Archive for 2006

Jesus Camp

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Documentary filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have created an interesting product in “Jesus Camp,” a movie focused on very young Christian charismatic evangelicals and the one-sided worldview that drives their passionate belief in an inevitably politicized brand of religion.  The directors always do their best to maintain fairness and balance in the telling, but the often incendiary arguments constructed by the movie’s subjects have a way of unnerving mainstream audience members who don’t buy “intelligent design” and aren’t ready to condemn Harry Potter to the stake.

Following a handful of devout children to Becky Fischer’s Devils Lake, North Dakota “Kids on Fire” camp and other places, the filmmakers mostly stand back and allow the voices of their subjects to provide the commentary.  The contrary view is provided by Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, a self-described Christian who at one point engages Fischer in conversation on his program.  Papantonio’s segments are dwarfed, however, by the amount of time the movie spends with Fischer, a pastor well-practiced in the art of staying on message.  Viewers will be hard pressed to catch Fischer offering her young charges anything resembling legitimate choice, as that would allow too much room for possible dissent.

The three kids featured in the movie are by any account well-behaved, well-spoken, and well-mannered.  Levi, whose awful mullet is surely a sin against fashionistas, wants desperately to be a preacher.  Tory loves Christian heavy metal music, but occasionally worries that she might be dancing “for the flesh.”  Little Rachael approaches strangers, Chick tracts in hand, asking them in an impossibly chipper voice whether they’ve considered where they will be spending eternity.  All three of the kids, as well as Fischer, are mostly likable, which cannot be said for oily Reverend Ted Haggard, who appears in a scene.  Shot prior to the sex and drugs scandal that toppled him from his position as the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard interacts with Levi, and his demeanor in the movie is standoffish, smug, and sarcastic.  In light of Haggard’s recent newsworthiness, his presence in the documentary adds a new, if unintended, dimension to the film.

One of the most remarkable aspects of “Jesus Camp” is the sheer volume of guilt Fischer heaps on the shoulders of her tiny charges.  Unquestionably, Fischer preaches with deep and abiding conviction that what she does helps and doesn’t harm, but the number of times shame is invoked as a teaching tool has a tendency to overshadow the values of love and compassion – which are eerily absent during the intense sessions that conjure up visions of a scarily personified Satan and all the temptations he offers.

Grady and Ewing clearly choose to withhold their point of view (though one can argue that it is implied), and that position of neutrality hampers some of the impact that the movie might have otherwise made.  By remaining focused only on the chosen subjects, information regarding the history of the evangelical movement is absent.  The result is a lack of context that doesn’t clearly offer viewers much beyond a colorful portrait of some unique people.  To its credit, however, “Jesus Camp” manages to appeal to viewers on opposite ends of the political spectrum (for obviously different reasons), and the conversation it generates makes it very much worth seeing.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/27/06. 

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Monday, December 18th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Potter Stewart is largely known for initially claiming of hard-core porn that “I know it when I see it,” a line that concludes “…and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Another of the justice’s best known statements is “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” This idea courses through veteran documentarian Kirby Dick’s “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” a sharp and irreverent examination of the arcane practices of the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie ratings board. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is required viewing for movie buffs and people interested in free speech issues.

Dick sets the scene by explaining, through vibrantly creative animation, the MPAA ratings from G to NC-17. While the ratings themselves are familiar to most American moviegoers, the process by which they are decided remains shrouded in clandestine obscurity that has frustrated hundreds of moviemakers and thousands of viewers. Launched in 1968 by the major Hollywood studios, the ratings board was for decades the province of Jack Valenti, a slick politico cast as the movie’s grinning villain. Dick spares no opportunity to skewer Valenti’s inconsistencies and distortions regarding the role of the board, and numerous interview clips allow Valenti ample opportunity to make himself look like a boob.

Dick focuses on theatrical exhibition as opposed to the DVD market, which means that the movie never gets around to discussing the impact of the ratings system once films are released on home video. Generalities are given regarding Europe’s inversion of the sex-violence equation, but Dick is essentially silent on government censorship in countries beyond the United States. A majority of the filmmaker’s arguments, however, are on the money. The MPAA clearly privileges heterosexuality over homosexuality, and one of the most disturbing segments of the movie provides substantive visual evidence that female pleasure is verboten while violence against women is condoned.

Dick includes interviews with a number of filmmakers whose work has been punished by the MPAA. Matt Stone discusses the puppet sex of “Team America: World Police,” Kimberly Peirce articulates her frustration regarding the handling of “Boys Don’t Cry,” and John Waters, with characteristic humor and aplomb, notes with trepidation that “A Dirty Shame” couldn’t even discuss certain aspects of sexuality, let alone show them. All of the above moviemakers dealt with the consequences of an initial NC-17 rating, a commercial kiss of death that is particularly vexing to moviemakers whose work is intended for adult audiences.

Because the people who work as raters do so anonymously, Dick hires a private eye to out them, and the results are a mixed bag. Significant sections of the movie are devoted to a kind of lowbrow investigative journalism complete with stakeouts, spy cameras, car pursuits, and garbage digging. While the energies spent on this thread connect later with Dick’s own appeal process once “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” has been branded with an NC-17, the movie would have more wisely utilized this time to cover possible ways in which the ratings system could be improved. Despite these shortcomings, however, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is thought provoking fare.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/18/06.


Monday, December 11th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

With “Apocalypto,” Mel Gibson continues to earn his well-deserved reputation as one of Hollywood’s most consistent purveyors of sadism and gore in the name of heroism.  A mostly cornball hodgepodge of obviously telegraphed movie clichés, “Apocalypto” clearly prizes drama over historical accuracy, despite the retainer of academic experts to lend a false sense of “authenticity” to the proceedings.  Period movies rarely bother much with the details.  After all, the play’s the thing.  Gibson’s thesis, however, manages to be both woeful and wrongheaded.  “Apocalypto” positively reeks with the underlying notion that decadent cultures are doomed to destruction.  It would be unfair to spoil the film’s ludicrous ending, but visitors familiar with Gibson’s oeuvre will smell it from quite a distance.

Set sometime during the Classic period of Maya history prior to the arrival of the Spanish, “Apocalypto” revels in the depiction of brutal violence as a Maya village is destroyed by a raiding party of native bounty hunters rounding up future human sacrifices.  Central character Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) manages to hide his pregnant wife and small son in a rocky well prior to his own capture, vowing that he will return.  A forced march to a teeming city center comes with all sorts of despair and torment, especially at the hands of nasty Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), Jaguar Paw’s cruel tormentor.

Along with co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia, Gibson imagines a Maya city as a chaotic hell on earth where people are bought and sold, hundreds of workers are forced into labor, and priests make gruesome offerings of young men whose hearts and heads are separated from their bodies.  The means by which Jaguar Paw is spared from the sacrificial altar is as preposterously illogical as it is visually stimulating.  The second half of the movie is largely concerned with Jaguar Paw’s desperate race back home, enlivened by the excitement of a band of deadly pursuers led by the ferocious Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo).

Gibson alludes to a handful of possible reasons for the collapse of the Maya, including agricultural failure, disease, and clueless leadership.  In one scene that should have been excised, a little girl prophesies a laundry list of horrors, basically giving away the rest of the film’s action.  Gibson typically plays to the lowest common denominator, and the second half of “Apocalypto” is bursting with ridiculously over the top ham-handedness, especially in its dealings with Jaguar Paw’s wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) as she goes into labor.

Gibson himself has suggested that the movie is designed to offer allegorical suggestions about the moral flaws of modern society and its politics, but does making a movie so attuned to the spectacle of bloodletting simply add to the list of what’s wrong with us?  Gibson completely ignores the technological and scientific achievements of the Maya in order to focus exclusively on a heightened sense of the dominating culture’s view that indigenous people are subhuman savages in need of spiritual rescue.  Gibson is all too eager to reinforce the long held stereotypes of colonialist philosophy, and “Apocalypto” is weaker for it.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/11/06. 

For Your Consideration

Monday, December 4th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Christopher Guest fans may feel the need to revisit their “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show” DVDs after viewing “For Your Consideration,” a largely disappointing outing from the talented director.  Working from the premise that the possibility of peer recognition in the form of an otherwise meaningless award can cast a powerful spell on anyone in show business, the movie musters few laughs in the course of its predictable and familiar trajectory.  Without the more leisurely takes that delivered the goods in the director’s previous mockumentaries, “For Your Consideration” never quite nails the all too easy target provided by Hollywood vanity.

Essentially eschewing the mockumentary style of “Guffman” for a more straightforward narrative, Guest nevertheless employs a number of expected machinations.  The large cast, peopled by the familiar workhorses of Guest’s roster, includes Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer, and Parker Posey in plum roles while other vets, like Jane Lynch, Eugene Levy, and Michael McKean take smaller parts.  The gang’s all here, but with few exceptions, the magic is in very short supply.  Only Fred Willard, in a ghastly Ryan Seacrest inspired faux-hawk hairdo, and Jennifer Coolidge, as a clueless producer, manage to find something special in their characters, albeit fleetingly.

Fans of this troupe, including myself, feel a tremendous amount of goodwill for all the laughs previously provided, which makes the realization that “For Your Consideration” has nothing to offer in terms of characterization sting something fierce.  The losers of this piece bear little resemblance to the losers of Guest’s other, better films.  They utterly lack the underlying layers of warmth and humanity that defined the personalities in the earlier movies.  Instead, the talented cast is relegated to playing tired stereotypes and caricatures that would seem passé on even the most poorly crafted SNL sketch.

There is no doubt that “For Your Consideration” would have made a much better film had Guest and co-writer Levy constructed something gutsier than the movie-within-the-movie “Home for Purim,” a bland, melodramatic period family drama with O’Hara as a terminally ill matriarch and Posey as her prodigal, lesbian daughter.  The humor generated by “Home for Purim” is toothless and creaky, light-years from the brilliance of “Guffman’s” “Red, White and Blaine” or the short movie confections included in the director’s feature debut, the much sharper Hollywood satire “The Big Picture.”

Given its wretched, overwrought phoniness, it is impossible to believe that “Home for Purim” would receive any kind of Oscar buzz, which seriously dilutes the punch that might have otherwise been delivered in the final act.  O’Hara’s grotesque transformation into a collagen and Botox-injected horror earns a single laugh for how closely it resembles the poor choices of any number of desperate celebrities, but had Guest and Levy written their primary character as something other than an off-the-radar nobody, audiences might have been willing to suspend disbelief.  Where “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” are narrowly focused and bracingly deep, “For Your Consideration” is broad and shallow, kind of like a puddle.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/4/06. 

Casino Royale

Monday, November 20th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Breathing new life into a dinosaur franchise, Daniel Craig makes an absolutely smashing James Bond, infusing the character with a raw sense of humanness to go along with the dashing cosmopolitanism, the seductive charm, and the formidable talent for using that license to kill.  The Pierce Brosnan run of Bond films was tremendously lucrative, and the performer made a decent spy, but for all of its pyrotechnical prowess and budget-busting action, the last several movies in the series have been mired in dull repetition, forgettable villains bent on Dr. Evil-esque plans for world domination, and a general haze of self-parody and musty anachronism.

“Casino Royale” erases virtually all of those problems, carving out a terrifically rousing Bond tale that makes the most of its “back to basics” mentality.  The lion’s share of the credit rests with actor Craig, whose discovers all sorts of dimensions never explored by any of the other men who have portrayed 007, and that includes undisputed critical favorite Sean Connery.  If the upcoming Bond screenplays offer Craig opportunities to avoid the arch disdain and aloof derision that has been a hallmark of Bond portrayers, he could very well find himself in the position of all-time best Bond.

While that assertion sounds the alarm for cries of sacrilege among the Connery faithful, Craig’s work in “Casino Royale” is marvelous.  Reinventing the Bond series by serving up details of an origin story certainly helps, as the movie introduces us to an agent in the process of earning his stripes.  Bond’s exchanges with the caustic M (Judi Dench) are invigorating for viewers who never expected to discover that 007 had so much to learn.  Better yet, the movie wisely omits as much of the goofy gadgetry and groan-inducing punning as possible.

“Casino Royale” might be the best James Bond film in a very, very long time, but it is not without its drawbacks.  The 144-minute running time works against big chunks of the final act, when plot developments reconfigure enough material to nearly merit another film.  The familiar, stylized opening credits sequence is one for the Bond history book, but the theme song “You Know My Name,” sung by Chris Cornell, is a dud.  Like many other contemporary thrillers, there is altogether too much reliance on and screen time allotted to cell phones.  The pluses outnumber the minuses, though, and “Casino Royale” appears poised to entice a whole new generation of Bond fans.

Eva Green is first-rate as the treasury hawk who aids Bond during the high stakes poker game that serves as one of the film’s tastiest sequences.  Green’s Vesper Lynd is everything that previous Bond “girls” are not: shrewd, competent, and able to match James line for line.  More importantly, she exists as a fully formed character whose interactions with Bond don’t solely function as a pretext for sex.  Hard as it may be to believe, something like love enters the equation, and it is just the sort of break the series needed.  Additionally, director Martin Campbell, who helmed “GoldenEye,” stages several of the best adrenaline-rush moments in franchise history.  Near the beginning of the film, a parkour-inspired scramble that utilizes urban free-running practically shouts that “Casino Royale” is going to be better than the average Bond.  Like several other moments in the movie, it surprises you with its exhilarating images of extremely physical acrobatics.  If the next Bond movie works even half as well as “Casino Royale,” one of the cinema’s longest-lived series has new places to go.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/20/06. 


Monday, November 13th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

As Borat Sagdiyev, a coarse, socially awkward TV reporter who hails from Kazakhstan, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen shines a light on all manner of prejudice, from racism to anti-Semitism, homophobia to misogyny. That he does so by parading as a moronic but earnest correspondent helps him to attract unsuspecting marks like flies; these days, everyone wants a shot to be on television, even if the broadcast is planned for central Eurasia. Many have already compared Cohen to Peter Sellers, and the description is apt. The young performer, like the great Sellers, is a ridiculously gifted humorist willing to commit so totally to his creations he manages to fool audience members despite primary screen credit indicating it is all make believe.

In “Borat” Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Cohen retools a number of the sketches he had already perfected on “Da Ali G Show” and “The 11 O’Clock Show,” which means that longtime fans will not only recognize the sources of some of the movie’s best material, they will also reluctantly say goodbye to the cult status of Borat. Like Cohen’s other characters, the success of the Borat character is predicated on the ability to convince the other people who appear with him on camera that he is for real. The more fame Borat attains, the fewer people are likely to fall for his trap.

While that scenario has already taken some of the wind out of Ali G’s sails, audiences new to Borat will be treated to one of the most thoroughly funny films of the last several years. Blending a range of comic styles, including vicious social satire, broad slapstick, and all sorts of straight-faced gags at the expense of the folks foolish enough to have signed a release form, “Borat” thrives on transgression and inappropriateness. Reports of walkouts over matters of taste aren’t likely to diminish ticket sales. Young men in particular seem to have an unquenchable thirst for jokes involving fecal matter and male nudity.

Cohen’s clumsy, libidinous Borat largely avoids the creep factor by amplifying his sense of childlike innocence, even when publicly masturbating or asking a car salesman where the “pussy magnet” is located on the auto he clearly cannot afford. “Borat” packs in dozens and dozens of side-splitting moments, with Cohen’s mangled English providing the cherry on the sundae nearly every time. Visits to rodeos, antique shops, and genteel dinner parties invariably end in disaster and/or humiliation.

The likely secret to the success of the Borat character is his ability to take advantage of the way in which Americans hospitably tolerate their alien guest. Getting rednecks and drunken frat boys to spew out all kinds of disgusting rubbish is almost too easy for Cohen, but even with the kindlier folks he meets, like the driving instructor and the dinner party host, Cohen manages to push past limits. Fortunately, Cohen never prioritizes his political agenda over the belly laughs that accompany the lewdest displays he can concoct. The approach delivers something for everyone, and the thought of teenage “Jackass” aficionados in cinematic communion with well-educated culture vultures is a testament to Cohen’s prodigious skill.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/13/06.

Flags of Our Fathers

Monday, November 6th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A visually arresting exploration of the legend behind AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic World War II image of the Mount Suribachi flag raising, “Flags of Our Fathers” considers a range of ideas about heroism, propaganda, and the life of the soldier. Director Clint Eastwood, continuing to capitalize on the public and critical perception of his mature career gravitas, crafts an impressive drama, particularly in the story thread that considers the life of Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, in the movie’s best performance), one of the Marines who appeared in the fateful snapshot.

Fans of the combat film will no doubt identify striking similarities to co-producer Steven Spielberg’s own “Saving Private Ryan,” which employed the same style of desaturated imagery, especially during the battle sequences. Both movies attempt to honor the sacrifices of the “citizen soldiers” who served during World War II, while still taking the time to ruminate on the surreal absurdity and haphazard nature of killing for one’s country. Eastwood approaches the story elements out of chronological order, carefully and purposefully striking a balance between the events of Iwo Jima and the manner in which the United States government raised substantial sums of money trading on Rosenthal’s powerful photo.

One strength of “Flags of Our Fathers” lies in the careful explanation of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the photograph itself, which has fascinated generations of people who read about and study World War II. Because faces were not visible in the image, a certain amount of confusion surrounded the identification process. Only three of the pictured men survived the fighting, and an earlier planting of a smaller flag on essentially the same spot added to the commotion when sorting out details became a priority. Claims that the picture was staged, as well as the misidentification of one of the flag raisers, didn’t help either.

Along with Hayes, survivors John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) are called upon by military brass to make public appearances for war bonds. Each man deals with the attention in a different manner, with Bradley’s introspection contrasted with Gagnon’s more gung-ho attitude. Hayes, troubled by the idea that he should even be considered a hero, descends into alcoholism and deep depression. Additionally, Hayes deals on a regular basis with racist comments, and Beach is called upon to deal with the difficult task of portraying psychological pain.

Eastwood is certainly savvy to the ways in which events of well more than half a century ago apply to Americans today. “Flags of Our Fathers” will be joined by the director’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” next year, which will address the battle from the perspective of the Japanese. Certainly, “Flags of Our Fathers” can be addressed on its own, but the upcoming film will invite new readings and interpretations. If “Flags of Our Fathers” makes any missteps, it is in the unnecessary final summarizations that try to put into words thoughts better left expressed in visuals. Eastwood continues to show audiences that his career behind the camera can be every bit as compelling as the work he does in front of the lens.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/6/06.

Marie Antoinette

Monday, October 30th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Nathan Lee recently wrote that to accuse Sofia Coppola “of lacking ideas presumes she has any interest in them.” While this left-handed compliment deflects a certain type of negative criticism often leveled at Coppola’s still emerging filmmaking style, “Marie Antoinette” will likely frustrate more viewers than it enchants. To be sure, her gossamer spin on the famous royal should not be judged on its historical accuracy or its fealty to storytelling conventions. Had the director rehashed the expected Marie Antoinette signposts, such as the Affair of the Necklace or the queen’s trip to the guillotine, imagine how the critics would have howled at her.

“Marie Antoinette” is not a bad movie. On the contrary, Coppola manages for the third time to capture the quintessence of a certain kind of isolation and loneliness, and she does this with an authority that eludes most filmmakers. Unfortunately, Coppola also refuses to take any risks with relationship development. Throughout the movie, the filmmaker stubbornly resists exploring the bond between Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI. Dialogue is always eschewed in favor of exhilarating montage, and this is where the writer-director ultimately comes up short.

Not everyone will appreciate the casting of Kirsten Dunst in the title role, but the choice is perfectly suited to the thematic foundation upon which Coppola builds her version of the tale. The movie reminds us that Marie Antoinette was only fourteen when she was married off to the French dauphin. As seen through the eyes of a young girl, “Marie Antoinette” replicates the rhythms of teenage existence, alternating between sleepyhead somnolence and giddy hyperactivity. The film roars to life whenever there is an opportunity to indulge the queen’s passion for parties and shopping. Shooting at Versailles does wonders for the weight of the film’s overall design presence, but Milena Canonero’s opulent costumes seal the deal, and steal nearly every scene.

Coppola further hammers home her strategy of contemporization by scoring the film with an armload of bulletproof rock tracks, many from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The song choices have a mesmerizing effect on the scenes they accompany, and for viewers of a certain age, their incorporation will set off a heady rush of nostalgia. Bow Wow Wow’s version of “I Want Candy” bounces along with images of conspicuous courtly consumption, as all manner of chocolates, libations, gowns, and shoes (including a quick and winking glimpse at a Chuck Taylor canvas All-Star sneaker) fill the frame. Additionally, Gang of Four, New Order, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees adroitly match the visuals with which they are paired.

Coppola’s decision to largely ignore the political upheaval taking place outside Marie Antoinette’s window mutes the impact of the film’s final movement. The queen has been so thoroughly cut off from the commoners that even a grand gesture of respect, eerily shot on the same balcony where the historical event took place, fails to arouse the kind of breathtakingly awed response it intends. The very final set of shots moves to reclaim some of the territory lost by so completely focusing on the title character’s spacey, shallow narcissism.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/30/06.

Half Nelson

Monday, October 23rd, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

All the expected baggage that comes with the “white teacher touches lives in inner city school” set-up of “Half Nelson” evaporates in the first reel of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s remarkably restrained narrative feature, an expansion of their award-winning short piece “Gowanus, Brooklyn.” Smart enough to leave plenty of questions unanswered and many stones unturned, “Half Nelson” has an uncanny grasp of the dangers of its genre’s cliché-ridden booby traps, and avoids them all. The result is an absolutely engrossing drama that ranks among the year’s finest films.

In the movies, scenes featuring classroom teaching often veer into alien territory, as inspiring speeches and light-bulb epiphanies replace the more familiar routines of daily instruction. “Half Nelson,” like many other films that take the viewer to school, pairs the messages and metaphors of its lesson plans with the after-hours action happening to the main character. Ryan Gosling, equaling or bettering his terrifyingly good performance in “The Believer” hits a grand slam as Dan Dunne, a smart, left-leaning idealist who riffs on dialectics to his middle school charges by day and smokes crack by night.

Gosling’s brilliance is matched by young costar Shareeka Epps, who plays Dunne’s student Drey, a quiet and intense eighth grader struggling to come to terms with an absentee father, an incarcerated older brother, and a mom pulling double shifts to make ends meet. Drey discovers Dunne, obliterated and pipe in hand, in the locker room following a basketball game. Rather than spill the beans, Drey keeps the information to herself, and her silence has the uneasy effect of constructing a peculiarly adult relationship with the teacher she admires and respects.

One expects that Dunne’s self-destructive personal choices will impact his teaching and imperil his job, but the filmmakers are shrewd enough to tone down the melodrama to the extent that an almost Bressonian austerity settles over the film. The technique heightens the tension, as we wait nervously for Dunne’s addiction to catch up with him. In one incisive scene, Dunne confronts Frank (Anthony Mackie), a dealer in the process of luring Drey into his employ. Faced with the double standard of his own awful role-modeling behavior, Dunne backs off, confused and shaken.

In the margins, “Half Nelson” quietly builds a second set of thematic concerns, as the filmmakers play show-and-tell with archival footage of stories including the murder of Harvey Milk and the U.S. support of Augusto Pinochet. A glimpse of Dunne’s liberal parents, who choose to step lightly around the elephant of their son’s drug dependency, offers a few hints at the circumstances of the young teacher’s downward spiral. Underscoring the scene is Rosey Grier’s performance of “It’s All Right to Cry,” which for some, calls to mind the killing of Robert Kennedy (Grier was a friend of the senator, and prevented Sirhan Sirhan from firing additional shots by placing his thumb behind the trigger of the murderer’s weapon). For others, the use of a track from “Free to Be… You and Me” alludes to that recording’s impact on a generation. The album’s messages of empowerment, equality, and tolerance inspired fierce idealism in many who came of age in the 1970s.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/23/06.

The Science of Sleep

Monday, October 16th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

While “The Science of Sleep” is nowhere near as fulfilling as director Michel Gondry’s exquisite “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” it will satisfy viewers seeking something entirely different from the rest of the fare on the current movie menu. Crammed with Gondry’s inimitable sense of handmade craftsmanship, “The Science of Sleep” operates in that suspended space between dream and reality, past and present. A kaleidoscopic nostalgia trip that instantly signals a potent layer of autobiography, Gondry’s film makes up in brain-bending creativity what it lacks in narrative unity.

With “The Science of Sleep,” Gondry steps out as his own screenwriter, and the result clearly owes something to previous collaborator, fellow visionary, and “Eternal Sunshine” scribe Charlie Kaufman, whose storytelling is tighter, if no less bizarre. Like “Eternal Sunshine,” “The Science of Sleep” shifts restlessly between the actual and the fantastic to the extent that the border between the two is uncertain to characters, audience members, and perhaps Gondry himself. The disorientation caused by this blurring effect is tempered by the film’s joyful belief in the power of invention.

As the movie gets underway, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an immature artist, moves to Paris from Mexico to take a position at a printing company. Despite his mother’s assurance that the job requires artistic skill, Stephane immediately realizes that he’ll be just another frustrated office drone. Fortunately, the other employees, including the amusingly vulgar Guy (Alain Chabat), break up the tedium of old fashioned cutting and pasting. Stephane also strikes up a friendship with Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the girl who lives across the hall, and their tentative, awkward flirtations provide the movie with its central thematic ballast.

When it comes to addressing issues of love and romance, Gondry presents a curious world where Stephane’s paralyzing fear of rejection is masked by his eagerness to operate in the more comfortable space where his childlike constructions and assemblages are admired and appreciated. When grown-up feelings threaten to undermine the delicately balanced equilibrium of his fragile worldview, Stephane retreats to the safety of what he knows best: odd little inventions like a one-second time machine or projects that require items like buttons, felt, cardboard tubes, cotton, and cellophane. Stephanie, a dreamer in her own right, takes pleasure in sharing Stephane’s passion for do-it-yourself entertainment, but Stephane’s emotionally arrested development seems to block out any hope that they might be more than friends.

For all its whimsy, “The Science of Sleep” evokes feelings of longing, regret, and sadness. Stephane’s infantilism comes to bear its fangs, and the ugliness of his behavior can make one wince with familiarity at the way that we can ferociously derail a friendship when attraction goes unrequited. In “The Science of Sleep,” adult relationships are incompatible with the precious pixie dust that fuels the world of the very young. In this worthwhile movie, Gondry has located the intersection between retaining the unfiltered wonder of childhood and the butterflies that come with being a fully-grown person. Much like the contents of the protagonist’s cranium, Gondry’s film leaves us with the bittersweet memory of images suspended between the way things are and the way we want them to be.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/16/06.