Archive for January, 2006

Bubble

Monday, January 30th, 2006

2006bubble_1Movie review by Greg Carlson

Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” will undoubtedly be remembered more for the circumstances surrounding its distribution than for its content or cinematic quality.  Debuting simultaneously this week in theaters, on pay-per-view, and on DVD, Soderbergh seems to be offering a direct challenge to the traditional expectation of a window between theatrical run and home video release.  While the movie only gathered a tepid 70K in the 32 theatres showing it, reports from the distributor claimed a total weekend return of some five million dollars.  Depending on how one looks at it, this could signal the beginning of a shift in the way movies will eventually be released to the public.

Shot on high definition video – although the muddy colors, flat lighting, and frequent focus shifts look more like the results of consumer-grade tape – “Bubble” is purportedly going to be the first of six low-budget properties that will see the same type of opening day simultaneity.  Soderbergh is no stranger to innovative, do-it-yourself moviemaking, and he has maintained an aggressive, if not always successful, blend of lavish projects (“Ocean’s Eleven”) and edgier pursuits (“Full Frontal”).  Along with directing “Bubble,” Soderbergh also shot and edited, employing pseudonyms for those tasks.

Working from a lightly-sketched screenplay by Coleman Hough, Soderbergh comments on the emptiness and banality of low-income life in a small town on the Ohio-West Virginia border.  Set in a doll factory, which affords ample opportunity for unsettling shots of the grotesque and fascinating process of assembling tiny imitations of babies, “Bubble” focuses on the relationship between middle-aged Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) and quiet Kyle (Dustin James Ashley).  None of the principal performers in the movie are professional actors, and the casting choices bring a layer of documentary-like realism to the movie that suggests a purposefully designed minimalism.

An uneasy triangle forms when pretty, single mother Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) is hired at the factory.  An immediate threat to the comfortable friendship of Martha and Kyle, Rose’s arrival injects some tension into the movie, especially when it is revealed that there is more to her than either Kyle or Martha first guesses.  A shocking murder is committed less than one hour into the movie’s very brief running time, and the final section delivers an absorbing investigation that showcases Soderbergh’s near-obsessive sense of restraint.  Decker Moody, as the police detective who interviews the people involved with the crime, is ideally suited for his role.

Given the reception of “Bubble,” one would assume that viewers would opt to stay home for a movie rather than go out to see it if the choice is offered.  While the cost of a new DVD, even discounted, totals more than the price of a movie ticket, consumers might enjoy the freedom of being able to start, stop, and replay the movie – especially in the comfort of a well-appointed home theater.  The “Bubble” DVD also includes two audio commentaries, a deleted scene with an alternate ending that provides information that significantly alters the version shown in theaters, and some additional content covering the lives of the actors and the casting process.  Having immediate access to this material changes the experience of “Bubble,” enhancing its value.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/30/06. 

The New World

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

2006newworldMovie review by Greg Carlson

The myth of Pocahontas is simultaneously durable and sketchy, and perhaps this is part of its appeal.  Filmmaker Terrence Malick’s treatment of the story necessitates a great deal of invention, but the final impact of his fourth feature “The New World” is somewhat disappointing when lined up against his other films.  Malick devotees need no convincing that he is a filmmaker unlike any other, a master director unafraid to put visual lyricism ahead of conventional, dialogue-driven plotting.  “The New World” displays nearly all of Malick’s familiar touches, but it fails to replicate the epiphanies and grandeur of his 1970s masterworks “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven.”

The first section of “The New World” is the strongest, as a British exploration led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) arrives in Virginia to the magisterial strains of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” as the native Powhatan emerge from the trees to greet the strange-looking aliens.  Spared from the hangman’s noose by Newport, Captain John Smith (Colin Ferrell) is ordered to lead an expedition to the natives’ settlement.  While the other members of his group are killed, Smith is miraculously saved by Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the daughter of the tribal leader.  Smith stays with the natives for some time, during which he forms a deep bond with the curious and beautiful Pocahontas.

Malick lavishes attention on the closeness of Smith and Pocahontas, painting the unhurried lifestyle of the natives as a harmonious balance between human beings and nature.  Mostly avoiding any explicitly depicted sexual relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, Malick nevertheless suggests an eroticized, prelapsarian sensuousness that discreetly sidesteps the considerable age difference between the central characters, as well as reinforces the fantasy construction that love between a Native American and an Englishman excuses the ugly reality of what Europeans would inflict during colonization and beyond.

Later, Pocahontas marries John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and her sad transformation is manifested in the change from her customary furs and skins to the constricting and uncomfortable togs worn by “proper” ladies.  Arriving in England for an audience with royalty, Pocahontas discovers her very own new world, and ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera fixes on manicured hedges and soaring architecture in a way that parallels Smith’s earlier fascination with Powhatan culture.  Pocahontas, now christened Rebecca, comes back into focus in a series of moments that bear Malick’s ethereal, almost mystical, stamp.  These last moments reverberate with a bittersweet and tender sense of sorrow.

Like Malick’s other films, “The New World” will no doubt benefit from multiple viewings, not to mention the inevitable stream of scholarly articles that will dissect the director’s purposefully unstated intentions.  One leaves “The New World,” however, with the gnawing impression that there should have been something more to it.  Malick detractors will also carp about the fuzzy internal monologues delivered by Pocahontas, Smith, and Rolfe, which lack the haunting urgency of Linda Manz’s voiceovers in “Days of Heaven.”  Despite its shortcomings, “The New World” surpasses the majority of the thoughtless drivel released to the public, and even those unfamiliar with Malick’s other movies will marvel at the film’s many charms.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/23/06. 

Glory Road

Monday, January 16th, 2006

2006gloryroadMovie review by Greg Carlson

Yet another entry in Disney’s lineup of sports movies based on real events, “Glory Road” joins “Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” and “Miracle” as a mostly enjoyable – if not altogether penetrating – exercise in history at the movies.  In other words, beyond the central fact that the 1965-66 Texas Western Miners won the NCAA Basketball Championship, “Glory Road” gets the Jerry Bruckheimer makeover, which means that the movie takes generous liberties with the record in order to arrive at the most entertaining, and hopefully profitable, version of events.  “Glory Road” is not exactly “Hoosiers,” but the charismatic casting choices form a likable ensemble.

Josh Lucas, a tremendously talented actor still in search of a truly star-making part, makes a strong impression as coach Don Haskins, the driven taskmaster who contributed to NCAA history by starting five black players in the championship game versus Kentucky on March 19, 1966 – a tournament first.  Despite the film’s familiar touchstones (learning that hard work on fundamentals pays off, putting the team first, etc.), Lucas finds a few moments in which the square-jawed earnestness that defines his character resonates with sincerity.  It’s no mean feat to deliver motivational locker-room speeches without the been-there and done-that feeling, and Lucas sells it like a pro.

Following a leisurely section in which Haskins recruits his players from spots around the United States, the movie alternates between scenes of basketball and the development of the theme that racial integration on the basketball court can teach audiences about an underreported aspect of civil rights.  “Glory Road” deserves some credit for placing the struggles of Haskins’ players front and center.  Surly crowds shower the team with refuse, hotel rooms are violated and racial epithets are scrawled on the walls, and in one harrowing incident, a player is assaulted by a group of racists in a restaurant bathroom (it has been reported that dramatic license has been taken with much of the above).

By the time the movie has reached its final act, it is clear that writers Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois have prioritized the off-court challenges faced by the Miners, but the rendering is usually far too superficial to inspire deep reflection.  Presumably for the sake of excitement, a few facts (in addition to the ones listed above) are fudged.  Among them: Haskins coached the Miners to the famous championship in his fifth season with the team, not during his first, as the movie has it.  Additionally, the film suggests that the championship game was the first time Haskins went with five black players as the starting lineup, but he had done this in games prior to the showdown with Kentucky.

Despite the truth-stretching, “Glory Road” might raise awareness of a transitional time in college athletics.  Audience members should stay for the end credits, in which a number of the actual subjects, including Haskins, Pat Riley (who played on the Kentucky team as one of “Rupp’s Runts”), and several of the Texas Western players, share their recollections of the noteworthy contest.  Combined with game footage, the comments from the real-life participants prove to be more compelling than much of what was fictionalized.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/16/06. 

Paradise Now

Monday, January 9th, 2006

2006paradiseMovie review by Greg Carlson

An often harrowing study of a pair of young Palestinians intending to carry out a suicide bombing mission in Israel, Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” is simultaneously a tense thriller and a meditation on the absurdity of the ultimate self sacrifice.  The production of a movie interested in dealing with this particular content assumes a certain amount of high-wire peril, especially considering that location shooting in Nablus and Nazareth is inherently dangerous and also because the humanizing of suicide bombers demands at least some level of audience identification with the film’s protagonists.

Focusing on two West Bank auto shop mechanics, “Paradise Now” scarcely gives itself enough time to set up the characters of Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) before they are informed that they have been called on to carry out a mission on behalf of a group of unnamed anti-Israeli militants with whom they associate.  Said, the son of an executed Palestinian, is desperate to lash out against what he feels is an oppressive life fraught with perpetual humiliation and shame.  Khaled is not as fleshed-out, but the relationship of the two friends drives the action once the suicide run (which meets with all sorts of complications) gets underway.

Abu-Assad, himself an Israeli-born Palestinian, understands the precariousness of his subject matter in such a way that “Paradise Now” occasionally tries on too many hats.  Containing elements of the crime film as well as cooking up an ill-timed romantic storyline, “Paradise Now” is most surprising for its gallows humor.  The director devotes a substantial amount of time to the preparations made by the bombers, and the videotaping of farewell speeches provides several bleak jokes, including a running gag about water filters.  Once the preparations are complete, rounded out by some none-too-convincing pep talks from other members of the militia, Said and Khaled make their way toward the border.

“Paradise Now” addresses many possible reasons why young men like Said and Khaled would choose to “martyr” themselves for what they believe.  To Abu-Assad’s credit, the movie largely skips any lengthy historical contextualization, choosing instead to let the self-doubts of its central characters guide the complexity of suicide as a tool of resistance.  The film also includes the argument for non-violence in the character of Suha (Lubna Azabal), a well-educated young woman who becomes romantically involved with Said.  Suha’s dialogue is some of the best written in the script, penned by director Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, one of the film’s producers.

If Suha is the voice of reason in “Paradise Now,” Said represents the grim reality of all too common headlines.  The final act of the film, marred slightly by its elaborate turnabouts, still manages to quicken the pulse.  Abu-Assad expertly modulates the building suspense, keeping the audience guessing about the outcome literally up to the final seconds.  “Paradise Now” is not the sort of film that is likely to change one’s opinion on the Middle East, but its thoughtfully written characters certainly provoke thought concerning the motives of those who would die in the name of their cause.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/9/06.