Archive for 2004

Closer

Saturday, December 11th, 2004

2003closer

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Adapted by Patrick Marber from his own popular play, “Closer” turns out to be one of director Mike Nichols’ best films in years, despite some shortcomings in the material. Stalking around much of the same turf perpetually haunted by Neil LaBute, Nichols brings to the mix his own unique spin on the kinds of head games played by smart, beautiful losers. The veteran director channels some of the wit and most of the dexterity he used to helm “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Carnal Knowledge,” and “The Graduate,” making “Closer” one of those movies about people you might like to watch, but wouldn’t want to call your friends.

A crisscross of deception (self-directed and otherwise), seduction, betrayal, and ego, the success of Marber’s story depends upon its razor-sharp dialogue and the presence of an attractive quartet of performers. Natalie Portman’s Alice forgets to look the British way while crossing a London street, and gets creamed by a taxi just seconds before dashing obituary writer and struggling novelist Dan (Jude Law) swoops in to spirit her off to an emergency room. One cut later, and Dan is having his photo snapped by Anna (Julia Roberts) for the book jacket of a thinly veiled account of his relationship with Alice. Nichols clearly enjoys the freedom to move around in time, and he maintains the device throughout the film. Only occasionally do haircuts give things away; usually, we wait for a clue to fill us in on exactly how much time has slipped away between edit points.

“Closer” is mighty cynical about the things we do for love, and Marber’s writing obfuscates the motivations of all four of its characters. Why would Dan pursue Anna when he and Alice have it all? Why would Alice stay with Dan when she suspects he is unfaithful? Why do people practice infidelity in the first place? Once dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, giving the best performance of the foursome) squares off the triangle by taking up with Anna, the drama tightens its noose and things get delightfully nasty.

Interestingly, Owen once played the role of Dan in a stage production, but he is gangbusters as Larry. It surely doesn’t hurt that Larry owns the two best-written scenes in the entire show: the first a lacerating showdown with Anna, the second a toxic demonstration of self-pity in a strip club with Alice. Portman and Roberts are fine actors, but both have trouble keeping up with Owen whenever the venom starts to drip. Roberts has the most difficult role to play, and she opts for subtlety and a perpetual case of the blue devils that strategically denies the audience her dazzling smile.

Another tremendously smart move made by the filmmakers leaves the majority of carnality off-screen. For a movie not afraid to talk about sex, “Closer” coyly omits virtually all traces of viewable physical intimacy. Detailed verbal descriptions are plentiful, but the various couplings are left to the imagination, a place that cooks up images far more libidinous than any wobbly-kneed montage. The downside of the technique is that much of the vulnerability and humanity of the characters is simultaneously erased, which offers even less reason for us to care about such damaged, misguided souls.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/11/04.

Criminal

Monday, December 6th, 2004

criminal

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A remake of Argentinean helmer Fabian Bielinsky’s “Nine Queens,” “Criminal” is a decent if unremarkable addition to the oft-worked con genre. The new film’s chief strength is the opportunity to see John C. Reilly, an indispensable actor who can make good on darn near any character he plays, take center stage. He is certainly an actor who deserves an opportunity to headline a movie or two. “Criminal” is also the directorial debut of longtime Steven Soderbergh associate Gregory Jacobs, and the first-timer does not stylistically crib from his boss as often as one would guess he might. Con artist movies depend upon the element of surprise and the durability of the bait and switch. A thorough enjoyment of “Criminal” will depend largely on whether or not you have seen “Nine Queens.”

Reilly plays Richard Gaddis, a mid-level flimflam man accustomed to making small scores on unsuspecting marks. Working some turf at a Los Angeles casino, he impersonates a police officer in order to make contact with Rodrigo (Diego Luna), a blundering grifter who gets caught trying to cheat cocktail waitresses out of tens and twenties when they bring him his change. Gaddis takes Rodrigo under his wing, suggesting to the eager youngster a one-day trial partnership. Rodrigo laps up the attention: not only does he want to learn some of the tricks of the trade, he also says he needs to pay off a substantial gambling debt owed by his father to some rough customers.

Gaddis and Rodrigo spend a short segment of their day fleecing Westwood senior citizens and arrogant waiters, but the chance for a big score comes along with a phone call from Gaddis’ sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Valerie is a well-connected concierge at a swanky hotel, and she connects her brother with Ochoa (Zitto Kazann), a brilliant forger trying to unload a bogus silver certificate on a wealthy foreign collector (Peter Mullan). At this point, “Criminal” steps on the gas, and director Jacobs has a fine time speeding through the dizzying roundelay of switches, turnabouts, and backbites, as everyone demands a percentage of the eventual take.

Remakes theoretically offer filmmakers the opportunity to improve on the originals, but this seldom happens. Jacobs’ biggest mistake was to mostly ignore Gyllenhaal, who brings much-needed electricity to the film every time she is included in a scene. Unfortunately, the movie does not capitalize on Gyllenhaal’s presence, and she ends up relegated to a part that demonstrates the very model of “too little, too late.”

“Criminal,” like other movies of its type (Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” is a good recent example), demands a certain leap of faith from its audience: when the final cons are revealed, brains start to shift into overdrive attempting to reconstruct the webbing that held it all together. Sure, some of the set-up incidents as depicted by Jacobs border on the outlandish, the illogical, and the far-fetched. Things are never really what they seem in the world of professional cheats, though, so one supposes that a filmmaker has as much right to mislead the audience as the swindlers who populate the story. The real trick of the con movie is to pull it off without having to defraud the viewers. “Criminal” does not quite manage to do that.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/6/04.

Enduring Love

Monday, November 29th, 2004

enduringlove

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A total misfire on virtually every level, “Enduring Love” is one of the year’s most disappointing films. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel, the movie manages to get off to a terrific, terrifying start, but runs out of steam so fast that audience members might be surprised by just how quickly they can be overwhelmed by boredom and apathy. Director Roger Michell, who managed to make the pulpy “Changing Lanes” such a gripping entertainment, never finds his way with the source material. Is love an illusion? Can love give birth to unintended, horrible consequences? Considering that “Enduring Love” parades its philosophical agenda within the overly familiar psycho-thriller framework, the answers to those questions are not particularly satisfying.

The movie’s opening scene is gripping. Lounging in a lush meadow outside London, university lecturer Joe Rose (Daniel Craig) produces a bottle of champagne in order to propose to girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton). Just before the cork is popped, a bright red hot air balloon crashes nearby, skidding along the grass. A small boy remains inside the gondola while a man tries desperately to control the unwieldy behemoth. Joe runs to the rescue. Several others appear virtually out of nowhere. Grabbing the ropes, it looks like the would-be heroes have brought the balloon under control. Then, the unthinkable happens. The balloon begins to ascend, and all but one of the men let go of the ropes. Looking on in horror, Joe, Claire and the others watch the last man swaying on his thread. The balloon climbs higher and higher, and finally the man cannot hold on any longer.

Joe never mentally recovers from the accident, harboring tremendous guilt about his own inability to keep the balloon on the ground. Withdrawing into himself, the strain begins to infiltrate Joe’s relationship with Claire. One of the other accident witnesses, the lanky, disheveled Jed (Rhys Ifans) begins to pop up with unsettling frequency in Joe’s life, and then things really go downhill. Jed is a typical movie bogeyman – the kind who always happens to be watching from the park across the street, or holding up a photo of the protagonist’s girlfriend, or having lunch at the next table in the restaurant. When the movie should be examining Joe’s psychological scars and his relationship with Claire, it descends into cheap slasher territory.

“Enduring Love” does not even make it to the halfway mark before the audience begins to anticipate every predictable turn. Jed secrets himself among Joe’s students and pops up in class to warble a few bars of “God Only Knows” (for which Brian Wilson is surely owed the deepest of apologies). Claire can’t take Joe’s brooding anymore. The editing and photography become so self-consciously arty that seemingly, rain begins to pour in every other scene. Frantic, midnight searches of websites are made. The unavoidable “stalker’s shrine” is discovered. Everything crashes harder than the opening scene’s balloon.

By the time the laughable coda is tagged on, viewers might feel as disconnected from the film as Joe does from his emotions. The actors have been wasted, especially the brilliant Morton, who deserves so much better than her role here as the long-suffering, supportive helpmate. Additionally, Ifans is too obvious as a goony lunatic, which makes much of what transpires hard to take: any normal person would have taken out a restraining order against him after the first nutty encounter. As it is, viewers should make sure to stay at least fifty yards away from this movie at all times.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/29/04.

Stage Beauty

Monday, November 22nd, 2004

stagebeauty

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Evoking that unique but difficult blend of period charm and contemporary performances, “Stage Beauty” operates with the same anachronistic spirit as “Shakespeare in Love.” Based on the play “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” by Jeffrey Hatcher, the movie version works hard to mine the gender politics of the London stage during the reign of Charles II, when only men could legally appear on the boards (meaning of course, that all female roles had to be essayed by the fellas). The era would see the demise of the men-as-women tradition, and the movie does incorporate fictionalized versions of several historical figures. The result, however, is a mélange of styles and concerns that leave many of the performers stewing in their own overactive creative juices.

Billy Crudup is Ned Kynaston, one of the very last actors to make most of his living playing women in Restoration Britain. Kynaston draws adoring crowds of male and female admirers, and seems content to find pleasure with groupies of the opposite sex as well as with the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), who prefers to treat Kynaston like a lady in most respects. A handful of events unfortunate for Kynaston conspire to pull down his world around him: his haughty young dresser Maria Hughes (Claire Danes, good but not ideally suited for the role) has taken to performing onstage illegally, he insults a wealthy courtier who comes on to him, and he discovers that the King’s mistress Nell Gwynn (a vivacious Zoe Tapper) harbors her own desire to act in the theatre.

Before you can say obsolescence, the pretty Kynaston is fighting for his livelihood, as the lusty monarch has decreed that women are now free to perform in public. Director Richard Eyre navigates these middle sections of the film with welcome balance, and the audience simultaneously experiences Kynaston’s despair at losing his stardom and Maria’s exhilaration at ascending into the favor of the rich and powerful. Not everything works, though. The material’s most relevant subtexts, such as the socially sanctioned acceptability of homophobia, end up ignored in favor of a weird, nonsensical love scene in which Kynaston and Maria discuss the mechanics of straight versus gay sex.

“Stage Beauty” ends up missing the boat because its central characters remain undefined. Questions swirling around Kynaston’s own sexuality are left purposefully ambiguous, but instead of generating opportunities to investigate the man’s complex emotional landscape, the movie adopts an all too easy resolution in which Kynaston can happily abandon his hard-earned expertise as a premier drag performer in favor of accepting the demands that he play it straight from now on. The old mythology that one can be “turned” disappointingly manifests in the most traditionally progressive of places.

While the movie has earned several inevitable comparisons to “Shakespeare in Love,” “Stage Beauty” really reminds viewers who love backstage drama of Peter Yates’ 1983 film version of “The Dresser.” That movie, a modern classic, probed nearly all of the psychological terrain that should have been part of “Stage Beauty” (incidentally, actor Edward Fox appears in both movies). While “Stage Beauty” labors in vain to understand the rivalries, jealousies, and conflicted feelings that so often govern the fragile egos of performers and theatre folk, “The Dresser” succeeded by always putting a human face on the struggles. As it is, the Ned Kynaston of “Stage Beauty” remains opaque, elusive, and frustratingly out of reach.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/22/04.

The Yes Men

Monday, November 15th, 2004

yesmen

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Yes Men,” an affable and innocuous documentary that should have been made out of lightning bolts and razor blades, might have been great had it been cut to an hour and presented as an episode of “Frontline.” Directors Chris Smith and Sarah Price (joined this time by Dan Ollman) previously made the brilliant “American Movie,” but “The Yes Men” is not even in the same league. Shot on dreary, smeary video, the movie lacks the panache, coherence, and fascinating characters that made “American Movie” such a brilliant film. To its credit, “The Yes Men” does manage a handful of riveting sequences, but the end result is an experience that leaves the audience in need of more information.

Following the bizarre antics of a small group of left-leaning activists whose mission is to raise awareness about the World Trade Organization’s lack of concern for poor nations, “The Yes Men” focuses primarily on Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who pose as representatives of the WTO in order to pull increasingly over-the-top stunts. Traveling the globe to appear at free trade conferences in Finland and Australia, Bichlbaum and Bonanno mount their ruse by reverse infiltration: their gatt.org website looks so similar to the official WTO homepage it is frequently mistaken for the real thing. Once invited to make presentations, all the Yes Men have to do is show up and work their gags.

Two protracted sequences showcase the Yes Men in their element. In Tampere, Finland, they present a jaw-dropping Power Point slideshow essentially advocating slave labor, and end the speech by revealing a prototype of a space-age, shimmering bodysuit that sports a giant inflatable phallus. With an essentially straight face, Bichlbaum explains to the passive audience that the huge golden penis is in fact an “Employee Visualization Appendage,” equipped with a TV monitor that allows managers to keep tabs on their low-wage workers from a distance. If the laborers don’t exercise efficient habits, electric shocks can be administered from the buttons on the leisure suit. Nobody in attendance has any questions.

In the second featured segment, the boys tag-team a class of college students (the professor is in on the joke) by explaining that the WTO has partnered with the McDonald’s corporation to offer a solution to hunger in Third World countries: human excrement can be reprocessed into hamburger patties and shipped overseas. While half the class munches on burgers provided by the pranksters, a hilariously crude (in several senses of the word) 3D animation of the proposed procedure is projected on the big screen. It is a huge relief when the disgusted scholars speak out against the presenters, as it restores a little bit of the faith that went missing in Tampere.

Whether the Finnish conference attendees were completely stunned into silence, were just being polite, or assumed that the WTO was conducting business as usual, “The Yes Men” chooses to remain mute on several salient points. The directors include far too many scenes of Bichlbaum and Bonanno getting dressed, shopping for business suits at the Salvation Army, and hoofing it en route to scheduled speaking appearances. Instead, it would have been interesting to include some weightier perspectives on the issues at the heart of international labor problems.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/15/04.

The Incredibles

Monday, November 8th, 2004

incredibles

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The first Pixar release to earn a PG rating, Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” represents a step toward slightly more grown-up fare than “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Pixar’s movies have always attended to the adults in the audience (in the case of “Toy Story 2,” one could argue that misty-eyed boomers mourning their bygone childhoods were a clear target market), and have been nearly unimpeachable in their dual-edged skill. At just a few minutes shy of two hours, “The Incredibles” is also the longest Pixar movie, which might try the patience of some of the youngest audience members. The film’s length will not likely deter legions of Pixar fans from clogging the box office or from netting the studio huge amounts of cash. A sequel is virtually guaranteed.

Following a flurry of frivolous lawsuits filed by average citizens against do-gooder superheroes, the chosen few have retreated into something akin to a witness protection program, where they must hide their amazing talents and gifts. Working one of comicdom’s golden themes (see: “X-Men”), writer-director Brad Bird – who created the moving cult hit “The Iron Giant” – explores the headier notions of how the truly privileged can inspire tremendous jealousy in the power-impaired. Superheroes have always had to negotiate the problems of being special, which is one of the chief reasons that secret identities are a key ingredient in the genre.

The first of the heroes to be felled by a lawsuit is Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, absolutely perfect), a massive wall of muscle in the tradition of Superman. Mr. Incredible is exiled to suburbia as humdrum insurance adjuster Bob Parr, and his tiny cubicle can contain neither his gargantuan frame nor his disdain for monotonous routine. Along with his wife Helen (Holly Hunter), the former Elastigirl, and his children Violet (Sarah Vowell of “This American Life”), Dash (Spencer Fox) and baby Jack-Jack, Bob begrudgingly, uneasily, settles into his long journey into the middle. Only some late-night prowling with the former Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) provides Bob with a fleeting reminder of the glories of his former life.

One day, after being contacted by an enigmatic stranger, Bob agrees to don his old costume on a top-secret mission to a weird volcanic island. The old crimefighter chooses to withhold this information from his wife, which provides both an opportunity for third act heroics and a familiar but well-executed sitcom subplot that trots out the old misunderstanding about an imagined marital infidelity. Bird waits just a little bit too long to get the other Incredibles involved, but when he does, the movie really shines. Especially pleasing is Vowell’s turn as teenage daughter Violet. The manifestation of her own powers, including the abilities to turn invisible (a trick coveted by teens of both genders) and to generate force fields, sets the stage for a boost in self-esteem that encapsulates one of the film’s most pleasant self-empowerment themes.

One of the movie’s greatest assets – its stupendous, eye-popping animation – can also be one of its big liabilities, as the climax practically demands a loud, cacophonous cityscape battle. Sure, superhero movies depend on superheroics, so the complaint is a minor one. Even so, it would have been more impressive had the film cut a little of the action in favor of more exploration of the unique dynamics of the Incredible clan. Each of the family members borrows powers long enshrined on the pages of Marvel and DC, but computer animation is the ideal place to showcase Elastigirl’s supple malleability. Her feats of inventive daring, including a breathless set-piece where her elongated body is trapped in several automatic doors at the same time, fully exploit the imaginative promise that pixels can so readily provide.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/8/04.

Birth

Monday, November 1st, 2004

2003birth

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jonathan Glazer’s new film “Birth” is an engrossing fairy tale filled with tremendous acting, stunning photography, and quite possibly the year’s best musical score. Ruminating on the metaphysical possibilities of reincarnation, or perhaps merely the desire that lost loved ones could come back to us, “Birth” works on nearly every level, despite its rather elephantine demand that we suspend all reason and doubt. Spare, austere, and quiet, “Birth” showcases multiple examples of gutsy, intelligent direction that confirm much of what was said about Glazer following his impressive debut feature “Sexy Beast.” “Birth” is an improvement over that solid film, and should guarantee the filmmaker some plum assignments in the near future.

The movie’s opening sequence, in which Harris Savides’ camera follows a runner in a wintry Central Park, is a beautiful, gliding composition that projects both a kind of elegiac majesty and a sense of foreboding and portent. Glazer takes his time with this jogger, and Alexandre Desplat’s spooky orchestrations underline the ways in which mundane routine can quickly transform into life-changing tragedy. Entering a tunnel, the runner falters and crumples to the ground. The viewpoint then switches to a newborn infant emerging into the world. It is an amazing set-piece, rendered all the more powerful by the title card that moves the story ten years ahead.

Nicole Kidman’s Anna was married to the dead runner, and despite her broken heart, has finally agreed to start over in a new marriage with her longtime, persistent beau Joseph (Danny Huston). Anna lives with her patrician mother Eleanor (played with a cunning combination of stateliness and wit by Lauren Bacall) in a mammoth Fifth Avenue spread, and other family members, including Anna’s sister Laura (Alison Elliot) and Laura’s husband Bob (Arliss Howard) never stray too far from Eleanor’s aristocratic keep. The wealth of the family emerges as a subtle class commentary that Glazer expertly exploits, and the film’s production design is a sight to behold.

Things get weird when a ten-year-old boy shows up at Eleanor’s birthday party claiming to be Anna’s dead husband Sean. Initially dismissed as a strange joke or an awkward coincidence, the lad’s declaration begins to assume disturbing credibility as he reveals more and more information that only Anna’s deceased husband could have known. The young Sean is played by Cameron Bright, and the pre-teen actor does a remarkably convincing job. Glazer enlisted the help of two top-notch screenwriters, Milo Addica (who co-wrote “Monster’s Ball”) and legendary Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, and the scribes really manage to make a preposterous premise resonate with feelings of numbing plausibility.

Kidman is the glue that holds the entire thing together, and her performance is another in a string of smart choices. Only when the movie vacillates between the supernatural aspects provided by Anna’s desire to believe in Sean and the crushing possibility that more realistic explanations are right before our eyes does Glazer’s spell break down. Fortunately, the director handles the denouement with the same conviction attached to everything that has come before. The result is a film that nearly tricks us into thinking it is merely a creepy horror trifle when it actually has much to say about faith, jealousy, and the constant ache of incomprehensible grief.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/1/04.

I Heart Huckabees

Monday, October 25th, 2004

iheart

Movie review by Greg Carlson

David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees” flirts equally with disaster and genius. A loquacious, irreverent romp, the movie juggles an all-star ensemble with deftness and economy, calling to mind a sort of Preston Sturges-meets-Charlie Kaufman genre implosion: anything can happen, and it often does. At the center of the chaos is Jason Schwartzman, (looking very Tom Cruise circa “Magnolia”) sinking his teeth into his best role since “Rushmore.” Schwartzman is Albert Markovski, an environmental activist so at odds with his frustrating existence and its inexplicable coincidences that he hires husband and wife existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to sort out the mess in his head.

While it does not quite do justice to Russell’s imagination to describe exactly how existential detectives earn their living, suffice it to say that Vivian and Bernard are experts in their unusual field, and have been in the business for a long, long time. Existential detective work resembles good old-fashioned gumshoe investigating in several ways (digging through trash, surveillance, interviews with friends and associates of the client, etc.), but a number of the unorthodox methods employed at the agency – including a sensory deprivation technique that allows Russell to have a blast with some truly inventive CGI – are as hysterical as they are far out.

Russell’s neatest trick is cramming in enough character to be shared among all the cast members, without sacrificing nuance, pacing or the breakneck structure of his cinematic house of cards. Schwartzman’s Markovski may be the movie’s center of gravity, but several other actors, including Jude Law as an officious executive, Naomi Watts as a conflicted spokesmodel, Isabelle Huppert as a nihilistic philosopher, and Mark Wahlberg – brilliantly deadpan – as a depressed firefighter, all get their very own moments to shine. “Huckabees” sometimes neglects Hoffman and Tomlin – especially in the second half, when they are desperately needed – in favor of spending time with the couple’s clients, but more often than not, the trade-off is worth it. When Hoffman and Tomlin are allowed center stage, however, their timing is magnificent.

Russell, who wrote “Huckabees” with Jeff Baena, is not afraid to swing for the fences, so audience members skittish about listening to convoluted laments about the meaninglessness of life might not get on board. Viewers have to demonstrate a certain amount of patience with the eccentric activities that unfold on the way to Russell’s point, but by the third act, the filmmaker has brilliantly brought his story full circle, exchanging the fates of two of its central characters in a breathless turn of events. Russell’s splendid juxtaposition of corporate voracity (Huckabees is a juggernaut chain store similar to Target or Wal-Mart) and feel-good eco-friendly advocacy is but one of the director’s spirited commentaries on the schizo hypocrisy of contemporary American society. No solution is offered because no solution exists.

Fans of Russell’s earlier work will take much delight in a dinner table scene with uncredited secret weapon Richard Jenkins. As irascible patriarch Mr. Hooten, Jenkins engages in a side-splitting quarrel with Wahlberg and Schwartzman regarding the pros and cons of suburban sprawl. Russell also gets plenty of mileage out of Bob Gunton and Talia Shire (Schwartzman’s real life mom) as Markovski’s parents in another one-off scene. “I Heart Huckabees” might not hold up as well as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but the two films certainly deserve to share company as the year’s most inspired and creative cinematic treats.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/25/04.

Team America: World Police

Monday, October 18th, 2004

teamamerica

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The latest curiosity from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brash creators of “South Park,” is “Team America: World Police,” a “Thunderbirds”-esque marionette movie in which clunky puppets take the place of cut-out animation. Intended partially as a satire of Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer action movies and partially as a chaotic send-up of Hollywood hypocrisy, “Team America” delivers a handful of hearty laughs, but mostly misses its wide array of easy targets. Fans looking for a movie as sharp as “South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut” will surely be disappointed, as “Team America” hedges its bets by entirely ignoring the Bush administration. The result is a scattershot hodgepodge that commits the one sin for which it cannot be forgiven: it is often boring.

Hidden away inside a secret base on Mount Rushmore, Team America is an elite group of black ops commandos charged with ridding the world of terrorist threats. Never mind that the rough and ready crew usually ends up destroying treasures like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sphinx in the process. Accompanied by a rousing, profane theme song, the squad of super-agents is led by the dapper Spottswoode, a slightly unhinged mastermind with an inexplicable obsession with oral sex. Following the death of one of their own, Team America recruits stage actor Gary Johnston, a performer in the “Rent” parody “Lease,” where he sings “Everyone Has AIDS.”

Gary’s background in theatre and world languages makes him a natural for the team, so Spottswoode packs him off for the Middle East with the rest of the gang. Gary falls for another one of the team members, and their subsequent sex scene is among the movie’s highlights. The couple copulates in every position imaginable, wooden bodies and visible strings adding to the surrealism. The stuffy MPAA was so unsettled by the sight of two dolls going at it, they threatened an NC-17 rating. No doubt Paramount Pictures is already salivating over how much money the unrated version of the DVD will net.

“Team America” leisurely rolls around to a showdown involving Kim Jong Il and the Film Actors Guild, led by Alec Baldwin. The filmmakers save much of their venom for Tinseltown’s activists, and along with Baldwin, they skewer Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, among others. Parker and Stone grossly miscalculate the humor that their horrible voice acting generates; the impressions of celebrities are so intentionally bad as to become ineffectual. Parker even uses his Cartman voice for Kim Jong Il. What works with the kids of “South Park” does not work here. The movie would have been significantly better had Parker and Stone farmed out some of the “acting.”

Like “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” “Team America” resembles a musical, and some of the songs transcend the limitations of the phony action genre in which they are trapped. Marc Shaiman teams up with Parker once again, and the music works as the strongest element of the movie. One tune, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” is a hilarious send-up of the overwrought patriotism of Country music anthems, in the vein of Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith. In another ballad, the pranksters eviscerate Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.” Other than the songs, the movie occasionally capitalizes on its low-tech puppetry to generate visually arresting humor. House cats become vicious panthers, Gary blows chunks in what has to be one of cinema’s most sustained depictions of projectile vomiting, and a cockroach scurries into a spaceship and takes to the skies in the movie’s most memorable shot. “Team America” is not terribly satisfying, however, and unlike the “South Park” movie, it will not be remembered when Academy Awards nominations are made.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/18/04.

Friday Night Lights

Monday, October 11th, 2004

fridaynight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It was too much to hope that somehow, “Friday Night Lights” would be significantly different from other high school sports movies, because in that final quarter, just like clockwork, it all comes down to one play. Sure, the movie squirms around with some of the difficult realities of the football-equals-everything logic that nearly destroys the young men of desolate West Texas towns, but when you peel back the top layer, everything looks awfully familiar. Does a star athlete get injured? Yup. Does the coach deliver a rousing locker room speech? Check. Does the team forge an emotional bond that transcends the boundaries of typical adolescent relationships? Maybe.

Based on H.G. Bissinger’s noteworthy book, “Friday Night Lights” tries really hard to question the value system that places unyielding pressure on students to perform like seasoned pros. The movie is directed by actor Peter Berg, and stars Billy Bob Thornton – in another excellent performance – as coach Gary Gaines. Thornton is a marvelous performer, and his offbeat choices are always infused with a sublime sense of authenticity. Gaines may be quick to cut loose with amusing outbursts of “my goodness gracious” when a player does something foolish, but underneath, he has the instincts needed to cope with a town where the team-makers will have your job if you fail to deliver a state championship.

The players are quickly sketched, and only a few manage enough screen time to develop identifiable personalities. Lucas Black plays quarterback Mike Winchell, a morose downer who takes care of his ailing mother even as he dreams about escaping Odessa, Texas for a better life. Winchell doesn’t seem to care about football all that much, and that alone distinguishes him from most of the other characters. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is the cocky, talented running back who has already started to pick out the expensive cars that will be his once he joins the NFL. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) tiptoes around his abusive father (a quite good Tim McGraw), a former state football champ whose alcoholism poses a real threat to his son.

“Friday Night Lights” is more serious-minded than “Varsity Blues,” but both movies cover a lot of the same turf. Like the book upon which it is based, “Friday Night Lights” covers the ups and downs of the Permian High School Panthers during the course of the 1988 season (love the mileage Berg gets out of acid-washed jeans and Boobie’s Public Enemy jacket), but the film could really be set in any year. Gridiron crunches are the main draw, and as a result, female characters are left underdeveloped at best, totally ignored at worst. The townspeople who delight in hassling Gaines are depicted as drooling rednecks; the best line is overheard on a radio call in show when an angry fan moans that maybe too much learning and not enough football is going on at the school.

The film would have been more interesting if its skepticism had been allowed a stronger voice. With sports movies, though, you cannot bite the hand that feeds. Football, therefore, is center stage and Berg depicts the action on the field with color and intensity. Fans of the game will likely ignore any of the uglier side-effects that small town football brings out in its acolytes – the game footage is much too dynamic to let that happen. “Friday Night Lights” does quite well, however, with the details and the moments. For the audience members who are not sports fans, the movie has enough criticism to affirm the underlying assertion that high school athletes are disposable. Seniors inevitably graduate, and there is always hope for next year’s team.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/11/04.