Archive for November, 2005

Pride & Prejudice

Monday, November 28th, 2005

2006pride

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Considering the ever-growing number of Jane Austen fans populating several generations, it is somewhat surprising to note that Joe Walsh’s 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice” marks only the second full-fledged big screen telling of the classic tale, following sixty-five years after the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier version produced by MGM. Obviously, this discounts “loose” incarnations like the utterly awful “Bride & Prejudice” and the modern Mormon spin called “Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy.” Many Austen-philes adore the various small screen miniseries, particularly the 1995 BBC version starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. That said, the new theatrical release is a solid contender for the best of the best, a sprightly and completely entertaining movie that should please newcomers as well as those familiar with the variety of earlier entries.

Initially, one might think that Keira Knightley would be unable to capture the liveliness and self-possession of Elizabeth Bennett, but the 20-year-old actress delivers a beautifully detailed performance that marks the finest of her short career. It is certainly a star-making turn, and Knightley negotiates the range of Elizabeth’s emotions with clarity and depth. Opposite seasoned vets like Judi Dench, Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn, Knightley glows, and her scenes with Matthew Macfayden (as Darcy) often threaten to burst into flame.

Screenwriter Deborah Moggach streamlines the action of the novel to focus almost exclusively on Elizabeth, but virtually all of the essential moments appear intact. Despite tweaks made to clergyman Collins (Tom Hollander) and bachelor Bingley (Simon Woods), both of whom are purposed for comic effect, the central narrative thread chugs along while several subplots are appropriately juggled. As eldest Bennett daughter Jane, Rosamund Pike delivers a stirring and tender performance. Blethyn occasionally threatens to go over the top as Mrs. Bennett, but Sutherland’s calm patriarch balances her character’s transparent single-mindedness.

No “Pride & Prejudice” is going to work without proper chemistry between Elizabeth and Darcy, and Macfayden hits just the right note of standoffish guardedness. Some will argue that his Darcy remains too stiff for this take, which thrives on its modern airs, but many more will swoon during key scenes, especially Darcy’s initial proposal to Elizabeth. The hot and cold relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth presents a significant challenge to actors (not to mention screenwriters and directors), and Knightley and Macfayden, closer in age to the characters they are playing than many of the performers in other versions, make a fresh pair.

Director Walsh, a youngster himself, handles the picture with panache. Several set-pieces, including a lavish ball held at the Bingley residence, boast elaborate cinematic choreography, and Walsh spins us through the various rooms and into the social machinery of the furious matchmaking with ease. The film’s pacing and rhythm are rarely off, even with the sizable number of misunderstandings and miscommunications that form the heart of the tale’s two titular nouns. As Lady Catherine, Judi Dench’s brief but sharp scenes drive home some of the emotions that attend Elizabeth’s understanding of the often cruel class system that favors the very wealthy. Additionally, the costumes and production design are a treat for the eye, and the opulence of the locations ideally suits the terrific dialogue. As a result, this “Pride & Prejudice” has much to admire, and much to recommend it.

This review was originally published in the High Plans Reader the week of 11/28/05.

Capote

Monday, November 21st, 2005

2006capote

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A well-crafted reexamination of “In Cold Blood,” Bennett Miller’s film “Capote” offers viewers a behind-the-scenes tour of the famous writer’s more than half-decade obsession with chronicling a quadruple murder. Already familiar to millions of readers, Truman Capote’s chilling account of the November, 1959 slayings of Herbert, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter remains one of the most celebrated examples of the “non-fiction novel.” “Capote” manages to do a number of things, but its focus remains on the chronology of events leading from Capote’s initial interest in the story to the execution of convicted murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

Playing the title character in a tour-de-force performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman ably proves yet again his status as one of cinema’s most interesting actors. Capote’s otherworldly voice, carefully cultivated mannerisms, and bottomless narcissism would be more than enough to trip up many seasoned veterans, but Hoffman is utterly convincing in the role. Accompanied by childhood friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), Capote travels to Kansas and manages to gain unprecedented access to local law enforcement officials as well as to the killers themselves. Dan Futterman’s screenplay mostly sidesteps any resentment Capote faced from Holcomb residents, preferring instead to lob a few jokes about the well-appointed scribe’s natty attire.

As the appeal process winds its way through the court system, Capote bonds with Smith (an excellent Clifton Collins Jr.), knowing full well that the success of “In Cold Blood” essentially depends on the young man’s execution. Some audience members are sure to recoil at Capote’s calculating relationship with the assailants, but one of the film’s strengths is the haunting – even chilling – manner in which Capote’s vanity and arrogance trumps any shred of compassion until it is too late. “Capote” tries out the idea that “In Cold Blood” ruined its author (certainly not the first account to do so), and it is easy to see the tug of war between Capote’s desire to be a serious writer and his addiction to the spotlight.

Despite the movie’s reasonably short running time, Miller’s pace occasionally slackens, and a hunger for engagement sets in. This is not to say that “Capote” is ever dull, but given its preoccupation with Capote’s self-devotion, one wishes the movie might have made a little more room for some of the other supporting players. Chris Cooper fades to virtual cameo status as lawman Alvin Dewey, and Bruce Greenwood’s turn as Capote’s longtime companion Jack Dunphy is left undeveloped – a shame on both counts given the skills of these two actors.

The movie’s central relationship (barring the one that Capote has with himself) exists between the author and the slayer. Even at the time of “In Cold Blood’s” publication, Capote’s detractors suggested that he loved Smith, and the movie version carefully compares and contrasts the two men. In one nicely delivered line, Capote even suggests that he and Smith might have grown up in the same house. It’s a wistful thought, but in the end, Capote’s aspiration to have a hit book outweighs any personal connection between the toast of New York’s literary scene and a convicted killer awaiting the gallows.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/21/05.

Everything Is Illuminated

Monday, November 14th, 2005

2006everything

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2001 novel – which deals with more history and more characters than the film version – actor-turned-filmmaker Liev Schreiber pares down the story to a rattling skeleton. The mostly disappointing result is a straight-ahead WWII memory piece, in which an American nebbish visits Odessa and the surrounding countryside in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1942. The quest for the long-vanished Ukrainian shtetl where these events took place impacts the young man’s two guides as much as himself, and the division of our attention among the trio somewhat diminishes the film’s potential.

Elijah Wood plays Foer as a blank introvert, content to hide in his somber black suit and blink at the world through the thick lenses of his oversized glasses. A meticulous collector of seemingly insignificant, personal ephemera, Foer enshrines all sorts of odds and ends in plastic bags that end up pinned to his wall. Along with his grandmother’s dentures, Foer acquires a faded photograph of his grandfather with a woman known as Augustine. Deeply curious, he decides to make the trek to the former Soviet territory in search of answers about this mysterious savior.

In sharp contrast to Foer is his oddball translator and tour guide Alex (Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz), a hip-hop obsessed Michael Jackson fan whose fractured English provides the lion’s share of the movie’s humor (he refers to his grandfather’s dog as his “seeing-eye bitch”). Alex’s grandfather (Boris Leskin) runs a modest business playing chauffer to American Jews who take family history-tracing vacations, and he masks his contempt for the tourists by pretending to be blind. Leskin presents the most fully formed character in the movie, and his quiet presence is a welcome contrast to the humorless Foer and the vulgar Alex.

Schreiber divides the film into five chapters, a tactic which reinforces the book-like experience but inadvertently douses any feelings of wonder and surprise – two traits in short supply and sorely needed. That Alex dubs the adventure “a very rigid search” is a painfully accurate description of the proceedings. Even more disconcerting is Schreiber’s heavy-handed and indelicate integration of comedy. With the exception of Alex’s often hilarious mangling of expressions and phrases, the movie relies too heavily on the dog. Veering from broad comedy to teary-eyed revelations about the past, “Everything Is Illuminated” is too diluted to pack much of a punch.

Schreiber handles most of the technical aspects of the film with confidence, and Matthew Libatique’s cinematography attractively showcases the outdoor locations. Many viewers, however, might take issue with the way in which the climactic discoveries unfold; the timing and emphasis of a number of shots confuse rather than shine light on the events of the past. The film version withholds anything that might come across as too grim or distressing – an earnest choice, but a decision that mutes the emotional force. Patient viewers who stay for the end credits are treated to Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple” – a delightful song from a soundtrack of well-chosen tunes.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/14/05.

Jarhead

Monday, November 7th, 2005

2006jarhead

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A handsomely mounted production adapting Anthony Swofford’s 2003 war memoir, “Jarhead” arrives in theatres clearly hoping for the kind of attention from audience members and critics that will win it both box office success and Academy Award nominations. Director Sam Mendes, whose first feature effort “American Beauty” netted a shelf of golden statuettes, handles the material with sure-handed ease, but the tone of the film dials down any trace of political opinion, which mitigates a great deal of the movie’s potential power. “Jarhead” works best as the slightly off-center observational account of its central character’s tour of duty in the first Gulf War, and like Mendes’ previous two features, boasts some outstanding acting.

The best trick pulled off by “Jarhead” is the film’s ability to make waiting for combat nearly as compelling as cinematic depictions of the real thing. Mendes tips his hat to a number of signature war films – a scene at the beginning of the movie recalls “Full Metal Jacket” right down to the apoplectic drill instructor – as if to acknowledge a debt and aspire to great company. One of the most memorable moments in “Jarhead” takes place during an adrenaline-fueled screening of “Apocalypse Now” which cuts between Coppola’s indelible Wagner-scored helicopter attack and the faces of young men thrilled at the prospect of participating in their very own mayhem.

The reality of Operation Desert Shield, however, turns out to be nothing like Vietnam, and the bored Marines spend interminable stretches ridiculing one another, masturbating, venting frustrations about strained and faithless marriages, and drinking lots and lots of water. Jake Gyllenhaal, in his most confident and assured performance to date, plays Swofford with a canny combination of enthusiasm and skepticism. Surrounding Gyllenhaal are Jamie Foxx, getting significant mileage from several terrific scenes (especially a monologue in which he bluntly explains his career choice), and a scene-stealing Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Swoff’s troubled friend Troy.

Swoff and Troy are trained as a sniper team, but it doesn’t take them long to realize that given the nature of the conflict, their skills are not likely to be put to the test. The speed and power of American air superiority dashes Swoff’s hopes that he will ever get close enough to a target to squeeze his trigger. The symbolic impotence of Swofford’s situation affords Mendes an opportunity to wring plenty of irony out of several scenes, including an eerie nighttime celebration in which the warriors pour dozens of rounds into a sky lit up by burning oil fields.

“Jarhead” doesn’t include any major battle set-pieces, a distinction which contributes to the strangeness of Swofford’s Gulf War experience. This point might also try the patience of some viewers expecting a more conventional war movie. Mendes’ intelligent detachment, aided by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sand-and-windswept palette, will strike some as too aloof. Short of the occasional sermonizing that stumbles out of Swofford’s voiceover narration, “Jarhead” keeps its subject matter at a safe distance, even when it should be grabbing it by the throat and shaking it hard.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/7/05.