Archive for April, 2004

13 Going on 30

Monday, April 26th, 2004

thirteengoing

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It is too darn bad that “13 Going on 30” didn’t explore the meatier psychological dimensions of making a leap from gawky teenager to older high-fashion hottie in the blink of an eye. Body switching comedies have run the gamut from graceless (“Like Father, Like Son”) to great (“Big”), but the central tenets of the genre – including the mantra that you should always be happy to just be yourself (yawn) – are worn-out shoe leather. It certainly helps this time that the footwear belongs to frolicsome Jennifer Garner, but the odor emanating from “13 Going on 30” will remind most audience members of smelly gym sneakers.

In 1987, teenager Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) dreams of infiltrating the most popular clique of girls at her school and gaining their friendship and acceptance. Naturally, this will mean compromising her own ethical values (writing homework reports for the snotty crew) and alienating her closest, true-blue pal Matt (Sean Marquette), the boy next door who loves Jenna with the sort of devotion one typically doesn’t see in thirteen-year-olds. When her birthday party blows up in her face during a cruel game of “seven minutes in heaven,” Jenna wishes away her childhood, and with the assistance of some magic dust (don’t ask), finds herself all grown up and inhabiting the bod of lithe Garner.

Most body switch flicks spend generous amounts of time wringing comic mileage out of grown-up actors pretending to be kids (or vice versa, if Judge Reinhold will pardon the pun), but “13 Going on 30” is almost weirdly content to let Garner settle into the clunky machinery of the plot without so much as a trip to FAO Schwarz. Thankfully, director Gary Winick includes at least one amusing set-piece, and the office dance party that goes from deadly dull to deliciously fun (courtesy of the choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video) stands as one of the few moments not devoted to some frightfully lifeless nonsense about redesigning the magazine where the suddenly-grown up Jenna works.

The older version of Matt is played by Mark Ruffalo, whose effortless charm goes a long way to making the movie bearable. Sure, it’s a little weird, and possibly a tad creepy, that Ruffalo’s 30-year-old Matt ends up romantically involved with Jenna – who maintains her 13-year-old persona even though she has grown-up curves. Far too much of “13 Going on 30” relies on the familiar obstacles that get in the way of true love: Matt is engaged to another woman, and the adult version of Lucy (the leader of the popular girls that ruined Jenna’s birthday bash), now Jenna’s pal and co-worker, is quick to sabotage Jenna’s best efforts to become a good person.

Screenwriters should be banned from writing any more movies that include scenes where a character is literally decked out in tux or gown before realizing that he or she is getting hitched to the wrong person or for the wrong reason. Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith, the scribes who cribbed anything resembling good stuff from “Big,” are guilty of this and many, many other narrative misdeeds throughout the course of “13 Going on 30.” At least the tunes – which include early to mid-80s classics like “Burning Down the House,” Jessie’s Girl,” “Crazy for You,” and “Love is a Battlefield” – are memorable, even if the film conveniently sidesteps using any major stuff actually released in 1987.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/26/04.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Monday, April 19th, 2004

killbilltwo

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Upon completion of Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling “Kill Bill” epic, the initial reaction is that the severed halves should most certainly be stitched back together for maximum impact. “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” sets out to do several things QT purposefully absented from the first outing, and while he manages to succeed (often against the odds – no matter what his ardent fans argue), the movie only holds up if you have seen the first part. Because the intention was to make one film all along, it is difficult to criticize “Volume 2” on the grounds of its tone and story alone.

While “Volume 1” skirted cinema’s heavenly firmament in its colorful blending of samurai sword-crossers and yakuza yarns, “Volume 2” aligns itself primarily with the dusty trails of Sergio Leone’s turf. Like the first outing, “Volume 2” is structured in such a way that allows side trips and diversions, and the best of these concerns a flashback dealing with the Bride’s martial arts training under the painful tutelage of Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), a spry master with godlike powers. Tarantino provides a legitimate reason for the inclusion of the Pai Mei scenes, as the Bride’s intense schooling ends up saving her life (not once but twice).

The Bride continues her “roaring rampage of revenge” against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but along the way, Tarantino makes more than enough room for loquacious stretches of indulgent dialogue that simultaneously grind the film to a snail’s pace and delight viewers with their cleverness. David Carradine’s Bill, who spent nearly all of “Volume 1” waiting in the wings, makes up for lost time with several speeches of faux-prudence and contemplation. As windy as the bamboo flute he plays to accompany his tales, Bill emerges as an enigma: for all his talk, he reveals very little.

Because “Kill Bill” is structured as a revenge saga, much of its time is reserved for the wicked obstacles personified by Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah, seen in “Volume 1” as the ghoulish nurse who whistles the “Twisted Nerve” theme) and Budd (Michael Madsen), the remaining members of Bill’s death squad. The sequences concerning Budd are among the movie’s most puzzling: why would a retired, world-class assassin work in a pathetic strip bar out in the boondocks, suffering verbal abuse from his boss and mopping out backed-up toilets? Budd’s choice of locale sets the stage for a bone-crunching showdown in his dilapidated trailer home, and while the trashy setting was used to greater comic effect in the battle between John Goodman and Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona,” Tarantino clearly relishes watching his combatants bust through flimsy walls and crash down on cheap furniture.

By the end of “Volume 2,” the Bride’s name has been revealed (although Tarantino opts to eschew the inclusion of another flashback to thoroughly explicate the backstory), and the movie’s final scenes come full circle, mirroring the thematic underpinnings of the Vernita Green showdown at the beginning of “Volume 1.” Uma Thurman, whose physical poise and self-assurance in “Volume 1” is matched by emotional resonance in “Volume 2,” injects no small amount of verisimilitude into the more far-fetched elements of her character’s predicament. Tarantino probably overstates his case on the nature of motherhood, at least insofar as it receives superficial treatment until the endgame, but there is no denying that as a dimension of the story, it makes the whole “Kill Bill” universe a pretty interesting place to visit.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/19/04.

The Girl Next Door

Monday, April 12th, 2004

girlnextdoor

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A rip-off of “Risky Business,” one of teensploitation’s benchmarks, Luke Greenfield’s “The Girl Next Door” is a numb, queasy disaster. A comedy without any jokes, the film limps along interminably without ever disclosing anything interesting about the mannequins that are meant to be its primary characters. While the premise – high-school goody two-shoes falls for ex-porn actress house-sitting next door – has the makings of an interesting tale (imagine what Leos Carax, Francois Ozon, or heck, even Michel Gondry might have been able to do with it) nothing in the movie offers even the tiniest glimmer of intellect or emotion.

Pleasantly elfin Emile Hirsch plays the overachieving Matthew Kidman, a sexually frustrated (is there any other kind in movieland?) rule-follower with designs on both a major Georgetown scholarship and a future as a politician. Matt’s wildest fantasy appears to bear fruit when he window-peeps sexy Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) undressing, and she catches him in the act. Danielle promptly rings Matt’s doorbell, introduces herself to his folks, and the next thing you know, she and Matt are cruising around in her adorable Volkswagen Beetle convertible. Because “The Girl Next Door” is supposed to be a teen-comedy, Danielle talks Matt into taking off his clothes and running through the neighborhood in his birthday suit. This was comical when Will Ferrell did it in “Old School.” It is not so funny this time.

Danielle and Matt begin an improbable courtship, and director Greenfield botches and mishandles nearly all of the expository scenes. Introducing the motif that Matt is prone to daydreaming and fantasizing, Greenfield fails to clearly distinguish between reality and fantasy – often leaving the audience wondering whether a particular event has taken place or has merely been imagined by Matt. This frustrating technique is compounded by the script’s essential deficiency: there is no good reason why Danielle would hook up with Matt so quickly (at one point, she rather weakly explains that she liked the way Matt looked at her). Rather than allow the two characters to share any meaningful dialogue, the movie is quite content to lob one pop-song-scored montage after another, perhaps assuming that maybe the target demographic won’t notice that Danielle and Matt don’t behave like real human beings.

Seemingly forever in search of a balance between titillating glimpses into the “glamorous” world of adult entertainment and a teenage male fantasy about rescuing a gorgeous starlet from her abusive past, “The Girl Next Door” has absolutely no idea what to do with its title character, and Cuthbert gets completely lost in the shuffle. One minute, she is a self-assured, been-around-the-block veteran who knows how to take charge of every situation. The next minute, she is an insecure victim of poor choices, essentially pimped by her “manager” (Timothy Olyphant, nearly reprising his role in “Go”). Sometimes, when the machinery of the plot is grinding toward some peak, she is entirely ignored.

“The Girl Next Door” is so inconsequential, it’s difficult to argue that it is even worthy of criticism. Still, the insensitive screenplay by Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner, and Brent Goldberg seems almost delighted to flirt with racism (in an unfortunate and unnecessary subplot involving a fundraiser for a Cambodian math whiz), homophobia, and sexism. Utterly stupid, ugly, and dispensable, “The Girl Next Door” causes one to long for the wit, charm, and warmth of “Risky Business.” And as far as eroticism goes, “The Girl Next Door” does not begin to approach Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, and a nearly empty train car.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/12/04.

Walking Tall

Monday, April 5th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Walking Tall,” director Kevin Bray’s remake of the popular 1973 film of the same name, is not likely to be nominated for any Academy Awards, but then it is doubtful that the filmmakers were thinking like Harvey Weinstein when the cameras were rolling.  Former pro-wrestler The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, a Special Forces veteran who returns home to the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia stands in for Washington) just in time to discover that his idyllic childhood community has been transformed into a nightmarish wasteland of drug abuse and economic hardship.

The original movie, which starred cult favorite Joe Don Baker as Sheriff Buford Pusser (the Tennessee lawman whose real-life exploits formed the basis of the story), evolved into something like a franchise, with a pair of sequels (Baker bowed out and was replaced by Bo Svenson), a short-lived “Walking Tall” TV series (also starring Svenson), and a television movie with Brian Dennehy.  Someone apparently balked at the notion of The Rock playing someone with the decidedly un-Rocklike handle Buford Pusser, which is a shame if only because it would have been amusing to see the hulking powerhouse answer to the moniker.

While The Rock continues to prove that he is genuinely charismatic and can easily hold his own on the big screen, “Walking Tall” is a great deal less intelligent than its leading man.  Director Bray chugs through the all-important fight and action scenes with workmanlike skill, but anything that requires subtlety or sensitivity ends up being hammered home like it was mere fodder for Vaughn’s massive cedar club.  Audiences will do well to stifle their laughter when they witness the ham-handed shots of young addicts leaving their babies unattended in order to score drugs (that this occurs in broad daylight, on streets bustling with activity, not only calls for The Rock’s trademark eyebrow-raise, it insists on ridicule from the audience).

Vaughn quickly reckons that his one-time buddy Jay Hamilton Jr. (Neal McDonough), now a sleazy, peroxide-drenched scoundrel, is behind the town’s downfall.  Hamilton sold the family mill – depriving folks like Vaughn’s hardworking father of employment – and opened an adult-themed casino in its place.  Even worse, Hamilton is peddling all sorts of illicit drugs to mere children, who have the audacity to smoke pot in public parks.  After consulting his goofball ex-con chum Ray (Johnny Knoxville, having more fun than then script affords his character) to confirm Hamilton’s devilry, Vaughn busts up the casino and ends up defending himself in court for his hot-headed actions.

Bray jumps immediately from the legal proceedings to Vaughn’s new role as sheriff, but nothing outside of the choreographed brawls is valued by the shallow screenplay.  When Vaughn’s old flame Deni (Ashley Scott) shows up to rekindle their romance, one begins to wonder why she was included in the story at all.  This is too bad, because Scott delivers a decent performance, and because any kind of emotional investment in the characters would have surely made the movie less boring.  The same thing goes for Vaughn’s family, who fade into the background when they should have provided the demonstrative ballast for the main character’s unorthodox decision to “take matters into his own hands.”  The Rock remains tremendously watchable, however.  Maybe his next one will be better.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/5/04.