Archive for March, 2004

The Ladykillers

Monday, March 29th, 2004


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Remaking the 1955 Ealing gem of the same name, Joel and Ethan Coen transplant “The Ladykillers” to their own unique universe: an anachronistic pastiche of old and new, symbolically summarized in the glorious strains of traditional gospel and thumping hip-hop that play on the soundtrack. Similar in many ways to the ridiculously sublime Coen movies that exult in their off-center senses of humor at the expense of everything else, “The Ladykillers” is already being called a “minor” Coen film (whatever that exactly means). In any case, one’s enjoyment of “The Ladykillers” will almost certainly depend upon whether disbelief can be suspended enough to give Tom Hanks room to do his thing.

Hanks inhabits a bizarre criminal who goes by the name G.H. Dorr, Ph.D. Purporting to be a scholar of dead languages and Renaissance music, Dorr rents a room from devoted churchgoer and widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in order to set up a caper that requires tunneling through the walls of Munson’s root cellar in order to pilfer a large sum of cash from a nearby riverboat casino called the Bandit Queen. Predictably, one of the movie’s most satisfying running gags is the sight of Dorr and his motley crew scrambling to pick up their antique instruments whenever Munson descends into their basement practice space.

Dorr’s companions in crime appear to be anything but master thieves. Mustachioed demolitions expert and irritable bowel syndrome sufferer Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is nearly as loquacious as Dorr, and his ostentatious manner ideally matches his khaki safari jacket. Pancake takes an immediate dislike to Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the “inside man” who nearly derails the plot when his fondness for the round posteriors of female casino guests gets him fired from the Bandit Queen’s custodial staff. The remaining two crooks are as quiet as Pancake and MacSam are gabby: The General (Tzi Ma) likely honed his skills digging tunnels in Vietnam, and Lump (Ryan Hurst) is a mountainous cretin rather used to taking a brutal beating on the gridiron.

While the storyline of “The Ladykillers” follows a predictable path, it becomes clear that the Coens are only interested in providing a platform on which to stage their verbal pyrotechnics. Like their best films, including the underrated “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink,” “The Ladykillers” is consistently stunning in its appreciation of weird diction and ornamental erudition. While Hanks, in his KFC-style Vandyke and layers of capes and topcoats, gets the showiest role, all of the actors adopt cadences and rhythms that are dazzling to hear. The Coens have never been shy about profanity, and it should be noted that “The Ladykillers” favors torrential outpourings of what Dorr would most likely call the harshest of imprecations and maledictions. Many will find the variety of foul tongues comic, others will think them coarse.

Visually, “The Ladykillers” returns to the meticulous compositional palette that defined much of the filmmakers’ early work. Longtime DP Roger Deakins bathes the movie in a golden glow that often serves as an ironic counterpoint to the gruesome activities that pile up in the final act (the God’s-eye view of the ever-present garbage barge is surely the film’s slyest, most satisfying motif). Several of the film’s other fanciful touches (including the “Sullivan’s Travels”-esque device of a portrait that changes its expression nearly every time it is shown) also contribute to the farcical tone. The final impact of the Coen brothers’ painstaking eccentricity – ideally realized in the tidy inevitability of the conclusion – pays off for fans like the slot machines on the Bandit Queen.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/29/04.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Monday, March 22nd, 2004


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even positioned as an early entry, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is destined to be one of the best films of the year. The second collaboration between Gallic music video genius Michel Gondry (whose unbelievable clips for the likes of Daft Punk, the Rolling Stones, Bjork and the White Stripes almost literally burst at the seams with creative elan) and eccentric screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who has also penned “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” as directorial vehicles for Gondry’s fellow music video virtuoso Spike Jonze), “Sunshine” is a mind-bending tour-de-force of writing, directing, and acting that is both for and about the contents of one’s cranium.

While it resembles Kaufman’s other scripts in its concern for dexterous jumps in space and time as well as its preoccupation with mental interiority, “Sunshine” is far and away the most fully realized of the screenwriter’s filmed stories. While “Malkovich” hinted (often sardonically and skeptically) at the ruinous effects of misguided lust and unrequited love, “Sunshine” contains at its core a sweetly optimistic philosophy of the need for love and affection. Its protagonists deal with the full gamut of roller-coaster highs and lows, from the thrilling, endorphin-fueled rush of first attraction to the bitter resentment of turning into the boring couple you once pitied.

Jim Carrey easily betters his serious-minded turn in “The Truman Show,” displaying incredible subtlety and emotional restraint (against the apparent odds). Cast partially, smartly against type as Joel Barish, a reserved introvert, Carrey is provided ample opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable psychological elasticity. At the very beginning of the movie, Joel meets aggressive free-spirit Clementine (Kate Winslet, completely smashing) on a train platform, and the déjà vu that accompanies their flirtations proves spectacularly ripe with layered meaning as Gondry and Kaufman catapult the audience an entire year into the relationship by the time the opening credits appear.

Once balance is temporarily regained, the immediacy of Joel’s situation reveals itself: post breakup, Clementine has hired Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to have Joel entirely erased from her memory. Mierzwiak is the proprietor of Lacuna Inc., a storefront clinic with dubious medical credentials (implied hysterically via the on-the-job incompetence and unethical behavior of memory-sucking technicians Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood). Devastated by Clementine’s harsh act, Joel signs up to undergo the procedure too, so that he can obliterate Clem from his own gray matter. Midway through the process, Joel realizes that he has made a mistake, and his efforts to hold on to experiences he shared with his sweetheart comprise the bulwark of Kaufman and Gondry’s fascinating head trip.

With the aid of Ellen Kuras’ perfect cinematography (which at times shoots blinding beams directly at the characters like cosmic flashlights or prison-tower searchlights), Gondry represents the multiverse of the mind with perfectly integrated special effects (many of them delightfully old fashioned). That having one’s memory eradicated carries with it unknown risks turns out to be only one of the movie’s concerns. By the time Gondry is deep into the labyrinth of Joel’s complex of synapses, the tone has shifted just enough to allow the audience to understand that losing the memory of a heartbreak will not really fix anything – it’s the pain that reminds us that we once had something real. Joel and Clem, desperately trying to outsmart the machinations of Lacuna’s extinguisher, make one of the most romantic pairs in recent cinema. They are, in fact, unforgettable.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/22/04.

City of God

Monday, March 15th, 2004


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stunning “Amores Perros,” “City of God” embraces a sensational cinematic style – a tour de force of editing and camerawork complete with dizzying 360-degree tracking shots, split screens, handheld cinematography, bullet-eye-ricochets, and non-chronological storytelling. These moviemaking pyrotechnics are well-suited to the subject matter, an adaptation of a popular novel by Paulo Lins that chronicles the bleak fate of the inhabitants of Cidade de Deus, a government-sponsored housing project in Rio de Janeiro. Narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a kid who sees news photography as his only way out of the ghetto, “City of God” is as beautiful as it is harrowing.

Director Fernando Meirelles smartly cast nearly every role with a non-professional (many of whom live in Cidade de Deus), and the result is a lean authenticity that merges fact and fiction, myth and reality. Because so many of the movie’s characters are young men pretending to be something or someone they are not, the performances appear effortless. Rocket, whose sweet nature and desire to avoid becoming a hood position him as an ideal observer, takes the audience back to the beginnings of major criminal activity in his world, when his older brother and two friends (who form the “Tender Trio”) graduate from holding up propane trucks to robbing a brothel.

Also involved in the brothel stick-up is Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), a younger tag-along who turns out to be incredibly dangerous – both to his “friends” and to anyone he perceives as standing in his way. “City of God” jumps around in time, and Li’l Dice grows up to become Li’l Ze (the older version of the character is played by Leandro Firmino da Hora), a full-blown psychopath ready to kill over the tiniest provocation. Only Ze’s closest friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), an easy-going and likable hippie-type, manages to keep the cold-blooded enforcer in check.

Benny quickly emerges as one of the movie’s most charismatic figures. It nearly breaks your heart that this smart, kind-hearted teenager is just as comfortable around handguns and cocaine as he is hanging out at the beach and cuddling with his gorgeous girlfriend. Benny’s fateful decision to try to leave Cidade de Deus culminates in one of the film’s most dazzling sequences: a giant, strobe-lit, farewell dance party so packed with volatility and emotion the tension borders on unbearable. Even Carl Douglas’ goofy disco anthem “Kung Fu Fighting” manages to take on grand, sinister overtones via the expert direction of Meirelles.

Despite its decidedly grim tableau, “City of God” succeeds in part because of its stark sense of humor (established quickly in the opening, chicken-on-the-loose sequence and continued via Rocket’s witty, self-deprecating observations). Frequently employed to alleviate the misery of watching gangs of roving, trigger-happy preteens kill each other without mercy, the movie’s comic voice becomes its optimistic heart – sorely needed as the body count rises. Meirelles, however, never lets his audience forget that the consequences of street life are devastating and real. The film’s closing credits even feature a curtain call in which the actors are juxtaposed with photographs of the real people upon whom their characters are based.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/15/04.

Starsky & Hutch

Monday, March 8th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following several successful pairings, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller strike out in the big-screen adaptation of “Starsky & Hutch,” a name-only version of the 70s police series.  Directed by Todd Phillips, “Starsky & Hutch” is long on period detail and short on humor – a deadly equation considering the insignificance of the buddy-cop parody genre.  Wilson and Stiller were hilarious against all odds in “Zoolander,” and their effortless comic riffing seemed ideally translatable to another cartoon confection.  All the other elements for a sure-fire movie appeared locked into place: Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear, and additional support from Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell.  Too bad none of it works.

Phillips stumbles and trips through the obligatory exposition of the mismatched partners: in a slight inversion of the original personalities of the characters inhabited by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul (who show up in a jaw-droppingly lame cameo), David Starsky (Stiller) is the by-the-book straight arrow and Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Wilson) is the on-the-take rule-bender, happy to rob Chinese bookies and lift cash out of the wallets of floating corpses.  Assigned to an uneasy partnership by Captain Dobey (Fred Williamson, flabbergasted), Starsky and Hutch quickly find themselves on the trail of big-time cocaine dealer Reese Feldman (Vaughn).

Feldman has figured out how to manufacture an odorless, undetectable type of coke, and he is eager to unload the product to the underworld of Bay City.  “Starsky & Hutch” lurches from one dull scene to the next, setting up a series of tiresome undercover operations that allow Stiller and Wilson to dress up like Hopper and Fonda in “Easy Rider” and try on other pointless disguises in their pursuit of Feldman.  At some point, the boys hook up with foxy cheerleaders Holly (Amy Smart) and Stacey (Carmen Electra), but Phillips is far more interested in mining the homo-eroticism of Starsky and Hutch’s love-hate coupling, and the women are treated as if they are only getting in the way.

Along with his team of screenwriters, Phillips strains to find one funny gag in the entire movie, but most everything fizzles out without ever really igniting.  “Starsky & Hutch” gives itself too much credit for being clever: the boys do a mime act that results in the death of a pony, Starsky accidentally gets high on his own supply and faces off against Har Mar Superstar in a disco dancing contest that goes on forever, and the iconic red-with-white-stripe Gran Torino barely breaks a sweat.

Nothing in “Starsky & Hutch” feels fresh or interesting, and the plot is so linear and lacking in the development of anything resembling character or subtext that one feels inclined to nod off several times throughout the bloated proceedings.  Packed with wall to wall AM staples, like the Carpenters, Dazz, Chicago, and Bill Withers, the soundtrack to the movie proves more enjoyable than anything that happens onscreen.  By the time the final credits roll, a weird feeling settles in that you cannot really remember anything about the movie, aside from its costumes and pop hits.  Audiences have come to expect more from Stiller and Wilson team-ups, and hopefully their next one will be a return to form.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/8/04. 

The Fog of War

Monday, March 1st, 2004


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The newly minted Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature is Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” a thought-provoking character study of Robert S. McNamara, one of the best and brightest of his generation, and a figure who remains controversial to this day. Now well into his 80s, McNamara is remembered primarily as one of the chief architects of the Vietnam War, which he helped to orchestrate while serving as the Secretary of Defense. Morris spends plenty of time addressing McNamara’s decisions and mistakes while serving under Lyndon Johnson, but the far-reaching film also digs in to McNamara’s recollections of both World Wars (his earliest memories go all the way back to WW I), his tenure as president of the Ford Motor Company, and his relationship with JFK.

Eschewing any other talking heads in favor of solo, direct eye contact with McNamara (achieved via Morris’ Interrotron technique, which essentially involves the use of teleprompters reflecting video images of faces instead of text in order to create the illusion that the filmed subject is looking directly at you), Morris culled his impressively edited final cut from more than twenty hours of footage. McNamara is no stranger to media manipulation, and while the crafty elder statesman recounts horrifying descriptions of the Tokyo firebombing of WW II and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, he remains largely aloof, refusing at any point to apologize.

But then, what would be the point of an apology? McNamara, who chokes up several times in the course of the movie (when he describes the selection of Kennedy’s gravesite, for example), certainly reveals a sense of painful regret, particularly when he ruminates on “counterfactuals,” or the what-might-have-been scenarios preferable to the death and destruction resulting from combat. McNamara is always happy to scapegoat others, however, and hawkish General Curtis LeMay – who honestly does not require much assistance in being painted as a cold-hearted warmonger – takes the brunt of McNamara’s criticism in the recounting of WW II military strategy.

“The Fog of War” is a film that invites immediate comparison to the current military climate (although Morris had been planning the movie prior to the invasion of Iraq), but Morris covers plenty of other turf. Some of the most compelling moments deal with McNamara’s tenure as Ford Motor Co. chairman (the corporation’s first non-family member in that role, McNamara proudly notes). McNamara lays claim to the development of the seat belt, and the reenactment of Ford’s early, crude “safety tests” provides Morris with the golden opportunity to show slow motion shots of human skulls bouncing down stairwells. The images are simultaneously gruesome and hilarious.

Audiences unfamiliar with Morris might feel unsatisfied with the level of evasiveness the film’s subject is allowed (and clearly the film would have been much stronger had it included more details about McNamara’s personal life: the allusions to the sacrifices of his wife and children leave one hungry for more information). Morris, however, is a master provocateur, and relishes the nuances and ambiguities of complex questions. Along with the gripping interview material, “The Fog of War” contains a haunting score by Philip Glass, top-notch archival footage, and revealing declassified audio of Pentagon and White House conversations. So regardless of your take on McNamara’s relative level of truthfulness (or for that matter, Morris’ own agenda), “The Fog of War” is a worthwhile experience, and a must-see for 20th century history buffs.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/1/04.