Archive for August, 2005

The Brothers Grimm

Monday, August 29th, 2005

2005brothersgrimmMovie review by Greg Carlson

Despite a faithful fan following that clings to the memories of fabulous work like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Brazil,” Terry Gilliam remains one of the most disappointing major filmmakers of the last thirty-plus years. While many of Gilliam’s visually rich motion pictures contain stunning moments from one of the most expansive and outsized imaginations in cinema, the overall impact of the director’s work is muted and deflated by an incomprehensibleness that challenges the most dedicated viewer. Movies like “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “Twelve Monkeys,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” are easier to admire than to actually watch. Sadly, “The Brothers Grimm” cannot be added to that list, as it is neither admirable nor watchable.

Hopelessly miscast, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger star as the famous storytellers, here remolded into oily con artists who prey on superstitious villagers willing to pay hard cash in exchange for Napoleonic-era ghostbusting and exorcism. Will and Jake, as the boys dubiously call each other, blithely travel from town to town in French-occupied territory until their ruse is sniffed out. Facing gruesome torture at the hands of weird officer Cavaldi (Peter Stormare, generally out-acting his hairpiece) the Grimms are spared when a legitimate series of kidnappings in Marbaden depends upon their investigation.

It is difficult to gauge exactly when “The Brothers Grimm” goes off the rails, but it happens early. Gilliam seems happiest constructing ornate set-pieces that literally reconstruct magical theatrics driven by the ancient machinery of crafty showmen. The problem, however, is that the curtain is pulled back too far, and the wonder is mostly sucked out of the spectacle. One of the movie’s central ideas – that the Grimms encounter several of the “real” inspirations for their folkloric narratives – sounds much better on paper than its execution. From Little Red Riding Hood to Snow White to Rapunzel to Hansel and Gretel and even the Gingerbread Man, “The Brothers Grimm” accumulates its fairy tale pedigree so quickly and haphazardly none of the individual characters (including Wilhelm and Jacob) ever takes flight. It borders on painful to report that “Shrek” does all of this much, much better.

“The Brothers Grimm” also invites comparison to lumbering behemoths like “Van Helsing” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” two other movies that struggle mightily to blend well-known literary characters with a hip sense of ironic modernism. None of these movies really works on any level, and all succumb to the bluster of explosions and special effects that do absolutely nothing to enhance, extend, or expand the legacies of the intriguing personalities that originally sprang to life on the printed page. It seems as if Gilliam and the other filmmakers are convinced that the subjects are so well-known that attention can be paid instead to noisy, numbing (and CG-aided) hallucinations and apparitions. Without compelling personalities, however, the movie just falls flat.

In “The Brothers Grimm” everything feels unwieldy, awkward, and burdensome (especially Matt Damon’s ridiculous hairstyle and accent). Not even the presence of gorgeous Monica Bellucci, as a wicked queen desperate to regain her youthfulness, mitigates the thudding gloom. Lena Headey, as a cursed tracker named Angelika, reportedly landed the role when Harvey Weinstein refused to sign Samantha Morton (Gilliam’s first choice). Ms. Morton should send flowers, a thank you card, and breathe a sigh of sweet relief.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/29/05.

Broken Flowers

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

2006brokenflowersMovie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch, a longtime cult favorite among fans of smart, self-aware comedies pregnant with arid wit, has made one of the year’s best films in “Broken Flowers.” Equally crafty and stirring, the great filmmaker forges a terrific partnership with Bill Murray, who previously appeared with the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA and RZA in Jarmusch’s black and white “Coffee and Cigarettes” omnibus. This time, the movie is in color, and Frederick Elmes’ masterful photography delights the eye – particularly in the presentation of the many vivid pink objects that become clues in the movie’s central, unsolvable mystery.

Murray’s charming stoicism matches Jarmusch’s drollery beat for beat, so it is somehow perfect that the actor plays a character named Don Johnston, a well-chosen moniker that allows for several instances of purposeful comparison to both legendary lothario Don Juan and “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson. A newly retired computer expert content to lounge catatonically on his sofa in a comfy tracksuit, Don’s long term womanizing and inability to emotionally commit are summed up by departing lover Sherry (Julie Delpy), who leaves without eliciting much more than a look of resignation from Don.

Showing no signs of outward despair at the dissolution of his most recent relationship, Don hangs out with next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a hardworking family man who by all appearances possesses everything that Don lacks. Sherry’s exit coincides with the arrival of an anonymous letter that suggests – in red ink on pink stationary – that Don fathered a son nearly twenty years ago. Winston insists that the strange note presents Don with an opportunity to seek out the mother of his child, and the amateur sleuth convinces Don to track down the women who shared his company two decades ago. Armed with Mapquest directions and a mix CD featuring Mulatu Astatke, Don begins his quest.

Employing Jarmusch’s easygoing, episodic structure, Don’s odyssey brings him face to face with four of the five women who might have sent the message (one, Don ruefully learns, is deceased). The reunion set-pieces are intriguing glimpses into the many paths one’s life can take, and the veteran performers are all superbly cast (although an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton has to make the most of fleeting screen time). Following an eye-opening interlude with Nabakovian daughter Lolita (an effervescent Alexis Dziena), Don reconnects with widow Laura (Sharon Stone), whose husband literally went up in flames in his racecar. Dora (Frances Conroy) lives with husband Ron (Christopher McDonald) in an antiseptic McMansion light years away from her flower child days. Animal communicator Carmen (Jessica Lange) seems startled by Don’s surprise arrival, and is relieved when her skeptical receptionist (Chloe Sevigny) interrupts to cut the visit short.

By the time Don arrives at the home of Penny (Swinton), Jarmusch has made it clear that the journey has been the destination. Audiences seeking some kind of conclusive answer or solution to Don’s original mission are likely to be disappointed, but Jarmusch treats his story and his characters with such dignity and interest, wrapping things up with a ribbon would have been an insult and a miscalculation (though Jarmusch die-hards will spend much time debating whether the film’s coda goes too far). At its best, however, “Broken Flowers” bears the signature Jarmusch touches that make his best films – like “Mystery Train” and “Dead Man” – sparkle with a certain lovely, inimitable distinctiveness.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/22/05.

Hustle & Flow

Monday, August 15th, 2005

2005hustleMovie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow” has already been the subject of much discussion regarding its depiction of a Memphis pimp who dreams of hip-hop stardom as a way out of his miserable economic straits. Cinema routinely depicts unsavory anti-heroes and morally compromised protagonists, but the inherent misogyny of pimping makes the possibility of telling a balanced story much more complex than the filmmaker can handle. While “Hustle & Flow” sticks close to its “everybody gotta have a dream” mantra, aping the rags to riches formula that fuels the American desire for success, it remains too timid to explore its central character as anything other than the gold-hearted patriarch of a dysfunctional family.

Terrence Howard, as DJay, is so good in the lead role that one occasionally overlooks the hokey simplicity of the movie’s well-worn formula. Howard brings his character to vivid life, and it is only the film’s writing that fails him. Delivering wise, weary monologues in his beat up whip, DJay’s aspirations to create something bigger than himself extend well beyond the paltry existence he scratches out by exploiting a trio of unfortunate young women. Sharing his innermost thoughts with the hard working Nola (Taryn Manning), DJay makes clear his restless lack of satisfaction, and Howard’s interpretation is magnetic.

A chance encounter with Key (Anthony Anderson), an old high school acquaintance, opens the door for DJay to record some of his own rhymes. Despite the objections of Key’s nervous wife Yevette (Elise Neal), the two men set up shop in DJay’s sweltering house, and begin tinkering with sounds and rhythms. Realizing they need some additional expertise, Key enlists Shelby (DJ Qualls), an enthusiastic church organist who knows his way around samplers and synthesizers, to craft some hooks for the songs. Surprisingly, the trio makes impressive progress in short order, and the audience begins to share in their excitement.

DJay’s women are unfortunately seen by Brewer as a means to an end as opposed to full-fledged creative partners in the pimp’s musical efforts. In one harrowing scene, DJay forces Nola to have sex with a sleazy pawnshop proprietor in exchange for an expensive microphone he needs to record his vocals. Another of DJay’s whores named Shug (Taraji P. Henson) turns out to have the singing voice of an angel, but her fawning dependency on DJay is so overwhelming it flirts with caricature. Henson works wonders as the pregnant Shug, but like most of the film’s characters, is hamstrung by writing that humiliates more than it challenges.

A tour-de-force set piece near the end of the film demonstrates some potent directorial skill, as DJay nervously approaches a successful rapper (played by Ludacris) with his demo tape. It is during this section that Brewer comes the closest to realizing the movie’s potential dramatic impact, and he constructs the scene with a sure-handed sense of escalating tension and dread. For the rest of its running time, however, “Hustle & Flow” careens between authenticity and self-parody so often it never manages to find a consistent personality (it doesn’t help that Brewer buys in to the idea that becoming famous and having ridiculous amounts of money are life’s only worthy goals). The film’s outstanding acting never quite compensates for this, but it comes close.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/15/05.

The Dukes of Hazzard

Monday, August 8th, 2005

2005dukesMovie review by Greg Carlson

Another questionable TV series turned feature, the big screen “Dukes of Hazzard” arrives in theatres likely to draw the coveted young male demographic. With its attention span-deprived plotting and its healthy doses of fast cars and attractive young women, the film remains surprisingly faithful to its small screen counterpart, which ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985. Despite the objections of actor Ben Jones, who played the original TV Cooter, the new feature is nearly harmless, and it would be a close call to say which of the two versions deserves the crown for stupidity.

Penned by John O’Brien, who applied the same kind of updating to “Starsky & Hutch,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” is content to stick with its redneck milieu, quickly sketching a weak crisis about saving Uncle Jesse’s farm from the clutches of Boss Hogg. Director Jay Chandrasekhar, of Broken Lizard, is certainly no Preston Sturges, but he knows his way around comedy, and “Dukes” delivers laughs in at least half of its attempts. The well-loved roles are appropriately filled (the one exception being M.C. Gainey’s particularly nasty rendering of Rosco P. Coletrane, which lacks the bumbling charm first brought to the part by James Best).

Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott play Luke and Bo Duke, “cousins closer than brothers” who run moonshine in their bright orange Dodge Charger, the General Lee. Elevating inanity to levels approaching the central duo in “Dumb and Dumber,” there is no gag too idiotic, no line too infantile for the hillbilly pair. Jessica Simpson, to much fanfare, pulls on the Daisy Dukes, but despite the hard work she put in with a dialogue coach and a personal trainer, comes across as a mostly blank Barbie whose sole function is to employ her sexuality to wiggle Bo and Luke out of tight spots with the law.

The sometimes clever casting extends to include Willie Nelson as a wisecracking Uncle Jesse (i.e., Q: “Why are divorces so expensive?” A: “Because they’re worth it”) and Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg. Given the sorry state of the screenplay, Nelson’s part proves the more fun of the two, and the legendary songwriter navigates it with sleepy-eyed comfort. The movie naturally provides Nelson with a marijuana gag – an easy laugh, but typical of the fare this movie has to offer. Of the supporting players, Kevin Heffernan also manages to grab a few chuckles as Sheev, a dim-bulb buffoon who comes to the aid of the Duke boys as a kind of surrogate Cooter. The underrated David Koechner, playing Cooter, does not get as much screen time as Heffernan but should – he is always very funny.

Not much is done in the way of retooling the spinning tires, barroom fisticuffs, and flaming arrows that defined the original series, but a road trip to Atlanta provides the movie with a hollow opportunity to excuse itself for keeping the Confederate flag emblem on the roof of the General Lee. Perplexed by the reactions of passersby (ranging from angry gestures to hearty endorsements) during a traffic jam, Bo and Luke play innocent. Far from turning into a referendum on racist remnants of the Civil War, “The Dukes of Hazzard” is quite content to put its pedal to the metal to get back where it belongs: a dusty road rally that concludes with a feel-good, celebratory barbecue.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/8/05.

Stealth

Monday, August 1st, 2005

2005stealth2Movie review by Greg Carlson

A preposterous slice of military escapism, “Stealth” is so far removed from reality that it might best be considered a work of science fiction. Whipping up a head-scratching concoction of such disparate influences as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Top Gun,” “Stealth” works up a sweat over the moral cost of high-tech war while simultaneously making sure to blow things up every few minutes. Penned by cult fave W.D. Richter, “Stealth” might have been a more interesting film had it been realized by a different director. In the hands of Rob Cohen, however, the order of the day is vertigo-inducing action that bears a stronger resemblance to a video game than to a well-plotted novel.

Flinty naval officer George Cummings (Sam Shepard, whose talents might have been put to better use on a script rewrite), eager to cement his legacy, introduces an artificially intelligent fighter jet to his cocky trio of super-pilots. Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Kara Wade (Jessica Biel), and Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) are skeptical; their prowess in the skies depends on intangible nuances and “big picture” thinking that cannot be replicated by a computer, no matter how well it has been programmed. The robot aircraft, nicknamed EDI, proves its mettle during a test run, in which a Rangoon-based terror cell is neutralized without any collateral damage.

EDI is able to learn from Gannon and company, and coupled with an electrical storm that rewires the plane’s “brain,” develops an attitude that makes Tom Cruise’s Maverick look like a slavish follower of orders. EDI also appears to enjoy music, and downloads every song on the Internet. With unlimited access to Mozart, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, and Miles Davis, one really begins to question EDI’s sanity when Incubus gets cranked every time the jet takes flight. Voiced by Wentworth Miller, EDI sounds an awful lot like Douglas Rain’s HAL 9000, and the similarities precariously straddle the line between homage and parody. “Stealth” even apes the famous “2001” lip-reading scene, and Kubrick fans will either smile or grimace at the nod.

In the tradition of the volleyball scene in “Top Gun,” “Stealth” offers a picturesque interlude set against the beauty of Thailand. Frolicking about in swimsuits, Gannon and Wade pose for pictures in front of gorgeous waterfalls, and spend the majority of the time making eyes at each other. Cohen skips out on a love scene, however, preferring instead to escalate the romantic tension. Purcell hooks up with a local beauty, but Foxx’s scenes serve only as a reminder that he is not likely to be playing thankless supporting roles in his next few movies.

Surprisingly, “Stealth” manages a few excellent sequences, and a gripping rendering of Wade ejecting from her ruined cockpit and plummeting to earth surrounded by flaming debris breathes life into the beginning of the third act. Despite the similarities to “Behind Enemy Lines,” Wade’s crash landing in North Korea sets up a secondary plotline that offers some relief from the shenanigans surrounding EDI, Gannon, and EDI’s Seattle-based designer, Keith Orbit (Richard Roxburgh). Sure, “Stealth” is dunderheaded, loud, and humorless, but several of the CG-aided aerial dogfights offer enough punch to satisfy thrill seekers, and the simplistic, black and white, good-versus-evil depiction of the United States is a throwback to movies of the Reagan era.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/1/05.