Archive for June, 2004

The Saddest Music in the World

Monday, June 28th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

While his films remain an acquired taste for even die-hard cinema buffs, Guy Maddin toils as one of the most original and interesting independent auteur filmmakers working today.  Brewing up feverish melodramas with a visual style reminiscent of silent-era masters like Robert Wiene and Dziga Vertov, Maddin’s stunning filmography is consistently rich and rewarding.  Having blown a few minds at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival with his jaw-dropping short subject “The Heart of the World,” Maddin is only now beginning to enjoy a broader appreciation for his unusual tales, and his latest, “The Saddest Music in the World,” is also one of his most accessible and enjoyable.

Set in Maddin’s native Winnipeg in the winter of 1933, “Music” is adapted by Maddin and George Toles from Kazuo Ishiguro, but the script has clearly been stamped with all the familiar hallmarks of Maddin’s typically outrageous yarns.  Mark McKinney stars as Chester Kent, a Canadian passing himself off as an American stage producer and impresario.  Dating the gorgeous Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), who is equal parts amnesiac and nymphomaniac – and who also makes most of her decisions based on the psychic advice of her own tapeworm – Chester navigates a contentious, stormy relationship with his father Fyodor (David Fox).  Chester’s ex-lover (and double-amputee) Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) owns a brewery and is growing ever wealthier from profits made on Winnipeg’s Great Depression status as the “World Capital of Sorrow.”  Lady Port-Huntly decides to sponsor a competition to determine the saddest music in the world, and stakes $25,000 as the grand prize.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Roderick (a brilliant Ross McMillan), Chester’s brother.  While living in Serbia, Roderick had been married to Narcissa.  Paralyzed with heartbreak following the death of their son, Roderick dresses in black and travels around with his child’s heart preserved in a jar of tears.  Along with musicians from Scotland, Poland, Siam, Mexico, and many other far-reaching locales, Roderick enters Lady Port-Huntly’s contest, certain that his mournful cello will claim first place.

Maddin has a wicked and sly sense of humor, and the staging of the music competition borders on the surreal, with snippets of songs cut off by blaring warning buzzers and the winners of every round sliding into a giant pool of ale to celebrate their victory.  Bagpipers and African drummers share the stage with pan flutists and Spanish guitarists, but none seem able to top Chester’s numerous variations on “The Song Is You,” which always whips the reeling, ossified crowd into a frenzy of cheers and whistles.  A pair of radio announcers provides color commentary on the action, and despite their barrage of hilarious one-liners, their presence is mostly unnecessary.

Between the musical showdowns, Maddin cranks up the hallucinatory psychodrama driving the characters.  Lady Port-Huntly is outfitted with a pair of prosthetic legs: glass gams filled to the brim with her own sparkling, effervescent brew.  Romances are rekindled and alliances are made.  The incendiary climax is classic Maddin, as Chester’s American steamroller morphs into a theatrical melting pot, with losing nations joining his team to present a stupefying “California Here I Come.”  It’s a clever commentary on the United States’ longstanding global dominance in the export of popular entertainment, as well as a dazzling set-piece.  “The Saddest Music in the World” should not be seen without also reading Maddin’s witty, fun, five-part online production diary (at villagevoice.com) – the director is equally talented as an observational essayist.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/28/04. 

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

Monday, June 21st, 2004

dodgeball

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thoroughly funny David vs. Goliath comedy, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” delivers a steady supply of laughs both subtle and vulgar. Buoyed by a cast of sensational comedic actors, including Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Rip Torn, Stephen Root, and Gary Cole, “Dodgeball” hits its mark early and often, as it follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a hapless group of adults as they pummel each other in the faces, chests, and groins while playing a competitive version of the barbaric elementary-school game that has added new depth and dimension to our understanding of exclusion and humiliation.

Stiller riffs gleefully on his Derek Zoolander character, this time remaking him as White Goodman, an oily, narcissistic health club owner sporting an outrageously feathered hairdo matched only in weirdness by the inflatable codpiece in his workout spandex. Looking to steamroll his only competition, a grungy, dilapidated gym called Average Joe’s, Goodman is set to pounce as soon as imminent foreclosure lowers the curtain. Peter LaFleur (Vaughn, wisely playing it low-key), the owner of Average Joe’s, hasn’t collected membership dues in some time, but his loyal gym rats – a collection of goofballs, freaks, nerds, and lovable losers – refuse to let their hangout close without a fight.

Hatching a loony scheme to raise the fifty grand needed to keep the gym alive, Peter’s pals organize a competitive dodgeball team, hoping to qualify for a Las Vegas tournament that will net the winner the exact amount of cash needed to save Average Joe’s. Coached by an aged, wheelchair-bound dodgeball legend named Patches O’Houlihan (Torn), who enjoys hurling wrenches at the heads of players as a form of training, the Average Joe’s team shapes up enough to hold their own. When they are joined by Kate Veatch (Christine Taylor), the lawyer assigned to the foreclosure proceedings, her blazing underhand throwing style kicks their game up a much-needed notch.

First-time writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber keeps things moving quickly enough to maintain the attention of his target audience, but the script includes plenty of witty one-liners and clever pop-culture references as well. Once Peter’s team makes it to Vegas for the inevitable showdown with Goodman’s Purple Cobras, the movie erupts with dizzying absurdity: ESPN 8 (hilariously nicknamed “the Ocho”) is broadcasting the tourney, and this section of the film is delivered precisely like a mind-numbing cable TV showcase. Best of all is the pairing of Gary Cole and Jason Bateman as brilliantly-named on-air commentators Cotton McKnight and Pepper Brooks. Taking a page out of Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show” playbook, the duo’s idiotic banter reminds viewers of Fred Ward’s inane announcer, with the laughs to match.

Sure, more could have been done to develop the relationship between Kate and Peter (even though it does have a giddy payoff), but Thurber knows that more audience members will enjoy the comic schadenfreude unleashed by rubber balls smashing into faces at maximum velocity. The brackets of the tournament are executed quickly, but it is great fun to examine the oddities supplied by opposing squads (the hip-hop crew Skillz That Killz in their powder blue track suits, Team Blitzkrieg, driven by their passion for David Hasselhoff, etc.) as they face off against Peter’s plucky bunch. “Dodgeball” will never be mistaken for a great motion picture, but as far as summer fun goes, it’s got a lot of bounce.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/21/04.

Saved!

Monday, June 14th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A mostly toothless satire of contemporary Christian culture as imagined by the popular media, “Saved!” is an amiable, mostly entertaining teen comedy that scrapes by on the talent of its formidable young cast. Directed by Brian Dannelly from a script he wrote with Michael Urban, “Saved!” wraps its simple sociological lessons in a conventional storyline: when the all too obviously-named Mary (Jena Malone) discovers that her adorable boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) is gay, she reasons that the only way to “save” him is to have sex. Of course, Mary ends up pregnant, which you might imagine is a major no-no at American Eagle Christian High School.

American Eagle might start off with prayers and hymns at morning assembly, but in most respects, it operates like any secular high school. Mary hangs out with the Christian Jewels, a popular clique led by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore, marginally spoofing her good girl image), a narrow-minded harpy with a fake orange tan and globs of blue eye shadow. Hilary Faye bends over backwards to congratulate herself for taking care of her wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin, quite good), who takes every opportunity to prick holes in his sister’s unflattering self-righteousness. When Hilary Faye discovers that Dean has been sent to Mercy House for “degayification,” she reminds Mary gravely, “You’re not born gay, you’re born again.”

The longer Mary hides her secret from her friends, the less tolerant she is of their own special brand of self-satisfied sanctimoniousness. Drifting from Hilary’s non-stop prayer meetings towards Roland’s cynical worldview, Mary discovers an unlikely friend in Roland’s girlfriend Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a rebellious troublemaker and the school’s only Jewish student. Complicating matters even more is Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the skateboarding son of school principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). While Patrick quickly develops a crush on Mary, Mary’s own mother Lillian (Mary-Louise Parker) begins to explore her feelings for Pastor Skip.

As Skip, Donovan delivers his usual, low-key, quietly intelligent performance, despite the indignity of having to spout purposefully dated hip-hop slang in order to look woeful and foolish (at one student gathering, he asks “Who’s down with G-O-D?”) to the intelligentsia in the audience. Skip never convincingly behaves as a fully formed character, however, which adds a sense of frustration to what could have been meaningful scenes with Lillian, Patrick, Mary, and the other students. Dannelly stumbles even harder with the oft-used “climactic public revelations” sequence, in which several shocking truths are revealed at the prom. Handled more deftly, the messages of tolerance and forgiveness central to the filmmaker’s thesis might have been worked – but clumsy, spotlight-washed speeches don’t cut it.

“Saved!” is at its best when it allows its pious characters to be seen with something that resembles humanity (although watching Hilary Faye, eyes closed with one hand in the air and one hand on her heart, always generates a hearty laugh), but the movie never goes far enough in its criticism of zealousness and persecution. Some story threads surely would have been interesting to follow in more depth (Dean at Mercy House, Cassandra’s relationship with Roland), but Malone – who had better be careful lest she make a career out of playing troubled schoolgirls – is a really excellent performer, and she earns the attention of the story and the audience.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/14/04.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Monday, June 7th, 2004

harryazkaban

Movie review by Greg Carlson

To say that “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is the strongest of the three movies in the series is something like faint praise; translating Potter to the screen has consistently resulted in long-winded, ponderous juggernauts that try way too hard to please fans of the novels by cramming in far too much plot and not enough cinematic breathing room. Alfonso Cuaron, who takes over the directing duties from Chris Columbus, is a superior filmmaker, but for all his efforts, “Azkaban” manages to overwhelm his considerable sense of style. Even so, the film remains tremendously entertaining, and seems poised to win even more converts to J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world.

Boy wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is reintroduced in a sly tableau of archetypal adolescent discovery: practicing spells under the covers in his bed. Cuaron may be announcing his grown-up sensibilities, but the entire opening set-piece, in which Harry blows a fuse and inflates a cruel dinner guest until she literally floats away, should have been excised. A manic ride on a phantom coach is enjoyable enough, but “Azkaban” doesn’t really begin to move until Harry is reunited with pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) aboard the train to Hogwarts, where they encounter new Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), as well as some Dementors, floating, spectral reapers apparently on the trail of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the escaped prisoner of the title, who has something to do with the death of Harry’s parents.

Cuaron has thoroughly re-envisioned Hogwarts for Harry’s third year. Aided by phenomenal cinematographer Michael Seresin, Cuaron paints the sprawling grounds of the academy with a darker, more sinister brush. A large portion of the action takes place outdoors, and this also helps to free the movie from the predominant soundstage effect that plagued the first two. Buckbeak, the half-falcon, half-horse hippogriff tended to by Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is the best-rendered creature of the series so far, and the natural forest settings emphasize the beast’s grandeur and nobility.

More attention is now being paid to unraveling some of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Harry’s folks, and both Thewlis and Oldman – who are excellent in their roles – reveal new insights that will change Harry profoundly. Other characters, like Emma Thompson’s Sybil Trelawney, could have been cut without harm to the film, and Timothy Spall’s Peter Pettigrew scarcely has a chance to register before the movie rushes off to deal with other things. Michael Gambon has replaced the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, and his take on the character is more lively and spirited, if less sweet. As always, Alan Rickman’s Snape is brilliant.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron are growing up quickly, and it has been fun to watch the young actors age along with their characters. All three exhibit a marked increase in confidence, and the development of their acting skill is reflected in the comfortable way in which they inhabit their roles. Certainly the fourth Harry Potter movie (which will still utilize the original trio) will mark a major turning point as the performers head into their middle teen years. Speculation abounds that they will eventually be replaced for the later films in the series, but that would be a shame – with “Azkaban,” they are really coming into their own.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/7/04.