Archive for 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha

Monday, December 26th, 2005

2005memoirsMovie review by Greg Carlson

A glacially-paced miscalculation, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is among the weakest of the large budget studio films in the hunt for this year’s award-season glory. Directed by Rob Marshall as his follow-up to the Academy Award-winning “Chicago,” “Memoirs” clumsily adapts Arthur Golden’s wildly popular 1997 novel. Eschewing subtlety and detail for garishness and simplicity, the screen version of “Memoirs” arrives as watered-down melodrama, and will likely appeal only to aficionados of the Far East as it is so often depicted in American popular culture.

Dropping non-Japanese performers into several key roles (a move that caused a minor publicity stir as the movie was ramping up for release), “Memoirs” winnows the plot into a blood-simple retelling of the “Cinderella” fairytale, complete with stand-in prince and fairy godmother and virtually all the other familiar plot points intact. Zhang Ziyi (now credited with the customary name order switched to the American style as Ziyi Zhang) plays Sayuri, a poor girl sold into servitude as a pre-teen. Desperate to reunite with her sister and escape the cruel conditions of the okiya, or geisha house, where she is essentially imprisoned, Sayuri instead finds herself under the wing of the wise Mameha (Michelle Yeoh).

This alliance is set up precisely to oppose top-geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a calculating and manipulative rival whose viciousness seemingly knows no limits. Somewhat awkwardly, Sayuri romantically idealizes a generous and much older man known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), despite the fact that she meets him when still a little girl. Time, however, is a flexible concept in “Memoirs,” and many years are compressed to keep the story chugging along. Additionally, Marshall is far more interested in eye-popping costumes and production design, and everything else takes a back seat as a result.

You never forget that that you are watching a simulacrum filtered through a decidedly Western lens, but that fact is cold comfort given the script’s unwavering insistence on the English-language. Even when translating Japanese words, “Memoirs” sticks with the stilted, halting mispronunciations that have plagued Asian characters in Hollywood films for decades. For fans of the main actresses, “Memoirs” will prove to be a difficult experience, as visions of much better films made by Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai will take the place of the tacky soap opera on display.  Only Gong Li partially overcomes the limitations of the script, infusing her single-minded harpy with a measure of pathos to counterbalance lines like “I shall destroy you!”

Marshall is the one figure most clearly out of his depth here, and only the staging of a wild dance number performed by Zhang Ziyi on towering platform shoes (which, for just a second, calls to mind Pee Wee Herman’s “Tequila” number) wakes the film from its deep slumber. Short of that distraction, “Memoirs” cannot seem to find a decent ending, limping along with an extended coda that reunites the principal characters following the devastation of World War II. Unlikely to draw the kind of audience needed to propel itself toward award nominations, “Memoirs” will disappear as surely as the anachronisms it presents.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/26/05. 

The Squid and the Whale

Monday, December 19th, 2005

2005squidMovie review by Greg Carlson

Following a script writing team-up with Wes Anderson on “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” filmmaker Noah Baumbach delivers his strongest feature film to date in “The Squid and the Whale,” a semi-autobiographical period piece fictionally recounting the fallout from the divorce of his parents.  Set in 1986, “The Squid and the Whale” brushes aside its many anachronisms, favoring a comfortable, laid back, and lived-in approach that recalls the work of several of Baumbach’s French New Wave heroes.  Smart, funny, and painful all at once, “The Squid and the Whale” is one of 2005’s best movies, and should not be missed.

Filled with visual, musical, and linguistic motifs, “The Squid and the Whale” presents itself immediately as a labor of love.  Baumbach’s memorable characters demonstrate a tightrope walker’s balance between astonishing cruelty and a deep facility for well-meaning honesty.  Several characters manage to describe the presence of this status by scolding one another with the line “Don’t be difficult.”  The Berkmans might say the most horrible things to each other, but only because they lack the ability to express themselves in the less transparent ways used by so many less interesting families.

While many factors contribute to the disintegration of Joan and Bernard Berkman’s marriage, Baumbach emphasizes the crossing trajectories of their careers.  Vain, selfish Bernard (a sensational Jeff Daniels) cannot get his most recent work published, and browbeats everyone around him.  Daniels is wonderful in the role, teasing out every detail of Bernard’s embarrassing self-pity and elitist contempt for the “philistines” he warns his two sons to avoid (and avoid becoming).  Joan (an equally terrific Laura Linney) watches her own star ascend even as Bernard’s flames out; a piece in The New Yorker merely seals the deal.

Older son Walt (Jessie Eisenberg) sides with Bernard and unleashes his frustration and fury on his mother.  Troubled little Frank (Owen Kline) prefers the warmth and comfort offered by Joan.  Things become more complicated when Joan starts hanging out with Frank’s tennis instructor (a very funny William Baldwin), and Bernard offers the spare room in his new dump to a stimulating and aggressive writing student (a coquettish Anna Paquin).  Baumbach’s biting wit is used to great effect throughout the movie, and all the major roles include delicious opportunities for the actors.

Baumbach unflinchingly mines some dark-hearted themes, including the pettiness attending a split-up and the confusion of adolescent sexuality.  Walt’s slavish adoration of Bernard leads to unfortunate romantic choices, and Frank numbs his own pain with alcohol, colorful profanity, and creative masturbation.  The filmmaker retains his comic gifts, however, and “The Squid and the Whale” bursts with hysterical allusions, from “Short Circuit” versus “Blue Velvet” to misinterpretations of “Breathless” to dismissals of the “lesser work” of Fitzgerald and Dickens.  The title of the film, a reference to the Museum of Natural History’s frightening “Clash of the Titans” diorama, goes to work on several levels.  Even if the obvious reading is a metaphor for the struggle of Joan and Bernard’s divorce, Walt’s eye-opening epiphany that closes the film allows us to see the fearsome behemoths as father and son.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/19/05.


Monday, December 12th, 2005

2005syrianaMovie review by Greg Carlson 

An ambitious and complicated tale of corruption in the big oil industry, writer-director Steven Gaghan’s “Syriana” is a mostly thrilling, always interesting ensemble film that has much to say in its 126-minute running time. Linking together CIA operatives, Texas petroleum executives, Beltway attorneys, Islamic terrorists-in-training, slippery politicians, and wealthy Gulf princes, “Syriana” weaves an intricate web of overlapping tales. Similar in style to “Traffic,” which earned Gaghan a screenwriting Academy Award, “Syriana” expertly balances its interest in world-stage economic power gamesmanship with pulse-quickening, spy-game suspense. Impatient filmgoers might find the multiple plotlines distracting, but Gaghan’s efforts add up to a smart, terrifically entertaining movie.

Based on former CIA agent Robert Baer’s bestseller “See No Evil,” “Syriana” features George Clooney as a longtime spook who has spent his career doing very dangerous things in the world’s most hazardous countries. As Bob Barnes, Clooney anchors the film’s scariest plot thread, and given 2005’s coverage of prisoner and detainee torture, much of what his character experiences feels eerily authentic. Matt Damon plays an energy expert who consults the son of an emir (though no country is specified, the vibe is heavily Saudi Arabian). In the least flashy of the three juiciest parts, Jeffrey Wright is beautifully subtle as a corporate lawyer discovering all kinds of dirt during a gigantic energy company merger.

A number of other well-known faces, including Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, and William Hurt, appear in smaller – but still essential – roles. Alexander Siddig, as Damon’s royal employer, Akbar Kurtha, as Siddig’s younger brother and rival for the throne, and Mazhar Munir, as a young, troubled, migrant from Pakistan, are also well-cast. Munir’s journey from the oil field where he loses his job to the madrasa where he first hears the teachings that radicalize him to his chilling final destination provides one of the movie’s most thought-provoking arcs.

One of the strongest aspects of Gaghan’s storytelling emerges from his unwillingness to simplify characters as “good” or “bad.” While it is fair to say that the career politicians are never made to smell like roses, almost all of the major characters work from the convictions of their own reasons (to paraphrase Jean Renoir). The result allows viewers to come to their own decisions about what makes these folks tick. Gaghan also gives us just enough of the mundane – the uneasy relationship between Wright and his alcoholic father, for example – for us to see ourselves in these otherwise extraordinary people. In this sense, the multiple points of view are no detriment to the film.

If “Syriana” leaves anything out, it must be the idea that U.S. intelligence-gathering in the Middle East has been inadequate to the point of ineffectual. Granted, the sweep of Gaghan’s spin rests squarely on the greed-is-good fraudulence committed while the government looks the other way (Tim Blake Nelson delivers a rousing speech to this end), but the implications for national security lurk especially in the margins of Munir’s tale. Iraq is never directly mentioned in the movie, but its massive shadow looms large.

This review was originally published in the High Plans Reader the week of 12/12/05. 


Monday, December 5th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A completely disappointing mélange of computer-generated imagery and live action footage, “MirrorMask” plays out onscreen like a graphic novel come to life, but lacks the breathing room necessary to fuel the imagination of its viewers. The film brazenly wears its illustrated origins on its sleeve, as the final opening credit reads “designed and directed by Dave McKean.” It’s dubious whether design ought to share equal billing with direction, but in any case, the title is apt: McKean has made a movie stuffed to bursting with densely layered pictures. Sadly, it offers little else.

Created along with occasional partner Neil Gaiman, McKean’s dreamscape scarcely sustains thirty minutes, let alone feature length. Rebellious teen Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) can’t stand her life as a performer in her family’s traveling circus. In a reversal of the age-old chestnut, the young girl wishes to leave the big top and join the “real world.” A testy blow-up with her mother precedes a backstage collapse, and Helena blames herself for her mom’s unnamed ailment. On the eve of her mother’s operation, Helena – possibly dreaming, possibly not – disappears down the rabbit hole to enter a strange world known as the Dark Lands, where she must locate the Mirrormask, a shiny MacGuffin that will restore balance to both the fantasy realm and Helena’s waking existence.

Like “The Wizard of Oz,” “MirrorMask” presents principal actors in multiple roles, but the effort proves entirely fruitless given the film’s nonexistent character development. Helena’s guide is a masked juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry), and their awkward co-dependency is rendered even more confusing with a late suggestion that they might discover romance with one another. So much of the script adheres to a stop-start haphazardness, frustration sets in early. Helena’s mother manifests herself in three guises, but not a single one is memorable or moving. The same goes for the rest of the speaking parts.

McKean finds some success with a few otherworldly dream-inhabitants, particularly the so-called Monkeybirds, a group of gorilla-bodied creatures sporting pigeon-like heads with removable beaks. Their acrobatic presence livens up the leaden adventure for a few minutes at least. A set of rainbow-winged sphinxes challenges Helena, as does a library with flying books. Many other Dark Lands denizens resemble work done by other artists, including Hieronymus Bosch, Paul Klee, Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and Terry Gilliam. In one strange sequence that belongs in a better movie, Helena is serenaded by a roomful of mechanized jack-in-the-box figures warbling Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s familiar tune “Close to You.”

For all the attempted visual wonder, “MirrorMask” will put most audiences to sleep. Surprisingly, for a movie about a wonderful alternate universe, there are no juicy characters. When Helena encounters the ebony-eyed Queen of Shadows, we yawn. Nothing is at stake, and everything that has led to this moment is simple-minded, empty, and devoid of interest, drama, or suspense. Weirdly, one longs for Helena’s return to her old life, which promises at least a glimmer of hope that she will interact with her mom or dad using something resembling recognizable human feelings.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/5/05.

Pride & Prejudice

Monday, November 28th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Considering the ever-growing number of Jane Austen fans populating several generations, it is somewhat surprising to note that Joe Walsh’s 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice” marks only the second full-fledged big screen telling of the classic tale, following sixty-five years after the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier version produced by MGM. Obviously, this discounts “loose” incarnations like the utterly awful “Bride & Prejudice” and the modern Mormon spin called “Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy.” Many Austen-philes adore the various small screen miniseries, particularly the 1995 BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. That said, the new theatrical release is a solid contender for the best of the best, a sprightly and completely entertaining movie that should please newcomers as well as those familiar with the variety of earlier entries.

Initially, one might think that Keira Knightley would be unable to capture the liveliness and self-possession of Elizabeth Bennett, but the 20-year-old actress delivers a beautifully detailed performance that marks the finest of her short career. It is certainly a star-making turn, and Knightley negotiates the range of Elizabeth’s emotions with clarity and depth. Opposite seasoned vets like Judi Dench, Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn, Knightley glows, and her scenes with Matthew Macfayden (as Darcy) often threaten to burst into flame.

Screenwriter Deborah Moggach streamlines the action of the novel to focus almost exclusively on Elizabeth, but virtually all of the essential moments appear intact. Despite tweaks made to clergyman Collins (Tom Hollander) and bachelor Bingley (Simon Woods), both of whom are purposed for comic effect, the central narrative thread chugs along while several subplots are appropriately juggled. As eldest Bennett daughter Jane, Rosamund Pike delivers a stirring and tender performance. Blethyn occasionally threatens to go over the top as Mrs. Bennett, but Sutherland’s calm patriarch balances her character’s transparent single-mindedness.

No “Pride & Prejudice” is going to work without proper chemistry between Elizabeth and Darcy, and Macfayden hits just the right note of standoffish guardedness. Some will argue that his Darcy remains too stiff for this take, which thrives on its modern airs, but many more will swoon during key scenes, especially Darcy’s initial proposal to Elizabeth. The hot and cold relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth presents a significant challenge to actors (not to mention screenwriters and directors), and Knightley and Macfayden, closer in age to the characters they are playing than many of the performers in other versions, make a fresh pair.

Director Walsh, a youngster himself, handles the picture with panache. Several set-pieces, including a lavish ball held at the Bingley residence, boast elaborate cinematic choreography, and Walsh spins us through the various rooms and into the social machinery of the furious matchmaking with ease. The film’s pacing and rhythm are rarely off, even with the sizable number of misunderstandings and miscommunications that form the heart of the tale’s two titular nouns. As Lady Catherine, Judi Dench’s brief but sharp scenes drive home some of the emotions that attend Elizabeth’s understanding of the often cruel class system that favors the very wealthy. Additionally, the costumes and production design are a treat for the eye, and the opulence of the locations ideally suits the terrific dialogue. As a result, this “Pride & Prejudice” has much to admire, and much to recommend it.

This review was originally published in the High Plans Reader the week of 11/28/05.


Monday, November 21st, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A well-crafted reexamination of “In Cold Blood,” Bennett Miller’s film “Capote” offers viewers a behind-the-scenes tour of the famous writer’s more than half-decade obsession with chronicling a quadruple murder. Already familiar to millions of readers, Truman Capote’s chilling account of the November, 1959 slayings of Herbert, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter remains one of the most celebrated examples of the “non-fiction novel.” “Capote” manages to do a number of things, but its focus remains on the chronology of events leading from Capote’s initial interest in the story to the execution of convicted murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

Playing the title character in a tour-de-force performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman ably proves yet again his status as one of cinema’s most interesting actors. Capote’s otherworldly voice, carefully cultivated mannerisms, and bottomless narcissism would be more than enough to trip up many seasoned veterans, but Hoffman is utterly convincing in the role. Accompanied by childhood friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), Capote travels to Kansas and manages to gain unprecedented access to local law enforcement officials as well as to the killers themselves. Dan Futterman’s screenplay mostly sidesteps any resentment Capote faced from Holcomb residents, preferring instead to lob a few jokes about the well-appointed scribe’s natty attire.

As the appeal process winds its way through the court system, Capote bonds with Smith (an excellent Clifton Collins Jr.), knowing full well that the success of “In Cold Blood” essentially depends on the young man’s execution. Some audience members are sure to recoil at Capote’s calculating relationship with the assailants, but one of the film’s strengths is the haunting – even chilling – manner in which Capote’s vanity and arrogance trumps any shred of compassion until it is too late. “Capote” tries out the idea that “In Cold Blood” ruined its author (certainly not the first account to do so), and it is easy to see the tug of war between Capote’s desire to be a serious writer and his addiction to the spotlight.

Despite the movie’s reasonably short running time, Miller’s pace occasionally slackens, and a hunger for engagement sets in. This is not to say that “Capote” is ever dull, but given its preoccupation with Capote’s self-devotion, one wishes the movie might have made a little more room for some of the other supporting players. Chris Cooper fades to virtual cameo status as lawman Alvin Dewey, and Bruce Greenwood’s turn as Capote’s longtime companion Jack Dunphy is left undeveloped – a shame on both counts given the skills of these two actors.

The movie’s central relationship (barring the one that Capote has with himself) exists between the author and the slayer. Even at the time of “In Cold Blood’s” publication, Capote’s detractors suggested that he loved Smith, and the movie version carefully compares and contrasts the two men. In one nicely delivered line, Capote even suggests that he and Smith might have grown up in the same house. It’s a wistful thought, but in the end, Capote’s aspiration to have a hit book outweighs any personal connection between the toast of New York’s literary scene and a convicted killer awaiting the gallows.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/21/05.

Everything Is Illuminated

Monday, November 14th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2001 novel – which deals with more history and more characters than the film version – actor-turned-filmmaker Liev Schreiber pares down the story to a rattling skeleton. The mostly disappointing result is a straight-ahead WWII memory piece, in which an American nebbish visits Odessa and the surrounding countryside in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1942. The quest for the long-vanished Ukrainian shtetl where these events took place impacts the young man’s two guides as much as himself, and the division of our attention among the trio somewhat diminishes the film’s potential.

Elijah Wood plays Foer as a blank introvert, content to hide in his somber black suit and blink at the world through the thick lenses of his oversized glasses. A meticulous collector of seemingly insignificant, personal ephemera, Foer enshrines all sorts of odds and ends in plastic bags that end up pinned to his wall. Along with his grandmother’s dentures, Foer acquires a faded photograph of his grandfather with a woman known as Augustine. Deeply curious, he decides to make the trek to the former Soviet territory in search of answers about this mysterious savior.

In sharp contrast to Foer is his oddball translator and tour guide Alex (Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz), a hip-hop obsessed Michael Jackson fan whose fractured English provides the lion’s share of the movie’s humor (he refers to his grandfather’s dog as his “seeing-eye bitch”). Alex’s grandfather (Boris Leskin) runs a modest business playing chauffer to American Jews who take family history-tracing vacations, and he masks his contempt for the tourists by pretending to be blind. Leskin presents the most fully formed character in the movie, and his quiet presence is a welcome contrast to the humorless Foer and the vulgar Alex.

Schreiber divides the film into five chapters, a tactic which reinforces the book-like experience but inadvertently douses any feelings of wonder and surprise – two traits in short supply and sorely needed. That Alex dubs the adventure “a very rigid search” is a painfully accurate description of the proceedings. Even more disconcerting is Schreiber’s heavy-handed and indelicate integration of comedy. With the exception of Alex’s often hilarious mangling of expressions and phrases, the movie relies too heavily on the dog. Veering from broad comedy to teary-eyed revelations about the past, “Everything Is Illuminated” is too diluted to pack much of a punch.

Schreiber handles most of the technical aspects of the film with confidence, and Matthew Libatique’s cinematography attractively showcases the outdoor locations. Many viewers, however, might take issue with the way in which the climactic discoveries unfold; the timing and emphasis of a number of shots confuse rather than shine light on the events of the past. The film version withholds anything that might come across as too grim or distressing – an earnest choice, but a decision that mutes the emotional force. Patient viewers who stay for the end credits are treated to Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple” – a delightful song from a soundtrack of well-chosen tunes.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/14/05.


Monday, November 7th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A handsomely mounted production adapting Anthony Swofford’s 2003 war memoir, “Jarhead” arrives in theatres clearly hoping for the kind of attention from audience members and critics that will win it both box office success and Academy Award nominations. Director Sam Mendes, whose first feature effort “American Beauty” netted a shelf of golden statuettes, handles the material with sure-handed ease, but the tone of the film dials down any trace of political opinion, which mitigates a great deal of the movie’s potential power. “Jarhead” works best as the slightly off-center observational account of its central character’s tour of duty in the first Gulf War, and like Mendes’ previous two features, boasts some outstanding acting.

The best trick pulled off by “Jarhead” is the film’s ability to make waiting for combat nearly as compelling as cinematic depictions of the real thing. Mendes tips his hat to a number of signature war films – a scene at the beginning of the movie recalls “Full Metal Jacket” right down to the apoplectic drill instructor – as if to acknowledge a debt and aspire to great company. One of the most memorable moments in “Jarhead” takes place during an adrenaline-fueled screening of “Apocalypse Now” which cuts between Coppola’s indelible Wagner-scored helicopter attack and the faces of young men thrilled at the prospect of participating in their very own mayhem.

The reality of Operation Desert Shield, however, turns out to be nothing like Vietnam, and the bored Marines spend interminable stretches ridiculing one another, masturbating, venting frustrations about strained and faithless marriages, and drinking lots and lots of water. Jake Gyllenhaal, in his most confident and assured performance to date, plays Swofford with a canny combination of enthusiasm and skepticism. Surrounding Gyllenhaal are Jamie Foxx, getting significant mileage from several terrific scenes (especially a monologue in which he bluntly explains his career choice), and a scene-stealing Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Swoff’s troubled friend Troy.

Swoff and Troy are trained as a sniper team, but it doesn’t take them long to realize that given the nature of the conflict, their skills are not likely to be put to the test. The speed and power of American air superiority dashes Swoff’s hopes that he will ever get close enough to a target to squeeze his trigger. The symbolic impotence of Swofford’s situation affords Mendes an opportunity to wring plenty of irony out of several scenes, including an eerie nighttime celebration in which the warriors pour dozens of rounds into a sky lit up by burning oil fields.

“Jarhead” doesn’t include any major battle set-pieces, a distinction which contributes to the strangeness of Swofford’s Gulf War experience. This point might also try the patience of some viewers expecting a more conventional war movie. Mendes’ intelligent detachment, aided by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sand-and-windswept palette, will strike some as too aloof. Short of the occasional sermonizing that stumbles out of Swofford’s voiceover narration, “Jarhead” keeps its subject matter at a safe distance, even when it should be grabbing it by the throat and shaking it hard.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/7/05.

The Weather Man

Monday, October 31st, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Cold, blustery, and with occasional gusts of unwelcome wind, “The Weather Man” doesn’t forecast an enjoyable time at the cinema. A strange cocktail of gloomy, woe-is-me navel-gazing and droll, observant comedy, Gore Verbinski’s latest film is more likely than not to keep the director trained on helming the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and away from introspective character studies. “The Weather Man” is not awful by any means, but the strain of delivering a convincingly sympathetic story with a privileged, successful, white male at its center turns out to be more than Verbinski, screenwriter Steve Conrad, and star Nicolas Cage can handle.

With its nervous Hans Zimmer score and the austere photography of Phedon Papamichael, “The Weather Man” aspires to an “American Beauty” level of artfulness. The movie’s narrative, however, seems to have much less at stake than “Beauty,” and unlike that film, only a single character is explored in depth. Cage’s performance as Dave Spritz, a Chicago TV personality whose personal life is in shambles, is solid as ever, but Spritz is so irritable as to become irritating, and the result often alienates him from the viewer. The filmmakers also miscalculate the effect of the voiceover narration, in this case a completely unnecessary addition at turns mawkish and grating.

Despite the fact that his job is easy to perform and financially lucrative (he is even in the running for a plum spot on a national morning program hosted by Bryant Gumbel, who turns up in an odd cameo appearance), Dave sees himself as insignificant and his career path as trivial. Constantly trying to measure up to his ailing father Robert (Michael Caine), a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Dave believes his own failed marriage is a disgrace. His ex-wife Noreen (Hope Davis) has moved on, and he strains to connect with his two kids, both of whom deal with awkwardly contrived, plot-device problems.

“The Weather Man” wants to be taken pretty seriously, so it is somewhat puzzling why one of the movie’s running gags is the sight of Dave being pelted by all manner of fast food: hot apple pies, milkshakes, Big Gulps, and other assorted edibles adorn Dave’s coat far more often than one believes is reasonable – even in a market the size of Chicago. Perhaps the film is trying to say something about the cost of minor celebrity (one piece of narration leads Dave to identify himself with the disposable nature of the disgusting victuals heaved at his person), but the frequency of the bombardments rings false.

Verbinski milks a great many take-them-or-leave-them symbols for all they are worth. Dave’s interest in archery wavers between a calming, Zen-like tonic and a borderline psychotic outlet for misplaced rage. The director also develops another genuinely strange preoccupation with the phenomenon of the “camel-toe,” which factors more prominently than one initially expects. Another subplot concerning a pedophile drug counselor seems dropped in for good measure, but none of this material ultimately satisfies. The result is a film that leaves the viewer as out of sorts as its frustrated, confused protagonist.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/31/05.

North Country

Monday, October 24th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Whale Rider,” a wonderful feature, director Niki Caro’s success was built on her fierce devotion to the story’s characters, most of whom seemed alive with the nuances and details we recognize in our friends, family members, and ourselves. Sadly, that significant trait is absent in “North Country,” a disappointing, by-the-numbers drama that never manages to break out of its movie-of-the-week mold. What should have been an inspiring and richly observed tale of an underdog fighting for justice plays like a barely-veiled grab for Academy Award nominations and recognition as an important examination of social action.

Unlike “North Country’s” spiritual predecessor “Norma Rae,” depth is eschewed for virtual two-dimensionality, and the results are typically shrill and painfully transparent. Very loosely based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s “Class Action,” “North Country” reduces the landmark sexual harassment saga to a hilariously truncated game of connect the dots in which a final-act courtroom scene throws credibility to the wind (before a catatonic judge, witnesses are flipped, badgered, and literally screamed at). Even worse, the focus of the trial shifts from the iron mine’s complicity in the negative work climate to the plaintiff’s sexual past.

As Josey Aimes, Charlize Theron attempts another unglamorous transformation, but unlike “Monster,” “North Country” is content to glide along the surface of its primary character’s personal struggles. Theron manages to act her way around several unflattering bi-level shag and fe-mullet haircuts, but she falls short of convincing as a Minnesota ironworker. “North Country” also enlists Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, and Richard Jenkins, who turn in decent if forgettable work. Of the principal cast, Jenkins has the opportunity to play the strongest scene, a heartfelt admonishment to his “brothers” at an ugly union meeting.

In the plus column, veteran director of photography Chris Menges expertly captures the bleak austerity of the Iron Range, and Caro depicts the perils of mine work with a sense of queasy anticipation. The various indignities and humiliations visited upon the female employees, which range from disgusting verbal assaults to obscene encounters with excrement and semen, remind us that institutionalized sexism was (and in many cases, is still) an ongoing threat. Some of the harassing behavior turns physical, and one can only imagine how many other kinds of disgraceful encounters were endured.

It is frustrating, then, that “North Country” turns on a revelation from Josey’s past and not on her refusal to be silenced. The “big secret” that is disclosed in the course of the trial raises several issues that should not be ignored. It is only after the immaterial information comes to light that Josey’s co-workers stand with her against the mine. For the sake of cinematic drama, Josey is apparently more acceptable once the stigma of her “indiscretions” has been transformed into something that can be pitied. While it is certainly true that sometimes in life little things matter far more than they should, “North Country” squanders an opportunity to present a fictionalized account of a groundbreaking case without insisting that we make a saint out of a person who should have been recognized for merely asking to be treated with basic dignity and respect.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/24/05.