Archive for November, 2004

Enduring Love

Monday, November 29th, 2004

enduringlove

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A total misfire on virtually every level, “Enduring Love” is one of the year’s most disappointing films. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel, the movie manages to get off to a terrific, terrifying start, but runs out of steam so fast that audience members might be surprised by just how quickly they can be overwhelmed by boredom and apathy. Director Roger Michell, who managed to make the pulpy “Changing Lanes” such a gripping entertainment, never finds his way with the source material. Is love an illusion? Can love give birth to unintended, horrible consequences? Considering that “Enduring Love” parades its philosophical agenda within the overly familiar psycho-thriller framework, the answers to those questions are not particularly satisfying.

The movie’s opening scene is gripping. Lounging in a lush meadow outside London, university lecturer Joe Rose (Daniel Craig) produces a bottle of champagne in order to propose to girlfriend Claire (Samantha Morton). Just before the cork is popped, a bright red hot air balloon crashes nearby, skidding along the grass. A small boy remains inside the gondola while a man tries desperately to control the unwieldy behemoth. Joe runs to the rescue. Several others appear virtually out of nowhere. Grabbing the ropes, it looks like the would-be heroes have brought the balloon under control. Then, the unthinkable happens. The balloon begins to ascend, and all but one of the men let go of the ropes. Looking on in horror, Joe, Claire and the others watch the last man swaying on his thread. The balloon climbs higher and higher, and finally the man cannot hold on any longer.

Joe never mentally recovers from the accident, harboring tremendous guilt about his own inability to keep the balloon on the ground. Withdrawing into himself, the strain begins to infiltrate Joe’s relationship with Claire. One of the other accident witnesses, the lanky, disheveled Jed (Rhys Ifans) begins to pop up with unsettling frequency in Joe’s life, and then things really go downhill. Jed is a typical movie bogeyman – the kind who always happens to be watching from the park across the street, or holding up a photo of the protagonist’s girlfriend, or having lunch at the next table in the restaurant. When the movie should be examining Joe’s psychological scars and his relationship with Claire, it descends into cheap slasher territory.

“Enduring Love” does not even make it to the halfway mark before the audience begins to anticipate every predictable turn. Jed secrets himself among Joe’s students and pops up in class to warble a few bars of “God Only Knows” (for which Brian Wilson is surely owed the deepest of apologies). Claire can’t take Joe’s brooding anymore. The editing and photography become so self-consciously arty that seemingly, rain begins to pour in every other scene. Frantic, midnight searches of websites are made. The unavoidable “stalker’s shrine” is discovered. Everything crashes harder than the opening scene’s balloon.

By the time the laughable coda is tagged on, viewers might feel as disconnected from the film as Joe does from his emotions. The actors have been wasted, especially the brilliant Morton, who deserves so much better than her role here as the long-suffering, supportive helpmate. Additionally, Ifans is too obvious as a goony lunatic, which makes much of what transpires hard to take: any normal person would have taken out a restraining order against him after the first nutty encounter. As it is, viewers should make sure to stay at least fifty yards away from this movie at all times.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/29/04.

Stage Beauty

Monday, November 22nd, 2004

stagebeauty

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Evoking that unique but difficult blend of period charm and contemporary performances, “Stage Beauty” operates with the same anachronistic spirit as “Shakespeare in Love.” Based on the play “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” by Jeffrey Hatcher, the movie version works hard to mine the gender politics of the London stage during the reign of Charles II, when only men could legally appear on the boards (meaning of course, that all female roles had to be essayed by the fellas). The era would see the demise of the men-as-women tradition, and the movie does incorporate fictionalized versions of several historical figures. The result, however, is a mélange of styles and concerns that leave many of the performers stewing in their own overactive creative juices.

Billy Crudup is Ned Kynaston, one of the very last actors to make most of his living playing women in Restoration Britain. Kynaston draws adoring crowds of male and female admirers, and seems content to find pleasure with groupies of the opposite sex as well as with the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), who prefers to treat Kynaston like a lady in most respects. A handful of events unfortunate for Kynaston conspire to pull down his world around him: his haughty young dresser Maria Hughes (Claire Danes, good but not ideally suited for the role) has taken to performing onstage illegally, he insults a wealthy courtier who comes on to him, and he discovers that the King’s mistress Nell Gwynn (a vivacious Zoe Tapper) harbors her own desire to act in the theatre.

Before you can say obsolescence, the pretty Kynaston is fighting for his livelihood, as the lusty monarch has decreed that women are now free to perform in public. Director Richard Eyre navigates these middle sections of the film with welcome balance, and the audience simultaneously experiences Kynaston’s despair at losing his stardom and Maria’s exhilaration at ascending into the favor of the rich and powerful. Not everything works, though. The material’s most relevant subtexts, such as the socially sanctioned acceptability of homophobia, end up ignored in favor of a weird, nonsensical love scene in which Kynaston and Maria discuss the mechanics of straight versus gay sex.

“Stage Beauty” ends up missing the boat because its central characters remain undefined. Questions swirling around Kynaston’s own sexuality are left purposefully ambiguous, but instead of generating opportunities to investigate the man’s complex emotional landscape, the movie adopts an all too easy resolution in which Kynaston can happily abandon his hard-earned expertise as a premier drag performer in favor of accepting the demands that he play it straight from now on. The old mythology that one can be “turned” disappointingly manifests in the most traditionally progressive of places.

While the movie has earned several inevitable comparisons to “Shakespeare in Love,” “Stage Beauty” really reminds viewers who love backstage drama of Peter Yates’ 1983 film version of “The Dresser.” That movie, a modern classic, probed nearly all of the psychological terrain that should have been part of “Stage Beauty” (incidentally, actor Edward Fox appears in both movies). While “Stage Beauty” labors in vain to understand the rivalries, jealousies, and conflicted feelings that so often govern the fragile egos of performers and theatre folk, “The Dresser” succeeded by always putting a human face on the struggles. As it is, the Ned Kynaston of “Stage Beauty” remains opaque, elusive, and frustratingly out of reach.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/22/04.

The Yes Men

Monday, November 15th, 2004

yesmen

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Yes Men,” an affable and innocuous documentary that should have been made out of lightning bolts and razor blades, might have been great had it been cut to an hour and presented as an episode of “Frontline.” Directors Chris Smith and Sarah Price (joined this time by Dan Ollman) previously made the brilliant “American Movie,” but “The Yes Men” is not even in the same league. Shot on dreary, smeary video, the movie lacks the panache, coherence, and fascinating characters that made “American Movie” such a brilliant film. To its credit, “The Yes Men” does manage a handful of riveting sequences, but the end result is an experience that leaves the audience in need of more information.

Following the bizarre antics of a small group of left-leaning activists whose mission is to raise awareness about the World Trade Organization’s lack of concern for poor nations, “The Yes Men” focuses primarily on Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who pose as representatives of the WTO in order to pull increasingly over-the-top stunts. Traveling the globe to appear at free trade conferences in Finland and Australia, Bichlbaum and Bonanno mount their ruse by reverse infiltration: their gatt.org website looks so similar to the official WTO homepage it is frequently mistaken for the real thing. Once invited to make presentations, all the Yes Men have to do is show up and work their gags.

Two protracted sequences showcase the Yes Men in their element. In Tampere, Finland, they present a jaw-dropping Power Point slideshow essentially advocating slave labor, and end the speech by revealing a prototype of a space-age, shimmering bodysuit that sports a giant inflatable phallus. With an essentially straight face, Bichlbaum explains to the passive audience that the huge golden penis is in fact an “Employee Visualization Appendage,” equipped with a TV monitor that allows managers to keep tabs on their low-wage workers from a distance. If the laborers don’t exercise efficient habits, electric shocks can be administered from the buttons on the leisure suit. Nobody in attendance has any questions.

In the second featured segment, the boys tag-team a class of college students (the professor is in on the joke) by explaining that the WTO has partnered with the McDonald’s corporation to offer a solution to hunger in Third World countries: human excrement can be reprocessed into hamburger patties and shipped overseas. While half the class munches on burgers provided by the pranksters, a hilariously crude (in several senses of the word) 3D animation of the proposed procedure is projected on the big screen. It is a huge relief when the disgusted scholars speak out against the presenters, as it restores a little bit of the faith that went missing in Tampere.

Whether the Finnish conference attendees were completely stunned into silence, were just being polite, or assumed that the WTO was conducting business as usual, “The Yes Men” chooses to remain mute on several salient points. The directors include far too many scenes of Bichlbaum and Bonanno getting dressed, shopping for business suits at the Salvation Army, and hoofing it en route to scheduled speaking appearances. Instead, it would have been interesting to include some weightier perspectives on the issues at the heart of international labor problems.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/15/04.

The Incredibles

Monday, November 8th, 2004

incredibles

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The first Pixar release to earn a PG rating, Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” represents a step toward slightly more grown-up fare than “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo.” Pixar’s movies have always attended to the adults in the audience (in the case of “Toy Story 2,” one could argue that misty-eyed boomers mourning their bygone childhoods were a clear target market), and have been nearly unimpeachable in their dual-edged skill. At just a few minutes shy of two hours, “The Incredibles” is also the longest Pixar movie, which might try the patience of some of the youngest audience members. The film’s length will not likely deter legions of Pixar fans from clogging the box office or from netting the studio huge amounts of cash. A sequel is virtually guaranteed.

Following a flurry of frivolous lawsuits filed by average citizens against do-gooder superheroes, the chosen few have retreated into something akin to a witness protection program, where they must hide their amazing talents and gifts. Working one of comicdom’s golden themes (see: “X-Men”), writer-director Brad Bird – who created the moving cult hit “The Iron Giant” – explores the headier notions of how the truly privileged can inspire tremendous jealousy in the power-impaired. Superheroes have always had to negotiate the problems of being special, which is one of the chief reasons that secret identities are a key ingredient in the genre.

The first of the heroes to be felled by a lawsuit is Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, absolutely perfect), a massive wall of muscle in the tradition of Superman. Mr. Incredible is exiled to suburbia as humdrum insurance adjuster Bob Parr, and his tiny cubicle can contain neither his gargantuan frame nor his disdain for monotonous routine. Along with his wife Helen (Holly Hunter), the former Elastigirl, and his children Violet (Sarah Vowell of “This American Life”), Dash (Spencer Fox) and baby Jack-Jack, Bob begrudgingly, uneasily, settles into his long journey into the middle. Only some late-night prowling with the former Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) provides Bob with a fleeting reminder of the glories of his former life.

One day, after being contacted by an enigmatic stranger, Bob agrees to don his old costume on a top-secret mission to a weird volcanic island. The old crimefighter chooses to withhold this information from his wife, which provides both an opportunity for third act heroics and a familiar but well-executed sitcom subplot that trots out the old misunderstanding about an imagined marital infidelity. Bird waits just a little bit too long to get the other Incredibles involved, but when he does, the movie really shines. Especially pleasing is Vowell’s turn as teenage daughter Violet. The manifestation of her own powers, including the abilities to turn invisible (a trick coveted by teens of both genders) and to generate force fields, sets the stage for a boost in self-esteem that encapsulates one of the film’s most pleasant self-empowerment themes.

One of the movie’s greatest assets – its stupendous, eye-popping animation – can also be one of its big liabilities, as the climax practically demands a loud, cacophonous cityscape battle. Sure, superhero movies depend on superheroics, so the complaint is a minor one. Even so, it would have been more impressive had the film cut a little of the action in favor of more exploration of the unique dynamics of the Incredible clan. Each of the family members borrows powers long enshrined on the pages of Marvel and DC, but computer animation is the ideal place to showcase Elastigirl’s supple malleability. Her feats of inventive daring, including a breathless set-piece where her elongated body is trapped in several automatic doors at the same time, fully exploit the imaginative promise that pixels can so readily provide.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/8/04.

Birth

Monday, November 1st, 2004

2003birth

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jonathan Glazer’s new film “Birth” is an engrossing fairy tale filled with tremendous acting, stunning photography, and quite possibly the year’s best musical score. Ruminating on the metaphysical possibilities of reincarnation, or perhaps merely the desire that lost loved ones could come back to us, “Birth” works on nearly every level, despite its rather elephantine demand that we suspend all reason and doubt. Spare, austere, and quiet, “Birth” showcases multiple examples of gutsy, intelligent direction that confirm much of what was said about Glazer following his impressive debut feature “Sexy Beast.” “Birth” is an improvement over that solid film, and should guarantee the filmmaker some plum assignments in the near future.

The movie’s opening sequence, in which Harris Savides’ camera follows a runner in a wintry Central Park, is a beautiful, gliding composition that projects both a kind of elegiac majesty and a sense of foreboding and portent. Glazer takes his time with this jogger, and Alexandre Desplat’s spooky orchestrations underline the ways in which mundane routine can quickly transform into life-changing tragedy. Entering a tunnel, the runner falters and crumples to the ground. The viewpoint then switches to a newborn infant emerging into the world. It is an amazing set-piece, rendered all the more powerful by the title card that moves the story ten years ahead.

Nicole Kidman’s Anna was married to the dead runner, and despite her broken heart, has finally agreed to start over in a new marriage with her longtime, persistent beau Joseph (Danny Huston). Anna lives with her patrician mother Eleanor (played with a cunning combination of stateliness and wit by Lauren Bacall) in a mammoth Fifth Avenue spread, and other family members, including Anna’s sister Laura (Alison Elliot) and Laura’s husband Bob (Arliss Howard) never stray too far from Eleanor’s aristocratic keep. The wealth of the family emerges as a subtle class commentary that Glazer expertly exploits, and the film’s production design is a sight to behold.

Things get weird when a ten-year-old boy shows up at Eleanor’s birthday party claiming to be Anna’s dead husband Sean. Initially dismissed as a strange joke or an awkward coincidence, the lad’s declaration begins to assume disturbing credibility as he reveals more and more information that only Anna’s deceased husband could have known. The young Sean is played by Cameron Bright, and the pre-teen actor does a remarkably convincing job. Glazer enlisted the help of two top-notch screenwriters, Milo Addica (who co-wrote “Monster’s Ball”) and legendary Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, and the scribes really manage to make a preposterous premise resonate with feelings of numbing plausibility.

Kidman is the glue that holds the entire thing together, and her performance is another in a string of smart choices. Only when the movie vacillates between the supernatural aspects provided by Anna’s desire to believe in Sean and the crushing possibility that more realistic explanations are right before our eyes does Glazer’s spell break down. Fortunately, the director handles the denouement with the same conviction attached to everything that has come before. The result is a film that nearly tricks us into thinking it is merely a creepy horror trifle when it actually has much to say about faith, jealousy, and the constant ache of incomprehensible grief.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/1/04.