Archive for June, 2005

Land of the Dead

Monday, June 27th, 2005

2006landofthedeadMovie review by Greg Carlson

While there are plenty of things to say about George Romero’s legendary horror franchise, new entry “Land of the Dead” disappoints more than it delights. Almost forty years after the director’s masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead” rewrote the cinematic bible on the ins and outs of flesh-eating ghouls, Romero has yet to top the unsettling vibe of his 1968 classic. While many Romero devotees argue on behalf of the macabre satire of “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), “Night” is still the most powerful, its low-budget look enhancing the foreboding feeling that this sort of nightmare could actually take place. “Land of the Dead” does not measure up to the other movies in the series, but it offers enough gore and almost enough humor to satisfy the hardest of the hardcore Romero fan-base.

Following an intense opening credit sequence, “Land of the Dead” quickly sketches out the political and physical territory of present day zombie-human relations, which are predictably poor. Only the well-heeled have managed to secure relative safety inside the razor wire of Fiddler’s Green, a community led by greasy businessman Kaufman (Dennis Hopper, in a nicely twitchy, nose-picking performance). Outside in Uniontown, the less fortunate struggle to make ends meet, while yet another social class comprised of citizen-soldiers moves back and forth across the moat that separates them from the undead in order to blast out the brains of the dangerous animated corpses.

Among the warriors are Riley (Simon Baker), a matter-of-fact veteran looking to hang up his rifle, Riley’s sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy), the angry Cholo (John Leguizamo), and tough, assertive Slack (Asia Argento). Tooling around on “Mad Max”-esque motorcycles and in a steel-plated, missile-launching behemoth called Dead Reckoning, the mercenaries take turns with zombies in the role of predator and prey. While most of the zombies are distinguished only by their occupation-identifying attire (a well-loved genre hallmark) – butcher, cheerleader, clown, priest, ballplayer, etc. – a former mechanic/gas station attendant named Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) stands out. Struggling to participate in the normal routine of his former life, Big Daddy shuffles around looking for cars to fill with fuel.

Functioning at a higher level than most of the other meat puppets, Big Daddy turns out to be a rather resourceful corpse. Crudely organizing nearby zombies into a functional mob, Big Daddy teaches his fellow cadavers how to use weapons, an evolutionary quantum leap that poses serious problems for the not-yet-departed. Romero has a great deal of fun building sympathy for his lumbering stiffs, and his apocalyptic vision offers glimpses of the grotesque ways in which people have turned zombie-killing into grisly carnival amusements. The filmmaker’s almost sly critique of segregation and class division is too thin to hold up to much scrutiny, but Romero deserves some credit for trying.

The film’s special effects are superb, if the sight of rotting flesh and decomposing features doesn’t turn your stomach. Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and their talented team from KNB EFX Group have created arguably the most phenomenal zombie makeup designs to date. Beyond the grim visages, however, the film’s modest budget prevents Romero from fully realizing the upper limits of his profound imagination. Hopefully, “Land of the Dead” will meet with enough success at the box office to merit another installment. It would be something to see what Romero could do with more substantial capital at his disposal.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/27/05.

Batman Begins

Monday, June 20th, 2005

batmanbegins

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Chris Nolan, an inspired choice to revamp the flagging cash machine that D.C. Comics has tapped for nearly seven decades in one form or another, makes sure that his Batman is as serious as seeing your parents murdered. Solidly built, admirable, and occasionally enjoyable, “Batman Begins” spends so much time taking itself seriously that it bogs down under the weight of its own oversimplified pop psychology. Batman is a resilient character (consider the graduated scale that includes Adam West’s 1960s cheekiness and Frank Miller’s gritty Dark Knight), and Christian Bale’s committed performance manages to write a new chapter for at least the movie incarnations of the famous caped crusader.

Wisely starting over with a nearly clean slate, Nolan lavishes considerable time and attention on Bruce Wayne’s tragic back-story. Comic book hero origin mythology almost always purchases a solid first act, and this time the young billionaire rejects his privilege for a soul-searching tour of duty in remote corners of the globe. Landing in Asia (with Iceland standing in as the actual shooting location), Wayne undergoes arduous martial arts training with the deadly League of Shadows, led by the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson, once again channeling his “Star Wars”-style mentor role). The script, penned by Nolan with David Goyer, reveals its first major weakness, pummeling the audience with endless discussion about fear (why it is important, how it can be addressed, harnessed, and conquered, etc.) that seemingly peppers every other line of dialogue.

The film is decidedly more interesting once Wayne returns to Gotham and decides to fight criminals, vigilante-style, in the guise of his newly hatched nocturnal alter-ego. With the help of loyal valet Alfred (Michael Caine, making it look easy) and Wayne Industries tech expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, also making it look easy), Bruce/Batman puts the rest of the well-known puzzle together: the cape, the cowl, the utility belt, the Bat Cave, and the Batmobile are all given just enough spin by Nolan to feel fresh. Soon enough, Batman crosses paths with childhood crush Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), now an assistant district attorney, cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who seems like the last honest man on the force, and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a psychiatrist who moonlights as the fiendish Scarecrow.

More than enough snoozy plotting about an attempt to destroy the city with chemical agents in the water supply sets up the final act pyrotechnics, and frankly, Nolan can usually be counted on to avoid this kind of stuff in favor of subtler, smarter choices. “Batman Begins” is, however, a summertime super hero flick, and it’s a sight better than other comic book translations helmed by acclaimed directors (see: “Hulk”). In terms of physical action, Nolan also shoots far too few masters, and the closeness of the photography makes it impossible to tell exactly what is going on in the fight and action scenes.

“Batman Begins” tags on an epilogue that sets up the sequel and the sequel’s central villain (fans certainly won’t need more than a single guess). Hopefully, the next movie will allow for an even deeper examination of Bruce Wayne, the person. In “Batman Begins,” Nolan offers any number of promising suggestions that we will get to see Wayne struggling with his role as Gotham’s most prominent citizen, but most of the time, the screenplay quickly resorts to the troubled character’s disdain – and near contempt – for his out-of-costume, public persona. And despite the fact that nobody in town seems to make the connection that Batman starts cracking skulls at exactly the same time Bruce Wayne returns after a lengthy hiatus, the secret identity dialectic could be child’s play for someone with Nolan’s talent.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/20/05.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Monday, June 13th, 2005

mrmrssmith

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Several reviews of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” relate the film to Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece “Trouble in Paradise,” and the comparison – while decidedly unfavorable toward the newer movie – is more than apt. Fans of the 1932 classic will certainly wonder if writer Simon Kinberg studied the brilliant scene in which two expert thieves seduce one another during a showcase of mutually spectacular pick-pocket skills; a similar sequence shows up in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” minus the deft, light-fingered touch that was Lubitsch’s signature. Of course, the characters Mr. and Mrs. Smith are world-class assassins, which provides the filmmakers with an opportunity to crank up the action at the expense of witty, sophisticated dialogue. Had the movie borrowed more from “Trouble in Paradise,” it might have been on to something.

Director Doug Liman, whose clever handling of energetic material in “Go” and “The Bourne Identity” proved that he could skillfully integrate brains and bullets, coasts by this time on the effortless charisma generated by topliners Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The marquee players have been catnip to the tabloids of late, which will undoubtedly heat up the box office receipts – at least initially. It’s too bad the movie is not as scorching as its leading duo. As it is, viewers have to settle for a toned-down PG-13 rumpus that emphasizes cartoonish violence, when the movie would have been significantly better had it focused on the trickier sexual politics attending the wild central conceit.

Well-documented as the subject of Kinberg’s master’s thesis at Columbia, the premise of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” would have us believe that this impossibly good looking couple, married for at least a half decade, have been able to keep their parallel livelihoods as contract killers secret from one another. The preposterousness of the situation hints at a rich subtext exploring the strains of routine and the perils of blocked intimacy, but “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” largely ignores its opportunities to say something about marriage. It turns out to be much easier to muzzle the talk and break out the machine guns instead.

There is no question Pitt and Jolie have appeal to spare, and one certainly expects that they will dominate the show, but “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” fails to develop any other important characters (sidekicks Kerry Washington and Vince Vaughn, doing his cute “Swingers” riff for the umpteenth time, barely register), which leaves the second half of the film desperately empty. Following a terrific knock-down melee in which the Smiths destroy their beautiful home en route to some tantalizing make-up sex, the movie settles for the commonplace sight of big-ticket car chases and shoot-outs.

With all this talent coming together, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” should have resisted playing to the lowest common denominator. At the beginning and end of the movie, Pitt and Jolie are posed in a two-shot, directly facing the audience. As each partner responds to questions, Liman’s coy, therapy session set-up hints at a hipper, sexier movie than the one we get when the Smiths aren’t visiting with their counselor (nicely voiced off-screen by William Fichtner). These scenes are worth so much more than the third-act pyrotechnics that stand-in for what passes as plot. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is worth seeing, but one gets the feeling that underneath the hype, it’s just another big budget movie far too dependent on special effects and razzle-dazzle.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/13/05.

Lords of Dogtown

Monday, June 6th, 2005

lordsofdogtown

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Catherine Hardwicke’s follow-up to her edgy “Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown” covers similar territory in its depiction of angst-ridden young people struggling with issues large and small. A fictionalized re-imagining of the rise and fall of Venice Beach’s legendary Zephyr skateboard team, “Lords” already enjoyed big screen success in Stacy Peralta’s 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” – not incidentally a much stronger film. While Peralta’s movie did a better job of profiling the personalities of the skaters, Hardwicke (working from a script by Peralta) settles in on the key trio: chronicler Peralta, flashy Tony Alva, and troubled Jay Adams. Ultimately too conventional to accurately account for the seismic pop-culture shock spawned by the Z-Boys, “Lords of Dogtown” is just intriguing enough to merit a look.

Like Peralta’s original, “Lords of Dogtown” traces the birth of skateboard culture to the Pacific Ocean Park pier, where hardcore surfers formed a tightly-knit group of friends committed to the “locals only” philosophy. Led by Zephyr surf shop owner Skip Engblom (colorfully portrayed by Heath Ledger in a performance that immediately calls to mind Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in “The Doors”), a gang of younger wannabes latches on to the dubious role model in what proves to be an interestingly symbiotic relationship. With the introduction of urethane wheels, which enable the skaters to emulate surfer moves on asphalt, Engblom launches a competitive team – along with a plan to sell skateboards with the Zephyr logo to kids who want to imitate the radical youngsters in Engblom’s somewhat elite company.

What follows is a fairly standard series of scenes that recounts the history of street skating at ground zero. Southern California’s mid-70s water shortage opened up a concrete ocean of drained swimming pools, and the Z-Boys were quick to invent and perfect the jaw-dropping moves that are now familiar to millions of kids. Hardwicke manages to recreate much of the electrifying awe that accompanied the very first sightings of Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk) going vertical over the lip of the bowl, and many other well-known photographs by Craig Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman are also lovingly, faithfully reproduced.

The skating is much better than the melodramatic renderings of the central characters’ personal lives, which all end up reduced to recognizable screen tropes. As Jay Adams, Emile Hirsch leaves the strongest impression. Adams was never able to ride his board to commercial success (both Peralta and Alva quickly capitalized on their skills, despite the fact that Adams was every bit their equal on a deck), and his story arc hints at the frustration and pain he experienced, even as it mostly sidesteps his substance abuse problems. Perhaps erring on the side of modesty, screenwriter Peralta has himself portrayed by beautiful, golden-haired John Robinson as a pretty square, straight shooter. Despite Robinson’s pleasantness, Peralta fails to give himself anything approaching complexity.

Alva’s role is just as underdeveloped, despite Rasuk’s best efforts to mimic the famous pro’s penchant for fast cars and attractive young women. Nikki Reed teams again with Hardwicke, playing Alva’s sexy sister, who ends up as one of the points in a love triangle with Peralta and Adams. Compared to the version of history presented in “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” “Lords of Dogtown” applies a nostalgic gloss, concocting composite characters and ignoring several influential figures. As a summer diversion and with the help of a great soundtrack, however, the movie often capitalizes on its youthful energy. That said, it would be criminal to see “Lords” without taking in “Dogtown and Z-Boys” as a companion piece.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/6/05.