaining running time.

“Matchstick Men” is not quite perfect, however, in that the screenplay (by Nicholas Griffin and Ted Griffin) violates its own elaborate premise on a few occasions, unscrupulously – and some would argue unfairly – scamming the viewer after the manner of its protagonists.  The tired and overused “One Year Later” coda is trotted out with some ambivalence, and the final result leaves a decidedly curious aftertaste.  Despite these minor flaws, “Matchstick Men” shimmers and sparkles like the water in Roy’s well maintained but never utilized backyard pool.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/15/03. 

The Order

Monday, September 8th, 2003

Order1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Brian Helgeland cannot be faulted for trying to expand his repertoire with “The Order,” despite the fact that the movie is a complete dud.  Following up the occasionally clever “A Knight’s Tale” (which also starred Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, and Mark Addy) with a contemporary spin on ecclesiastical arcana is not the sort of choice many filmmakers would make.  Barring “The Exorcist,” the religious thriller has not fared too well, and unfortunately, “The Order” must be added to the pile of failures.

Ledger plays Alex, a young, devastatingly handsome NYC-based priest-cum-detective who flies to Rome to investigate the mysterious death of his old mentor.  Apparently because it would be boring not to have a love interest and a sidekick, Alex brings along Mara (Sossamon), a recent mental hospital escapee who shares a convoluted history with him, and Thomas (Addy), another renegade cleric from Alex’s order who happens to fancy large doses of booze and profanity.  Once in Italy, the trio crosses paths with Eden (Benno Furmann, who apparently replaced Vincent Cassel when the latter dropped out of the film over “creative differences” with Helgeland), a wealthy gadabout who claims to be a “Sin Eater.”

Sin Eaters, we learn, operate outside the boundaries of Catholic doctrine – they perform a ceremony in which a dying person can gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven without the blessing or forgiveness of the church.  This supernatural shortcut is accompanied in the movie with some seriously awful CG special effects: at the climax of the odd rite, vaporous tendrils resembling calamari undulate toward the Sin Eater’s mouth, causing visible distress and discomfort to Eden as he grants each expiring sinner safe passage to paradise.  Something like the grim reaper, Eden has been steadily employed as the last of the Sin Eaters for centuries, and is now ready to pass the torch to – who else? – Alex.

While the basic premise of “The Order” offers a potentially intriguing spin on the worn-out tropes of the theological horror movie, Helgeland muddies up the works with a goofy “Eyes Wide Shut”-wannabe subplot involving a creepy underground society of sinister clergy – kind of like a “respected cardinal by day,” “weird, masked, dungeon-dwelling, sex-deviant executioner by night” sort of thing.  Even the presence of skeletal Peter Weller, intoning dialogue in his most ominous voice, fails to resuscitate the cobwebby storyline.

Ledger, a good actor with good instincts, wanders around looking lost and unsure of himself for most of the movie.  Worse yet, the talented Sossamon is hamstrung with a criminally underwritten role.  Helgeland allows her to disappear for large blocks of time, and never satisfactorily establishes the weight of the forbidden sexual attraction between Mara and Alex that is so thematically critical to the plot.  Instead, Mara spends her time wandering around in silk pajamas, brushing her teeth and nonsensically explaining why she paints pictures of sunflowers.  Addy’s Thomas seems to be the only character in the movie that sees through the metaphysical smokescreen, but his entreaties to Alex are always too little, too late.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/8/03. 

Jeepers Creepers 2

Monday, September 1st, 2003

jeeperstwo

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Victor Salva attempts to establish a horror franchise with the release of “Jeepers Creepers 2,” an uninspired sequel to the clever, well-directed 2001 original. It is certainly too bad that this new installment of the story fails to reach beyond the standard “group of teenagers get picked off one by one” formula, because the design of the creature and its attendant mythology are conceptually top-flight. Adding a few flourishes to the details that made the Creeper so compelling in the first film, Salva doesn’t go nearly as far as he did before in making the terror resonate with psychological intensity.

A supernatural humanoid with gigantic bat wings, razor teeth, and clawed feet, the Creeper inspires additional fright by occasionally appearing as a scarecrow – complete with old, raggedy clothes and beat-up hat. We learn that the monster only awakens from a kind of hibernation once every twenty-three years, and only then for twenty-three days before it shuts down its body clock. Those twenty-three days, however, are going to be seriously unpleasant for the hapless people selected by the Creeper as breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

“Jeepers Creepers 2” mostly does things one at a time, but at least initially, two different stories begin to unfold. In the first, salt-of-the-earth farmer Jack Taggart (the always intriguing Ray Wise) loses his youngest son to the Creeper in broad daylight. Fueled by a desire to seek revenge, Taggart and his surviving son set out to track and kill the Creeper. Meanwhile, a small high school basketball team has won the state championship and is heading for home when a flat tire hamstrings their celebratory road trip. A weird bone-and-claw throwing star turns out to be the source of the blowout, and it isn’t too long before the marauding Creeper begins to prey on the sitting ducks.

Salva obviously studied “Jaws” while preparing his movie, and the modus operandi of Taggart echoes the single-minded obsession of Robert Shaw’s Quint – even down to the specially modified tools employed in order to bring down the beast. Taggart’s weapon of choice is a nasty harpoon: a pickup truck-mounted fencepost hole puncher, tricked out with hand-forged skewers attached to strong cable. It’s a good thing someone has prepared to do battle with the Creeper, because the kids on the bus aren’t particularly resourceful.

Weaving in an odd subplot dealing with racial tensions on the basketball team (which never really goes anywhere), the high-schoolers are crudely sketched. There is a bitter, racist, homophobe, a bookish equipment manager with oversized glasses, a cute cheerleader who has unexplained visions in which she comes to understand the Creeper’s ghastly motivations, and a budding journalist pegged as gay by his insensitive classmates. Salva misses the boat by not investing any time in the development of these characters, and the audience is left with broad types instead of three-dimensional people. By the time the credits roll, it is painfully apparent (despite an appealing flash-forward coda) that no new lessons have been learned – which is not a good sign for the unlucky ones who will be around the next time the Creeper takes flight.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/1/03.