Archive for November, 2003

The Station Agent

Monday, November 24th, 2003

Stationagent1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Finbar McBride, played with incredible depth and charm by the marvelous Peter Dinklage, stands just under four and a half feet tall.  As the central character in writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent,” Fin spends a great deal of time avoiding people in order to spare himself the indignities of constant questions about his dwarfism.  McCarthy shrewdly makes certain that Fin’s diminutive size is only one piece of this character’s puzzle, and spends the majority of the film focused on Fin as an ordinary human being.

A railroad aficionado, Fin works in a model train store with his best friend Henry (Paul Benjamin), meticulously crafting and detailing colorful engines from bygone days.  When Henry passes away, Fin is surprised to learn that he has been included in the old man’s will.  Henry has left his protégé a weather-beaten train station in the tiny outpost of Newfoundland, New Jersey.  Mourning the loss of his mentor, Fin packs his belongings and moves to the remote station, which immediately attracts the unwanted attention of Joe (Bobby Cannavale), an unyieldingly talkative food truck proprietor who peddles coffee and sandwiches right next to Fin’s new home.

Refusing to take no for an answer, Joe doggedly pursues a friendship with Fin, no matter how often the door is literally shut in his face.  McCarthy mines a certain sweetness in Joe’s refusal to give up, and Cannavale knows exactly what buttons to push in order to win the sympathy and affection of the audience.  Slowly but surely, Joe’s charm reveals itself to Fin, and the two end up forming a pleasant alliance.  Another element is added to the mix in the enigmatic form of painter Olivia (Patricia Clarkson, top notch as always).  Mourning the loss of her child, Olivia cute-meets Fin when she nearly plows him over with her car.

Clarkson is so good, her mere presence guarantees that “The Station Agent” will yield something delectable and worthwhile.  Her Olivia immediately becomes the glue that bonds Joe and Fin, and the careful manner in which they all negotiate their evolving relationship resonates deeply.  McCarthy diverts our attention away from the primary trio long enough to set up a romantic subplot involving Fin and local librarian Emily (Michelle Williams).  Emily’s interest in Fin unfortunately turns out to be the murkiest element of “The Station Agent,” and this is really too bad, since a thorough exploration of the Fin/Emily connection certainly could have been accommodated by the story’s running time.

McCarthy occasionally tackles scenes that explode with rage or sorrow, but for the most part, “The Station Agent” remains a quiet character study of a compelling person.  Following a number of standout performances, Dinklage is finally able to take advantage of a perfect star vehicle, and he delivers a knockout punch.  With his penetrating gaze and calm, measured voice, Dinklage is unfaltering in his hold on Fin.  The actor almost effortlessly communicates to us why Joe would be so attracted to the solemn introvert, and McCarthy instinctively allows Fin’s smoldering presence to anchor nearly every single scene in the movie.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/24/03. 

Love Actually

Monday, November 17th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-turned-director Richard Curtis, the romantic comedy machine who cranked out the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” seems so smitten with his own cleverness that he forgets to offer his audience any opportunity to catch its breath during “Love Actually,” the filmmaker’s horribly-titled directorial debut.  Juggling what feels like an army of popular British screen personalities and a few odd-Yanks-out, “Love Actually” tries to cram too many messy storylines into its padded running time.  The result is a crass, shallow, and awfully stale pop-tart of a holiday movie that mistakes its mawkish sentimentalism for genuine emotion.

“Love Actually” drifts from story to story without any clear sense of where it needs to go, but at the center is longtime Curtis-muse Hugh Grant, sporting a coiffure meant to suggest a much more attractive version of Tony Blair and playing – no kidding – the new prime minister of England.  His first day on the job, the PM walks into 10 Downing Street and manages to fall in love at first sight with tea girl Natalie (a winning Martine McCutcheon) – a turn of events that brings out the fire in his belly when the lecherous U.S. president (a grinning Billy Bob Thornton) makes a play for her during an official visit.

Meanwhile, the prime minister’s younger sis Karen (Emma Thompson) begins to suspect that her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) might be about to have an affair with his secretary.  Another of Harry’s employees, Sarah (Laura Linney, utterly underserved by the story and her director), dreams of mustering the courage to ask out her longtime office crush.  Widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) nurses his own broken heart while trying to coach his stepson through a painful bout of puppy love.  If that’s not enough, Colin Firth (saddled with arguably the weakest of the film’s segments) plays cuckolded Jamie, a novelist who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper.

And those are only the main plotlines.  Curtis just keeps piling it on, with Bill Nighy (delivering the movie’s only antidote to the buckets of treacle) as a crotchety, over-the-hill pop star pimping his latest crappy Christmas single, Keira Knightley as a newlywed who doesn’t realize her husband’s best man carries a torch for her, and Martin Freeman and Joanna Page as a pair of body doubles or soft-core performers – Curtis never really clarifies which – who fall for each other only after they have spent hours with each other sans clothes on the set of a movie.  Oh yeah – there is also totally unnecessary thread that follows the moronic goofball who assumes that Wisconsin girls with loose morals will immediately hop into bed with any bloke who speaks with a British accent.

Once Rowan Atkinson shows up, you get the distinct feeling the rest is going to be downhill.  Ultimately, Curtis should have held on to the three or four strongest tales and developed them into individual movies.  The director is so calculating in the presentation of “feelings” that he forgets his sardine-canned ensemble is left with absolutely no time to adequately explore their characters in any detail.  The result is one of the biggest misfires of the year.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/17/03.  

Elf

Monday, November 10th, 2003

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

When popular SNL alum Will Ferrell left the show for the treacherous waters of feature filmmaking, he followed a long line of performers whose careers have met with varying degrees of success. For every Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Mike Myers there are dozens of black holes representing the likes of Joe Piscopo, Kevin Nealon, and Victoria Jackson. Ferrell was in fine form in “Old School,” but that was a supporting role in an ensemble frat comedy. “Elf,” the first major vehicle for the comic, is the movie by which his immediate job security will be measured.

The good news, for Ferrell fans, is that “Elf” works – and it works because of Ferrell. Based on the movie’s previews – human manchild grows up at the North Pole thinking he is an elf – there was good reason to be skeptical. Every holiday season, a handful of appalling, feel-good, “family” comedies turn up at the movie house, struggling in vain to be the next “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street.” While most of this distressing slag (think “The Santa Clause” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – the Ron Howard feature, not the great1966 animated TV version) makes you want to cry out “humbug!” in your loudest Alastair Sim impression, “Elf” manages to be cheerful, fun, and full of fancy.

Following a visually dazzling extended prologue in which Papa Elf (a dry, delightful Bob Newhart) explains the back story of his adopted human son, Buddy (Ferrell) decides he must seek out his biological father, a crass children’s book publisher who works in the Empire State Building. Ferrell does the usual fish out of water routine in Manhattan, trying to make friends with jaded New Yorkers, congratulating the proprietors of a greasy spoon that claims to serve the “world’s best cup of coffee,” and running himself silly in revolving doors. Once the major sight gags are exhausted, Buddy takes a job as – what else? – a department store elf.

Ferrell breathes life into the most implausible of characters, but it is Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, Buddy’s co-worker and love interest, who completes the audience buy-in. Jovie is a wise-beyond-her-years cynic with enough wit and sass to slice through the phony goodwill expected of everyone during the holidays. Unfortunately, David Berenbaum’s script misplaces her for a good chunk of the movie, but when she is onscreen, the movie sparkles (the singular highlight of “Elf” is a sweet duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” between Deschanel and Ferrell).

The plot of “Elf” is as predictable as they come, but director Jon Favreau (who also enjoys a cameo as a doctor) clearly relishes working with such talented performers, and vets James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Ed Asner look like they are having a blast. Peter Dinklage, wonderful in “The Station Agent” earlier this year, practically steals the movie as a hotshot author insulted by the naïve Buddy at a book pitch session. It is Ferrell, though, who conjures up consistent laughs with his unique characterization. He plays Buddy absolutely straight, and in the process manages to convince the audience of the overgrown Elf’s conviction and sincerity.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/10/03.

In the Cut

Monday, November 3rd, 2003

inthecut

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jane Campion’s movies are always interesting to watch, even when they don’t entirely satisfy the expectations of her ardent fans. This is once again the case with the director’s latest work, an adaptation of a Susanna Moore novel starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. “In the Cut” struggles to transcend the limitations of its well-worn genre: the combination police procedural/psychodrama/serial killer thriller. Campion works double-time to squeeze in an abundance of colorful and unconventional dialogue, sweaty cinematography, and sepia-toned surrealist dream sequences, but the end result is terribly disappointing: a formulaic exercise with an obvious “twist” that can be figured out long before the conclusion by anyone with even a trace of a clue.

Ryan, eschewing her usual sunny vivacity for a sexed-up romp as a disoriented wreck, plays Frannie, a writing instructor who flirts a little too much with her students. As part of a steady stream of coincidences only a detective could love, some “disarticulated” remains of a young woman show up in Frannie’s garden and she is subsequently questioned by James Malloy, Ruffalo’s deceptively low-key homicide cop. As it turns out, Frannie thinks she might have seen the victim in a shadowy bar, performing oral sex on a man with a tattoo identical to the one on the investigating police officer’s wrist. From there, things merely get more and more weird.

Lonely Frannie has also been dating red herring John (Kevin Bacon, sleazy), an emotional pressure-cooker with the lid on too tight, but is happy to send him packing for Malloy, who exults in his skills at cunnilingus, and practically gloats after bringing Frannie to an apparently long-overdue orgasm. Ruffalo and Ryan throw off plenty of sparks in their frequent onscreen couplings, and the sexual relationship that develops between their two characters turns out to be the only halfway compelling thing about the film.

Campion strains to visualize Frannie’s confused mental state by simultaneously developing cockeyed subplots involving the long-ago courtship of Frannie’s mother by a charming rake and the literal writing on the wall in a series of subway poems that Frannie chooses to read as bad omens. Additionally, Frannie makes the mistake of taking advice from her perpetually groggy half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, punchy), a somewhat promiscuous pleasure-seeker who lives, a little unconvincingly, above a strip club.

While the obsessive relationship between Frannie and Malloy heats to a steady boil, the supporting cast is integrated with all the subtlety and smoothness of a runaway jackhammer. Frannie’s student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh) alternates between mumbling constantly about the innocence of child-killer John Wayne Gacy and coming on sexually to his teacher. Malloy’s partner Rodriguez (Nick Damici) tracks dirt through every one of his scenes. Add all this to Bacon’s vein-popping outbursts and Ruffalo’s nonchalant egocentrism, and one begins to wonder why Frannie even bothers to get out of bed each morning. Frannie’s suspicion of Malloy is critical to the suspense, and in a way, that’s too bad – “In the Cut” might have been an altogether better movie had it dealt more with a kinky hookup between two alluring characters and less with the mechanics of the stock whodunit.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/3/03.