Archive for September, 2005

Roll Bounce

Monday, September 26th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A charming and good-natured comedy suitable for nearly all ages, “Roll Bounce” employs the familiar competition/contest formula as the framework for a nostalgic look back at the late 1970s and the popular pastime of indoor roller-skating. Anyone old enough to remember having a blast on quad-wheeled, lace-up skates will smile at the impeccable production design of “Roll Bounce’s” glitzy Sweetwater rink, a bustling bazaar of coin-op video and pinball games, spinning disco balls, smooth-talking disc jockeys, and ridiculously talented skaters. Jam-packed with well-chosen period tunes, “Roll Bounce” never quite catches fire, but it is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Starring Bow Wow as Xavier “X” Smith, a Chicago teenager mourning the death of his mother, “Roll Bounce” introduces a number of memorable characters in support of the lead performer. Chi McBride plays X’s dad Curtis, a stern but loving patriarch struggling to hide his own fear and sorrow from his two children. X’s close-knit group of friends contribute to the film’s ever-present spirit of camaraderie, but it is new neighbor Tori (Jurnee Smollett), a novice skater saddled with a set of unwelcome braces, who forges a warm bond with the moody X. Despite the boys’ relentless ridiculing of her orthodontic accoutrement, Tori gives as good as she gets, and her scrappy personality makes her right at home among her new pals.

Screenwriter Norman Vance Jr. and director Malcolm D. Lee focus the majority of their attention on the family drama of X and Curtis coming to terms with their loss, but the movie never completely neglects the skating, which is always photographed and edited with pulse-quickening verve. Much of the action on the rink is dominated by X’s rival Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan), a self-confident amalgam of Prince and James Brown, whose liquid moves have dominated the annual skating contest for several years in a row. Despite his glaring two-dimensionality, Sweetness is something to see on roller skates.

“Roll Bounce” also squeezes in a tentative love interest for X, an old acquaintance named Naomi (the tremendously charismatic Meagan Good), who initially seems more than willing to give X a chance, but grows increasingly impatient with his awkward inability to manage even a couples’ skate. “Roll Bounce” falters with this storyline, never taking the time to develop Naomi’s character – which is a shame, given the welcome presence of Good. Interestingly, Tori encourages X to pursue Naomi, and the filmmakers must be commended for eschewing the predictability of a rivalry for X’s affections.

At times, “Roll Bounce” might remind viewers of episodic television, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The movie often resembles the pilot of a series, with its multiple storylines and parade of eccentric bit-players (including comical turns by Mike Epps and Charlie Murphy as sanitation workers, and Nick Cannon and Wayne Brady as roller rink employees). Additionally, the period vibe of childhood – from the sights and sounds of the Atari 2600 to the neighborhood water balloon fights – blends perfectly with the exciting skating sequences, several of which are breathtaking highlights of the movie.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/26/05.

Lord of War

Monday, September 19th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

An often gripping tale of a successful, self-made, illegal arms dealer, “Lord of War” doesn’t always hit its target, but its unique subject matter makes it worth a look. Writer-director Andrew Niccol, who wrote “The Truman Show” and directed “Gattaca” and “Simone,” brings his knack for off-center concepts to a timely (and timeless) political conundrum: the grotesque abundance of small arms and the ease with which they are placed in the hands of the world’s poorest and most disenfranchised people. “Lord of War” employs a bleak sense of humor to mask some of its horror, but in the end, nobody will feel much like laughing.

Nicolas Cage plays Yuri Orlov, the son of hardworking Ukrainian immigrants in Little Odessa, where Yuri grows up with brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) in the shadow of mob violence. In a darkly comic epiphany, Yuri realizes that going into the gun business is like going into the restaurant business: people are compelled to kill one another in the same way they are compelled to eat. With little more than his significant self-confidence and skill with languages, Yuri transforms himself into the world’s premier firearms dealer, selling weaponry to any war-torn region that will meet his reasonable prices.

Yuri manages to convince himself – and likely a few of the audience members – that his occupation merely represents the realities of free market economics. What his buyers do with the munitions once they leave Yuri’s possession is entirely beyond his control. It’s a chilling display of cognitive dissonance, particularly when Niccol depicts executions, murder, and mayhem carried out by children scarcely large enough to shoulder Yuri’s reliable Kalashnikovs. Only dogged Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) believes that shutting down Yuri’s operation will extend some lives – if only for a day or two.

As a result of Niccol’s convoluted moralizing, “Lord of War” fails to deliver a knockout punch – the impressive special effects often fetishize and glorify the violence Niccol intends to deride. Additionally, Yuri’s voiceover narration reveals the protagonist to be wholly vacant on the inside as well as the outside. Niccol wants to show us that Yuri is almost completely numb to the chaos he so willingly abets, but the character’s amorality renders any sense of audience affinity nearly impossible. Vitaly, whose cocaine addiction helps him deal with his brother’s ugly profession, struggles to become Yuri’s conscience, but the strain is greater than either of them can bear.

For the most part, “Lord of War” unfolds with the same cynical detachment embraced by Yuri, and Niccol manages to address some issues more effectively than others. Underwritten is Bridget Moynahan’s role as Yuri’s wife, a woman who chooses to look the other way as long as the money keeps rolling in. A hair-raising relationship between Yuri and self-appointed Liberian president Andre Baptiste (Eamonn Walker) suggests that both men are possibly psychotic – Baptiste for his willingness to kill at the slightest provocation and Yuri for his willingness to do business in Baptiste’s dangerous company. “Lord of War” produces too much queasiness to be totally satisfying, but its ability to provoke thought should attract anyone interested in global politics.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/19/05.

Red Eye

Monday, September 12th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Red Eye,” beloved genre director Wes Craven deftly handles a ridiculously illogical screenplay that reaches for the single-mindedness of Hitchcock thrillers like “Rope” and “Lifeboat.” Brief in both duration and intellect, “Red Eye” keeps expectations low as it races through its mostly predictable contents and coasts on the charm of its attractive leads Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. Set almost entirely on an overnight Dallas to Miami flight, the film will only please viewers tantalized by high-concept, single location pressure cookers such as “Phone Booth” and “Panic Room.” “Red Eye” surely deserves points for its conciseness, but the overall effect is muted by a familiar climax enlivened chiefly by Craven’s always impressive ability to handle spine-tingling suspense.

McAdams plays resourceful Lux Atlantic front desk manager Lisa Reisert, a multi-tasker who can handle any emergency that comes her way. This is fortunate indeed, for Lisa ends up seated next to dashing charmer Jackson Rippner (Murphy), whose moniker alone should trigger alarm bells. Once the plane takes wing, Rippner delivers some alarming news: if Lisa refuses to use her authority to move the deputy director of Homeland Security into a different suite back at the hotel, the baddies will murder her father. Craven brushes aside the implausibility of the request (a seaside room, the thinking goes, offers the would-be assassins a clearer shot at the VIP) and starts to tighten the screws.

Craven manages to wring plenty of thrills out of the thin screenplay, but the tight-quartered setting ultimately proves to be as much of a liability as a conceptual strength. Unfortunately, the script introduces several passengers (the unaccompanied minor, the kindly senior citizen, the irate and impatient jerk, etc.) without developing the possibilities of their participation in the unfolding drama. Instead, each of the background players simply provides a fleeting moment that bumps the plot forward. The idea is that Lisa must dig down deep and rely only on herself and her wits, but “Red Eye” might have been more interesting had it developed a few of the peripheral characters.

Despite the always welcome presence of Brian Cox, who plays Lisa’s imperiled father, even the people close to Lisa fade into the background. The arguable exception is Lisa’s plucky underling Cynthia (Jayma Mays), who always seems on the verge of melting into a puddle when confronted with challenging hotel business. Mays, in a delightful performance, takes the plight of the harried, service industry people-pleaser to giddy ends, and Craven relishes the opportunity to play her limited screen time for laughs.

By the time the plane touches down, a few of “Red Eye’s” bolts have rattled loose. Lisa’s sprint through the airport with Rippner at her heels is so unlikely one wonders if the entire design is some tongue in cheek criticism of post 9/11 security conditions. Even more preposterous is the staging of the final cat-and-mouse showdown, at the home of Lisa’s pop (fortunately for her, the old man has kept her room – including her field hockey stick – just as it was when she was growing up). The saving grace of the movie’s by-the-numbers climax is Craven’s skill at shooting the scary hide and seek between Lisa and Rippner, and the director creeps through hallways and behind doors with chilling effectiveness. Perhaps next time the veteran will have better material.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/12/05.

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Monday, September 5th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Multi-talented visual and performing artist Miranda July delivers an incredibly sure-handed feature film debut with “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” easily one of the year’s most insightful and challenging movies. Having already collected prizes at major film festivals, July’s film is a triumph of ensemble performing, especially noteworthy for the remarkable portrayals offered by young children. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” belongs to that category of offbeat, one-of-a-kind tales that inspire fervent cult followings but little mainstream box office success. Ironically, the hardcore supporters like it this way, as the movie can comfortably remain a secret treasure shared via enthusiastic word of mouth, without the risk of becoming too popular.

Set in the technologically dominated suburban present, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” resembles in many ways the work of Todd Solondz, but bursts with a warmth and humanism often missing from films like “Happiness” and “Storytelling.” While Solondz often highlights the grim and the cynical, July embraces a refreshing hopefulness that only occasionally skirts the edges of too-cute preciousness. Both directors depict frank sexual situations involving children, and both directors are capable of triggering feelings of queasiness as a result of these situations. While “Me and You and Everyone We Know” contains scenes that might unnerve parents of pre-teen and teenage kids, July refuses to judge the actions of her characters, and the result is a scary but bracing look at the ways in which young people navigate the treacherous waters of sexual curiosity and initiation.

Skittish viewers will wince at some of July’s more graphic content, but the director’s range is so far-reaching and original, viewers can readily grasp what July is saying about our inability to find fulfillment and connection with other people. In one jaw-dropping scene, Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) composes a scatological scenario so outrageous it fuels the fantasy of a chat-room correspondent who has no idea that a six-year-old is on the other end of the conversation. Another storyline details the dangerous flirtation between two young girls and an older man. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is not reducible to its preoccupation with sex, however, and its central storyline plays with the conventions of the traditional romantic comedy.

Writer-director July plays Christine, a struggling artist who pays the rent by chauffeuring elderly passengers on daily errands. Christine’s path intersects with Richard (a superb John Hawkes), a terrified shoe salesman dealing with a painful separation from the mother of his two boys. Both characters suffer from indignities both tiny and substantial, and July and Hawkes manage to convey complex interiority in a compelling and utterly believable manner. What makes “Me and You and Everyone We Know” work so well is July’s willingness to show Christine and Richard as imperfect, and their limitations and weaknesses – Christine’s passive-aggressive desperation and Richard’s irresponsible self-abuse both physical and psychological – forge their personalities into recognizable images of ourselves.

Along with July and Hawkes, the rest of the actors make memorable impressions. Ratcliff and Miles Thompson, as Richard’s sons, demonstrate the heartbreaking confusion resulting from parental break-up. Carlie Westerman, as an obsessive collector of home appliances, employs her hobby as a bulwark against potential pain, and her meticulously appointed hope chest reminds us of her own deepest worries and anxieties. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is filled with wondrous moments, though some will likely find the relentless self-documentation overpoweringly syrupy. Others will respond to the film’s dogged determination and its indomitable spiritedness. Either way, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” is not easy to forget.

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