Archive for September, 2004

Intimate Strangers

Monday, September 27th, 2004

intimatestrangers

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Patrice Leconte’s filmography is peppered with many excellent, entertaining movies, including “The Girl on the Bridge,” “Ridicule,” and “The Widow of Saint-Pierre.” His latest, “Intimate Strangers,” is not nearly as good as those three, but for patient audience members, it still manages to stimulate the senses in satisfying ways. Written by Jerome Tonnerre, “Intimate Strangers” operates like a stage play, with much of the action limited to the flat/office of William Faber, a lonely, middle-aged tax lawyer, played expertly by Fabrice Luchini. Despite the restricted venue, however, Leconte busies himself with the psychological motivations of his characters, and the result is a story that explores the boundaries of sexual paralysis and romantic trepidation.

William’s peaceful, dull routine is interrupted one day with the arrival of Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire), a troubled woman who begins to share intimate details about her marriage. Too flummoxed to interrupt, William realizes that Anna has made a mistake: she thinks he is the psychoanalyst whose office is down the hall. In a weaker film, this premise would have been enough to sustain a farcical comedy of errors in which the mistaken identity is only discovered in the final act. Leconte, however, is more interested in exploring the sorts of things that happen following the revelation of truth, so we are somewhat surprised when William tells Anna he is not a shrink, and she decides to continue seeing him anyway.

As Anna and William forge their bizarre relationship, Leconte nearly tires himself out trying to evoke the erotic tension found in so many of Hitchcock’s great films. “Intimate Strangers” lacks most of the high-stakes danger that propelled “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Rear Window,” which makes William’s obsession with Anna more humdrum than it ought to be. The rather late arrival of Anna’s creepy husband delivers a jolt, but the movie would have been much stronger had Leconte pursued this angle in greater depth.

Leconte chooses coyness over disclosure, and the strategy works for some scenes but hampers others. To what degree is Anna manipulating William? Does William even suspect her of duplicity? The characters are often too opaque to enjoy, and the director seems content to keep his viewers in the dark too much of the time. Little clues suggest that William and Anna are greatly stimulated by their doctor-patient formality (a shot of William dancing to “In the Midnight Hour” is one of the movie’s comic highlights), but Leconte keeps the lust on a mighty short leash.

Most of the film’s supporting players exist to poke holes in William’s fantasy, but as signposts of reality, they also provide the audience with much-needed context. William’s former partner Jeanne (Anne Brochet) pops up often enough to scold him for his mind games with Anna. William’s secretary, Mrs. Mulon (Helene Surgere), is simply delightful as she shoots withering glances and mumbles bitter complaints under her breath. Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), the real psychologist Anna intended to see in the first place, is suitably pompous and greedy. His interactions with William are clever and revealing. Despite an awkward ending, Leconte wants his viewers to leave the theatre with ideas to ponder. Whether one spends any time thinking about “Intimate Strangers” depends on how much joy can be found in material designed to conceal a cryptic agenda.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/27/04.

Wimbledon

Monday, September 20th, 2004

wimbledon

Movie review by Greg Carlson

As sports comedies go, “Wimbledon” looks like a champ next to most of its competition. More often than not, it rises above the requisite clichés with reasonably believable dialogue and two terrific lead performers in Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst. The film follows the template developed in contemporary British films like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill,” in which proper gentlemen are thunderstruck by dazzling, brash American women. That said, director Richard Loncraine (who also helmed the incredible alternate-history version of “Richard III” with Ian McKellen) works overtime to sidestep most of the script’s shortcomings, which tend to be comprised of dozens of familiar tricks.

Bettany plays fading tennis pro Peter Colt. At one time ranked 11th in the world, Colt enters the Wimbledon tournament unseeded, and win or lose, he has decided to zip up his racket at the end of his run. Dunst’s Lizzie Bradbury is the diametric opposite of Colt on the court. Young, energetic, and focused, her star is on the rise. Following a hotel room mix up, in which Peter accidentally surprises the unembarrassed Lizzie while she takes a shower, the two discover a mutual attraction that leads to some pre-game canoodling. Lizzie’s father, the hard-edged Dennis (Sam Neill), dislikes distractions to his daughter’s game, and tells Peter to beat it.

Bettany plays Peter with enough self doubt that we would not be at all shocked if he heeded the warnings of Dennis, but Lizzie, being equally hot and aggressive, pursues the affair. Following the demands of the screenplay, the sex invigorates Peter’s on-court performance, and he finds himself advancing through the rounds even as Lizzie begins to falter. This reversal of fortune sets up the majority of the movie’s dramatic conflict, which never works up as much sweat as Peter does during his matches.

Bettany fares better in the dialogue department than Dunst, but not by much. Whenever he is on the court, a truly unnecessary, annoying voiceover narrates the confusion bouncing around in his head. Bettany is accomplished enough to save the technique from being a total disaster, but the movie would have been much stronger without the interior monologue. Bettany manages his role so nicely, he can add romantic comedy to his already impressive roster of cinematic strengths. His performances in “Master and Commander” and “Dogville” showed much greater range, but there is no doubt that his play in “Wimbledon” will win him an even larger base of admirers.

The supporting players, including Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron as Peter’s parents and Jon Favreau as an oily sports agent, are effectively employed, despite the obviousness of their inclusion as fluffy subplots. The film also manages to depict the Wimbledon tournament with cinematic flair: the filmmakers had permission to shoot at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club during the actual competition, and Darius Khondji’s photography captures the speed and excitement of the game. Perhaps the most disappointing element of “Wimbledon” is the character of Lizzie, who should have been given more of the kind of material that makes Peter three dimensional. Dunst is ready to volley, but the writing double-faults. Even so, “Wimbledon” remains pleasant and entertaining through match point.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/20/04.

Maria Full of Grace

Monday, September 13th, 2004

mariafull

Movie review by Greg Carlson

An assured first feature from writer-director Joshua Marston, “Maria Full of Grace” transports viewers into the tense, desperate world of illegal international drug smuggling. Unlike films that treat this subject with lurid action sequences fraught with phony car chases and salvos from automatic weapons, Marston’s movie focuses instead on the emotional plight of the title character, a 17-year-old Columbian who agrees to become a mule out of economic necessity. The director refuses to romanticize either Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) or her new vocation, and the result is a clear-eyed tale more interested in hope than in despair.

Stripping thorns from roses in a florist’s sweatshop in her dreary hometown, Maria bitterly turns over the majority of her meager paychecks to her mother and sister. Facing a grim, dead-end future, Maria impulsively quits her job, much to the surprise of her family and the consternation of her best friend, the naïve Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega). To make matters worse, Maria discovers she is pregnant, but realizes she has zero interest in marrying her dull boyfriend Juan (Wilson Guerrero). With seemingly few opportunities in her immediate future, Maria finds herself hanging out with charismatic Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro), who matter-of-factly suggests she make money by transporting latex-wrapped pellets of heroin in her stomach as a drug courier.

Moreno plays Maria with a rock-solid center of gravity, and her soulful eyes speak volumes when words are not offered. The audience responds to Maria’s predicament with no small amount of resignation and fear, and it is to Moreno’s credit that she can negotiate the uncertain terrain of her harrowing new experiences in such a way that allows the audience to see that she will not compromise her dream of a better life for the criminals who exploit her. The scenes in which Maria prepares for her flight to America are genuinely frightening, as she is made to ingest 62 sizeable rubber packets. If any of the balloons breaks while in her stomach, the overdose would certainly mean the end of her life.

Prior to departure, Maria meets Lucy (Guilied Lopez), another young drug mule who has already made the trip to New York and back at least once before. Lucy shares her pellet-swallowing technique with Maria, and offers what little advice and wisdom she can. Maria realizes that a total of four drug runners are on her flight, and she is dismayed when one of them turns out to be Blanca. The journey from Bogota is incredibly unnerving, and Marston unflinchingly depicts the discomfort and stress of the contraband-carrying women. Once the plane has touched down, the labyrinth of international customs provides another opportunity for the director to turn up the heat, and Maria’s experience continues to induce stomach-churning, white-knuckle anxiety in the viewer.

What follows is Marston’s greatest accomplishment, as the filmmaker eschews most of the predictable outcomes for one in which Maria begins to take some control over her destiny. The remainder of the film introduces several beguiling characters, including Lucy’s sister Carla (Patricia Rae) and the well-connected Don Fernando (Orlando Tobon), a neighborhood fixer at the heart of the tightly-knit Columbian immigrant community. The movie, however, ultimately belongs to Moreno, and the young performer succeeds in guiding the viewer to an understanding and explanation of Maria’s dangerous choices.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/13/04.

Raspberry Heaven

Monday, September 6th, 2004

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director David Oas is the unlikeliest of first time moviemakers.  At 67, the retired college teacher has channeled his background in clinical psychology into the shot-on-video feature “Raspberry Heaven,” which opens at the Fargo Theatre on Friday, September 10.  Born in Northwood, North Dakota, Oas is a Moorhead High School and Concordia College alumnus who ended up in Ashland, Oregon following his graduate studies.  In addition to his tenure at Southern Oregon University, Oas has maintained a small, private psychology practice for many years.  “Raspberry Heaven” represents the fulfillment of a long-held dream for Oas, and the movie certainly rewards fans of independently produced, low budget, do-it-yourself storytelling.

Troubled Angie Callaway (Alicia Lagano) uses cocaine to escape the painful memories of her childhood, despite the care and protection of her brother Kurt (Morgan Spector).  Following a strange and violent sexual encounter between Angie and a one-night stand who attempts to file assault charges, police detective Alex Purdue (Michael Elich) discovers a backpack stuffed with cash in Angie’s closet and begins an investigation of the unusual siblings.  Meanwhile, psychologist Nathan Andrews (Doug Rowe) meets with Angie and the two form a bond as they try to unravel her grim, sketchy memories.  The relationships between the characters are complicated by Purdue’s own recent past: his daughter was a patient in the care of Andrews when she committed suicide.

Certainly, “Raspberry Heaven” displays a tremendous sense of ambition in both storyline and technical execution.  Oas manages to keep the action bouncing along, and the overall pacing and plot organization stand out as the movie’s strengths.  Point of view, however, never settles on a single character, and the division of screen and story time between Angie and Purdue mitigates the effectiveness that would be provided by a single, strong, central protagonist.  When various pieces of the puzzle of Angie’s past come to light, Oas shifts focus to Purdue’s internal demons, and the audience loses Angie’s thread.

“Raspberry Heaven” benefits dearly from the presence of professional actors and members of the Screen Actors Guild.  As Angie, Alicia Lagano provides the movie’s finest performance.  She negotiates a complex role that requires a wide range of emotional expression, and never fails to convince viewers that she is legitimately experiencing the anxieties and stresses that accompany her character’s fragile temperament.  The part could easily have caused less capable performers to veer off into unwieldy melodrama, but Lagano brings a perfect balance of energy and edge to the part.  By the time the end credits roll, there is no question that much more of the movie should have focused on her character.

In addition to using his performers to good advantage, Oas can also be proud of his technical crew.  Mike Spodnik’s videography is uniformly excellent, the sound mix is clear, the original score by composer Eric Allaman is solid, and the various locations are consistently well-chosen.  The movie’s final act reaches needlessly for an action movie vibe that doesn’t entirely fit with the mood and tone of the rest of the movie, but the total journey is satisfying.  “Raspberry Heaven” promises more good work to come from David Oas; it’s a noteworthy debut.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/6/04.