Archive for May, 2005

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Monday, May 30th, 2005

enron

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A politically charged documentary that joins several recent entries in criticizing the current Bush administration, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” manages to be simultaneously entertaining and enraging. Bringing to life the book by “Fortune” magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, director Alex Gibney builds his movie around articulate talking heads, the clever counterpoint of stock footage, and damning, Enron-produced corporate video. The result is a jaw-dropping expose of financial and moral bankruptcy.

While its central characters are too shuddersome to merit comparison to figures in Greek tragedy, the movie details a colossal exercise in the worst possible hubris. Enron founder Ken Lay (“Kenny Boy” to George W. Bush) teams with oily Ivy Leaguer Jeffrey Skilling to run an energy company that exploits so many legal loopholes, one wonders why the government bothers to regulate these business behemoths at all. Along with numbers wizard Andrew Fastow, Lay and Skilling made voodoo out of the ridiculous practice called “mark-to-market,” which allowed Enron to report potential future earnings as current profits. While their stock price indicated nothing but blue skies, the company was in actuality hemorrhaging cash and spiraling into unimaginable debt.

Of course, this did not stop the top dogs from pocketing millions on their personal stock options, even as the rank and file invested in retirement funds that would quickly turn out to be worthless. The story of Enron, which is sadly familiar to so many people, is a David and Goliath tale without a happy ending. It is difficult to say whether Lay and friends were truly evil, but the movie provides more than enough evidence to suggest that Enron’s top executives ought to be locked up for a long time. The film directly links California’s energy crisis (which led to Schwarzenegger’s successful bid to recall Gray Davis and seize the governorship) to Enron, and the audio of traders salivating over how much money they stand to make sickens the stomach.

As a director, Gibney is at his best when he reminds us that greed thrives on co-dependency. Rather than point out that Enron’s bookkeeping was a clear case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the whole gamut of participants – from traders to reporters to accounting firms – happily congratulated the company even when logic suggested that things were more than a little off. Whistle-blower Sherron Watkins is interviewed, but strangely, the movie doesn’t spend enough time with her to make her out to be a hero. She is, however, a reminder of sanity and reason – something nonexistent at the company’s highest echelon.

Actor Peter Coyote narrates the film, and his slightly arch tone adds the perfect amount of principled superiority to the story. The facts justify this kind of attitude: Skilling refused any responsibility for his actions, walking away from Enron with millions of dollars and the knowledge that the walls were closing in. Following his departure, Lay has the disgusting temerity to compare “attacks” on Enron to September 11, 2001. One thing the movie overlooks is the behind-the-scenes relationship of Skilling and Lay. It would have been intriguing to know whether and to what extent the pair plotted separately or together. Even so, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” offers more than enough food for thought.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/30/05.

Beyond the Sea

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

beyondthesea

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A spectacularly narcissistic vanity project, “Beyond the Sea” was overshadowed by several other recent biopics when first released, most notably “Ray,” for which Jamie Foxx won a Best Actor Academy Award. Kevin Spacey, who plays pop crooner Bobby Darin with a look on his face indicating that he thought he might win another Oscar, miscalculated both his own and Darin’s current popularity with audiences. Staged as a weird meta-memoir, in which pre-teen and adult versions of Darin occupy the screen at the same time as well as converse and sing with each other, “Beyond the Sea” is nothing if not compellingly strange.

Much has been made about Spacey’s age-inappropriate unsuitability to play someone who died at 37. Considering the fact that he is not only the movie’s star, but the director, the credited co-screenwriter, one of the producers, and performs Darin’s vocals as well, it goes without saying that he is darn well going to do whatever he wishes to do with this story. Spacey shamelessly molds the film to deflect expected criticism, providing a laundry list of obsessive choices which include kicking things off with “Mack the Knife” and addressing both the issue of his maturity and his receding hairline.

Despite the attempt to spice things up with a slightly unorthodox approach to the recounting of how things “really” happened (or didn’t), “Beyond the Sea” is hamstrung by the same complaints that hobble virtually every biographical film: the tendency to provide a series of greatest hits in a reductive glossing-over of a life. Most, but certainly not all of Darin’s dossier is covered, including the childhood bout with rheumatic fever that weakened his heart, the initial climb up the pop charts with “Splish Splash,” the desire to compete with Sinatra, and the less than fairytale marriage to teen movie princess Sandra Dee.

Spacey builds his Darin as a well-oiled show-biz machine racing against the clock that is so observably symbolized by his bad ticker. Certainly the strong suit of “Beyond the Sea” is the generous smattering of Darin classics, navigated mostly with aplomb by a fearless Spacey. Of course, many Darin fans will only be reminded of how much they miss the real thing, but Spacey can be commended for the results of his single-minded fixation when it comes to the tunes. Sometimes, the garish staging pushes the numbers into camp, but it must be said that the music is the one thing that emerges from the film with little damage.

The same cannot be said for Spacey’s costars, who seem to be included largely for ornamentation. Almost giving new meaning to the term supporting players, talented vets like John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, and Brenda Blethyn all perform characters whose function seems to be to fawn over every move Darin makes, and Kate Bosworth, as Dee, is so poorly utilized she makes her work in “Blue Crush” seem like a virtual Actor’s Studio clinic. It doesn’t help that Spacey and Bosworth are separated in age by nearly a quarter of a century; the inevitable deflowering scene, which involves a giant sword and a slimy Darin speech about the Knights of the Round Table, boggles the mind. Is “Beyond the Sea” so bad it’s good? It is difficult to say, but that scene at least screams yes and yes and yes.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/23/05.

Mindhunters

Monday, May 16th, 2005

mindhunters

Movie review by Greg Carlson

After languishing on the shelf for two years, “Mindhunters” finally limps into theatres just ahead of “Star Wars: Episode III,” virtually guaranteeing a quick box office death and an even speedier trip to the DVD afterlife. It is likely that “Mindhunters” will fare better in the home rental market anyway, given its lurid subject matter, its B-list cast, and the track record of its over-the-top director Renny Harlin. A strident psychological thriller in the vein of Thomas Harris on a bad day, “Mindhunters” extends Hollywood’s flirtation with the FBI profiler. Boasting a strange merger of gruesome and elaborate death sequences that defy plausibility and a tendency to overthink even the most ridiculous scenarios, “Mindhunters” will entertain only those folks who appreciate Harlin’s “so bad it’s occasionally mediocre” camp.

Borrowing liberally from Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” “Mindhunters” deposits a handsome class of Quantico trainees on a fictional island where they will pit their skills against each other in pursuit of a fabricated killer called the Puppeteer. Given the twisted predilections of mentor Jake Harris (Val Kilmer, kooky), the trainees are already on edge when they arrive, and sure enough, one of them is immediately offed in spectacular fashion. The remaining would-be agents scramble to figure out the whodunit, but the script never satisfactorily entertains the notion that Harris himself could be pulling the strings.

Shaken by the death of one of their own, the students close ranks and shift their brains into overdrive. Mysterious clues begin to show up, indicating a time sensitive pattern to the killer’s plan. True to form, the trainees begin to drop like flies, leaving those remaining to begin pointing fingers at each other. Compounding tensions is the presence of outsider Gabe Jensen (LL Cool J), a cop invited along to observe the exercises. Suspicion immediately falls to him, but given the obviousness of his status as an interloper, and his heroic efforts to save the group, he doesn’t register as a legitimate suspect.

In its defense, “Mindhunters” stages imaginatively grisly deaths for its victims, and director Harlin relishes the opportunity to show off each nasty demise – even when employing laughably horrendous CGI. Harlin also keeps the film chugging along at a rapid clip, which certainly helps hide its deficiencies in logic. The industrial setting, filled with crumbling, empty buildings laced with all kinds of pipes and tanks, makes an ideal playground for this kind of nonsense. Some viewers will cringe at cinematographer Robert Gantz’s sickly green palette, but the desaturated look occasionally assists the anxiousness of the proceedings.

With the exception of LL Cool J, Kilmer, and Christian Slater, none of the cast members has enjoyed extraordinary fame. Kathryn Morris, who appears on “Cold Case,” has the largest role, but “Mindhunters” is not exactly the kind of movie that one associates with stellar acting. Jonny Lee Miller tries out a shaky accent. Patricia Velasquez, as the only other female profiler beside Morris, suffers the indignity of lathering up Slater in a gratuitous shower scene. Eion Bailey does his finest Jason Patrick impersonation. Confined to a wheelchair, Clifton Collins, Jr. is nearly as twitchy as his drug dealer in “The Rules of Attraction.” Will Kemp, who appeared in “Van Helsing,” scarcely registers this time out. None of the acting is poor – that distinction largely belongs to sections of Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin’s script. Even so, “Mindhunters” offers enough cheap thrills to make it worth seeing on a rainy day.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/16/05.

House of Wax

Monday, May 9th, 2005

houseofwax

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Bearing almost no resemblance to the 1953 Vincent Price film that inspired it, the new “House of Wax” should please genre fans looking for elaborate makeup effects that capitalize on a multitude of macabre and sadistic depictions of mayhem and bloodletting. Sticking close to the formula in which a maniac cuts a group of mostly moronic teens down to the last one or two standing, “House of Wax” has just enough ghoulish humor to keep it from melting. First-time helmer Jaume Collet-Serra deserves credit for keeping things fairly interesting, and even manages to stage a few genuinely memorable set-pieces along the way to a predictable conclusion. Rest assured, “House of Wax” is strictly for folks who get a kick out of titles like “Wrong Turn,” “Cabin Fever,” and the recent remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Everybody else should stay far, far away.

A half-dozen kids take a detour on the way to a sporting event and end up near Ambrose, Louisiana, a cobwebby backwater that seems to have missed the memo about the 21st century. The movie theatre loops “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and a filling station and a church appear to host the only signs of life in town. Of the remaining buildings, an imposing Art Deco museum (with signage matching the film’s title) serves as a reminder of the hamlet’s better days. Production designer Graham “Grace” Walker and wax body supervisor Jason Baird deserve mention for their impressive work, which rises above the usual slasher flick fare.

The six youngsters include twins Carly and Nick (played by Elisha Cuthbert and Chad Michael Murray), Carly’s boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), Nick’s buddy Dalton (Jon Abrahams), and libidinous couple Blake (Robert Ri’chard) and Paige (Paris Hilton). Certainly the appearance of overexposed celebrity Hilton will draw a few curiosity seekers, but one of the movie’s biggest surprises is that the heiress isn’t completely abominable as an actor. Hilton’s presence also merits a handful of jokes at her own expense, including a wink and a nod to her sex tape scandal.

Thematically, “House of Wax” trots out a twins motif, pitting Carly and Nick against psycho siblings Bo and Vincent (both played by Brian Van Holt). Screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, also twins, hopefully draw lightly on their own experiences, as Bo and Vincent are a gruesome twosome. While sadistic Bo sticks with snipping off a victim’s finger and super-gluing someone’s mouth shut, Vincent’s methods are more mechanically involved. Like a deadly spider, he drenches his still breathing prey in hot wax, ultimately sculpting them into eerie, hair-raising imitations of life. The effects are often disgustingly remarkable, and the museum’s parlor, filled with unmoving figures, will inspire unpleasant dreams for some.

At times, “House of Wax” teeters precariously on the edge of overcompensating for its formula-bound genre customs (whenever convenient, we learn more than we really need to about Vincent and Bo). The clumsy exposition, however, doesn’t compare with the inexplicable choices made by the characters: harassing the locals by smashing out a headlight, discovering a huge pit of rotting roadkill, splitting up, breaking into ominous buildings, accepting rides from strangers, etc. – which play like a laundry list of things to avoid when in peril. Needless to say, these are the very things that make slasher movies tick, and the target demographic for “House of Wax” is not likely to complain.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/9/05.

Millions

Monday, May 2nd, 2005

millions

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Danny Boyle, a stylish filmmaker who always manages to provide audiences with something to chew on, does not seem a likely candidate to make a heartwarming tale of a philanthropic little boy dealing with the death of his mother. Despite its mostly tender pleasantness, however, “Millions” steers clear of mawkishness, and turns out to be the kind of entertainment that people of many different ages will enjoy. “Millions” cannot properly be called a children’s movie, but it certainly contains an alluring central design that all kids fantasize about: the sudden appearance of instant wealth unencumbered by responsibility to any grown-ups.

As young Damian, Alex Etel makes a striking feature debut. The pint-sized, freckled thespian will surely draw adoring sighs from the audience, but his preternatural intelligence tempers his cuteness. Moving with his brother and father into a brand new housing development, Damian makes off with several large packing boxes to construct a little fort along the nearby railroad tracks. Inexplicably, a duffel bag bursting at the seams with cash literally seems to fall out of the sky. Its impact just misses the boy, but takes out a section of his cardboard castle. Damian alerts brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) to the fortune, and before you know it, the kids have started spreading their windfall.

While Damian is immediately taken with the idea that the money can be used to help others, Anthony buys tech toys, cool sunglasses, and the friendship of his new classmates. In one hilarious image, Boyle depicts Anthony riding into the schoolyard on the back of a pal’s bike, surrounded by jogging minders who look just like miniature versions of secret service agents in a presidential motorcade. Anthony also seems to have a solid grasp of the value of real estate investments, while Damian is content to stuff fistfuls of cash though the mail slot of a nearby group of Mormons.

Boyle introduces several engaging complications, including the “Great Expectations”-esque appearance of a stocking cap-wearing baddie sniffing around for the loot, a love interest for Damian’s pop, and the imminent conversion of pounds to euros, which means that Damian’s riches come with the urgency of an expiration date. The film’s other primary gimmick is Damian’s ability to carry on imaginary conversations with a variety of long dead saints. Boyle manages this busy palette with aplomb, and the director’s signature penchant for skillful, on-the-ball visuals enlivens the story from start to finish.

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s (“24 Hour Party People”) screenplay excels in its ability to tap into the particular logic of childhood, and despite a few head-scratching turns in the final act, hurtles forward with just the right amount of speed and momentum. While there is no question the film’s point of view belongs to Damian, it might have been nice to spend a few more scenes developing the relationship between Damian’s father Ronnie (James Nesbitt) and new friend Dorothy (Daisy Donovan). Boyce should certainly be praised, however, for his ability to sketch such believable generosity in a young boy. “Millions” is tenacious in its avoidance of too much cynicism, and that is refreshing indeed.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/2/05.