Archive for October, 2003

American Splendor

Monday, October 27th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Professional V.A. hospital file clerk and underground comics legend Harvey Pekar is the subject of “American Splendor,” a phenomenal film that recounts his life story after the fashion of Pekar’s own autobiographical comic book series. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini trust in Pekar’s potent personality enough to blend fiction with fact, and then double it all back on itself. Pekar appears in the movie as himself, but is also brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti. At other times, pen and ink animations of Pekar take over the screen. The movie smartly indulges these doppelgangers because they are a perfect reflection of the fractured way in which Pekar is illustrated in the comics.

A world-class ranter and curmudgeon, Pekar began documenting the mundane, everyday struggles and humiliations of his minimum-wage Cleveland existence after meeting fellow record collector R. Crumb at a garage sale. Unable to draw more than a stick figure, Pekar enlisted Crumb, and eventually a number of other illustrators, to visualize his world of plebeian despair. “American Splendor” reminds viewers of Terry Zwigoff’s excellent documentary “Crumb,” and actor James Urbaniak nails both Crumb’s old-fashioned sartorial sensibility and his awkward vocal mannerisms.

“American Splendor” finds its odd romantic center with the appearance of Pekar’s soul mate, Joyce Brabner (wonderfully channeled by Hope Davis under oversized glasses and severe black bangs). The movie, like Pekar’s stories and the L.A. play that was produced about the courtship, highlights the most perversely enjoyable aspects of the unlikely coupling. Upon arriving from Delaware following a pen-pal flirtation, Joyce is immediately informed by Harvey that he has had a vasectomy. As soon as the pair arrives at Pekar’s filthy apartment, Joyce vomits up the terrible “yuppie food” she had consumed at a cruddy restaurant Harvey had picked out. Naturally, she proposes, and a week later they are getting married.

The filmmakers perfectly regulate the weird cycle of celebrity and obscurity that has defined Pekar for decades. During the 1980s, Pekar appeared frequently as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman,” fielding the host’s barbs in exchange for publicity for his comics. Real footage of Pekar sparring with Letterman is intercut with Giamatti and a mostly unconvincing Letterman soundalike, but the entire “Late Night” saga, which ended with bitterness and acrimony, provides one of the most fascinating sequences within the movie.

The irony of “American Splendor” is that it celebrates and venerates the achievements of a person who has carefully constructed his miserable, underdog persona. At one point, the real Brabner admonishes Pekar’s sourpuss worldview, but a twinkle in Harvey’s eye gives away at least a small part of the game: Pekar is on some level happy with his downheartedness. His seemingly cheerless life has been marked by some amazing accomplishments: winning awards, beating cancer, raising a child, steady authorship, etc. Maybe the secret is that Pekar’s dejection is reassuring when it is juxtaposed against the wistful image of the man at his retirement party, surrounded by friends, enjoying a piece of cake and a hug from his loved ones.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/27/03.

Mystic River

Monday, October 20th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Mystic River,” Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, is certain to receive at least a handful of important nominations come award season.  Selected to kick off the New York Film Festival, Eastwood’s movie is a careful, meditative study of loss and pain so somber and grim the entire experience is reminiscent of the way a cold, rainy day can dredge up forgotten memories of long-ago regret.  Set in the tough neighborhoods of blue-collar Irish Boston, “Mystic River” demonstrates total confidence in its milieu, and for that the audience is rewarded.

Focusing on a trio of long-estranged childhood friends who find themselves linked together in middle age by a terrible crime, “Mystic River” is part police procedural, part art film.  Sean Penn, in another of his smoldering performances, is Jimmy, an ex-con and all around hard case who has settled with some uncertainty into partial respectability as the owner of the local corner store.  Dave (Tim Robbins) is now married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), but still suffers from the unspeakable childhood trauma of being kidnapped and molested by two men posing as cops.  Sean (Kevin Bacon) has mostly left the old neighborhood, but returns as a police detective with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) to investigate a homicide.

It turns out that Jimmy’s beautiful teenage daughter Katie (Emily Rossum) has been murdered, her beaten body discovered in a park.  Eastwood takes his time throughout this early exposition, and the result is an almost unbearable timeline in which the bad news methodically snakes its way from the discovery of the body by the authorities to Jimmy’s unsuspecting family, celebrating the first communion of one of Katie’s younger siblings.  The whole sequence showcases Eastwood’s talent for pacing, and is complemented by Penn’s own tonal shifts, from father’s worry at his daughter not showing up for an important event, to eventual anguish at the knowledge that she is gone forever.

Eastwood, directing from a script by Brian Helgeland, balances and attenuates the level of audience privilege.  At times we are trusted (perhaps tormented) with awful knowledge that other characters do not have, but the identity of Katie’s killer is as mysterious to us as it is to Sean and Whitey.  The plot provides us with two compelling suspects: Dave, who not only saw Katie just before she disappeared, but also arrived home the night of the murder covered in blood and nearly incoherent, and Brendan (Thomas Guiry), Katie’s boyfriend, who was planning to elope with her to Las Vegas.

While “Mystic River” remains ultimately committed to the narrative conventions that Eastwood sees as critical to his respect for the audience, the filmmaker also masterfully plays with notions of truth versus the willingness to accept something as truth.  Eastwood knows that people are capable of a wide, shaded range of identifying characteristics: it is even possible to harbor good and evil simultaneously.  Early on, Jimmy calmly explains that he intends to find the person responsible for Katie’s murder, and we are both comforted and horrified by the conviction of that statement.  By the time the final scene of “Mystic River” unfolds – a stunning set-piece that gathers the main characters together at a parade – Eastwood has left us with much to ponder, and much to mourn.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/20/03. 

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Monday, October 13th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” the first film from Quentin Tarantino since “Jackie Brown” in 1997, is an audacious return to form for the egomaniacal filmmaker. In his movie performances (thankfully absent in “Bill”), his press interviews, and his TV appearances, Tarantino inevitably comes off as a braying, boorish big-mouth. Fortunately for moviegoers, the director is as talented behind the camera as he is insufferable in front of it. “Kill Bill” is another QT mash note to the retro-cool memories of the popular culture that obviously left an indelible impression on the moviemaker in his formative years.

Nothing short of an intertextual minefield that confidently challenges its hardened viewers to identify all of the tributes and references, “Kill Bill” is a candy-colored homage to samurai movies, spaghetti westerns, yakuza flicks, blaxploitation yarns, and kung-fu epics. You don’t even need to wait past the opening credits before the first salvo is fired: a one-two punch that trumpets “Our Feature Presentation” with a vintage 1970s tag and the “Shaw Scope” banner. It’s an announcement that Tarantino is acknowledging his status as the ultimate distiller/recycler/alchemist – if the product wasn’t any good, you’d say he was an outright thief.

The thing is, Tarantino whips up this bouillabaisse like he was born to do it, and the result is trippy, fun, and somehow fresh. The plot is blood simple: Uma Thurman is a deadly assassin nearly done-in by her former colleagues on her wedding day. Miraculously, the Bride survives the attack, which includes a rather nasty bullet to the head, but spends the next four years in a coma. As you might imagine, upon waking up she is more than a little bit pissed off. Cue revenge motif, as the Bride makes it her business to hunt down and kill each of the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

What follows is a feverish tour de force of visceral action, in which the director is aided immeasurably by world-class DP Robert Richardson (who has to be one of the best cinematographers on the planet), editor Sally Menke, and production designers David Wasco and Yohei Taneda. The icing on the cake is the excellent music, courtesy of the RZA, with some additional help from Al Hirt, Quincy Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, and a host of others. Tarantino has always demonstrated a flair for reinvigorating old tunes, and it is unlikely that anyone who sees “Kill Bill” will be able to disassociate the creepy whistling of the “Twisted Nerve” theme from the image of Daryl Hannah’s nurse-from-hell Elle Driver strolling down a hospital corridor.

There is so much on display in “Kill Bill,” it is impossible to cover all the bases, but the final “House of Blue Leaves” set-piece, which unfolds in a stunning, bi-level, combination teahouse and disco (that rivals Jack Rabbit Slim’s in “Pulp Fiction”), is utterly unforgettable. The Bride faces Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii and her underworld army, the Crazy 88, in a heart-stopping, Grand Guignol bloodbath that spews fountains of hemoglobin over every available surface. Chiaki Kuriyama, as depraved schoolgirl Go Go Yubari, wields a mace and chain with such elegance and skill, it is no wonder she brings out the best in the Bride and her own weapon of choice: a custom Hattori Hanzo steel. Along with O-Ren, the two make formidable foes, and Thurman meets the challenge with the best performance of her career.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/13/03.

The School of Rock

Monday, October 6th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

It’s not like Richard Linklater, the indie auteur that many film geeks worshiped for “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” and reviled for “Before Sunrise” and “The Newton Boys,” hasn’t tried to be a commercial success before now – the timing and marketing of his movies for mainstream audiences just wasn’t quite perfect.  That has all changed with “The School of Rock,” a delightful comedy squarely in the right place at the right time.  Written by Mike White (who also appears as an actor in most of his movies, like “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl”) and starring the irrepressible Jack Black, “The School of Rock” manages to transcend its formulaic conventionality in order to, well, rock.

White wrote “The School of Rock” specifically for Black, who will most likely never have another role as tailor-made for his blustery, volcanic persona (honed to perfection in Tenacious D) as Dewey Finn, a tubby, lazy, goof-off kicked out of the rock band he formed because he took one too many extended guitar solos.  Convinced he was put on earth to serve society by rocking, Finn still needs to make rent.  He assumes the identity of his roommate Ned (played by White) and heads off to a prestigious, private, elementary school posing as a substitute teacher.

“The School of Rock” might at this point have become a prosaic, routine time-waster, but Linklater, White, and Black play an ace: the movie takes both rock music and its audience seriously.  Some will chuckle at the notion that “one great rock show can change the world,” but Black shouts it with such conviction you will be hard-pressed to doubt him.  The same goes for the class of 10-year-olds in his charge.  Before you can say “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Dewey has assigned the full range of rock and roll occupations to his talented pupils.

The child actors, most of whom play their own instruments, are as critical to the success of “The School of Rock” as Black.  Reticent keyboard player Lawrence (Robert Tsai), lead guitar player Zack (Joey Gaydos), bass player Katie (Rebecca Brown), drummer Kevin (Kevin Clark), and singer Tomika (Maryam Hassan) may form the core of the group, but Dewey’s limitless imagination finds plenty of room for security, groupies, roadies, lighting techs, and even a stylist.  Miranda Cosgrove, who plays class suck-up and eventual band manager Summer, is particularly memorable.

Linklater’s low-key directorial approach perfectly suits White’s smart slant on the way a group of pre-adolescents would react to a character like Dewey.  “The School of Rock” is virtually gimmick-free, and the transformation of the class from rule-following automatons to full-bore rebellious thrashers is joyous to behold.  In one scene, Dewey builds a cohesive group one power chord at a time; in another, we are treated to a breathless lesson on how a good rock song is born.  Even the detailed flowcharts Dewey chalks on the blackboard are authentic.  Sure, the outcome of the movie is never in doubt, but by the time the clever end credits roll, you’ll be ready to plug in your Flying V and crank up that amp.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/6/03.