Archive for October, 2004

I Heart Huckabees

Monday, October 25th, 2004

iheart

Movie review by Greg Carlson

David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees” flirts equally with disaster and genius. A loquacious, irreverent romp, the movie juggles an all-star ensemble with deftness and economy, calling to mind a sort of Preston Sturges-meets-Charlie Kaufman genre implosion: anything can happen, and it often does. At the center of the chaos is Jason Schwartzman, (looking very Tom Cruise circa “Magnolia”) sinking his teeth into his best role since “Rushmore.” Schwartzman is Albert Markovski, an environmental activist so at odds with his frustrating existence and its inexplicable coincidences that he hires husband and wife existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to sort out the mess in his head.

While it does not quite do justice to Russell’s imagination to describe exactly how existential detectives earn their living, suffice it to say that Vivian and Bernard are experts in their unusual field, and have been in the business for a long, long time. Existential detective work resembles good old-fashioned gumshoe investigating in several ways (digging through trash, surveillance, interviews with friends and associates of the client, etc.), but a number of the unorthodox methods employed at the agency – including a sensory deprivation technique that allows Russell to have a blast with some truly inventive CGI – are as hysterical as they are far out.

Russell’s neatest trick is cramming in enough character to be shared among all the cast members, without sacrificing nuance, pacing or the breakneck structure of his cinematic house of cards. Schwartzman’s Markovski may be the movie’s center of gravity, but several other actors, including Jude Law as an officious executive, Naomi Watts as a conflicted spokesmodel, Isabelle Huppert as a nihilistic philosopher, and Mark Wahlberg – brilliantly deadpan – as a depressed firefighter, all get their very own moments to shine. “Huckabees” sometimes neglects Hoffman and Tomlin – especially in the second half, when they are desperately needed – in favor of spending time with the couple’s clients, but more often than not, the trade-off is worth it. When Hoffman and Tomlin are allowed center stage, however, their timing is magnificent.

Russell, who wrote “Huckabees” with Jeff Baena, is not afraid to swing for the fences, so audience members skittish about listening to convoluted laments about the meaninglessness of life might not get on board. Viewers have to demonstrate a certain amount of patience with the eccentric activities that unfold on the way to Russell’s point, but by the third act, the filmmaker has brilliantly brought his story full circle, exchanging the fates of two of its central characters in a breathless turn of events. Russell’s splendid juxtaposition of corporate voracity (Huckabees is a juggernaut chain store similar to Target or Wal-Mart) and feel-good eco-friendly advocacy is but one of the director’s spirited commentaries on the schizo hypocrisy of contemporary American society. No solution is offered because no solution exists.

Fans of Russell’s earlier work will take much delight in a dinner table scene with uncredited secret weapon Richard Jenkins. As irascible patriarch Mr. Hooten, Jenkins engages in a side-splitting quarrel with Wahlberg and Schwartzman regarding the pros and cons of suburban sprawl. Russell also gets plenty of mileage out of Bob Gunton and Talia Shire (Schwartzman’s real life mom) as Markovski’s parents in another one-off scene. “I Heart Huckabees” might not hold up as well as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but the two films certainly deserve to share company as the year’s most inspired and creative cinematic treats.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/25/04.

Team America: World Police

Monday, October 18th, 2004

teamamerica

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The latest curiosity from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brash creators of “South Park,” is “Team America: World Police,” a “Thunderbirds”-esque marionette movie in which clunky puppets take the place of cut-out animation. Intended partially as a satire of Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer action movies and partially as a chaotic send-up of Hollywood hypocrisy, “Team America” delivers a handful of hearty laughs, but mostly misses its wide array of easy targets. Fans looking for a movie as sharp as “South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut” will surely be disappointed, as “Team America” hedges its bets by entirely ignoring the Bush administration. The result is a scattershot hodgepodge that commits the one sin for which it cannot be forgiven: it is often boring.

Hidden away inside a secret base on Mount Rushmore, Team America is an elite group of black ops commandos charged with ridding the world of terrorist threats. Never mind that the rough and ready crew usually ends up destroying treasures like the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sphinx in the process. Accompanied by a rousing, profane theme song, the squad of super-agents is led by the dapper Spottswoode, a slightly unhinged mastermind with an inexplicable obsession with oral sex. Following the death of one of their own, Team America recruits stage actor Gary Johnston, a performer in the “Rent” parody “Lease,” where he sings “Everyone Has AIDS.”

Gary’s background in theatre and world languages makes him a natural for the team, so Spottswoode packs him off for the Middle East with the rest of the gang. Gary falls for another one of the team members, and their subsequent sex scene is among the movie’s highlights. The couple copulates in every position imaginable, wooden bodies and visible strings adding to the surrealism. The stuffy MPAA was so unsettled by the sight of two dolls going at it, they threatened an NC-17 rating. No doubt Paramount Pictures is already salivating over how much money the unrated version of the DVD will net.

“Team America” leisurely rolls around to a showdown involving Kim Jong Il and the Film Actors Guild, led by Alec Baldwin. The filmmakers save much of their venom for Tinseltown’s activists, and along with Baldwin, they skewer Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, among others. Parker and Stone grossly miscalculate the humor that their horrible voice acting generates; the impressions of celebrities are so intentionally bad as to become ineffectual. Parker even uses his Cartman voice for Kim Jong Il. What works with the kids of “South Park” does not work here. The movie would have been significantly better had Parker and Stone farmed out some of the “acting.”

Like “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” “Team America” resembles a musical, and some of the songs transcend the limitations of the phony action genre in which they are trapped. Marc Shaiman teams up with Parker once again, and the music works as the strongest element of the movie. One tune, “Freedom Isn’t Free,” is a hilarious send-up of the overwrought patriotism of Country music anthems, in the vein of Lee Greenwood and Toby Keith. In another ballad, the pranksters eviscerate Bay’s “Pearl Harbor.” Other than the songs, the movie occasionally capitalizes on its low-tech puppetry to generate visually arresting humor. House cats become vicious panthers, Gary blows chunks in what has to be one of cinema’s most sustained depictions of projectile vomiting, and a cockroach scurries into a spaceship and takes to the skies in the movie’s most memorable shot. “Team America” is not terribly satisfying, however, and unlike the “South Park” movie, it will not be remembered when Academy Awards nominations are made.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/18/04.

Friday Night Lights

Monday, October 11th, 2004

fridaynight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It was too much to hope that somehow, “Friday Night Lights” would be significantly different from other high school sports movies, because in that final quarter, just like clockwork, it all comes down to one play. Sure, the movie squirms around with some of the difficult realities of the football-equals-everything logic that nearly destroys the young men of desolate West Texas towns, but when you peel back the top layer, everything looks awfully familiar. Does a star athlete get injured? Yup. Does the coach deliver a rousing locker room speech? Check. Does the team forge an emotional bond that transcends the boundaries of typical adolescent relationships? Maybe.

Based on H.G. Bissinger’s noteworthy book, “Friday Night Lights” tries really hard to question the value system that places unyielding pressure on students to perform like seasoned pros. The movie is directed by actor Peter Berg, and stars Billy Bob Thornton – in another excellent performance – as coach Gary Gaines. Thornton is a marvelous performer, and his offbeat choices are always infused with a sublime sense of authenticity. Gaines may be quick to cut loose with amusing outbursts of “my goodness gracious” when a player does something foolish, but underneath, he has the instincts needed to cope with a town where the team-makers will have your job if you fail to deliver a state championship.

The players are quickly sketched, and only a few manage enough screen time to develop identifiable personalities. Lucas Black plays quarterback Mike Winchell, a morose downer who takes care of his ailing mother even as he dreams about escaping Odessa, Texas for a better life. Winchell doesn’t seem to care about football all that much, and that alone distinguishes him from most of the other characters. Boobie Miles (Derek Luke) is the cocky, talented running back who has already started to pick out the expensive cars that will be his once he joins the NFL. Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) tiptoes around his abusive father (a quite good Tim McGraw), a former state football champ whose alcoholism poses a real threat to his son.

“Friday Night Lights” is more serious-minded than “Varsity Blues,” but both movies cover a lot of the same turf. Like the book upon which it is based, “Friday Night Lights” covers the ups and downs of the Permian High School Panthers during the course of the 1988 season (love the mileage Berg gets out of acid-washed jeans and Boobie’s Public Enemy jacket), but the film could really be set in any year. Gridiron crunches are the main draw, and as a result, female characters are left underdeveloped at best, totally ignored at worst. The townspeople who delight in hassling Gaines are depicted as drooling rednecks; the best line is overheard on a radio call in show when an angry fan moans that maybe too much learning and not enough football is going on at the school.

The film would have been more interesting if its skepticism had been allowed a stronger voice. With sports movies, though, you cannot bite the hand that feeds. Football, therefore, is center stage and Berg depicts the action on the field with color and intensity. Fans of the game will likely ignore any of the uglier side-effects that small town football brings out in its acolytes – the game footage is much too dynamic to let that happen. “Friday Night Lights” does quite well, however, with the details and the moments. For the audience members who are not sports fans, the movie has enough criticism to affirm the underlying assertion that high school athletes are disposable. Seniors inevitably graduate, and there is always hope for next year’s team.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/11/04.

The Door in the Floor

Monday, October 4th, 2004

doorinthefloor

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Truncating the John Irving novel upon which his movie is based, and changing the title from “A Widow for One Year” to “The Door in the Floor,” director Tod Williams manages an impressive feat of good moviemaking. Irving rarely makes it to the screen without an abundance of the florid sentimentalism that somehow works better on the page (think “The Cider House Rules” and “Simon Birch”), and for the most part, Williams steers clear of the obvious traps provided by a story that could so easily wallow in the loss of innocence, the loss of children, and the loss of a marriage. “The Door in the Floor” is by no means perfect, but it is entertaining, and features at least one performance that should not be missed.

Veteran actor Jeff Bridges plays children’s book author Ted Cole, an alcoholic and part-time nudist whose marriage has collapsed in the years following a freak accident that claimed the lives of his teenage sons. Ted’s separation from wife Marion (Kim Basinger) corresponds with the hiring of aspiring writer Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster), an Exeter student who has arranged a summer internship with Ted. It doesn’t take Eddie long to discover that Ted only needs him as a driver, but Eddie is a polite kid, and he is also more than a little attracted to the practically catatonic Marion.

Before you can say Oedipus, Marion is instructing Eddie in the finer points of lovemaking, but the movie is resolute that sex is only one thing worth considering in this fascinating tableau. The principal trio deceive themselves as much as they deceive one another, but Williams (like Irving) is not terribly interested in generating any suspense related to dangerous liaisons. Instead, the filmmaker takes the time to explore the process of mourning, the discovery that one’s hero can be less than heroic, and the reality that grief is dealt with in unique ways by different people.

“The Door in the Floor” only falters toward the end, when a strange shift in tone makes room for a goofy slapstick sequence that would have worked better if more humor had been allowed in the first sections of the movie. Nearly all of the other details in the film are expertly observed, however, and Williams capitalizes on several visual motifs, including the quiet clicking of a turn signal, the fetishizing of undergarments, and the hallway shrine of photographs that makes the house feel like a mausoleum. Additionally, the misty environs surrounding Ted’s rambling Hamptons estate are beautifully photographed by Terry Stacey.

Even though plenty of plotting surrounds Eddie’s relationship with Marion, Williams ultimately settles on Ted as the central figure of the film (the final shot alone, a wordless summary of all that has come before, is thoughtfully linked to the new title). Bridges, who is surely one of the finest, most underrated actors of this or any other generation, provides Ted with unforgettable personality traits. Ted is larger than life, but somehow familiar: he is unfaithful to his wife, but is a good father to his daughter. He can be generous one second and completely vain and self-involved the next. It is only when you realize that Ted’s narcissism operates (like Marion’s silence) as a defense mechanism shielding him from his pain that the story comes into sharp focus. Many actors would embarrass themselves trying to deliver Ted’s rambling monologue that recounts the deaths of his sons. Bridges makes it look easy.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/4/04.