Archive for December, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha

Monday, December 26th, 2005

2005memoirsMovie review by Greg Carlson

A glacially-paced miscalculation, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is among the weakest of the large budget studio films in the hunt for this year’s award-season glory. Directed by Rob Marshall as his follow-up to the Academy Award-winning “Chicago,” “Memoirs” clumsily adapts Arthur Golden’s wildly popular 1997 novel. Eschewing subtlety and detail for garishness and simplicity, the screen version of “Memoirs” arrives as watered-down melodrama, and will likely appeal only to aficionados of the Far East as it is so often depicted in American popular culture.

Dropping non-Japanese performers into several key roles (a move that caused a minor publicity stir as the movie was ramping up for release), “Memoirs” winnows the plot into a blood-simple retelling of the “Cinderella” fairytale, complete with stand-in prince and fairy godmother and virtually all the other familiar plot points intact. Zhang Ziyi (now credited with the customary name order switched to the American style as Ziyi Zhang) plays Sayuri, a poor girl sold into servitude as a pre-teen. Desperate to reunite with her sister and escape the cruel conditions of the okiya, or geisha house, where she is essentially imprisoned, Sayuri instead finds herself under the wing of the wise Mameha (Michelle Yeoh).

This alliance is set up precisely to oppose top-geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a calculating and manipulative rival whose viciousness seemingly knows no limits. Somewhat awkwardly, Sayuri romantically idealizes a generous and much older man known as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), despite the fact that she meets him when still a little girl. Time, however, is a flexible concept in “Memoirs,” and many years are compressed to keep the story chugging along. Additionally, Marshall is far more interested in eye-popping costumes and production design, and everything else takes a back seat as a result.

You never forget that that you are watching a simulacrum filtered through a decidedly Western lens, but that fact is cold comfort given the script’s unwavering insistence on the English-language. Even when translating Japanese words, “Memoirs” sticks with the stilted, halting mispronunciations that have plagued Asian characters in Hollywood films for decades. For fans of the main actresses, “Memoirs” will prove to be a difficult experience, as visions of much better films made by Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai will take the place of the tacky soap opera on display.  Only Gong Li partially overcomes the limitations of the script, infusing her single-minded harpy with a measure of pathos to counterbalance lines like “I shall destroy you!”

Marshall is the one figure most clearly out of his depth here, and only the staging of a wild dance number performed by Zhang Ziyi on towering platform shoes (which, for just a second, calls to mind Pee Wee Herman’s “Tequila” number) wakes the film from its deep slumber. Short of that distraction, “Memoirs” cannot seem to find a decent ending, limping along with an extended coda that reunites the principal characters following the devastation of World War II. Unlikely to draw the kind of audience needed to propel itself toward award nominations, “Memoirs” will disappear as surely as the anachronisms it presents.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/26/05. 

The Squid and the Whale

Monday, December 19th, 2005

2005squidMovie review by Greg Carlson

Following a script writing team-up with Wes Anderson on “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” filmmaker Noah Baumbach delivers his strongest feature film to date in “The Squid and the Whale,” a semi-autobiographical period piece fictionally recounting the fallout from the divorce of his parents.  Set in 1986, “The Squid and the Whale” brushes aside its many anachronisms, favoring a comfortable, laid back, and lived-in approach that recalls the work of several of Baumbach’s French New Wave heroes.  Smart, funny, and painful all at once, “The Squid and the Whale” is one of 2005’s best movies, and should not be missed.

Filled with visual, musical, and linguistic motifs, “The Squid and the Whale” presents itself immediately as a labor of love.  Baumbach’s memorable characters demonstrate a tightrope walker’s balance between astonishing cruelty and a deep facility for well-meaning honesty.  Several characters manage to describe the presence of this status by scolding one another with the line “Don’t be difficult.”  The Berkmans might say the most horrible things to each other, but only because they lack the ability to express themselves in the less transparent ways used by so many less interesting families.

While many factors contribute to the disintegration of Joan and Bernard Berkman’s marriage, Baumbach emphasizes the crossing trajectories of their careers.  Vain, selfish Bernard (a sensational Jeff Daniels) cannot get his most recent work published, and browbeats everyone around him.  Daniels is wonderful in the role, teasing out every detail of Bernard’s embarrassing self-pity and elitist contempt for the “philistines” he warns his two sons to avoid (and avoid becoming).  Joan (an equally terrific Laura Linney) watches her own star ascend even as Bernard’s flames out; a piece in The New Yorker merely seals the deal.

Older son Walt (Jessie Eisenberg) sides with Bernard and unleashes his frustration and fury on his mother.  Troubled little Frank (Owen Kline) prefers the warmth and comfort offered by Joan.  Things become more complicated when Joan starts hanging out with Frank’s tennis instructor (a very funny William Baldwin), and Bernard offers the spare room in his new dump to a stimulating and aggressive writing student (a coquettish Anna Paquin).  Baumbach’s biting wit is used to great effect throughout the movie, and all the major roles include delicious opportunities for the actors.

Baumbach unflinchingly mines some dark-hearted themes, including the pettiness attending a split-up and the confusion of adolescent sexuality.  Walt’s slavish adoration of Bernard leads to unfortunate romantic choices, and Frank numbs his own pain with alcohol, colorful profanity, and creative masturbation.  The filmmaker retains his comic gifts, however, and “The Squid and the Whale” bursts with hysterical allusions, from “Short Circuit” versus “Blue Velvet” to misinterpretations of “Breathless” to dismissals of the “lesser work” of Fitzgerald and Dickens.  The title of the film, a reference to the Museum of Natural History’s frightening “Clash of the Titans” diorama, goes to work on several levels.  Even if the obvious reading is a metaphor for the struggle of Joan and Bernard’s divorce, Walt’s eye-opening epiphany that closes the film allows us to see the fearsome behemoths as father and son.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/19/05.


Monday, December 12th, 2005

2005syrianaMovie review by Greg Carlson 

An ambitious and complicated tale of corruption in the big oil industry, writer-director Steven Gaghan’s “Syriana” is a mostly thrilling, always interesting ensemble film that has much to say in its 126-minute running time. Linking together CIA operatives, Texas petroleum executives, Beltway attorneys, Islamic terrorists-in-training, slippery politicians, and wealthy Gulf princes, “Syriana” weaves an intricate web of overlapping tales. Similar in style to “Traffic,” which earned Gaghan a screenwriting Academy Award, “Syriana” expertly balances its interest in world-stage economic power gamesmanship with pulse-quickening, spy-game suspense. Impatient filmgoers might find the multiple plotlines distracting, but Gaghan’s efforts add up to a smart, terrifically entertaining movie.

Based on former CIA agent Robert Baer’s bestseller “See No Evil,” “Syriana” features George Clooney as a longtime spook who has spent his career doing very dangerous things in the world’s most hazardous countries. As Bob Barnes, Clooney anchors the film’s scariest plot thread, and given 2005’s coverage of prisoner and detainee torture, much of what his character experiences feels eerily authentic. Matt Damon plays an energy expert who consults the son of an emir (though no country is specified, the vibe is heavily Saudi Arabian). In the least flashy of the three juiciest parts, Jeffrey Wright is beautifully subtle as a corporate lawyer discovering all kinds of dirt during a gigantic energy company merger.

A number of other well-known faces, including Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, and William Hurt, appear in smaller – but still essential – roles. Alexander Siddig, as Damon’s royal employer, Akbar Kurtha, as Siddig’s younger brother and rival for the throne, and Mazhar Munir, as a young, troubled, migrant from Pakistan, are also well-cast. Munir’s journey from the oil field where he loses his job to the madrasa where he first hears the teachings that radicalize him to his chilling final destination provides one of the movie’s most thought-provoking arcs.

One of the strongest aspects of Gaghan’s storytelling emerges from his unwillingness to simplify characters as “good” or “bad.” While it is fair to say that the career politicians are never made to smell like roses, almost all of the major characters work from the convictions of their own reasons (to paraphrase Jean Renoir). The result allows viewers to come to their own decisions about what makes these folks tick. Gaghan also gives us just enough of the mundane – the uneasy relationship between Wright and his alcoholic father, for example – for us to see ourselves in these otherwise extraordinary people. In this sense, the multiple points of view are no detriment to the film.

If “Syriana” leaves anything out, it must be the idea that U.S. intelligence-gathering in the Middle East has been inadequate to the point of ineffectual. Granted, the sweep of Gaghan’s spin rests squarely on the greed-is-good fraudulence committed while the government looks the other way (Tim Blake Nelson delivers a rousing speech to this end), but the implications for national security lurk especially in the margins of Munir’s tale. Iraq is never directly mentioned in the movie, but its massive shadow looms large.

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


Monday, December 5th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A completely disappointing mélange of computer-generated imagery and live action footage, “MirrorMask” plays out onscreen like a graphic novel come to life, but lacks the breathing room necessary to fuel the imagination of its viewers. The film brazenly wears its illustrated origins on its sleeve, as the final opening credit reads “designed and directed by Dave McKean.” It’s dubious whether design ought to share equal billing with direction, but in any case, the title is apt: McKean has made a movie stuffed to bursting with densely layered pictures. Sadly, it offers little else.

Created along with occasional partner Neil Gaiman, McKean’s dreamscape scarcely sustains thirty minutes, let alone feature length. Rebellious teen Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) can’t stand her life as a performer in her family’s traveling circus. In a reversal of the age-old chestnut, the young girl wishes to leave the big top and join the “real world.” A testy blow-up with her mother precedes a backstage collapse, and Helena blames herself for her mom’s unnamed ailment. On the eve of her mother’s operation, Helena – possibly dreaming, possibly not – disappears down the rabbit hole to enter a strange world known as the Dark Lands, where she must locate the Mirrormask, a shiny MacGuffin that will restore balance to both the fantasy realm and Helena’s waking existence.

Like “The Wizard of Oz,” “MirrorMask” presents principal actors in multiple roles, but the effort proves entirely fruitless given the film’s nonexistent character development. Helena’s guide is a masked juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry), and their awkward co-dependency is rendered even more confusing with a late suggestion that they might discover romance with one another. So much of the script adheres to a stop-start haphazardness, frustration sets in early. Helena’s mother manifests herself in three guises, but not a single one is memorable or moving. The same goes for the rest of the speaking parts.

McKean finds some success with a few otherworldly dream-inhabitants, particularly the so-called Monkeybirds, a group of gorilla-bodied creatures sporting pigeon-like heads with removable beaks. Their acrobatic presence livens up the leaden adventure for a few minutes at least. A set of rainbow-winged sphinxes challenges Helena, as does a library with flying books. Many other Dark Lands denizens resemble work done by other artists, including Hieronymus Bosch, Paul Klee, Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and Terry Gilliam. In one strange sequence that belongs in a better movie, Helena is serenaded by a roomful of mechanized jack-in-the-box figures warbling Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s familiar tune “Close to You.”

For all the attempted visual wonder, “MirrorMask” will put most audiences to sleep. Surprisingly, for a movie about a wonderful alternate universe, there are no juicy characters. When Helena encounters the ebony-eyed Queen of Shadows, we yawn. Nothing is at stake, and everything that has led to this moment is simple-minded, empty, and devoid of interest, drama, or suspense. Weirdly, one longs for Helena’s return to her old life, which promises at least a glimmer of hope that she will interact with her mom or dad using something resembling recognizable human feelings.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/5/05.