Archive for December, 2003

Pieces of April

Monday, December 22nd, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-turned-moviemaker Peter Hedges (who adapted his own novel into the script for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and Nick Hornby’s book into “About a Boy”) is not on his game in “Pieces of April,” a tepid Thanksgiving-themed tearjerker that plays like a character study without any interesting characters.  Selecting an overworked and unoriginal concept – the dysfunctional family reunion on Turkey Day – Hedges pours on the clichés like so much gravy, and the result is an undercooked mess that fails to satisfy any intelligent moviegoer’s appetite.

As the titular April Burns, the black sheep of her family, too-beautiful-for-words Katie Holmes struggles to play against her good girl type by plastering on the eyeliner, pulling on the clunky boots, and sporting multiple piercings and neck tattoos.  Desperate to impress her dying mother with a homemade feast, April’s frantic preparations are intercut with the tragi-comic road trip of her family (far too reminiscent of Greg Mottola’s “The Daytrippers”) as they slowly but surely make their way from the suburbs to April’s disastrous Lower East Side apartment.  While cancer-stricken Joy (Patricia Clarkson, great as always) fights fatigue and nausea, patriarch Jim (Oliver Platt) struggles to put on a brave face.  Also in tow are senile Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond), space cadet son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) and bitter daughter Beth (Alison Pill).

Hedges spends the majority of the movie’s brief running time simultaneously sketching the details of Joy’s illness and depicting April’s farcical readying of the dinner, but surprisingly, he manages to skip out on dealing in any meaningful way with the animosity directed from mother to daughter.  The audience comes to understand that April has made a mess of her life, but depth and resonance are frustratingly absent.  Instead, the director throws in a feeble subplot involving April’s boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) as he attends to some obscure “errands” that, by all unfortunate appearances, hint at the possibility of a drug deal.

Shot on consumer-grade digital video, “Pieces of April” looks totally terrible on the big screen.  Some proponents of the still unproven format might argue that videographer Tami Reiker handles the electronically-generated images with artistic attentiveness, but the flat, grainy, washed-out palette reveals no sense of dimensional space, and the picture constantly appears as it if it straining to shift into sharp focus.  The portability of Mini-DV also seems to invite handheld shooting, and April’s ceaseless running up and down the stairs of her building frequently results in an addled, groggy, headache-inducing ride.

Certainly, Holmes continues to prove that she has the talent to match her looks, but as a character, April is too flimsy and one-dimensional to be taken seriously.  The deepest characterizations belong to Clarkson, who manages to get plenty of mileage out of the rage and confusion attending the knowledge that this will likely be her last Thanksgiving, and Platt, who nails the kind of helpless cheerfulness that is required of people in his dire situation.  “Pieces of April” tries a little bit too hard to straddle the fence that divides poignant weepy from quirky comedy, and the utterly predictable ending is as hard to swallow as the canned cranberry sauce that ends up in April’s garbage can.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/22/03. 

Love Don’t Cost a Thing

Monday, December 15th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

During the opening credits of “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” a title appears indicating that the film is based on a screenplay by Michael Swerdlick.  The earlier movie, known to a generation of cable and home video rental fans, is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” starring Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson.  Neither film is really any good, and one begins to wonder almost immediately whether going to the trouble of a remake was ever a wise idea.  While “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” purports to address the perennial issues of high school popularity, friendship, and the importance of being a good person, the movie is lifeless and shallow from start to finish.

Nick Cannon plays geeky Alvin Johnson, an engineering wizard who divides his time between cleaning pools for cash and designing car engines for a GM-sponsored national scholarship competition.  Sporting an anachronistic (and hopeless) sense of style, Alvin vents his frustrations about being unpopular to his fellow nerds – a trio of walking stereotypes whose dialogue wouldn’t convince a kindergartner.  Alvin also worships cheerleader Paris Morgan (Christina Milian) – the most popular girl in the school – from afar, but to her, he’s vapor.

Alvin’s big chance arrives in the shape of a dented SUV fender when Paris accidentally dings up her mother’s wheels and needs someone to help her with a quick fix.  Unwisely, it would seem, Alvin offers to repair the auto himself.  In exchange, he gives Paris $1,500 and essentially blackmails her into pretending the couple is an item.  A woman of her word, Paris agrees, and shockwaves ripple through the cafeteria as Alvin is transformed into one of the beautiful people.  Of course, things are not quite what they seem: Paris is not a cruel snob, and begins to genuinely fall for Alvin (even though he is too naïve, or stupid, to realize it).

Sadly, the movie turns Alvin into a clueless jerk the second he trades in his thrift store apparel for Sean John.  He mistreats his friends, he misreads Paris, and he makes a genuine ass of himself at home and at school.  Lightweight, formulaic teen fare like this demands that lessons be learned, but Alvin is so clueless, rude, and repugnant, his comeuppance and turnaround are a classic case of too little, too late.  Additionally, Troy Beyer’s direction is stilted and ill-paced – the reasonably brief running time feels like double its actual length.

Worst of all, “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” is unfunny.  Steve Harvey, playing Alvin’s perpetually horny father, generates only a few tepid laughs in a handful of clumsy, labored scenes in which he teaches his son about the importance of condom use.  Alvin’s dad, vicariously reliving his own teen years through Alvin, dances around to Al Green on 8-Track whenever he is not pumping his son for information about Alvin’s sexual experiences.  Only Christina Milian, with charm to spare, manages to rise above the wretched premise.  It’s too bad that the movie didn’t spend more time with her character and less time with Nick Cannon’s buffoonish Alvin.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/15/03. 


Monday, December 8th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Watching “Honey,” the latest in a long tradition of movies about wholesome, misunderstood kids who put on a talent show to save a community center and fulfill their dreams, one is initially struck by the central character’s inexhaustible energy and drive. Honey Daniels, played by perky Jessica Alba, divides her time between tending bar, teaching hip hop classes for youngsters, going on dance auditions for music videos, and working at a record shop. While the logistics of all these time commitments might otherwise cause one’s mind to boggle, the straightforward simplicity of “Honey” surely is in no position to tax anyone’s brain.

Like one of the frothy cocktails that Ms. Daniels serves at the dance club, “Honey” is an amalgamation of “Fame,” “Flashdance,” and “Strike Up the Band.” The movie also (inadvertently?) cribs large sections of the practically forgotten, but memorably titled, 1984 hip hop flick “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” right down to the finale. Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson have written a script that maintains its slick sheen for the duration of the movie, and “Honey” never aspires to confront any real dramatic conflict. Even hot-shot video director Michael Ellis’ (David Moscow, suitably smarmy) sleazy advances on Honey seem perfunctory and toothless.

The film also fails to develop any significant relationship between Honey and her nominal love interest, hard-working barber Chaz (Mekhi Phifer). Chaz seems to show up only when his protection or help is required, and his character remains frustratingly flat from beginning to end. Phifer is far too talented an actor to be left without meatier scenes to play, and it is a shame director Bille Woodruff did not recognize this. Instead, too much time is squandered on impossibly adorable moppet Raymond (Zachary Isaiah Williams), a little boy who takes a shine to Honey at the community center.

Like Honey, Raymond’s older brother Benny (Lil’ Romeo, surprisingly comfortable onscreen) is a talented dancer, but he has been recruited to sell drugs by a local dealer. The saintly Honey is desperate to keep Benny out of trouble, and dotes on him and Raymond whenever she is not pouring drinks or choreographing Ginuwine videos (the movie’s best unintentionally funny line is Honey comforting Raymond with an offer for a frozen treat: “I’m fiendin’ for a milkshake”). The film manufactures a crisis of conscience for Benny, but his honorable character is never really in doubt.

“Honey” subscribes to the Horatio Alger-like fantasy that a little talent and a lot of elbow grease can take anyone from just another face in the crowd to the champagne toasts of celebrities in private VIP rooms. Sure, Woodruff offers the audience a whiff of the idea that the cutthroat, fast-paced entertainment industry might cause one to lose a grip on personal values and ethics once the fat paychecks start rolling in, but as a veteran music video director himself, he is not going to bite the hand that feeds him. In addition to Ginuwine, several hip hop artists appear as themselves, including Jadakiss and Missy Elliott. Elliott is nearly as irrepressible on film as she is on her blazing records, and she provides plenty of humor in relation to her scant screen time.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/8/03.

Bad Santa

Monday, December 1st, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Bad Santa” could have been a really excellent movie. With its relentless profanity, ruthless social agenda, and cynical bite, Terry Zwigoff’s film gleefully wallows in its own misanthropy. Along the way, however, the old cracks of “script by committee” begin to show and the last few scenes negate all that has come before by violating the established tone. Of course, this only proves that Hollywood has a difficult time working outside of convention, but for people who go to the cinema every week, that is no surprise. Yes, “Bad Santa” can be blisteringly funny, but the downside is a list of problems that ultimately land the movie on the naughty list.

Billy Bob Thornton, all too willing to prove again and again that he is one of film’s most fearless performers, plays Willie, a broken-down, alcoholic waster whose only income arrives annually when he and his partner Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as a department store Santa-and-elf team in order to pilfer cash, jewelry, furs, and Manolo Blahniks after hours. The scam has worked well for years, but right away one can see that Willie is at the end of his tether. Constantly drunk, Willie alternates between urinating in his Santa suit and hissing contemptuously at the children unlucky enough to sit on his lap.

While Willie continues to punish his liver, he meets up with bouncy bartender Sue (Lauren Graham), a directionless young woman with a kinky Santa fetish (which is the only thing that could explain why she would be attracted to a filthy, malodorous souse nearly twice her age). While the pair forms an unlikely bond, Willie crosses paths with another loner, an overweight, elementary school-aged misfit initially known only as “the kid” (it would not be fair to give up his name; it’s one of the big laughs of the movie). Played perfectly by Brett Kelly, the kid is a withdrawn sad-sack attended only by his near comatose grandmother. He sees Willie as a potential friend and confidante. Willie sees him as an easy mark.

Director Zwigoff, who has directed the wonderful documentary “Crumb” and the winning adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World,” clearly has a thing for oddballs who live on the edges of society. His purposefully ugly depictions of suburban homogeneity add much to “Bad Santa.” Where his previous movies had character to spare, however, “Bad Santa” is surprisingly light on depth and subtext. This could be the fault of screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, but in any case, one longs to be able to get to know any of the movie’s potentially interesting inhabitants beyond the superficial presentation offered.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of “Bad Santa” is the twisted idea that families might wander into the movie by mistake, assuming it is some kind of companion piece to “Elf” – at one screening, a grandmother and her grandson squirmed uncomfortably every time Willie unleashed a new torrent of obscenities or fornicated in the department store dressing rooms. In fact, none of the actors shy away from the most contaminated, abusive coarseness imaginable; the late John Ritter plays a small-minded manager and Bernie Mac draws plenty of laughs as a polyester cowboy in charge of mall security. All of the vulgarity – which is always very funny – would have been more resonant had it been in the service of a movie with something worthwhile to say.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/1/03.