Archive for January, 2004

In America

Monday, January 26th, 2004

Inamerica1

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Along with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, filmmaker Jim Sheridan wrote the semi-autobiographical heart-string tugger “In America,” an occasionally worthwhile family portrait burdened by odd anachronisms and too-obvious plays for audience sympathy.  “In America” follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Sullivans, a desperate Irish clan composed of father Johnny (Pady Considine), mother Sarah (Samantha Morton), and daughters Christy and Ariel (engrossingly played by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger).  Missing from the portrait is little brother Frankie, who died from the complications of a brain tumor that resulted after a spill down some stairs back in Ireland.

The Sullivans arrive in the New York City of celluloid dreams: they marvel at the neon carnival of Times Square, they take up residence in a drug-infested tenement, and they make fast friends with a multicultural rainbow of fellow immigrants who, like them, came to the Big Apple filled with hopes for a better life.  In some ways, Sheridan strains to depict the city as a sweltering utopia, where neighbors throw parties for each other and even knife-wielding dope fiends apologize for their attempted assaults.  Despite its sweaty look, excellently conveyed through the lens of cinematographer Declan Quinn, “In America” dons its thematic rose-colored glasses too often to earn any credibility for authenticity.

Of course, the grim memory of Frankie’s death has followed the group to NYC, and Christy, who constantly documents her world with the family camcorder, explains how she believes Frankie can grant three wishes from the great beyond.  Sheridan takes plenty of time to demonstrate how the loss of their son has nearly destroyed Johnny and Sarah, but he tends to overstate the case – no wonder, then, that even Christy understands that her dad is going to have to find a way to move on if things are ever to return to some semblance of a happy life.  The answer appears in the chiseled form of Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a dying painter who rages against his own looming end.

As Mateo, Hounsou turns in a strong performance, probably one of the best of his career.  The downside, however, is that Mateo is a character caught in a cinematic double-bind.  Not only is he saddled with the “scary Black man who turns out to be a gentle soul” cliché, he joins the long list of ridiculously attractive actors who only seem to become more radiant as the grim reaper closes in.  As expected, Sheridan pins the inevitable Sullivan family epiphany on the strong shoulders of Mateo, and the third act features a heavy-handed birth/death “circle of life” scene that feels like it belongs in the short story collection of a high school student.

“In America” is not without its charms.  Morton is a fantastic performer, and instinctively finds ways to make even underwritten characters sparkle with intensity.  The Bolger sisters are adorable; it’s a shame more of the story wasn’t told from their childhood perspective.  The movie seems to spend a great deal of its running time, however, creating impressionistic sketches depicting the emotional adjustments made by the Sullivans to their new life.  These scenes can be of interest, and are sometimes vivid, but they never really seem to add up to much.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader. 

Eurotrip

Monday, January 26th, 2004

eurotrip

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Eurotrip” resembles so many other recent teen sexploitation comedies, like “Road Trip” and “American Pie,” one is initially inclined to dismiss it on principle. The thing is, the better movies in this subgenre have an intrepid stubbornness about them – perhaps because any intelligence and creativity tends to disappear under the sex and alcohol-fueled debauchery. So while it seems like faint praise to say that “Eurotrip” is amusing despite itself, fans of outrageous humiliation and over-the-top sight gags will no doubt feel completely satisfied after viewing the film.

Our story begins with Scotty, (Scott Mechlowicz, who cribs heavily from the Brad Pitt school of enunciation) on the day of his high school graduation. His longtime girlfriend gives him the boot immediately following the ceremony, and to make matters worse, he believes his German email pen pal Mieke has made romantic overtures in the most recent correspondence. Never mind how Scotty has been able to sustain an intimate epistolary relationship without a command of the foreign language – “Eurotrip” demands that you suspend disbelief if you are to enjoy even one second of its running time. Scotty is so inept, he doesn’t realize that Mieke is a girl, and sends a return email so coarse and dismissive, Mieke deletes Scotty from her address book.

Desperate to track down Mieke in Berlin in order to make amends, Scotty enlists best pal Cooper (Jacob Pitts) to help him, and the pair hooks up with “worst twins ever” Jenny (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Jamie (Travis Wester), who were already backpacking through several countries. Stories in which two characters are destined to meet up demand that the complications that stand in the way take up a massive amount of energy and effort, and “Eurotrip” is no exception. Following a roundabout path pregnant with diversions, the bumbling American quartet finds plenty of time to engage in experimental behaviors.

The strongest comic elements of “Eurotrip” emerge out of stereotypical Yankee xenophobia. Director Jeff Schaffer co-wrote the screenplay with Alec Berg and David Mandel, and the trio gets plenty of mileage out of thuggish British soccer hooligans, a lopsided Eastern Europe exchange rate, the mind-altering properties of absinthe ingestion, and the seamier consequences of choosing the wrong Amsterdam sex club. “Eurotrip” operates like many road movies – the travel serves to set up one outrageous episode after another – and one of the best throwaway gags is a goofy showdown between Scotty and a French “robot” mime who takes his “art” very seriously.

Executive producer Ivan Reitman must also have some charisma when it comes to convincing stars to do cameos. Matt Damon is hysterical as a pierced and tattooed rock singer who performs a rousing song about Scotty. Lucy Lawless struts and snarls as the proprietor of an S/M society and Fred Armisen gleefully portrays a very creepy Italian train passenger who enjoys taking advantage of dark tunnels. Vinnie Jones is Mad Maynard, Manchester United’s number one fan, and Joanna Lumley, as a seen-it-all youth hostel clerk, ends up in the outtakes that play during the end credits. The entire cast, veterans and newcomers alike, appears to have a ball, and whether or not you’ve ever been to Europe, the jokes and gag sequences (many of them tremendously off-color – we’re talking Hitler, incest, and the Pope for starters) are broad enough to elicit plenty of hearty laughter.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/26/04.

50 First Dates

Monday, January 19th, 2004

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

At first, “50 First Dates” looks like just another Adam Sandler vehicle, but the presence of Drew Barrymore immediately neutralizes Sandler’s typical focus on the scatological and infantile. The result is a sweet-natured romantic comedy that shows off the beauty of the Hawaiian islands far more successfully than the recent stinker “The Big Bounce.” Directed by “Tommy Boy” and “Anger Management” helmer Peter Segal, “50 First Dates” refreshingly shifts the vulgarity (mostly) to the background – though Sandler fans will be pleased to know that torrential walrus vomit, baseball bat smackdowns, and testicle jokes remain on the menu.

Sandler plays commitment-phobic Henry Roth, an affable veterinarian whose closest friends include a host of marine mammals and Ula (perpetual sidekick Rob Schneider), a native Hawaiian with one good eye and a small herd of children. Even though Schneider’s character exists exclusively for the sake of puerile humor, there is a slight offensiveness about his depiction – audience members might call to mind Mickey Rooney’s gruesome stereotype Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” While Ula lives vicariously through Henry’s sexual conquests (one of the sourest notes in George Wing’s screenplay), Henry’s life takes a new turn when he happens upon the girl of his dreams at a local diner.

The course of true love, especially in an Adam Sandler movie, is not terribly likely to be smooth. The girl spotted building a tiny house out of her waffles is Lucy (Barrymore), and she suffers from a weird kind of short-term memory loss: she can remember everything in her life up to moment she suffered serious head trauma in a car crash. Each morning, however, she wakes up thinking it is her father’s birthday – the day of the accident – and starts all over again. Locked into a never-ending loop of the present, Lucy’s loved ones play along, and the results are surprisingly clever and interesting.

Conceptually, “50 First Dates” resembles a kind of cross between “Memento” and “Groundhog Day,” though it is nowhere near as satisfying as either of those titles. In trying to desperately to win Lucy’s affection, Henry devises a series of inventive interactions that transcend the typical expectations one might have for a movie of this type. In fact, his unwavering dedication to making things work with Lucy resembles the more thoughtful, deeper Sandler of “Punch Drunk Love,” and this is a most pleasant surprise, because the older model’s strident braying and smug narcissism always wore out its welcome quickly.

Barrymore and Sandler were good together in “The Wedding Singer,” and they continue to sparkle with terrific chemistry in “50 First Dates.” Barrymore is a gifted comic, and she takes sly pride in delivering several of the movie’s funniest jokes. She also manages to find the sadness in Lucy, which is no mean feat considering the ridiculousness of the far-fetched premise. In addition to the warm conviviality of the leads, the supporting cast, which includes Dan Aykroyd, Sean Astin, and Blake Clark, is memorable and well utilized by the director. “50 First Dates” projects a winning combination of humor and charm, and should satisfy moviegoers eager for romance and laughter.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/19/04.

Elephant

Monday, January 19th, 2004

elephant

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Winner of numerous critical accolades, including Best Director and Palme d’Or honors at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” is one of the year’s most thought-provoking movies, and also one of its most frustrating. Inspired by the 1999 Columbine school shooting (as well as taking cues from several other high profile instances of inexplicable teenage violence), “Elephant” is not the sort of cinematic experience one typically claims to enjoy watching – even though seeing it is disturbing, engrossing, and occasionally harrowing. With its cast of unknown non-actors (most of whom essentially play themselves, or rather, characters that share their real names), “Elephant” bears the mark of an experiment, and like many experiments, its results can be simultaneously exhilarating and disappointing.

Along with cinematographer Harris Savides, Van Sant uses his camera to merely observe the commonplace events that unfold daily at public and private high schools across the nation. During the entire first act of the drama, long takes (often provided by intimate, floating tracking shots that follow individuals as they traverse the grounds and hallways of the high school setting) introduce us to a series of young people. There’s John (John Robinson), an angelic, golden-haired boy who arrives late to class thanks to his irresponsible, alcoholic father (Timothy Bottoms). We meet Elias (Elias McConnell), an aspiring photographer who develops pictures in the school’s darkroom. Nerdy Michelle (Kristen Hicks) is chastised by the gym teacher for failing to wear the required uniform to class. And so on.

A dark cloud hangs over the introduction of these young people, and Van Sant intensifies the focus of the audience by doubling back and repeating several moments from different points of view. This repetition colors the details with an eerie sense that many of the faces we are seeing will be lost to the impending assault. At the end of these languid, quiet intros Van Sant shows another long tracking shot – but this one, a low-angle, from-behind look at two boys dressed in paramilitary fatigues carrying duffel bags weighed down by firearms – shatters the serenity of Van Sant’s preceding “fly on the wall” surveillance. The effect of the shot is dizzying, as it finalizes the director’s refusal to “explain” the shocking violence that will unfold in the latter sections of the movie.

Sadly, Van Sant’s strongest risks prove to be the film’s major liabilities, and the weakest aspect of “Elephant” is the offhand way in which the two killers are portrayed. While one brief scene shows Alex (Alex Frost) being humiliated by some bullies who shower him with spitballs, most of the time we spend with him is opaque: he plays the Moonlight Sonata on the piano, he eats pancakes with his friend (and fellow conspirator) Eric (Eric Deulen), he watches documentaries on Nazi Germany and Hitler, etc. Van Sant is totally correct in assuming that any attempt to account for the killers’ motivations would fall short of the intrigue provided by remaining aloof and enigmatic. Therein, however, lies the rub – “Elephant” leaves us disoriented and more than a little bit nauseous, but the detachment and disaffection instills a sense of helplessness that teeters on the edge of hopelessness.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader.

Big Fish

Monday, January 12th, 2004

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sadly sentimental and nauseatingly pleased with itself from beginning to end, Tim Burton’s latest exercise in magical (sur)realism fails to enthrall in the manner of the director’s best work – potent stuff like “Ed Wood,” Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” and “Edward Scissorhands.” Adapted from Daniel Wallace’s novel, “Big Fish” is one of those sprawling quasi-epics where two movie stars are needed to perform each major character: one for the early years version and one for the aging, getting-on view. In this case, Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play the young and old halves of Edward Bloom, a tireless blowhard who spins fabulous yarns every time he opens his mouth.

Edward’s son, the deliberately-named Will Bloom (played with a clenched jaw by Billy Crudup) has grown to resent his father’s falsehoods and reluctantly flies home from France when he learns that his old man is dying. The two have not spoken in years, and Edward’s impending demise presents the textbook device that allows for copious flashbacks and an inevitable deathbed reconciliation. If nothing else, viewers can take comfort in Burton’s eagerness to dig in to Edward’s colorful fibs, as they offer the only relief from dullsville that “Big Fish” can muster.

Like Mark Twain with plenty of P.T. Barnum thrown in for good measure, Edward’s phantasmagoric biography plows through a series of vivid vignettes, which McGregor handles with a goofy grin and a not-too-horrible Southern twang. We get to meet a cyclopean witch, whose milky dead eye can reveal one’s manner of death. We learn how Edward befriends a hungry giant. We see Edward join a circus led by a lycanthropic ringmaster (played by Danny DeVito). We visit an enchanting hamlet named Spectre in which all the citizens walk barefoot on a lush carpet of bluegrass. There is virtually no limit to the number of impossible images Burton can conjure.

There is, however, a pall that settles over the movie rather quickly when it becomes painfully apparent that Bloom’s fish stories are going to add up to absolutely nothing. Will’s desperate attempt to learn the “truth” from his father is obscured by Edward’s relentless storytelling. Not a single character is given anything resembling dimensionality – and that goes for the key supporting cast, which includes Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange as the young and old Sandra Bloom, Edward’s patient and devoted wife. Both wonderful performers are utterly wasted and spend the balance of their screen time gazing lovingly at Edward.

“Big Fish” would have been much more engaging had it allowed us to glimpse some measure of humanness in Edward, but he remains an inveterate fabulist to the bitter end. Not even Will’s phony epiphany – a hamhanded sequence that practically bursts a blood vessel trying to choke up the audience – can instill warmth to the character, and Edward goes out as enigmatic and frustratingly unknowable as he arrived. Weird subplots, including the possibility that Edward might have been unfaithful to Sandra, are given scant development. In addition to DeVito, supporting parts are given to Steve Buscemi, Robert Guillaume, and Helena Bonham Carter, but like all the characters in the movie, they are as cold as the oversize carp that stars in Edward’s signature tall tale.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/12/04.