Archive for May, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow

Monday, May 31st, 2004

dayafter

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Day After Tomorrow,” a stupendously awful disaster flick in the tradition of “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno,” is an absolute howler. Writer-director Roland Emmerich continues to build his dodgy resume (“The Patriot,” “Godzilla,” “Independence Day”) with another computer effects-driven spectacle; the only difference this time is that he weirdly seems to embrace perpetually maligned eco-philes as his noble protagonists. While global warming leads to tidal waves, floods, hurricanes, and the dawn of a new ice age (seemingly thrown in for good measure), insensitive politicos are initially painted as the shortsighted bogeymen whose disregard for the environment has led to meteorological Armageddon.

Climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid, jaw clenched tightly) barks his way through the hysterical screenplay’s finest lines. After suggesting that the North Atlantic has hit “a critical desalinization point” Hall springs into action – which amounts to spending lots of time on the phone with other weather gurus like Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), in order to corroborate the grim calculations that just don’t seem to matter that much when the whole world is under siege from extreme weather conditions. The Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign are vaporized by twisters, New Delhi is hit with a blizzard, Tokyo is buried under giant chunks of hail, and New York is drenched by a wall of water that almost instantly freezes into a sheet of ice.

While the special effects are generally impressive, the catastrophic conditions are never once rendered plausibly. Victims are rarely shown, and the survivors are almost unfailingly polite to each other. The cool detachment, which some have suggested exists as a kind of antidote to post 9/11 skittishness about showing large-scale urban chaos, robs the movie entirely of its ability to inspire awe or fright. The perpetual irony of the disaster movie genre is that we know instinctively that the underlying theme is going to be one of survival and not destruction. No matter how devastating the calamity, most of the core group of central characters will make it through to the end, ready to start anew.

Just as the emergency reaches fever pitch, Hall’s son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal, smirking) finds himself trapped in Manhattan with the other members of his competitive academics squad. He admits joining the team because he has a wicked crush on hot brainiac Laura (Emmy Rossum), and sure enough, the movie makes sure that the pair has to save their lives by “sharing body heat” (see also: “The Saint” with Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue, and nearly every daytime soap opera ever made). Resourceful Sam holes up with a handful of other stock characters (mousy librarian, snobbish intellectual, streetwise homeless guy, etc.) in the public library, which provides plenty of opportunity to make jokes related to the burning of books for warmth.

Jack eventually decides that it would be a swell idea to set out on foot to rescue his son, and the movie chucks the last of its skimpy plausibility out the window. By this point, it is best to simply give up on the goofball movie science that governs the action (temps dropping at ten degrees per second, for example), and the wacky inclusion of select sequences tossed in for their “look what we can do!” factor (watch out for those wolves!). Instead, enjoy the tiny number of comic bits that were actually intended to be funny: the vacant president nervously asking the Dick Cheney-esque veep “What do you think we should do?” and the shots of Americans wading the Rio Grande into Mexico. In the end, the movie is never particularly entertaining, which suggests that one should just wait and see it the day after tomorrow.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/31/04.

Shrek 2

Monday, May 24th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A carefully engineered crowd-pleaser with equal measures of jokes for children and adults, “Shrek 2” improves on the original by expanding its palette to include vivid new characters and different locations for the principal characters to visit.  While the DreamWorks animation department still falls well short of the technical brilliance of Pixar’s work, “Shrek 2” features animation superior in every way to the original – despite the fact that the human characters continue to resemble plastic, single-expression action figures as opposed to breathing specimens.  Ogres and donkeys look wonderful, however, and the movie’s breezy charm and lightweight plotting will most certainly translate into serious money over the course of the summer.

An opening music montage reaffirms the “accidental love” of the unlikely ogre couple united in the original “Shrek.”  Shrek (Mike Meyers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) have scarcely had the opportunity to begin their life of “happily ever after” wedded bliss when messengers arrive from the Kingdom of Far Far Away.  Fiona’s royal parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews) have requested an audience with their newly-married daughter, and after some cajoling by Fiona, Shrek reluctantly agrees to meet the in-laws.  Donkey (Eddie Murphy) latches on to the road trip, and following a comically protracted journey, the trio arrives in a fairy tale version of Hollywood, complete with thinly-disguised product placements and goofs on the self-absorption of Tinseltown’s inhabitants.

Writers Andrew Adamson, J. David Stern, Joe Stillman, and David N. Weiss introduce a variety of conflicts to complicate the lives of the protagonists, but the more interesting thread (dealing with how the King and Queen struggle to accept their new son-in-law) is dropped in favor of a more action-oriented storyline in which Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) pressures the King to remove Shrek from the picture so that Godmother’s son Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) can hook up with Fiona.  The King employs the services of Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), but the debonair assassin’s conscience gets the best of him, and he ends up joining forces with Shrek and Donkey.

As Puss, Banderas steals the movie.  Sending up his own Zorro role as well as his lover-boy image, Banderas purrs his way through the film’s sexiest part.  The script capitalizes on the funny feline’s presence by developing a wary rivalry between Donkey and Puss as the two compete for Shrek’s attention.  While Donkey cheerfully reminds everyone that one annoying, talking animal sidekick is plenty, the movie proves otherwise.  By the conclusion, Puss has distinguished himself enough to warrant his own movie.  Other classic characters, including the Gingerbread Man, the Three Blind Mice, and Pinocchio, team up to assist Shrek when things look grim.

“Shrek 2” is not without its shortcomings.  Fiona disappears for long stretches, and despite her early arguments with Shrek, is rarely depicted as a fully-formed, proactive character.  That the King would so willingly agree to have his son in law murdered (ogre or not) is largely unmotivated – Godmother’s threats are not enough to explain it.  It also would have been nice to see Shrek and Fiona spend more time together.  By now, the movie version of “Shrek” bears little resemblance to William Steig’s book, but it is abundantly clear that the filmmakers have a difficult time reconciling sneering cynicism and satire with the desire to be genuinely touching and sincere.  Even so, as rainbow-colored brain candy, “Shrek 2” provides plenty of reasons to smile.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/24/04. 

Troy

Monday, May 17th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Troy,” director Wolfgang Petersen’s spin on the uber-classic Homeric epic “The Iliad,” turns out to be another link in the chain of outstanding sword-and-sandal camp.  More a testament to Brad Pitt’s considerable biceps and rippled six-pack abs than a serious philosophical treatise on war, love, honor, and immortality, “Troy” obediently fills in all the genre clichés crucial to its survival as an ostentatious, posturing addition to the canon.  The movie is very freely adapted from the literature that inspired it, and many have groused about the tweaked storylines and the absent Olympian gods and goddesses.  Nobody seems to mind, however, that interminable catalogues of ships aren’t included, so the loss of Zeus, Apollo, and the rest of the gang is surely no catastrophe for something intended to be enjoyed with Coca-Cola, hot buttered popcorn, and air-conditioning.

The script of “Troy” is credited to David Benioff, who manages to simultaneously pen ridiculously awful dialogue and harness the essential emotional framework of Homer’s vast canvas.  The clichés are abundant, but it must be noted that the source material more or less set the stage for every epic written since the ninth century B.C.  Yes, characters mostly end up reduced to single epithets (Odysseus = clever, Priam = wise, Helen = beautiful, etc.), but the movie adroitly manages to juggle more than half a dozen different storylines.  If the script has a fatal flaw (aside from the clunky, self-important speeches), it is manifested in the laborious, heavy-footed way in which the movie contents itself with alternating so regularly between battles and discussions about battles.

Pitt mostly tosses out the usual tics he brings to his characters, and instead invests Achilles with a brooding, quasi-existentialist streak.  The greatest warrior of all time is a juicy role to play, and it is surely to Pitt’s credit that his performance takes into account the tumultuous combination of rage, narcissism, and scoffing, misanthropic derision that makes Achilles and his attendant hubris so compelling.  Eric Bana’s Hector is a worthy foil, with his deeply ingrained sense of family duty and self-sacrificing resignation to his fate.  Bana understands that Hector is a guy who knows he cannot beat Achilles, but goes out to lock swords with him anyway.  The pair’s one-on-one clash is one of the movie’s highlights, a visceral gut-punch that tops anything from “Gladiator.”

Like all great movies set in antiquity, one of the most enjoyable aspects of “Troy” can be found in the outrageous hairstyles and over-the-top togas and tunics worn by the cast.  While the women, including German model Diane Kruger as Helen, Saffron Burrows as Andromache, and Rose Byrne as Briseis ,don’t fare too badly in the costume and coiffure department, the men are on display like Greece was sponsoring Versace’s spring runway show.  Elaborate hair extensions, complete with gold clips, layered curls and perfectly-placed braids, festoon the handsome heads of Pitt, Bana, and Orlando Bloom, who spends most of his screen time looking uncomfortable that he has to play Paris as such a cowardly pretty-boy.

The older actors tear through their roles with both hands, however, and as King Priam, Peter O’Toole magnificently navigates several tricky scenes in which he is paired with younger fellows mostly out of their depth.  Brian Cox goes ballistic as Agamemnon, Brendan Gleeson is in his usual fine form as the cuckolded Menelaus, and Sean Bean has more fun with Odysseus than the script seems to afford.  “Troy” won’t be the last version of “The Iliad” to hit the big screen with a combination of veteran character actors and hot young stars, but for what it is worth, it’s likely to best many of its contenders.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/17/04. 

Van Helsing

Monday, May 10th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Stephen Sommers has already had his way with the Mummy, turning the great Karl Freund’s atmospheric 1932 classic into the noisy and noisome computer-driven action-thriller that starred Brendan Fraser.  With “Van Helsing,” Sommers dumps the Mummy in favor of assembling a package of Universal’s stable of staples: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man (along with the Count’s sexy brides, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Igor, apparently for good measure).  Team-ups like this one are nothing new (NBC’s 1976 live-action “Monster Squad” series even put a super-hero spin on the trio now featured in “Van Helsing”), but Sommers just keeps doing his usual: spoiling a good story with CG overkill and cardboard characters.

Hugh Jackman plays Gabriel Van Helsing (supposedly the younger brother of Abraham Van Helsing, but honestly, who cares?), a perpetually youthful amnesiac who has been doing battle with supernatural baddies for centuries.  Working in the service of a clandestine organization of clerics – whose workshop copies the James Bond universe down to the inevitable introduction of cutting-edge toys and weapons that will come in handy when the plot demands it – Van Helsing hooks up with sidekick Carl (David Wenham), a wise-cracking friar who provides what little comic relief the movie can muster.  They travel to Transylvania to square off against Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who is on the verge of hatching thousands of his devilish offspring.

Van Helsing eventually crosses paths with the improbably named Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale, decked out like some kind of gypsy pirate), a gorgeous vampire hunter whose family has entertained a wicked feud with Dracula for generations.  Together, they slash and bash their way through endless skirmishes with the shape-shifting succubi, who don’t seem to mind that the Count is a bigamist.  Van Helsing shoots at the swooping harpies with a technologically advanced crossbow that spits out ammunition like a 19th century Gatling gun, and Anna divides most of her time between swinging around like Tarzan and getting thrown by the blood-sucking ghoulies into the branches of tall trees.

With Sommers, more is more, and the computer-generated special effects are employed like a heavy truncheon.  The movie’s only coherence lies in its incoherence, as set-piece after set-piece populates the screen with digital excess (in one, bat-winged beasties burst mid-flight, like thousands of kernels of hot popcorn).  It doesn’t really seem to matter that major characters suffer from lycanthropy, or that the anguished, tormented Frankenstein’s Monster pops up only when it is most convenient to include him.  Worst of all, Roxburgh’s Dracula is a one-way ticket to dullsville, lacking every detail that made Bela Lugosi’s iconic interpretation the premier cinematic version of the vampire.

On the plus side, “Van Helsing” contains an excellent chase scene involving the ever-popular runaway coach and horses, and the movie’s opening, photographed in gorgeous black and white by Allen Daviau, perfectly recreates the magical design of James Whale’s vintage Frankenstein movies.  The rest of “Van Helsing” is a serious disappointment, however, as the film never quite achieves the sense of thrilling wonderment that made the original Universal horror cycle the monster movies by which all subsequent versions continue to be measured.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/10/04. 

Mean Girls

Monday, May 3rd, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Shrewdly, Saturday Night Live head writer and Weekend Update anchor Tina Fey insisted on adapting Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” without a phalanx of more “seasoned” screenwriters to offer their guidance and support via unnecessary rewrites, deletions, and additions.  Scripts by committee often yield disastrous results, and while Fey doesn’t have a feature film track record, her solo writing proves to be consistently sharper, funnier, and more intelligent than virtually everything else that is supposed to pass for comedy at the multiplex.  With “Mean Girls,” it is immediately clear that she will be invited to write more movies.

While “Mean Girls” never erupts with the kind of vicious satirical edge that made its psychological predecessor “Heathers” one of the greatest teen movies ever made, it still manages to outpace all the other recent films aimed at the youth market.  This is not to say that “Mean Girls” lacks chops in the social commentary department – on the contrary, its observations on the cruel high school caste system are nearly always astounding in their authenticity and acute in their familiarity.

Lindsay Lohan, directed once again by “Freaky Friday” helmer Mark Waters, plays Cady, a smart home-schooler whose researcher parents raised her mostly in Africa.  After relocating to the Chicago area, Cady is eager to try out the public school system, but learns immediately that everyone is divided into cliques of varying power and popularity.  Just when she seems poised to give up, Cady is adopted by a pair of colorful, interesting, outcasts.  Janis (Lizzy Caplan, calling to mind a young Janeane Garofalo) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) provide Cady with a brand new education: the finer points of the school’s social pecking order.

The most potent and poisonous crew in the student body, dubbed the Plastics, is a terrible trio accomplished in the art of backstabbing, manipulation, and mind games.  Leader Regina (Rachel McAdams) parcels out her favors and insults in equal measure to fawning subordinates Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried).  Urged by Janis to infiltrate the shrill tribunal in order to set up sweet revenge for a junior-high-era falling out that severed the one-time friendship between Janis and Regina, Cady finds herself not only welcomed into the Plastics’ inner circle – she discovers that it is a pretty good place to be.

Fortunately, the remainder of “Mean Girls” takes almost all the right turns, and the presence of Fey (as a weary math teacher), as well as other SNL associates like Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, and Ana Gasteyer, assists the delivery of the keen dialogue.  Lohan is well-cast as the central character, and the other actors in the teen roles turn in impressive performances.  Peripheral “mathlete” Kevin Gnapoor (Rajiv Surendra) is so funny in his scenes, one wishes he had been given a much bigger part to play.  The movie breaks a little sweat trying to push the theme that teenagers should be nicer to one another (not likely to happen), but one can hardly blame Fey for giving it a shot; her quirky, detailed observances are savvy, skillful, and so on the mark that she deserves a little time to get serious.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/3/04.