Archive for October, 2005

The Weather Man

Monday, October 31st, 2005

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Cold, blustery, and with occasional gusts of unwelcome wind, “The Weather Man” doesn’t forecast an enjoyable time at the cinema. A strange cocktail of gloomy, woe-is-me navel-gazing and droll, observant comedy, Gore Verbinski’s latest film is more likely than not to keep the director trained on helming the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and away from introspective character studies. “The Weather Man” is not awful by any means, but the strain of delivering a convincingly sympathetic story with a privileged, successful, white male at its center turns out to be more than Verbinski, screenwriter Steve Conrad, and star Nicolas Cage can handle.

With its nervous Hans Zimmer score and the austere photography of Phedon Papamichael, “The Weather Man” aspires to an “American Beauty” level of artfulness. The movie’s narrative, however, seems to have much less at stake than “Beauty,” and unlike that film, only a single character is explored in depth. Cage’s performance as Dave Spritz, a Chicago TV personality whose personal life is in shambles, is solid as ever, but Spritz is so irritable as to become irritating, and the result often alienates him from the viewer. The filmmakers also miscalculate the effect of the voiceover narration, in this case a completely unnecessary addition at turns mawkish and grating.

Despite the fact that his job is easy to perform and financially lucrative (he is even in the running for a plum spot on a national morning program hosted by Bryant Gumbel, who turns up in an odd cameo appearance), Dave sees himself as insignificant and his career path as trivial. Constantly trying to measure up to his ailing father Robert (Michael Caine), a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Dave believes his own failed marriage is a disgrace. His ex-wife Noreen (Hope Davis) has moved on, and he strains to connect with his two kids, both of whom deal with awkwardly contrived, plot-device problems.

“The Weather Man” wants to be taken pretty seriously, so it is somewhat puzzling why one of the movie’s running gags is the sight of Dave being pelted by all manner of fast food: hot apple pies, milkshakes, Big Gulps, and other assorted edibles adorn Dave’s coat far more often than one believes is reasonable – even in a market the size of Chicago. Perhaps the film is trying to say something about the cost of minor celebrity (one piece of narration leads Dave to identify himself with the disposable nature of the disgusting victuals heaved at his person), but the frequency of the bombardments rings false.

Verbinski milks a great many take-them-or-leave-them symbols for all they are worth. Dave’s interest in archery wavers between a calming, Zen-like tonic and a borderline psychotic outlet for misplaced rage. The director also develops another genuinely strange preoccupation with the phenomenon of the “camel-toe,” which factors more prominently than one initially expects. Another subplot concerning a pedophile drug counselor seems dropped in for good measure, but none of this material ultimately satisfies. The result is a film that leaves the viewer as out of sorts as its frustrated, confused protagonist.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/31/05.

North Country

Monday, October 24th, 2005

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Whale Rider,” a wonderful feature, director Niki Caro’s success was built on her fierce devotion to the story’s characters, most of whom seemed alive with the nuances and details we recognize in our friends, family members, and ourselves. Sadly, that significant trait is absent in “North Country,” a disappointing, by-the-numbers drama that never manages to break out of its movie-of-the-week mold. What should have been an inspiring and richly observed tale of an underdog fighting for justice plays like a barely-veiled grab for Academy Award nominations and recognition as an important examination of social action.

Unlike “North Country’s” spiritual predecessor “Norma Rae,” depth is eschewed for virtual two-dimensionality, and the results are typically shrill and painfully transparent. Very loosely based on Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s “Class Action,” “North Country” reduces the landmark sexual harassment saga to a hilariously truncated game of connect the dots in which a final-act courtroom scene throws credibility to the wind (before a catatonic judge, witnesses are flipped, badgered, and literally screamed at). Even worse, the focus of the trial shifts from the iron mine’s complicity in the negative work climate to the plaintiff’s sexual past.

As Josey Aimes, Charlize Theron attempts another unglamorous transformation, but unlike “Monster,” “North Country” is content to glide along the surface of its primary character’s personal struggles. Theron manages to act her way around several unflattering bi-level shag and fe-mullet haircuts, but she falls short of convincing as a Minnesota ironworker. “North Country” also enlists Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, and Richard Jenkins, who turn in decent if forgettable work. Of the principal cast, Jenkins has the opportunity to play the strongest scene, a heartfelt admonishment to his “brothers” at an ugly union meeting.

In the plus column, veteran director of photography Chris Menges expertly captures the bleak austerity of the Iron Range, and Caro depicts the perils of mine work with a sense of queasy anticipation. The various indignities and humiliations visited upon the female employees, which range from disgusting verbal assaults to obscene encounters with excrement and semen, remind us that institutionalized sexism was (and in many cases, is still) an ongoing threat. Some of the harassing behavior turns physical, and one can only imagine how many other kinds of disgraceful encounters were endured.

It is frustrating, then, that “North Country” turns on a revelation from Josey’s past and not on her refusal to be silenced. The “big secret” that is disclosed in the course of the trial raises several issues that should not be ignored. It is only after the immaterial information comes to light that Josey’s co-workers stand with her against the mine. For the sake of cinematic drama, Josey is apparently more acceptable once the stigma of her “indiscretions” has been transformed into something that can be pitied. While it is certainly true that sometimes in life little things matter far more than they should, “North Country” squanders an opportunity to present a fictionalized account of a groundbreaking case without insisting that we make a saint out of a person who should have been recognized for merely asking to be treated with basic dignity and respect.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/24/05.

Domino

Monday, October 17th, 2005

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A colossally stupid movie that fails to entertain on even a basic level, Tony Scott’s “Domino” makes “Man on Fire” look like Chekhov by comparison. A winking fantasy based only tangentially on the life of recently deceased former bounty hunter Domino Harvey, Scott’s tale is dominated by his signature stylistics: jump cuts, action in reverse, saturated and de-saturated imagery, jittery handheld photography, fish-eye lenses, and just about any other flashy trick one can imagine. The whole mess, stitched together in such a way as to make viewers physically sick, is shocking only for its lack of intelligence.

Keira Knightley struggles mightily to do something with the title role, but Richard Kelly’s unimaginative writing leaves no room for any of the film’s actors to develop interesting or memorable characterizations. Instead, the movie is content to focus on gunplay and explosions, which seem to take place in every other scene. With a chopped-up narrative that connects bits and pieces of Domino’s chronology through an interrogation by FBI agent Lucy Liu, “Domino” makes the mistake of putting too many balls in the air at the same time. Plots skitter and scamper without any care taken to see that they really benefit the film.

A perfunctory introduction dragged down by unnecessary voiceover narration lets us know that Domino Harvey was the wealthy but bored daughter of actor Laurence Harvey and model Paulene Stone (Scott cannot resist showing clips of “The Manchurian Candidate” on a background TV). Among other things, Domino must contend with the odd attention of her co-worker Choco (Edgar Ramirez), a fellow bounty hunter whose inability to profess his love results in his insistence on speaking Spanish to Domino, even though she cannot understand one word. Late in the movie, when everything has completely fallen apart, Domino and Choco engage in some mescaline-fueled sex following a road accident. It doesn’t make any sense, but then, little in this movie does.

In other tossed-together storylines, Domino ends up the star of a reality TV show hosted by “Beverly Hills, 90210” thesps Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, playing themselves. Christopher Walken, normally able to at least rescue his own performance when stuck in bad movies, plays the show’s producer, but disappears after a scene or two. Domino also gets mixed up in the fallout from a head-scratching phony driver’s license scheme involving a close associate of her boss Mickey Rourke (who is nowhere near as interesting as he was in “Sin City”). On top of all that, an armored car heist, a Vegas casino standoff, and a desert shootout serve as opportunities to spend hundreds of rounds of ammo.

“Domino” adds up to exactly zero, and oddly, for a movie that revels in the lurid aspects of its subject’s life, chooses not to address Harvey’s well-documented drug addiction. Harvey herself appears at the end of the movie, and served as a consultant to Scott, to whom she had sold the rights to make a fictional version of her life story. “Domino” ends with a dedication to Harvey, and her death marks a dismal end to her tale. “Domino” is certainly no great tribute, as it does not reveal anything of substance about its heroine, an attractive young woman of privilege who chose to practice a dangerous profession.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/17/05.

Grizzly Man

Monday, October 10th, 2005

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Admirers of veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog’s impressive body of work will not want to miss “Grizzly Man,” an engrossing documentary that blends Herzog’s ferocious hunger for knowledge with a hair-raising tale of one man’s fatal relationship with the wild bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Like so many of Herzog’s oddities, outcasts, and misguided iconoclasts, subject Timothy Treadwell embarks on a seemingly mad and certainly reckless journey of self-discovery that requires participation in unthinkably perilous behavior as a measure of one’s mettle. “Grizzly Man” reveals immediately that Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by a bear (or bears) in October of 2003, and Herzog uses the incident as a jumping-off point for a discussion of, among other things, the desire for celebrity and the commodification of nature for personal gain.

“Grizzly Man” is comprised largely of Treadwell’s own video footage, which he began compiling in 1999. Shot in the style of a Discovery Channel or Animal Planet series in which a “Crocodile Hunter” host lays it on thick while presumably teaching viewers something about the wild, Treadwell’s clips tell us a great deal more about Treadwell than the animals he claims he is there to protect. Several times, Treadwell loses his thread and launches into profanity-laced, paranoid rants in which he casts himself as a lone champion of the bears. Herzog occasionally comments in voiceover, but Treadwell does not need any help in terms of making himself sound like a raving, delusional, and terribly naive fool.

With his sandy, Prince Valiant locks and his surfer dude attitude, Treadwell seems much younger than his real age (he was born in 1957), and his playful, child-like demeanor contributes to a sense of arrested development. He calls the bears by pet names like Mr. Chocolate and Sergeant Brown, and tells the animals over and over how much he loves them. Several times, Treadwell breaks down in tears on camera as he struggles to explain just how closely he identifies with these creatures (in one absolutely hilarious moment, Treadwell chokes up over what he thinks is a dead bee). While Herzog manipulates the chronology of some of the footage, Treadwell emerges as a deeply troubled person whose inability to connect with human society fascinates the director.

Treadwell’s close encounters with the 800-pound behemoths are often breathtaking, and Herzog clearly admires his subject’s devotion to single-minded documentation. Several times, Treadwell finds himself nose to nose with a bear, and his determined tactics to interact peacefully with the animals are chilling to see. Treadwell became so accustomed to turning on his video camera whenever a bear wandered by, an audio recording of his own death was captured on tape (the lens cap was not removed). Herzog uses this harrowing piece of information to stage the film’s most compelling moment – rather than share the gruesome sounds with the audience, Herzog chooses to withhold them, and unheard attack ripples through the viewer’s imagination.

Herzog’s voice, clear and unflinching in its directness, provides the ideal counterpoint to Treadwell’s spacey “secret world of the bear.” The director often disagrees with Treadwell, and several of Herzog’s comments – such as the idea that when he looks at the world he sees only “chaos, hostility, and murder” or that nature itself is totally “indifferent” – resonate with a bleak sense of humor. While Treadwell practically foams at the mouth trying to attribute individual personalities to the many bears he encounters, Herzog cuts to the quick, suggesting that the bear merely regards Treadwell with a “half-bored interest in food.” Herzog himself is anything but bored by Treadwell, however, and viewers of “Grizzly Man” are beneficiaries of the great filmmaker’s curiosity.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/10/05.

A History of Violence

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

On the surface, David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” plays out like a conventional thriller steeped in the tradition of the American Western. Cronenberg – despite the charges that his filmmaking is often cold, detached, and clinical – has always been fascinated by the significant measure of awful things people do to each other and to themselves, so it will come as no surprise to fans of the director that “A History of Violence” offers more than initially meets the eye. Far less weird than many of the director’s signature films, “A History of Violence” still packs quite a punch, particularly with its often dizzying treatment of the title subject.

Set largely in the small town utopia of Millbrook, Indiana, “A History of Violence” introduces the Stall family: patriarch Tom (Viggo Mortenson), his beautiful wife Edie (Maria Bello), and their children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Cronenberg wastes no time in psychologically linking the Stalls to something wicked in the air – Sarah’s nightmare-induced scream follows a prologue in which two cold-blooded killers hit the road following grisly multiple murders. Cronenberg’s careful, deliberate pacing of the film’s early scenes establishes the queasy realization that the bad men are destined to cross paths with Tom.

Once the roaming assassins appear at the diner Tom manages, Cronenberg stages the tense confrontation with an almost otherworldly combination of action, fear, adrenaline, and humor. The director has indicated in press for the film that one might indeed interpret the movie’s flashes of violence as absurdly funny, and part of this realization stems from the filmmaker’s decision to portray the violent moments without much of the ornamented, slow-motion stylization that accompanies so much of the mayhem audiences are accustomed to seeing on the screen. This is not to suggest that Cronenberg fails to fetishize the violence (the film has far too many gruesome aftermath close-ups to support that idea), but rather that care has been taken to involve the viewer in the consequences of the lethal outbursts that pepper the film.

Once Tom has been anointed a local celebrity for his curiously skillful actions at the diner, “A History of Violence” moves into high gear. Media attention on Tom’s heroics presumably brings about a visit from a trio of big city tough guys, led by disfigured Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Fogarty insists that he knows Tom, and Cronenberg relishes the blurring of past and present, as well as the real and the imagined. Tom’s very identity is called into question, and “A History of Violence” engages directly with the question of how Tom’s ability to commit ferocious acts of brutality and aggression test the loyalty and imagination of his wife and son.

In other words, Cronenberg is arguably more interested in what roles the Stall family will begin to assume following the suggestion that Tom is not who he says he is. In this context, “A History of Violence” earns high praise – particularly for the performance of Bello, whose own reaction to Tom’s identity crisis walks a tightrope fraught with anxiety, revulsion, and – surprisingly to herself – deep attraction. By the time Cronenberg arrives at the iconic illustration of domesticity that provides the film’s coda, as many questions have been raised as have been answered. One thing is known, however: “A History of Violence” is a forceful and sharp piece of filmmaking.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/3/05.