Archive for February, 2006

Match Point

Monday, February 27th, 2006

2006matchpointMovie review by Greg Carlson

A robust melodrama that mixes its dark tale of upward mobility with a streak of black humor, Woody Allen’s “Match Point” is both attractive and involving. Recalling Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as well as the director’s long-standing thematic preoccupation with Ingmar Bergman, “Match Point” explores guilt, infidelity, morality, and the function of luck. Set in the London equivalent of Allen’s fairytale Manhattan, “Match Point” focuses on Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a social climber who uses his job as a country club tennis pro to gain access to a fabulously wealthy family.

In the blink of an eye, Chris seduces Chloe Hewett (Emily Mortimer), the eager sister of his tennis student Tom (Matthew Goode). Invited one weekend to the Hewett’s opulent country house, Chris encounters Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), the dangerous and beguiling American fiancée of Tom. Unable to resist the allure of Nola, Chris chases her outside during a rainstorm and they have torrid sex, even though his future with the Hewett family is all but secured. Before things get out of hand, however, fate intervenes and Nola and Tom call it off. Nola disappears from Chris’ new life.

Nola’s absence from the scene is only temporary, and a chance encounter at the Tate Modern many months later – and following Chris’ wedding to Chloe – rekindles his lust. Like “An American Tragedy,” and its cinematic cousin “A Place in the Sun,” “Match Point” puts its central character in an impossible bind that can only yield devastating results. Allen relishes the opportunity to make his audience squirm, and a close-up of Chris’ reading material, “Crime and Punishment,” additionally alludes to a potentially horrific outcome. The more Nola pressures him to abandon his wife, the more Chris realizes he has grown far too accustomed to his elite lifestyle to want to leave it.

One looking for Allen’s customary approach to comedy won’t find much of it here, although “Match Point” isn’t as far off the Allen track as one might initially think. One of “Match Point’s” underlying themes, the desire of someone from the working class to get a ticket to untold riches, illuminates Allen’s longtime fascination with the good life. “Match Point” overflows with eye-popping material grandeur, from chauffer-piloted sedans to apartments with floor-to-ceiling views of Westminster Abbey. Even as Michael Atkinson calls Allen an “unapologetic wealth pornographer,” the director’s fascination with privilege seduces the audience right along with Chris, implicating the viewer when Chris begins to contemplate the unthinkable.

Continuing his knack for superb casting, Allen’s ensemble forms a perfect company. The director purposefully feeds his viewer very little background information regarding Chris or Nola, which has the direct effect of making us wonder exactly what each character is plotting to do. Johansson continues her run as one of cinema’s most desirable personalities, injecting Nola with a dazzling combination of pouty-lipped, doe-eyed sexuality and fragile, needy, insecurity. Rhys-Meyers is equally good as Chris, and Mortimer, Goode, Brian Cox, and Penelope Wilton all register memorably in their roles.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/27/06.

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Monday, February 20th, 2006

2006mrshenderson

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A modest diversion that coasts by on nostalgia, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” displays nowhere near the level of quality that defines veteran director Stephen Frears’ strongest work. A backstage comedy loosely based on “true events” (whatever those might be), “Mrs. Henderson Presents” blends widowhood, World War II, and the West End into a mildly engaging period piece. As Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm, Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are terrific in their roles, but the low budget and the script’s lack of ambition conspire to give the film the air of a made-for-TV time-filler. Surely the fascinating history of London’s Windmill Theater merits a deeper look than this one.

Beginning in 1937 with the funeral of Mrs. Henderson’s husband, the movie trots along at a brisk clip. Mrs. Henderson tires immediately of typical dowager pursuits, and trades her needlepoint and charity work for a boarded-up Soho theater, which she transforms almost overnight into a successful musical revue house. Mrs. Henderson also forms an unlikely partnership with Van Damm, an old pro who insists on artistic autonomy as the theater’s creative director. Naturally, Van Damm and Henderson don’t see eye to eye on every matter concerning the Windmill, and the witty sparring that attends virtually all of their conversations is at the heart of the movie’s charms.

When other theaters begin to copy the Windmill’s successful formula, Mrs. Henderson insists that Van Damm begin preparations to stage revues featuring nude women. A visit to the snooty Lord Chamberlain (a restrained Christopher Guest, just on the verge of being funny) clears the legal hurdles, although the Windmill must limit its fleshly displays to artfully lit tableaux. The movie’s middle section largely concerns itself with the casting and staging of the Windmill’s new stock in trade, and several of the musical numbers showcase clever, kitschy ways to titillate the audiences comprised largely of young soldiers on their way to the front lines.

The middle section also settles on a mostly unfocused – and completely rushed – subplot revolving around the nude revue’s star attraction, played by Kelly Reilly, who recently appeared as Caroline Bingley in the vastly superior “Pride & Prejudice.” Reilly is a fine performer, but the character she plays in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” entirely lacks definition, which prohibits the audience from making the necessary emotional investment in her fortunes. This is surely too bad, since Martin Sherman’s screenplay asks the viewers to find some time to brush aside some tears when the below-ground Windmill becomes a shelter during the punishing Nazi air raids.

Frears mixes in stock footage of bombed out London, but the grainy images cannot compensate for the lean production values displayed following the Blitz. By the time Mrs. Henderson delivers a rousing speech to a mob of troops looking to crowd inside the Windmill, the sentimentalism is shifted into the highest gear. The revelation of why Mrs. Henderson chose to feature nudity on her stage is pure corn, but the irrepressible Dench manages to get through the lines without complete embarrassment. In fact, Dench’s spirit of fun rescues “Mrs. Henderson Presents” from total disaster; she’s as delightful to see as the undressed attractions at her music hall.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/20/06.

Firewall

Monday, February 13th, 2006

2006firewallMovie review by Greg Carlson

A creaky, tepid, and thoroughly by-the-numbers action exercise with nary an original idea in its lolling head, “Firewall” is like a rerun of Harrison Ford’s non-Indiana Jones, non-Han Solo heroes – the boring ones who wear business suits and bark things like “Get off my plane!” As Jack Stanfield, a computer securities expert who toils for a large Seattle bank, Ford assumes the position as saintly father and husband with a palpable sense of entitlement. Ford can certainly take a beating with commitment and conviction (“Firewall” makes sure to put him through all sorts of bone-crushing paces), but is that all there is?

Director Richard Loncraine, working from a script by Joe Forte, occasionally seems to forget he is helming an action/suspense thriller. An interminable stretch of time is used to set up the story: cool, calculating Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) takes Stanfield’s family hostage in order to force Jack to hack into his own bank’s system and transfer millions of dollars into Cox’s account. Armed not only with a dizzyingly elaborate plan, Cox is abetted by a coterie of steely toughs, ranging from drivers who monitor Jack’s moves to surveillance/programming experts to machine-gun toting muscle.

“Firewall” never rises high enough to earn favorable comparisons to Hitchcock, but the wrong man theme provides a handful of diversions and complications. Despite the dullness of watching people use computers onscreen – an activity that has never been rendered in cinema with anything close to excitement – Jack is placed in several situations where he must use his security skills to fancy up some high-tech keyboarding. In one improbable sequence, Jack rigs a makeshift device out of his home fax machine and his daughter’s iPod. In another, he uses his son’s remote control toy truck to cause interference in the bad guys’ monitoring system.

Sadly, “Firewall” cannot seem to be bothered with the lives of its supporting characters, most of whom fade into stock stereotypes. Virginia Madsen, as Jack’s wife Beth, scolds the home invaders a few times, but never emerges as a flesh and blood person. Needless to say, the role is a far cry from her work in “Sideways.” Robert Forster, Robert Patrick, and Alan Arkin are virtually transparent. Only Mary Lynn Rajskub, who uses frowns and scowls to great effect as Jack’s harried secretary, manages to occasionally look like she is happy to be in the film.

“Firewall” is the kind of action movie where every last bit of exposition telegraphs something that will be recycled later on. The family dog and Jack’s son’s peanut allergy are two of the more obvious entries into this category, and both bits elicit sighs or chuckles, depending on one’s mood. By the time Jack engages Cox in hand-to-hand combat – in an empty house filled with all sorts of building materials that aid in the crashing and smashing – most viewers will be wondering why they are still watching. Ford long ago cornered the market on playing the victimized father who must protect his family, guaranteeing a happy ending in this safe, predictable, and completely unnecessary movie.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/13/06.

Something New

Monday, February 6th, 2006

2006somethingnewMovie review by Greg Carlson

Too trifling to comment with any weight on the racial issues it raises, “Something New” still manages to work as a pleasant, if casually paced, romance with a pair of attractive leading performers.  The feature debut of music video director Sanaa Hamri, “Something New” tracks the dating ups and downs of smart, successful Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a demanding and particular young professional whose plan to find an IBM (that’s an Ideal Black Male) goes topsy turvy when she falls for Brian (Simon Baker), the white landscape architect who’s designing her backyard garden.  Hamri, shooting Kriss Turner’s screenplay, uncorks the predictable complications, but the movie’s success rests with the easygoing chemistry between Lathan and co-star Baker.

Following a double cute-meet: an initial, awkward blind date paired with a chance encounter at a pre-wedding party thrown by a mutual acquaintance, Kenya agrees to hire Brian, who shows up at her door in his beat-up pickup truck with playful golden retriever in tow.  Everyone knows that these opposites will most definitely attract, and before much of the soil has been tilled, Kenya and Brian have shared a tender kiss in the rain.  Convincing herself (and her family and friends) that Brian is the one doesn’t come as easy as the kiss, however, and soon enough Kenya’s self-doubt steers the couple over some rocky terrain.

To make matters worse, competition arrives in the shape of handsome attorney Mark (Blair Underwood), who outwardly seems to possess the perfect combination of tall-order requirements on Kenya’s list.  Viewers will not have to consult a crystal ball to guess the movie’s eventual outcome, but those engaged with Lathan’s adept handling of an often ridiculous set of obstacles might find even the more familiar elements worth watching.  Surrounded by a solid cast, including Donald Faison as Kenya’s womanizing brother, Alfre Woodard (doing her best with a mostly strident, underwritten character) as Kenya’s ever-critical mom, and Earl Billings as Kenya’s understanding dad, Lathan navigates the thorny dilemma that finds her stuck in a tough spot.

“Something New” clearly aspires to themes beyond the girl-meets-boy plot that drives the action, but much of the film’s discussion of the politics of interracial dating wind up as speeches instead of believable conversation.  The movie’s heart is nearly always in the right place, but some of Kenya and Brian’s outbursts come off as preachy and forced.  Especially trying are the “Sex and the City”-cloned roundtables with Kenya and her girlfriends, a series of mostly unfunny filler scenes which never play like natural exchanges.

Not surprisingly, “Something New” is lightest on its feet when Kenya and Brian are alone, working out the delicate maneuvers of new lovers with the additional burden of disapproval from those whose opinions count (Mike Epps, as the boyfriend of one of Kenya’s pals, best embodies the skepticism of Kenya’s circle).  Both Lathan, who has been terrific in a handful of films, and Baker, still looking for a really big breakout role, breathe life into their roles that doesn’t exist on the page.  “Something New” may not entirely live up to its hopeful title, but the lead actors almost take it there.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/6/06.