Archive for May, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

Monday, May 29th, 2006

2006x3

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Despite his reputation as a shallow hack who weakens the big-budget movies he helms, Brett Ratner possesses enough skill as a filmmaker to not only connect the dots, but also to keep things moving briskly, even when character is sacrificed for special effects-driven action. “X-Men: The Last Stand” is the sort of movie that manages to resist Ratner’s directorial shortcomings, given the title’s status as a massive franchise and its placement as a “final chapter” (at least for now) in a trilogy. For all the griping about Ratner’s suitability to replace Bryan Singer, X-fans should be relieved, thrilled, and arguably overjoyed that the reins weren’t handed to someone like Joel Schumacher, who virtually took a pile driver to the “Batman” series.

In many ways, including some of the most important ones, “X-Men: The Last Stand” equals if not surpasses the Singer-directed movies. In this installment, the government reveals a so-called cure for mutants, an announcement that deeply divides the fringe community largely composed of two camps: Professor Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) nurturing academy and the underground collection of outcasts led by Magneto (Ian McKellan). Like many other superhero sequels, “X3” labors to adequately divide its attention evenly among the myriad characters, a task made all the more difficult with the tacit requirement that a handful of new faces be added to the mix.

Fans of the long-running comic always have their favorite characters, and several new faces appear onscreen in varying levels of prominence. Kelsey Grammer works perfectly as Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast, the furry blue acrobat who heads the Department of Mutant Affairs. Ben Foster plays the winged Angel, but despite the script’s best intentions, his screen time amounts to little more than a bit part. Much more fun is the appearance of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), whose fetching allure attracts the attention of Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and the ire of Rogue (Anna Paquin). Kitty, who can walk through walls, is given a terrific scene in which she plays hide-and-seek with Vinnie Jones’ Juggernaut.

The film makes room for the new inhabitants by essentially dispensing with a few of the older participants. While the diminished role of the bland Cyclops (James Marsden) is no great loss, the movie misses a great opportunity to explore the complex relationship between Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn). Following a gripping prison-convoy rescue sequence, Mystique vanishes, even though the outcome of her liberation melee sets up a potentially engrossing character dimension. To reveal more would be unfair, but Mystique deserves a bit better than to be the subject of a hammy line-delivery of the “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” chestnut.

Like the previous two “X-Men” movies, “The Last Stand” alternates between CG-enhanced battles and the soapy machinery of multiple relationships. A spectacular dismantling of the Golden Gate Bridge provides plenty of eye candy, and the most prominent figure in the series, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, finds himself at the center of much of the action. As Storm, Halle Berry struggles to assume the role of Xavier’s second in command, but her character has always been underwritten. McKellan and Stewart are wonderful as always. This leaves the conundrum of Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, whose rebirth in “X3” drives much of the plot. The richness of the Phoenix saga in the original comic would require several films, making the severely altered and truncated version presented here a somewhat confusing disappointment.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/29/06.

Over the Hedge

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, “Over the Hedge” is a mildly entertaining diversion that will appeal to kids, despite its similarity to a heap of recent computer-animated movies with tenacious talking animals. Whether or not one enjoys the strange texture of pixel-spawned imagery, these new movies seem a far cry from the golden age of Walt Disney’s meticulous efforts. “Over the Hedge” ends up spinning a tale as bland as the suburban housing developments it purports to lampoon, with the added nuisance of mounting a half-hearted attempt at satire undermined by the film’s own existence as a commodity likely to rack up plenty of additional cash from the sales of “Over the Hedge” toys, books, and video games.

Adults are likely to enjoy the references made to films such as “Citizen Kane,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “The Silence of the Lambs” more than the manic episodes that comprise the movie’s slim plot. A prologue introduces us to an enterprising raccoon named RJ (Bruce Willis), who finds himself in dire straits when he tries to pilfer from the food supply of surly bear Vincent (Nick Nolte). Given a limited period of time to replace Vincent’s stash, RJ hoodwinks an assortment of foraging critters led by cautious turtle Verne (Garry Shandling) into swiping goodies from the humans on the other side of the titular barrier that divides the wildlife from manicured lawns and swimming pools.

Only Verne is able to sense RJ’s duplicitous nature, and the turtle’s ego is bruised when his role as team leader is usurped by the smooth-talking omnivore. The other members of the group – including hyperactive squirrel Hammy (Steve Carell), father-daughter possums Ozzie (William Shatner) and Heather (Avril Lavigne), self-aware skunk Stella (Wanda Sykes), and a family of porcupines led by Lou (Eugene Levy) and Penny (Catherine O’Hara) – are charmed by RJ, especially when he introduces them to the addictive taste of artificially-flavored nacho cheese chips.

The movie’s stabs at America’s love affair with junk food and television fail to draw much blood, given the glorification of all things salty or sweet that come in bags and cans. In fact, with the exception of levelheaded Verne, all the animals are as hell-bent as human beings on amassing enough nutrition-free snacks to cause coronaries all around. The movie settles into a pattern in which the animal gang crosses the shrub boundary to raid backyard garbage cans. This continues until enough running time has been covered to constitute decent feature length.

By the final act, “Over the Hedge” grows tiresome, particularly given the shrill quality of the two-dimensional human characters voiced by Allison Janney and Thomas Haden Church. An extremely clever sequence, in which the already manic Hammy gulps an energy-boosting beverage, rises above the film’s remaining formulaic steps, but most of the later action lacks anything novel or noteworthy. While “Over the Hedge” is not a musical, Ben Folds contributes a handful of tunes that serve to kill time between action bits. Like the movie itself, the songs are pleasant without being terribly memorable.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/22/06.

Poseidon

Monday, May 15th, 2006

2006poseidonMovie review by Greg Carlson

Maybe its just not trashy enough to live up to its 1972 predecessor, but Wolfgang Petersen’s loose take on one of the essential disaster movies of its era fails to inspire more than a shrug. Dispensing with most of the plot of the original movie – as well as any indication that older people are realistically the most likely candidates to be found on a luxury liner – “Poseidon” ignores its thin characters in favor of a video game maze scenario in which a small band of passengers attempts to stay one step ahead of the rising water level. Despite Petersen’s skill with this milieu (“Das Boot,” “The Perfect Storm”), “Poseidon” leaves the viewer groping for dry land.

About the only thing “Poseidon” has going for it is its lean running time. Mark Protosevich’s script hastily sketches the set-up with near record speed: an opulent cruise ship en route to NYC on New Year’s Eve is inverted when a sneaky – and entirely ridiculous – “rogue wave” hits the vessel. Man of action Josh Lucas, a high stakes gambler with an unrelenting passion for self-preservation, ignores the wishes of the captain and begins a treacherous climb upward. Following Lucas are gorgeous single mom Jacinda Barrett and her son, suicidal millionaire Richard Dreyfuss, and retired fireman Kurt Russell, who also – for no good reason that the film can offer – used to serve as the mayor of New York.

On their ascent, the dogged group hooks up with jumpy stowaway Mia Maestro, Russell’s daughter Emmy Rossum, and her boyfriend Mike Vogel. Unfortunately, there is nobody to stand in for Shelley Winters’ Mrs. Rosen. Once the group is assembled, the movie shifts into thrill-a-minute mode, with a series of challenging perils hampering progress to the surface. Given the size of the group and the Herculean hazards in the way, it’s a safe bet to assume that not everyone is going to make it. But that’s what disaster movies do, and some of the death scenes of the core cast are staged with pulse-quickening effectiveness.

Weirdly, “Poseidon” squanders its rich opportunity to explore the darker aspects of human nature, offering instead a bland all-for-one and one-for-all mentality that celebrates cooperation and togetherness and absents cynicism and selfishness. While this temperament clearly rings with post-9/11 Hollywood guilt (and guile), “Poseidon” surely would have been a stronger film had it depicted mass casualties as something other than occasional shots of corpses floating face down or CG bodies tumbling through the air.

The fleeting exception to “Poseidon’s” grating bootstrap optimism is embodied in the character of Kevin Dillon’s “Lucky Larry,” a reptilian alcoholic who clearly doesn’t believe in women and children first. Dillon’s screen time is all too brief, especially since he’s the only performer who realizes “Poseidon” is trash, and hams it up accordingly. Had Lucky Larry survived long enough to provide a little bit of an antidote to the heroic do-gooders, the movie might have been a sight more enjoyable. As it stands, however, fans of the original adventure are not going to abandon ship for the new model.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/15/06.

The Notorious Bettie Page

Monday, May 8th, 2006

2006notoriousbettieMovie review by Greg Carlson

Tame and tepid when it should be provocative and electrifying, “The Notorious Bettie Page” turns out to be just another dreadfully dull, fill-in-the-blanks biopic.  Deliberately choosing a tone, style, and point of view that conspire to hold the title character at a psychological and emotional distance, director Mary Harron falls far short of the success she had with her clever adaptation of “American Psycho.”  Working again with Guinevere Turner as co-screenwriter, Harron glides along on the surface, adamantly refusing to speculate about Bettie Page the person.

To her legion of admirers Page was the ultimate 1950s pin-up model.  With her dazzling smile, signature brunette bangs, and uninhibited enthusiasm for posing, Page virtually defined the look of an era.  Projecting a joyful personality, Page worked with a complete absence of anything resembling a sense of shame, probably the single-most cited reason for her transcendent popularity.  Following her retirement from modeling in the late 1950s, Page disappeared from the public eye.  Her silence only fueled interest and enthusiastic collectors continued to buy, sell, and trade all manner of Page memorabilia.

It is possible that some Page fanatics will be perfectly satisfied with Harron’s decision to portray Bettie as a blank slate, but most audience members would surely prefer to see the central character as a real person with a vivid inner dimension.  As Page, Gretchen Mol is well-cast, but the talented performer cannot overcome the script’s almost total lack of definition.  From nearly start to finish, Page seems content to bob along from one episode to the next, almost always at the suggestion of unknown men.

To the film’s credit, John Dunn’s meticulous costume design recreates literally dozens of Page’s outfits, from her own hand-sewn bikinis to the elaborate fetish corsets and footwear that accompanied her work for brother and sister photography team Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor).  The movie is at its most lighthearted and watchable during the restaged photo shoots, which range from the early amateur camera club sessions to the complex rope bondage scenarios favored by the Klaw’s loyal customers.  Particularly effective are several lush color sequences that vibrantly capture the nostalgic flavor of the post-World War II era.

Harron never offers viewers a hint about Bettie’s emotional needs, opting instead to saddle the character with a naiveté that would seem to contradict Page’s intelligence and drive.  Like so many biopics, “The Notorious Bettie Page” skips over huge sections of the subject’s life, gliding past a number of significant relationships.  Art Amsie, generally acknowledged as one of the key Page photographers of the camera club years, is reduced to vapor.  Page’s collaboration with Bunny Yeager is treated with maddening superficiality.  Even Page’s religious awakening functions as a thematic sin-versus-redemption device that grossly oversimplifies Page’s spirituality by suggesting a single reason for her decision to leave modeling.  “The Notorious Bettie Page” might earn some new converts to the Page cult on the strength of Mol’s impression, but for a film dealing with the struggle between 1950s repression and sexuality, Harron’s movie is a major disappointment.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/8/06.

Stick It

Monday, May 1st, 2006

2006stickit3Movie review by Greg Carlson

A half-hearted take on the rebellious teen formula, “Stick It” fails to deliver much of anything, landing with a resounding thud and a zero-point-zero from the judges. Set in the world of elite women’s gymnastics, writer-director Jessica Bendinger’s film rehashes much of “Bring It On” (which Bendinger wrote and co-produced), only to tremendously diminished effect. Saddled with flat dialogue that most often treats the characters as types and afterthoughts, “Stick It” never picks up enough speed to deliver on the promise of its flashy opening credits sequence, a colorful montage of dripping graffiti more exciting than everything that follows.

A very wooden Missy Peregrym plays Haley Graham, a one-time national gymnastics contender who walked away from the sport for mysterious reasons (which are naturally explained on cue at a crucial moment late in the proceedings). Spending most of her time hot-dogging with a pair of BMX pals, Haley lands in court following a botched freestyle bike stunt that causes heaps of property damage. Given very little choice courtesy of her battling parents, Haley avoids juvenile detention by agreeing to attend VGA – the Vickerman Gymnastics Academy – where she is expected to return to her training.

“Stick It” nearly flickers to life once Haley arrives at VGA, thanks to the participation of Jeff Bridges, a tremendous actor who demonstrates that his gifts don’t fail him even when he’s chosen less than stellar material. As Burt Vickerman, the academy’s owner and head coach, Bridges infuses a thinly written role with a wellspring of dignity, charm, warmth, and humor (none of which would seem apparent on the page). The audience is offered very little background detail on Vickerman, but Bridges runs with what the screenplay gives him, filling in the rest with dexterity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other performers, who struggle valiantly to bring even a tiny glimmer of authenticity to Bendinger’s wretched writing. Peregrym is stuck playing the wounded kid with the chip on her shoulder, and her range toggles between sarcastic indignation and haughty defiance (always physically accompanied by a flash of the “devil horns” gesture). It doesn’t help that costume designer Carol Ramsey puts Peregrym in a grown-up’s idea of what a tough teenager would wear: mismatched tomboy togs accented by rock t-shirts of bands like the Ramones, Motorhead, Bad Brains, and AC/DC. One imagines the character would be hard pressed to name a single album by any of the artists, let alone actively listen to their music.

Outside the central conflict between Vickerman and Haley, “Stick It” paints by numbers. A weird scene in which Busby Berkeley-esque overhead shots accompany gymnasts in action cannot mask the film’s complete lack of intelligence and depth. Especially odious are Kellan Lutz and John Patrick Amedori as Haley’s close male pals. Their unfunny banter botches every scene in which they appear. Of the supporting cast, only Vanessa Lengies (overcoming line after line of inanities like “it’s not called gym-nice-stics”) manages to charm the audience. The final meet also contains a surprising turn that criticizes the arcane scoring system of competitive gymnastics, and the sequence is likely to win the hearts of many of the younger viewers.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/1/06.