Archive for July, 2004

Coffee and Cigarettes

Monday, July 26th, 2004

2004cofffee

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jim Jarmusch, who has made a habit out of depriving his hardcore fans of regular movie treats (his last film was the brilliant “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” in 1999), groups together eleven short subjects to make a feature out of “Coffee and Cigarettes,” an interesting and occasionally inspired omnibus populated by Jarmusch’s usual parade of incomparably hip talents. The basic set-up: people conversing in diners, cafes, bars, dives, and other smoking-allowed environs over the caffeine and nicotine-laced items of the title, provides Jarmusch with the perfect opportunity to show off his jazz-like penchant for verbal riffs, complete with harmonies, melodies, solos and recapitulations.
Black and white are the only two colors Jarmusch has ever really needed, and as usual, the rich cinematography (provided by Tom DeCillo, Ellen Kuras, Freddie Elmes, and Robby Muller) is uniformly radiant.

The film’s original segment, which was shown once upon a time on “SNL,” stretches back to 1986, and features a paradox of personalities in its coupling of somnambulant comic Steven Wright and hyperactive Roberto Benigni, who struggle with a language barrier that makes their conversational comprehension as shaky as their java-jolted nerves. One of the movie’s better segments, it prepares viewers unfamiliar with Jarmsuch’s droll, ironic style for what is to come.

It could be immediately argued that each of the segments would work better on its own, but Jarmusch often repeats thoughts, ideas, and even lines of dialogue in ways that unify the whole assemblage. Meg White and Jack White of the White Stripes discuss in some detail the physics theories of Nikola Tesla, and later, Jarmusch will return to the rather beautiful notion that the entire world is a “transmitter of acoustic resonance.” When he does, with Bill Rice and Taylor Mead in the final section, the payoff of their dialogue is heartfelt and bittersweet.

The strongest exchanges comment with subtlety on the odd nature of fame. Iggy Pop and Tom Waits circle around like dogs, trying desperately not to look hurt when each is deeply insulted by the other. Bill Murray sits down with the Wu Tang Clan’s GZA and RZA, who cannot believe that “Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin’ Bill Murray!” is waiting tables. Cate Blanchett plays a dual role, capturing the essence of a movie star and her not-famous cousin, who clearly envies and loathes the privilege that accompanies notoriety and wealth. Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan deliver a clinic on comic timing in their sketch, a commentary on the self-involvement and narcissism that can make celebrities so repugnant when they are off-screen; it is by far the best constructed of the film’s chapters.

Not everything works as well as it should, and some sections struggle to keep up with others. Renee French and E.J. Rodriguez leave you wanting something much more satisfying (despite being the ne plus ultra of Jarmusch’s dizzying demonstration of awkward silences and pregnant pauses). Alex Descas and Isaach de Bankole don’t manage to pull off the right tone for their play on the insecurity and paranoia that can occur between friends. Steve Buscemi, Joie Lee and Cinque Lee have a juicy script that puts Jarmusch’s occasional Elvis fixation at the heart of a tense debate on race, but the piece can’t find the right balance between comic playfulness and social-minded critique. Despite their minor shortcomings, however, the vignettes of “Coffee and Cigarettes” are likely to please longtime Jarmusch devotees as well as newcomers looking for something out of the ordinary.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Readaer the week of 7/26/04.

I, Robot

Monday, July 19th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Nobody is going to mistake “I, Robot” for either great storytelling or important filmmaking.  The film’s director, Alex Proyas, honed his skills while making sumptuous (but empty-headed) eye candy like “The Crow” and “Dark City.”  Like those movies, “I, Robot” is long on style, short on ideas.  The film’s lack of brainpower is a real shame, however, considering that its basic source material – courtesy of Isaac Asimov’s stories dealing with the Three Laws of Robotics – should have fueled weightier ruminations on technology, humanity, and artificial intelligence.  Instead, audiences are left with a noisy action cop movie filled out with car chases, explosions, and mobs of computer-generated metal men battling humans in hand-to-hand combat.

Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a tough Chicago police detective in 2035, and unlike the rest of the human population, he does not trust the robots who toil as the servants, employees, and companions to their flesh and blood masters.  Robots, we are told more than enough times in the first act, are incapable of harming people, but Spooner has a hunch that the latest wave of product to roll out of the Microsoft-esque U.S. Robotics Corporation is coming awfully close to erasing the line between human and nonhuman.  Of course, the reasons for Spooner’s extreme prejudice against walking, talking machinery will be revealed (as a virtual afterthought) later in the movie.  As for the potentially interesting subject of race relations, “I, Robot” remains silent.

While investigating the death of an old friend – a research scientist (James Cromwell) who worked for U.S. Robotics – Spooner becomes increasingly convinced that the man’s killer was a robot.  Naturally, this utterly defies existing logic, which places Spooner at odds with his boss (Chi McBride) as well as Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), another U.S. Robotics scientist with an unshakable faith in the Three Laws.  Things begin to get interesting when Sonny (Alan Tudyk), the robot suspected of murder, demonstrates that not only can he think for himself, he also has the ability to dream and exhibits the characteristics of free will.

Is Sonny good or evil?  What secrets do U.S. Robotics and its sinister CEO Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood) want to keep?  “I, Robot” is too focused on its own slam-bang action sequences to expend much effort addressing these and other more challenging questions and ideas.  When the movie does get around to considering the implications of whether or not there are ghosts in the machine, it flickers with the sort of excitement one feels when thinking about a superior film, like “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Sonny is not afforded enough screen time to really dig in to the ethics of his treatment by others.  He wants to be loved, but he doesn’t understand why he wants to be loved.

Sonny’s dilemma might have been the subject of another movie altogether, but the demands of 20th Century Fox’s marketing strategists remain resolutely focused on delivering a “product” that resembles hits we’ve seen before, from “The Matrix” to “Robocop.”  “I, Robot” resembles those two movies more than “2001,” and it is too bad it could not have existed in a happy medium.  Doing sci-fi is easy, but doing sci-fi well is difficult.  Even Spielberg’s somber, overlong “A.I.” failed to improve on Kubrick’s earlier work.  Someday, somebody will make a great film about machines crossing over into consciousness.  “I, Robot” is not that movie.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/19/04. 

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Monday, July 12th, 2004

2003anchorman

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Anchorman” is one of the strangest, funniest, and most oddly satisfying comic vehicles to appear in a long time. Granted, you must be a fan of Will Ferrell in order to enjoy the film – if you don’t like him, you are in for a very long hour and a half. Continuing to capitalize on his big screen successes in “Old School” and the smash hit “Elf,” Ferrell pulls out all the stops with title character Ron Burgundy, a Scotch-swilling male-chauvinist moron who happens to be the most popular news reader in 1970s San Diego. Burgundy’s world is turned upside down when he begins to experience genuine feelings for his new co-worker, the smart and talented Veronica Corningstone (a solid Christina Applegate).

Despite casting her lot in the male-dominated local news business, Veronica is driven, and knows that she can become the first woman to anchor a network news program. Ron, clueless and self-absorbed to the point of ridiculous hubris, honestly believes that Veronica doesn’t have a chance, and after an embarrassing workplace erection and a gonzo turn on the jazz flute at a local nightclub, ends up successfully wooing her. Of course, co-screenwriters Ferrell and Adam McKay are only warming up, and both men know that Ferrell the performer is at his most brilliant when playing broken, devastated fools deserving of their cosmic comeuppance. You can imagine that Ron is headed for a doozy of a fall.

It is for this reason that “Anchorman” really improves and gets more hilarious as it chugs along. The movie is crammed with one-liners, non sequiturs, sight gags, and plenty of nonsensical wordplay – all of which add up to a journey that is richly rewarding for the folks who loved Ferrell’s characterizations on SNL: “Inside the Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton, Vegas crooner Robert Goulet, lusty academic Roger Klarvin, and music legend Neil Diamond. Ron Burgundy contains glimmers of them all, and “Anchorman” is the better movie for it.

As “Anchorman” director Adam McKay demonstrated in many of his short films that were played on episodes of SNL, loony, impossible-to-explain occurrences can easily reside alongside trivial, mundane existence when approached with an open mind. In “Anchorman,” this sort of surrealism is made possible by Ferrell’s sensational supporting cast: the great David Koechner as hyper sportscaster Champ Kind, Steven Carell as imbecilic weatherman Brick Tamland, and Paul Rudd as investigative reporter Brian Fantana. With Burgundy as their ringleader, you never know when a cappella office harmonizing will lift “Afternoon Delight” to heights never before imagined.

McKay and Ferrell are not shy about stretching for any gag, no matter how out there, and “Anchorman” goes bananas with a cameo-infested, knock-down brawl between several rival news teams (riffing on spaghetti westerns and gladiator movies in one swipe). The movie has so much in the way of bombastic madness, including an animated sequence, vintage stock nature footage, and intelligent animals that communicate in subtitles, that it is nothing short of amazing that the story pretty much sticks to a predictable, linear plot. Setting aside Ron’s Channel 4 news team pals, “Anchorman” just does not have enough time to give to its other supporting players, like Chris Parnell and Fred Willard. This is a minor complaint, however, because this is Ferrell’s show, and everything else is just icing on the cake.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/12/04.

Super Size Me

Monday, July 5th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Friendly, easygoing Morgan Spurlock finds the documentary’s killer application with “Super Size Me,” a gut-wrenchingly funny examination of America’s obsession with fast food buoyed by the director’s own freakish experiment: Spurlock will eat only at McDonald’s restaurants for thirty days, and measure the results of the disastrous diet on his health.  Of course, it’s really no contest when you consider that Spurlock is grossly exceeding the recommended daily intake of salt, sugar, fat, and calories, but the journey is both horrifying and hysterical, as our protagonist gains serious weight, watches his cholesterol spike and completely loses his sex drive.

Spurlock has all the tenacity of Michael Moore, but presents himself and his arguments in a less combative manner.  He could be you or someone you know, and the self-effacing humor with which he affably goes about trashing his liver engenders both audience interest and sympathy.  Enlisting three doctors and a nutritionist (who form a Greek chorus of increasing shock and stupefaction as Spurlock’s health takes a nosedive), Spurlock shrewdly supplements his daily intake of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with alarming side trips and face-to-face interviews with a healthy (and unhealthy) cross-section of Americans affected in one way or another by the perils of the modern diet.

Leaving Manhattan to travel the country, Spurlock introduces us to characters who would not be out of place in Harvey Pekar, Daniel Clowes, or R. Crumb: a rail-thin nerd who has consumed more than 19,000 Big Macs; narrative pop-culture artist Ron English, whose gruesome paintings of sinister Ronald McDonald-esque child clowns echo Spurlock’s sentiments about brand imprinting; and former surgeon general David Satcher, practically at a loss to account for the poor eating choices of millions of Americans.  Spurlock never strays far from center stage, though, and in one of his most telling moments, struggles to find the pamphlets with nutrition information that should be readily available at all McDonald’s stores (in one case the poster is hidden behind a promotional standee; in another, a manager thinks some of the flyers are in the basement).

Spurlock deals with corporate irresponsibility as well as the powerful influence that food giants have on public school lunch programs (getting kids hooked on processed and refined vittles of low nutritional quality in order to turn a profit), but he does not go as far as Eric Schlosser in “Fast Food Nation,” the eye-opening bestseller that covered some of the same ground.  Spurlock does not, however, skimp on the alarming statistics, which he presents in a colorful, amusing parade of animated graphics designed to stun and titillate in equal measure.

“Super Size Me” never completely addresses the question of personal responsibility in matters of public health.  Spurlock peers into the same crystal ball that less-flashy doomsayers have been using for some time, and seems to say that education is no match for the advertising budget of McDonald’s and the happy-go-lucky characters that populate McDonaldland.  Children shown a set of pictures of notable figures easily picked out Ronald McDonald while frequently blanking on President Bush.  Like Spurlock vomiting his French fries on the pavement, this is as gruesomely comical as it is distressing.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/5/04.