Archive for March, 2006

Inside Man

Monday, March 27th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even though its opening titles indicate that “Inside Man” is a “Spike Lee Joint,” it is certainly one of the most conventional of the talented director’s features. This is not a bad thing, given that many of Lee’s wildly inventive films buckle under the strain of the filmmaker’s wide-ranging ambitions and devil-may-care, damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Produced by Brian Grazer and crafted from a script by newcomer Russell Gewirtz, “Inside Man” is immediately identifiable as studio fare – particularly in the toplining trio comprised of Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen – who give delicious star turns.

A classic bank heist/hostage negotiation movie that makes several nods to Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Inside Man” ably fulfills its genre expectations as Dalton Russell (Owen) directly addresses the camera at the film’s outset with a promise that he has planned and will execute the perfect robbery. Descending with a team of accomplices on a Wall Street-area savings and loan, Russell cleverly forces the hostages to dress in the same painter suits and masks worn by the thieves, which makes telling the victims from the perpetrators hopeless. By the time detectives Keith Frazier (Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrive on the scene, it’s clear that Russell has an arsenal of tricks up his sleeve.

The cat-and-mouse game between Russell and Frazier becomes very sticky once the mysterious Madeline White (Foster) gets a pass from the mayor to the middle of the unfolding action. A power-broker with connections to seemingly every wealthy and influential person in New York City, White appears to make her living by solving impossible problems with the utmost discretion. Frazier resents the intrusion of this civilian “fixer,” but his hands are tied, and White also possesses knowledge of an internal affairs investigation of Frazier over some missing evidence loot.

Lee’s films often depict an electrifying blend of social commentary and engrossing performances, and “Inside Man” is no exception. The movie’s supporting cast, which includes Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer, also brims over with memorable bit players. Woody Allen aside, few filmmakers are as closely identified with the Big Apple as Lee, and the diversity of characters who parade through “Inside Man” offers the director prime opportunities to comment on race and class. Additionally, Lee largely eschews any focus on media coverage of the standoff, cannily sticking with the personalities at the heart of the emergency (and anchored by an outstanding Washington).

Longtime Lee admirers are provided with all sorts of eye candy, especially by way of cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s dazzling camerawork. Terence Blanchard, who has collaborated with Lee more than fifteen times, provides yet another beautiful and robust score, and Wynn Thomas (10+ projects with Lee) captures all sorts of pleasing details with his stellar production design. Sharp-eyed fans will spot several visual nods to Lee’s own body of work, including stacks of pizza boxes from Sal’s Famous and some “Bomb” malt liquor that appeared in the ferocious satire “Bamboozled.” While Lee is not likely to become a regular director for hire, “Inside Man” is so much fun that one hopes he’ll occasionally take a studio assignment between his own originally developed ideas.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/27/06.

She’s the Man

Monday, March 20th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A plucky if empty-headed teen romp, “She’s the Man” loosely updates Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” as a gender-bend-it-like-Beckham tale of a soccer-mad lass talented enough to best her male competitors. Penned by Ewan Leslie, Karen McCullah Lutz, and Kirsten Smith, “She’s the Man” provides just enough diversion to satisfy its running time, despite its breezy superficiality. The latter two screenwriters scored considerably better marks with their previous Bard-borrowing teen flick “10 Things I Hate About You,” which coasted through a fair amount of the plot of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Younger audience members certainly won’t care – or notice – that “She’s the Man” jettisons as much Shakespeare as it can while hanging on to the central cross-dressing conceit.

Headstrong, tomboyish Viola (Amanda Bynes) sees her soccer season slip away when Cornwall Prep cuts the girls’ squad. Taking advantage of her brother Sebastian’s decision to sneak off to play in a rock music festival in London, Viola disguises herself as her sibling in order to try out for the men’s team at rival school Illyria. A monster-sized suspension of disbelief is needed to buy Bynes as a male, but the game performer makes the most of a thinly written role – even though it requires a few too many throat-clearings and broad behavior corrections (such as what to do when nailed in the groin by an errant soccer ball).

Naturally, Viola-as-Sebastian ends up bunking with the handsome Duke (Channing Tatum, whose wooden delivery is often rendered unbearable by lame line readings), and must figure out how to keep her biology a secret at the same time she is proving herself on and off the soccer pitch. Complicating matters is the romantic attention of Olivia (Laura Ramsey), who finds the new “boy’s” empathetic demeanor totally irresistible. Jealous Duke, who has the hots for Olivia, agrees to coach his new roommate in soccer in exchange for help from Viola/Sebastian in wooing Olivia.

It is too early to tell whether “She’s the Man” will ever develop a large enough following to equal the cable television potency of “Just One of the Guys,” the durable 80s teen flick which employs a great deal of the same plotting. Bynes alternates between adorable and irritating (and that goes for her appearance as either sex), but most of her cast-mates are forgettable. The chief exceptions are Julie Hagerty as Daphne, Viola’s debutante-obsessed mom, and David Cross as Principal Gold, an earnest if out-of-touch headmaster given to off-center reveries and misplaced advice. Cross is brilliant in his fleeting onscreen moments, even if his character in “She’s the Man” resembles “Arrested Development’s” Tobias Funke.

Several of the film’s subplots – especially one involving a snarky, uptight, goody-two-shoes who sets out to ruin Viola – go absolutely nowhere. Additionally, the movie often strains to manufacture complications for Viola’s ruse (a frantic and nonsensical interlude at a carnival, in which Viola changes back and forth between boy and girl, belongs in a sitcom). “She’s the Man” should have exchanged its mugging and slapstick for some intelligently presented ideas about the ups and downs of gender expectations during high school. But this is teen-movie territory, which tends not to aim too high, and as a result, “She’s the Man” is indistinguishable from dozens of other movies with titles like “She’s All That,” “Get Over It,” “”Bring It On,” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/20/06.

Transamerica

Monday, March 13th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

While Felicity Huffman deserves praise for her impressive portrayal of a pre-op male-to-female transsexual in “Transamerica,” the film itself is a mess – a grab bag of road movie clichés and finger-wagging self-importance that’s a chore to watch from start to finish. Marking the feature filmmaking debut of writer-director Duncan Tucker, “Transamerica” is preachy when it aims to be moving, flat when it aims to be funny, and shrill when it aims to be emotionally charged. Earnest to a fault, “Transamerica” places its central character in a maelstrom of grotesquery and intolerance, with practically the entire supporting cast stuck playing two-dimensional stereotypes as opposed to fully formed people.

Los Angeles waitress Bree (Huffman) is just a week away from a long-awaited sex change operation when she is informed that an ages-ago sexual encounter yielded a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), now a troubled teenager in lockup in New York City. Despite her great reluctance to deal with the situation, Bree is cajoled by her therapist (Elizabeth Pena) into bailing the kid out of jail. Naturally, Bree chooses not to tell Toby about her status as the boy’s father, and the pair embarks on a cross-country road trip that gives the movie its titular pun.

Why someone as determined as Bree would agree to drive her son to rural Kentucky (in a junky, dodgy old station wagon purchased from a drug dealer, no less) is not satisfyingly explained by Tucker, who seems hell bent on providing the audience with a wacky journey filled with colorful vignettes and lessons learned. The movie’s success depends on the challenging relationship that develops between Bree and Toby, but Zegers’ role is both underwritten and underplayed: Toby is an addict and a hustler, but rarely if ever does Tucker make an effort to get under the surface of Toby’s anger and disillusionment.

Like nearly all road movies, “Transamerica” suggests that the vast spaces between the coasts are filled with oddballs – especially when the traveling takes place along rustic backroads peppered with greasy spoon diners and souvenir-shilling gas stations. Bree seems to find a sensitive soul in a rancher played by Graham Greene, but the great performer’s screen time is limited to a few clunky scenes bogged down by exactly the type of spiritual mysticism that reinforces stereotypes about Native Americans (as opposed to dispelling them).

“Transamerica” amps up the dramatic fireworks when Bree and Toby stop in Phoenix to visit Bree’s parents and sister. One of the film’s longest and most sustained interludes, the Arizona stopover provides Huffman with the opportunity to explore the limits of Bree’s sense of self. Fionnula Flanagan, as Bree’s garishly dressed, difficult mother teeters on the brink of parody as she humiliates and belittles her offspring. The one-sidedness of Bree’s familial antagonists unfortunately results in a black-and-white simplicity that erases any possibility of subtlety. “Transamerica” is not likely to be remembered for much beyond Huffman’s performance, and in a sense that is too bad. Huffman does a great deal with a role of a lifetime – even if it means playing a character who deserves a much stronger story.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/13/06.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

Monday, March 6th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Neither as exuberant as one might hope nor as fulfilling as it needs to be, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” nevertheless blows into theaters as a breath of fresh springtime air. A music and comedy-based homage to Mel Stuart’s “Wattstax,” “Block Party” features a tantalizing lineup of hip-hop artists, including Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, the Roots, and the reunited Fugees, among others. Planned by Chappelle as a free neighborhood get-together in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Michel Gondry’s documentary constructs a breezy, affable, and mostly lighthearted behind-the-scenes look at the planning and execution of the big event.

Purportedly bankrolled in some measure by Chappelle, the project immediately presents the viewer with the impression that a host like Chappelle can and will make just about anything happen. Kicking off in and around Dayton, Ohio, just a few days prior to the September 2004 concert, “Block Party” follows the comedian around town as he distributes golden tickets to a variety of folks – some thrilled, some gracious, some just plain perplexed. The chaotic spirit that accompanies Chappelle’s spontaneous invitation sets the tone for the film, which mostly fails to follow-up later on the average Ohioans who agreed to take the bus ride to NYC. After the promising set-up, the highlight of which is Chappelle’s recruitment of the ecstatic Central State University Marching Band as performers for the show, “Block Party” spends the remainder of its running time cutting primarily between the concert and Chappelle’s preparations for it.

It’s likely that “Block Party” will work better on DVD than at the cinema, assuming that the musical performances will be presented intact. The theatrical version’s single greatest deficiency is a marked attention-deficit disorder, as many of the finest numbers are interrupted to present some other business. While this tactic will disappoint hip-hop fans, viewers hoping for a big-screen version of Chappelle’s television series will not find that either. Instead, Chappelle’s flavorful musings (as he interacts with regular people and stars) range from the blisteringly funny to the slightly bittersweet.

“Block Party” goes out of its way to remain focused on the fun (even if the inclement weather forces Badu to remove her fantastic Angela Davis afro), but Gondry and Chappelle include several tastes of political commentary, including a conversation between Ahmir Thompson and Chappelle in which they talk about having to perform for mostly white audiences. Chappelle also invites Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the slain Black Panther, to address the crowd, and Wyclef Jean appears in a moving scene where he performs “President” with some of the CSU student musicians.

Chappelle’s infectious energy and deep wellspring of talent course through “Block Party,” even if the finished product doesn’t hit a grand slam. Chappelle’s dizzy rollercoaster career feels like it can go anywhere, and “Block Party” only hints at the future possibilities for the dynamic performer. Like his inspiration Richard Pryor, who appeared in “Wattstax” and whose face graces one of the t-shirts he wears onstage, Chappelle is an innovator whose sharp wit and vivid imagination have put him on the path to potential legend status.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/6/06.