Archive for March, 2005

The Chorus

Monday, March 28th, 2005

chorus

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on the 1945 film “La Cage aux Rossignols,” Christophe Barratier’s “Les Choristes” (translated stateside as “The Chorus”) evokes plenty of other movies, from “Zero for Conduct” to “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Told in flashback, the story transports the viewers to Fond de l’Etang, a strict boarding school for young boys of the deeply troubled and often orphaned variety. A single, middle-aged teacher named Clement Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) takes a job at the grim institution, where he is immediately shocked by the deplorable, heavy-handed approach of the vile headmaster.

Mathieu talks his boss into letting him start up a choir, and before you can warble “Kyrie Eleison,” the discipline-challenged moppets are singing together in perfect harmony. Among the youth gone wild is Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), a sullen pretty boy with a huge chip on his shoulder. Pierre’s mother (Marie Bunel) is attractive and single, and the boy must endure the kinds of comments one would expect from the coarse inhabitants of his dormitory. Primarily to alleviate concerns that Mathieu might have an unwholesome interest in his charges, the script finds time for the teacher to pine away for Pierre’s mom. Fortunately, Jugnot’s fine performance tempers some of the obviousness of this plot device.

“Les Choristes” quietly sidesteps the issue of pedophilia (it is brought up, and then immediately dismissed), but the movie might have been stronger had Barratier and his co-screenwriter Phillipe Lopes-Curval chosen to explore it. As it is, “Les Choristes” often strains to fill time, and resorts to a half-baked subplot concerning the arrival of a thuggish bully who threatens the other boys and indirectly places the future of the choir in jeopardy. An arresting scene in which the young tough is brutally punished by the cruel headmaster, however, hints at the frustration supported by the theory that corporal discipline merely breeds violence.

“Les Choristes,” like “Dead Poets Society,” puts its faith in the idea that one great teacher can inspire creativity, gratitude, and a love of learning in the hardest-hearted would-be scholars. Like the long parade of films in the tradition of super-educators, “Les Choristes” adheres closely to the formulaic elements that are demanded: battles with administrators (here thinly veiled as a symbol of fascism versus democracy), a moment of near hopelessness, and the obligatory triumphant performance or demonstration of skill learned at the feet of the doting professor. None of the clichés are over the top, but missing are the unique and distinguishing details that would elevate the film to a higher rank.

A smash hit in France, “Les Choristes” dispatches its tale with enough warmth and charm to please most audience members. It doesn’t hurt that the singing is provided by a stunning choir, the Petits Chanteurs de Saint Marc, or that director Barratier applies the tunes early and often. Enjoyment of the movie will depend to a large extent on how much one cares for old-fashioned yarns in the tradition of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” In addition to the music, the solid production values (particularly the gloomy, dank keep where the action is set) help to make the film easy to watch, even when it practically insists on tearful sentimentality.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/28/05.

Bride and Prejudice

Monday, March 21st, 2005

brideprejudice

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Over the closing credits of “Bride and Prejudice,” a quick cameo featuring movie mogul-bulldog Harvey Weinstein reminds viewers that when it comes to filmmaking, it’s all about the Benjamins – which means that quality more than occasionally takes a back seat to the sheer force of marketing a seemingly good idea. A Bollywood-style re-imagining of “Pride and Prejudice” looks great on paper, but the execution of Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to her winning “Bend It Like Beckham” never gets a shot on goal. Coarse, simple-minded, and nearly dead on arrival, “Bride and Prejudice” is a major step backward for its director.

Trying much too hard to be up-to-the-minute and old fashioned at the same time, “Bride and Prejudice” brings the rudiments of Jane Austen’s classic story to India, where Lalita Bakshi (gorgeous star Aishwarya Rai) contends with the “marriage fever” that seems to have gripped everyone around her. Along with her three eligible sisters, Lalita faces daily pressure from her strident mother to find the right match, but the young woman knows in her heart that she must buck custom and find love before consenting to marry anyone. At – where else? – a colorful wedding dance, Lalita meets Amerian hotel tycoon Will Darcy (Martin Henderson) and the opposites immediately attract, even though the road to their eventual coupling proves rocky.

Henderson, unfortunately, cannot negotiate the subtleties required to play his part, and the blandly handsome performer fails to ignite any sparks with his lovely co-star. It doesn’t help that the movie strictly adheres to the chaste Bollywood rule that eschews onscreen passion – even one forbidden kiss on the mouth might have given the story just the jolt it needed. Lalita and Will bicker foolishly over high-minded idealism (she chastises him for wanting to spoil her beloved India with a tourist hotel, even as Chadha’s overuse of aerial establishing shots plays like a travel video).

The dialogue is embarrassingly awful throughout, and even the usually unsinkable musical numbers pop up awkwardly, with seemingly little thought given to their placement in the film. At one point, a trip to the beaches of Goa promises an exotic change of pace (Lalita’s mother even clucks that it will provide an opportunity to break out the swimming suits), but Chadha keeps her performers covered up, instead directing our attention to an almost surreal spectacle featuring American R&B princess Ashanti.

The misunderstandings that pepper the skeletal plot seem more at home in a lame sit-com, and too many of the weak machinations could have been solved with a simple dose of candid truth rather than the forced concealments that ridiculously lead to near-panic (Lalita’s little sister takes up with a rival of Will’s who turns out – to nobody’s surprise – to be a dastardly cad). “Bride and Prejudice” shifts its action to London and Beverly Hills, but the geographic eye-candy remains as underutilized as Rai. Rai is already a big star in her native country, and given the right role, her charisma might allow her to make a mark on American cinema as well. Unfortunately, “Bride and Prejudice” is not the film that will do it.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/21/05.

Robots

Monday, March 14th, 2005

robots

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Robots” is the follow-up to Blue Sky’s “Ice Age,” and it certainly trumps its predecessor in the visuals department. Story is another matter, however, and in that regard, the crew at rival Pixar can breathe a sigh of relief. 3D animation doesn’t necessarily need to be a contest, but the uniqueness of the emerging art form, along with the ever-growing collection of titles, virtually guarantees that wags and fans alike will compare notes with each new movie release. Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha certainly must be commended for their eye-popping attention to detail and design, but when the end credits roll, one wishes the overall experience of the movie had resembled kindly protagonist Rodney more than heartless bad guy Ratchet.

Bashing audiences over the head with a handful of simple moral recipes about the need to accept yourself for who you are, “Robots” follows the adventures of Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), a would-be inventor eager to peddle his clever creation (a spinning, flying, hyperkinetic coffeepot) to a huge corporation in the bustling metropolis of Robot City. Hooking up with a fast-talking sidekick named Fender (Robin Williams, “turning it on” for the umpteenth time), Rodney discovers that his famous hero Bigweld (Mel Brooks) might be in danger. In “Robots” everything and everyone is a machine, which makes it a trifle odd that Rodney is essentially a robot who builds another robot, but logic is not a priority in a Rube Goldberg-esque place where inhabitants think in terms of mileage as opposed to age.

Drawing much of its inspired look from the sleek vibe of 1950s, “Atomic Age” American industrial style, “Robots” clears another hurdle in the evolution of computer-generated imagery; the texture of metal – which comprises basically every object in the film – is truly wondrous to behold. The character animation (which still owes a debt to incomparable pioneers like Walt Disney and Max Fleischer) is outstanding as well, and adults will enjoy themselves spotting all kinds of familiar objects that have been incorporated into the robots’ world. The primary cast is voiced by all sorts of recognizable talent, including Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Amanda Bynes, Jennifer Coolidge, and Drew Carey. Many other thesps (including Paul Giamatti in a giddy, bang-up role that is one of several of the film’s “Wizard of Oz” references) pop up in cameo spots and smaller parts.

Too much of “Robots” stoops to Britney Spears references and bodily function jokes instead of reaching for more sophistication and subtlety. Kids in the audience go nuts for the scatological humor, but the movie depends far too much on the easy and familiar. Particularly vexing are the depictions of Kinnear’s Ratchet and Jim Broadbent’s Madame Gasket. Stock villains, they are too boring to ignite the imagination. Ironically, “Robots” builds itself into the smooth corporate machinery it professes to deny. Gorgeous animation aside, the film would have better served its audience had the dark vision of obsolescence at its core been handled with a lighter touch. For many of the grown-ups, “Robots” works as a parable of Boomer angst (wouldn’t it be nice to keep rebuilding ourselves with replacement parts and shiny upgrades?), but its sentimentality will be recognizable to even the youngest viewers.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/14/05.

Be Cool

Monday, March 7th, 2005

becool

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Be Cool” took plenty of time making it to the theatres (co-star Robert Pastorelli died just a few days short of one year prior to the movie’s eventual release) and the wait was decidedly not worth it. Sure to be one of the worst movies of 2005, “Be Cool” is empty-headed and dull – the exact opposite qualities one might expect from Elmore Leonard. The sequel to “Get Shorty,” which appeared as a reasonably entertaining Barry Sonnenfeld movie in 1995, “Be Cool” sees John Travolta return as unflappable “shylock” Chili Palmer, an ambitious thug whose clever street smarts translate easily into Hollywood success.

Director F. Gary Gray (who scored with his remake of “The Italian Job”) blows it this time, failing repeatedly to find any sense of Leonard’s original material. Equal blame goes to screenwriter Peter Steinfeld, whose totally unsavory adaptation cranks up the unfunny stereotypes to a strident pitch in scene after interminable scene. Even Travolta, who generally coasts by on his self-aware charm, perpetually looks like he is only thinking about how much money he earned for signing on to this mess. “Be Cool” also breaks a sweat trying to cram in too many characters, and familiar faces who might otherwise shine in supporting roles end up looking embarrassed and/or confused.

Having established himself as a major movie producer, Palmer decides to try out the music business following the murder of record producer Tommy Athens (James Woods in a mercifully brief cameo appearance). Immediately stepping on the toes of several tough, rival factions, Palmer essentially hijacks the contract of R&B cutie Linda Moon (Christina Milian, nowhere near as believable an actress as she is in her music videos), which garners the negative attention of a ruthless hip-hop producer (Cedric the Entertainer, not terribly entertaining) and Moon’s current boss (a totally blank Harvey Keitel).

Palmer hooks up with Tommy’s widow Edie (Uma Thurman), and they set out to promote Linda while steering clear of the cartoonish baddies looking for a piece of the action. “Be Cool” has so many scenes in which houses are broken and entered in the middle of the night, you would almost think that security systems had never been invented. When guns are not being pointed (which is unfortunately rare), Palmer and Edie squeeze in a Black Eyed Peas show (!) and lamely attempt to remind the audience of “Pulp Fiction,” which turns out to be a really bad idea. An even worse idea is the inclusion of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who belts out a terrible duet on “Cryin’” with Milian in a scene that violates the film’s title beyond the point of repair.

Not even the exuberance of OutKast’s Andre 3000, as a member of Cedric’s posse, and the Rock, as a gay, slightly dim bodyguard, can reclaim any of Leonard’s magic. Vince Vaughn is a drag as a wannabe pimp, and the air goes out of the movie every time he shows up on screen. Vaughn is usually able to make underwritten roles like this one work to his advantage, but the script leaves him high and dry. The rest of “Be Cool” limps along with no sense of pacing and wretched comic timing. It’s a painful muddle, and should be avoided.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/7/05.

Bad Education

Tuesday, March 1st, 2005

2003badeducation

Movie review by Greg Carlson

While director Pedro Almodovar chooses immediately to musically invoke Hitchcock’s “Psycho” during his opening credit sequence (a Saul Bass-esque cut-and-paste doozy of reds, blacks, and whites), the movie that ends up being re-imagined more thoroughly throughout the great Spanish director’s “Bad Education” is “Vertigo.” Continuing his evolution into one of cinema’s most consistently valuable filmmakers, Almodovar also nods in the direction of other key touchstones (one sequence in a movie theatre cleverly utilizes a scene of the gorgeous Sara Montiel in “Esa Mujer”). While not as profound as “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education” offers Almodovar fans a fix of cross-dressers, blackmailers, and pedophile priests, brewing it up into a heady concoction that deftly exploits the film-within-a-film device.

Tripping through several periods between the mid 60s and early 80s, “Bad Education” sweetens the film noir pot with an Almodovarian spin on the femme fatale: Ignacio, a pre-operative transsexual at the heart of the movie’s mischief, does the honors. Played (ala Bunuel) at various times and guises in the movie by Gael Garcia Bernal, Ignacio Perez, and Francisco Boira, Igancio is as chameleon-like as Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” another film noir Almodovar directly references. To make matters even trickier, Almodovar not only shows us several phases and faces of Igancio, he also presents Garcia Bernal with the additional challenge of assuming multiple roles.

Keeping everything sorted out is purposefully difficult at times, but Almodovar expertly juggles the interlocking storylines, leading up to a surprising conclusion that challenges our notions of what has come before. Like a ghost from the past, Ignacio first appears at the offices of Enrique (Fele Martinez), a successful filmmaker who was once Igancio’s closest boyhood schoolmate. The two have not seen each other for more than a decade, but Enrique agrees to read Igancio’s screenplay (titled “The Visit”). Diving into the script, Enrique’s imagination brings Igancio’s characters to life, and Almodovar delights in confusing the audience by allowing certain actors to appear in both the imagined version and in the “real” movie that Enrique ends up directing.

Almodovar chooses to withhold his judgments about various characters, which makes Igancio’s childhood abuser Father Manolo difficult to pin down. The Catholic school flashbacks are memorable both for young Ignacio’s beautiful soprano singing and for Almodovar’s masterful handling of innocence lost, but Manolo never becomes a full-fledged presence until we discover what part he plays in Igancio’s life years later. Almodovar’s reluctance to moralize, however, arguably lets people off the hook who should be held responsible for their actions.

Like the great noir pictures of the classic period, “Bad Education” regularly presents things that are not what they seem to be, and one’s enjoyment of the movie will depend upon the acceptance of Almodovar’s winks and nudges. Garcia Bernal is magnetic in and out of drag, though, and many fans of his work will happily overlook the director’s games in order to catch a glimpse of him in various states of undress. With its bold colors and impeccable design, Almodovar’s universe is almost always a vivid, hyperactive place to visit no matter where the story leads. “Bad Education” might not rank with Almodovar’s finest work, but for anyone fond of twists and turns, it is not a bad way to spend an evening.

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