Archive for January, 2005

House of Flying Daggers

Monday, January 31st, 2005

houseofflying

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A companion piece – but not a sequel – to “Hero,” Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” scales back on sweeping political unification parables in favor of a much more straightforward wuxia pian soap opera. Presenting a typical battle-to-the-death love triangle, complete with hidden identities, double agents, and plenty of breathtaking wire-work, Zhang continues to capitalize on the growing appeal of the genre in the West. Following the gigantic success story of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” several filmmakers have secured larger budgets to accommodate their imaginative vision, and Zhang is arguably the most gifted stylist in the bunch.

While a certain constituency of his fan base regularly laments the director’s personal and professional split from Gong Li, the gorgeous muse who top-lined practically all of the movies made during Zhang’s most creatively fertile period, others have been happy to see what the master can do within the confines of the action format. Zhang Ziyi, a startling beauty in her own right, has largely picked up where Gong Li left off, and one thing that has not changed is the filmmaker’s unyielding use of adoring close-ups to showcase the practically indescribable loveliness of his central performer.

The plot is merely a pretense to stage the action, and it is the weakest of the movie’s concerns. Even so, Zhang fashions a workable structure in which a regional officer named Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pretends to protect Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind dancer suspected of being a member of the House of Flying Daggers, in order to get close to the leadership of the dangerous clan. With another government soldier (Andy Lau) in pursuit, Jin and Mei take to the woods, narrowly escaping capture or death, and falling in love in the process. Kaneshiro, one of the memorable leading performers in Wong Kar Wai’s amazing “Chungking Express,” has the looks to match Zhang Ziyi, and the blossoming romance heats up at several opportune moments.

Like “Hero,” the success of “House of Flying Daggers” depends upon the staging of its fight sequences, and the awesome production design matches the rainbow-colored hues of the earlier film. In one early scene, Mei competes in a skillful drum duel in an opulent brothel, beating the skins with the billowing sleeves of her elaborate garment. Even with the intrusion of some CG trickery, the overall impact of sound and vision is awesome, and should keep fans happy until the next clever set-piece can be devised.

Only the most die-hard adherents to the martial arts film will find fault in the arrangement of the film’s plot, but flat characters are the rule here and not the exception. On some level, this allows the viewer to bask in the elaborate choreography of the fight scenes, but one longs for fully rounded inhabitants to match the splendor of this magical world. The climactic battle assuages most of those pangs, however, as Zhang stages a heart-stopping clash in an autumnal forest that transforms into a swirling blizzard in the blink of an eye. The images, like the filmmaker’s best, remain fixed in the imagination long after the lights have come up.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/31/05.

A Very Long Engagement

Monday, January 24th, 2005

averylongengagement

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films always burst at the seams with clever visuals and stunning design, even when they fail to deliver detailed, fully dimensional characters. “A Very Long Engagement” is the director’s latest concoction, and it snaps with Jeunet’s familiar cinematic zest, courtesy of a second pairing of the filmmaker with his “Amelie” muse Audrey Tautou. Based on the popular novel by Jean-Baptiste Rossi (writing as Sebastien Japrisot), “A Very Long Engagement” allows Jeunet to return to some of the dark themes he explored with former collaborator Marc Caro in excellent movies like “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children.”

Dispensing with most of the quaint romantic fancy that guided “Amelie,” Jeunet takes creative refuge in the grim trenches and bloody battlefields of WW I. In one of his typically dizzying set-pieces, the director introduces a quintet of soldiers condemned for self-mutilation. Each of the five men sports a wounded or mangled hand, and Jeunet takes swift and savage delight in illustrating the circumstances of the gruesome injuries. One of the grunts is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a sensitive lighthouse-keeper’s son who interrupted his courtship with childhood sweetie Mathilde (Tautou) in order to serve in the French army.

Rather than execute the five court-martialed prisoners, a field officer instead sends them into no-man’s-land, a hellish stretch of scorched earth between the French and German lines, where it is assumed they will perish. Once the men are outside the barbed wire, Jeunet lets slip the dogs of war, and the ensuing carnage is an evocative homage to several masterful screen depictions of WW I, including Milestone’s “All Quiet On the Western Front” and Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory.” Mathilde, however, refuses to believe that Manech is dead, and pluckily sets out to track down every shred of evidence that will lead her to the truth.

Jeunet quickly adopts a puzzle-box strategy for the narrative, and Mathilde renews her hopefulness with each discovery and clue. Helped occasionally by a Parisian investigator (Jeunet regular Ticky Holgado), Mathilde reconstructs the stories of the five doomed soldiers, and in the process, we learn more and more about the often fascinating peacetime activities of the group. Jodie Foster shows up in one of these storylines, and plays out a tragic, immediately recognizable thread that has been used in other tales. The best of the side trips concerns the mysterious whore Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard, in a performance that makes you wish she had more scenes), a twisted killer out for revenge against the men she finds responsible for her lover’s death.

Lombardi’s own arc, which cleverly serves as a much needed counterpoint to Mathilde’s syrupy wholesomeness, ignites several sections of the movie. While many audience members might grow restless with Jeunet’s congested palette, which groans under the weight of too many peripheral characters and wheezy subplots, Cotillard’s Lombardi is wickedly entertaining. Dispatching her enemies with the kinds of elaborate mechanical devices that get Jeunet salivating, Lombardi could have been the central character in a movie of her own. As Mathilde’s vengeful doppelganger, Lombardi emerges as the most memorable element of the film.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/24/05.

In Good Company

Monday, January 17th, 2005

ingoodcompany

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Paul Weitz’s “In Good Company” travels some of the same thematic territory as his interesting adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy,” which he co-directed with his brother Chris. Shoehorning some terrific acting opportunities into a moth-eaten structure, Weitz explores the relationship of two men most in need of each other. Dennis Quaid plays Dan Foreman, a middle-aged advertising salesman at a popular glossy sports rag. When “Sports America” gets gobbled up by the voracious multimedia giant Globecom, Dan is less than pleased to discover that his new boss is wet-behind-the-ears Carter Duryea (Topher Grace), a kid in his mid-twenties with little experience.

Underneath Carter’s gung-ho determination is a fragile, isolated loner longing for some kind of meaningful human contact. Inviting himself over to Dan’s for dinner following an ill-advised Sunday work session, Carter is immediately attracted to Dan’s college-age daughter Alex (Scarlett Johannson) and his subsequent romantic involvement with her provides the movie with added plot complications. Even more improbable is Dan’s discovery that he is to be a father again, which places greater pressure on him to provide for his family. Toss in the grim layoffs affecting several of his longtime associates, and one begins to understand Dan’s contempt for Carter.

Weitz’s movie is notable more for its delicate comic exchanges between Quaid and Grace than it is for its lackluster affirmations about the pluck of the little guy in a mean, harsh world (the low point is surely a syrupy speech delivered by Dan to Malcolm McDowell’s oily CEO extolling the usual feel-good sentiments about individual value in the bottom-line culture of downsizing and job insecurity). Fortunately, the first two thirds of the movie mostly steer clear of the cliché-ridden caricatures that emerge too often in the last reels. Weitz should have studied Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s “The Office,” as his own take on workplace politics lacks the cutting intelligence of the celebrated BBC series.

Weitz does, however, leave enough room for his lead actors to fill in the details of their characters, and both Grace and Quaid are tremendously winning. Grace has already proven adept at the transition from small screen to large, making the most of a number of interesting supporting roles. “In Good Company” will surely bring the actor a larger stack of attractive scripts. Grace nails Carter’s hidden vulnerabilities, walking a tightrope between the giddy thrill of landing bigger and better job titles and the outright panic of realizing that you have no idea how to assume all that new responsibility. By all descriptions, Carter should be a colossal jerk, and Grace finds a perfect middle ground between sensitivity and affectation.

Quaid is just as good as Grace, though his role is the less flashy of the two. With well-timed, withering glares at his youthful superior, Quaid earns tremendous sympathy from the audience. The strongest subtextual element of “In Good Company” is its preoccupation with the expectations of American masculinity, and Quaid expertly navigates each of Dan’s humiliating challenges. The actor ably sidesteps several of Weitz’s weakest plot contrivances in order to find the wounded soul in his fading breadwinner. The movie’s resolution might lack some measure of credibility, but Mr. Weitz’s actors most certainly do not.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/17/05.

Kinsey

Monday, January 10th, 2005

kinsey

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The central irony of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s legacy is the argument that even today persists in the so-called “culture wars.” Did the scientist’s work merely illuminate sexual practices that were common but not discussed, or did he encourage a sense of permissiveness that has evolved into a pop culture landscape littered with provocative imagery and barely-concealed libidinous desire? Bill Condon’s excellent movie explores both sides of the issue, and in the process argues for tolerance without stooping to smugness or sermonizing. Condon, whose earlier “Gods and Monsters” imagined the inner life of classic Hollywood director James Whale, does justice to another historical figure, and “Kinsey” is certain to earn many warm accolades.

With his nerdy bow tie and goober crew cut, Kinsey personified the techie-scholar archetype. Fortunately for the movie version, Liam Neeson is on hand (which suddenly makes the neckwear and hairdo a whole lot sexier). Neeson’s performance is simply terrific, and the actor deftly manages the difficult task of playing an academic by infusing his Kinsey with moving nobility, a deep-seated sense of conviction in the value of his work, and stirring charisma. Neeson clearly relishes the role, and Condon provides him with ample opportunities to showcase his formidable talents.

Condon does his best at alleviating the shortcomings of the biopic genre, but like most movies about important people, “Kinsey” focuses on the central points of conflict in the man’s life. We retrace Kinsey’s complex relationship with his father (nicely portrayed by John Lithgow) as well as his early research in zoology. It is the arrival of Clara McMillen (a superb Laura Linney) that allows for Kinsey’s shift in interest away from the gall wasp and toward sexual behavior in humans. When he realizes that he is woefully ill-prepared to interact sexually with his new wife, Kinsey has a career-changing epiphany once a doctor suggests some utilitarian advice to the newlyweds.

The film really takes off once Kinsey decides to collect the narrative sexual histories of anyone willing to speak with him. Enlisting the aid of several research assistants, Kinsey relies primarily on a trio of intriguing young men (Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, and Timothy Hutton) who are trained to collect the data crucial to Kinsey’s understanding of the way people really behave in the bedroom. Sarsgaard’s Clyde Martin emerges as the most intriguing member of the group in part because of the rather unique relationship he develops with Mr. and Mrs. Kinsey. Condon anticipates the comic potential contained within Kinsey’s coterie, and the movie exploits it with adroitness.

Condon presents both Kinsey’s project and its subsequent consequences in such a way as to highlight the intellectual elements of the work as much as the sensational public reaction that followed. The director juggles the intimate drama of Kinsey’s personal life with the broader politics of an era where most sex education courses on college campuses avoided details in favor of prudish obfuscation. Of course, Kinsey’s reports would change many things. In one giddy montage, Condon trots out a “Time” magazine cover, Kinsey’s name-check in “Too Darn Hot,” and the famous cartoon that asks “Is there a Mrs. Kinsey?” That Kinsey was for a time one of the most well-known people in the entire world testifies to the ground-breaking nature of his obsession, and with his movie version, Condon has provided moviegoers with a unique opportunity to study a remarkable person.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/10/05.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Monday, January 3rd, 2005

lifeaquatic

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Wes Anderson’s fourth feature, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” is mildly disappointing – if only because admirers have come to expect so much from the 35-year-old filmmaker. Lacking a significant measure of the heart and wit that cemented “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” in the pantheon of contemporary cinematic cool, “The Life Aquatic” stumbles when it should be gliding, and turns obvious whenever it gets the chance to be brilliant. The film certainly has its merits: meticulous production design, the director’s fascination with antiquated technologies, a three-legged dog – but it depends upon repeated viewings to unlock its deeper pleasures.

Like the Salinger-inspired NYC of “Tenenbaums,” the setting of “The Life Aqautic” nicks another of Anderson’s childhood passions: the adventure documentaries of Jacques Cousteau. Bill Murray’s Zissou is the fading paterfamilias of a misfit crew of nearly obsolete oceangoing filmmakers. Chugging along in a converted WWII-era sub-hunter called the Belafonte, Zissou deals with the recent death of his longtime collaborator by constantly smoking pot and withdrawing into a lethargic funk. The timely appearance of Air-Kentucky flier Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be Zissou’s son, offers the old salt an opportunity to demonstrate that he is not as washed up as everything thinks he is.

Anderson spends an inordinate amount of time setting up both the key themes and the narrative scaffolding, which will leave many viewers wondering what it is they are supposed to care about. Zissou’s apathy has the unfortunate side effect of occasionally spilling over to the viewers: he’s as idiosyncratic as any of Anderson’s previous creations, only much harder to like. Anderson has relied on questionable gender and racial stereotypes in the past, and Zissou’s homophobia remains troubling as a comic motif. Murray also holds back for so long, by the time we are supposed to feel sorry for him, it might be too late.

The movie’s biggest deficit is the mishandling of the brilliant supporting ensemble. Like “Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic” boasts a director’s dream cast. Anjelica Huston, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bud Cort, and several others are denied the opportunity to register as fully formed characters. This is particularly vexing with Huston and Dafoe, who both do as much as they can with roles that remain woefully undernourished. Not even the movie’s euphonious musical palette can entirely compensate for the distance between the viewers and the characters, despite indelible inclusions like “Search and Destroy” and “30 Century Man.” In addition to another evanescent Mothersbaugh score, actor Seu Jorge beautifully reinterprets Bowie in Portuguese.

Anderson seems a bit young to be mining the self-reflexive territory of movies about movies (Fellini had twice as many under his belt before he went there), but presentational theatricality has always been a significant part of his world (glimpses of plays by Max Fischer and Margot Tenenbaum fire the imagination). One supposes it makes sense that Zissou should be a showman. Anderson’s own penchant for self-aware staging culminates early in a stunning tour of the Belafonte in full cross-section view – the effect is every bit as wondrous as the trippy tour of the details of the Tenenbaum mansion. Anderson’s contrived otherworldliness, which is always tempered by various interpretations of child-adult relationships, is a dreamy place to visit, even when it isn’t perfect.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/3/05.