Archive for June, 2006

Brick

Monday, June 26th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Young writer-director Rian Johnson’s “Brick” is one of the year’s must-see movies for cinephiles, a love-it-or-hate-it homage to classic film noir, complete with fussy dialogue sprinkled with period allusions and plot points virtually lifted from Hammett and Chandler. The source of the movie’s considerable attention – it won a special jury prize at Sundance for “Originality of Vision” – stems from its setting, a California high school. Johnson begs the viewer to suspend disbelief immediately (no teenager would call female acquaintances “Angel” ala Bogart, or be referred to as “shamus”), jumping into a world largely devoid of adults. The kids in “Brick” might show up for class occasionally, but if they do we never see it. It is much more interesting to tangle with shady hoods and solve mysteries.

The increasingly excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who improves with nearly every role, plays Brendan, a bespectacled loner who carries a torch for his addict ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). An enigmatic phone call, littered with a string of clues that will lead Brendan into dangerous waters, sets into motion the plot, which veers and curves like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” Determined to uncover the truth surrounding Emily’s disappearance, Brendan crosses paths with The Pin (Lukas Haas), a baby-faced drug lord who still lives with his mom. The Pin, decked out with cape and cane, would be ludicrous if not for Haas’ expert treatment.

Some of the other stock noir types, particularly the femmes fatale, don’t fare as well. Johnson might be sticking close to classic noir’s misogynistic streak, but “Brick’s” spin on sexuality is all talk and no play. The abundantly talented Meagan Good, playing a drama queen in every sense of the word, tosses steamy one-liners like sharp firecrackers, but barring her predilection for underclassmen (in a lame running gag), she’s all dressed up with no place to go. Even harder to swallow is the character of Laura (Nora Zehetner), in what might be called the Mary Astor role; she lacks the gravitas to be taken as seriously as her leading man. It doesn’t help that Johnson ignores her when she is needed most.

“Brick” is at its very best when Gordon-Levitt is chomping through the miles of stylized tough talk. Noir’s nihilism proves to be well-suited to the milieu of navel-gazing teens, and Brendan’s slicing put-downs and withering sarcasm fit the movie like a glove. Johnson is as much inspired by recent filmmakers – especially the Coens and David Lynch – as he is by the likes of Hawks and Huston, and “Brick” must be credited for achieving an impressive look and feel on an extremely limited budget (it reportedly cost only 500,000 dollars).

It is unknown if “Brick” will improve or diminish with multiple viewings. Given the success story of its film school tyro, the movie is destined to become required viewing for wannabe auteur moviemakers, at least in the short term. By no means does “Brick” ever feel like a great film, though its dazzling moments outnumber its self-consciously cute ones. Like the best of the original noir movies, it traffics in cynicism and angst. That the characters are teenagers only adds to the ache of its pessimistic, isolated worldview. If that is your sort of thing, “Brick” is the ticket.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/26/06.

Art School Confidential

Monday, June 19th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Terry Zwigoff has cultivated a decent career as a filmmaker profiling the disaffected and trolling the margins for the offbeat and the outcast. The same could be said about the graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, whose stories of desperation and depression resonate with a bittersweet nostalgia for better (or at least more tolerable) times. “Art School Confidential” is the second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, but it isn’t anywhere near as good as “Ghost World.” The failures of “Art School Confidential” are many, but chief among them is the complete contempt shown by Zwigoff for virtually the entire cast of characters.

It is one thing to present an outsider or an anti-hero as a central figure, but Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) is far too bland, naïve, and emotionally vacant to merit the affection of even the most jaded viewer. In his earlier work, Zwigoff has managed to identify with nerdy protagonists like Enid and Seymour in “Ghost World” and R. Crumb in “Crumb” (although some would debate whether or not Willie in “Bad Santa” belongs in that company). Minghella’s Platz, who genuinely wants to be the “greatest artist of the 21st century,” dresses up like Picasso for a masquerade party. He is always earnest, and he never once holds the respect of the filmmakers.

Without a character to identify with on some level, “Art School Confidential” is easy to dislike. Zwigoff’s tone is so glib and full of bile, the entire exercise constantly teeters on the verge of full-bore misanthropy. Even the humor, which lurches from ugly caricatures of undergraduate stereotypes to clever put-downs that cut pretentious wannabes to the quick, depends upon the idea that we will laugh at the inhabitants of the film and never with them. Unquestionably, a strong argument could be made that says making fun of art students is easy pickings. If one agrees with this sentiment, watching “Art School Confidential” is the cinematic equivalent of kicking a puppy.

Both Clowes and Zwigoff are cult figures, beloved by just the sort of people they set out to lampoon. Many ardent admirers are likely to become disillusioned when the best that “Art School Confidential” has to offer are wafer-thin jabs at Kevin Smith-esque filmmakers and vain, predatory professors who despise their students. To make matters worse, the character with the greatest potential for substantive commentary, a washed up souse who used to be a promising art world star, is saddled with the lamest and most predictable elements of a conventional plot device that perpetually distracts our attention from anything like character depth or development.

That boozehound is played by the brilliant Jim Broadbent, whose acting ability is first among equals in a cast that includes John Malkovich (one of the movie’s producers), Anjelica Huston, and Steve Buscemi. Broadbent’s disgusting Jimmy comes the closest to the type of character Zwigoff might ordinarily hold in some esteem, but the mechanics of the story insist that he too, is a miserable – and possibly worse than miserable – human being. “Art School Confidential” is sadly forgettable as a movie experience. Clowes’ illustrated world remains a far superior rendering of this milieu.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/19/06.

A Prairie Home Companion

Monday, June 12th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A pleasant, amiable assemblage of many of the best things about Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio series, “A Prairie Home Companion” is almost certain to do better than average business in Upper Midwestern markets. Under the direction of the legendary Robert Altman, the movie version of the show glides back and forth between sparkling songs and the backstage antics that are just as interesting. Framing the story around a fictionalized final performance, the majority of the action unfolds in close-to-real time at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. Keillor’s screenplay incorporates several of his memorable creations, and it is great fun to watch well-known film stars freshen up familiar characters like investigator Guy Noir and cowpokes Dusty and Lefty.

While both Altman and Keillor have previously been accused of withering condescension toward both performers and audience members, “A Prairie Home Companion” displays very little acid. Surprisingly, the egocentric Keillor seems reasonably happy to share the movie with the other players, hovering over the proceedings like an absent-minded grandfather lost in reverie. Altman and Keillor lavish a great deal of attention on the Johnson Sisters, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), who spend most of their time bantering about days gone by, much to the chagrin of Yolanda’s teenage daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who prefers to pen suicidal poetry.

Between the musical numbers, “A Prairie Home Companion” breezily details several threads, practically all of which ring with a wistfulness that alludes to the brevity and frailty of life. Credited as the Dangerous Woman, Virginia Madsen literally embodies an ethereal angel whose presence is a constant reminder that the last curtain could fall at any time. Keillor shares a terrific sequence with Madsen, deconstructing the penguin gag that has become a classic since it was first related during one of the real-life “Companion’s” annual joke shows. Keillor’s explanation – or non-explanation – of the penguin story offers a delicious taste of the absurdity with which GK approaches his livelihood.

Altman, who spoke about his lifesaving heart transplant surgery at the Academy Awards, is now in his 80s, and he clearly relishes the opportunity to bring life to Keillor’s doom-filled scenario. Both humor and sadness attend Keillor’s refusal to deliver any eulogies – for the show or for human beings, and Altman crafts a visually appropriate accompaniment to Keillor’s stoic acceptance of the inevitable. Along with directory of photography Ed Lachman, Altman’s rich compositions invite the viewer to be a part of the ensemble.

Many of Keillor’s regular “Prairie” contributors appear in the film, including Tom Keith, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, Robin and Linda Williams, and the Guys All-Star Shoe Band, among others. The supporting cast, which includes Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, Maya Rudolph as assistant stage manager Molly, and Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, blends together smoothly. Kline and Rudolph play out a hilarious telephone bit that effortlessly balances physical and verbal humor. Altman often cuts away from the musical performances to focus on something taking place backstage, so fans should be made aware that a limited edition version of the soundtrack CD comes with a DVD containing complete versions of several wonderful tunes.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/12/06.

Hard Candy

Monday, June 5th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Despite two solid performances, “Hard Candy” is a thoroughly unlikable, nearly unwatchable exercise in unpleasantness. Presented initially as a thoughtful examination of online luring, the film rapidly disintegrates into a sensationalized cat-and-mouse shocker no different from dozens of equally empty-headed revenge scenarios. Positing a grisly “what if?” fantasy that turns the tables on the pedophiles who prowl chat rooms for gullible minors, “Hard Candy” fails largely because it asks the audience to spend its duration in close quarters with two completely awful human beings.

Ellen Page (currently on the big screen as Kitty Pryde in “X-Men: The Last Stand) plays Haley Stark, a bright 14-year-old who convinces flirtatious instant-message acquaintance Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) to meet in the real world. A blandly handsome fashion photographer, Jeff is instantly identifiable as a danger: a persuasively reassuring predator who knows exactly what to say to put young girls at ease around him. While the majority of “Hard Candy” is hermetically sealed – confined to Jeff’s ultramodern Hollywood Hills den – the movie’s fateful pair meet face to face in a coffee shop called, just a bit obviously, Nighthawks. Even in broad daylight, the presence of Haley and Jeff at Nighthawks triggers alarm bells for the viewer. This sequence, taut and well-written, hints at a much stronger film than the one that follows.

Haley ends up at Jeff’s house in a queasy tableau representative of every parent’s nightmare. Slurping screwdrivers under the watchful gaze of the much older man, Haley appears to struggle mightily to exude confidence and sophistication. Before Jeff can pounce, however, Haley is revealed as the uber-threat. She drugs the big bad wolf and secures him to a table. Once consciousness is regained, her grisly agenda takes center stage. Haley’s backpack contains some portentous elements, including surgical scalpels and a medical textbook detailing the procedure for castration.

At this point, “Hard Candy” begins its irreversible descent into rote cinematic exploitation. Director David Slade shoots too much of the material in close-up, a decision likely made to force the audience into close proximity with the characters. The result, however, is a dull repetition compounded by the movie’s primary interior setting. Slade never transcends the frustrating script by playwright Brian Nelson, and “Hard Candy” feels stage-bound when it should have a nimble sense of filmmaking to balance the two-person narrative.

Worse yet, Slade falls back on too many ineffective music video techniques that serve only to highlight the movie’s visual disjointedness. By the time the movie approaches its conclusion, an unnecessary explanation for Haley’s vengeance has trampled any intrigue and depth suggested by the film’s premise. Short of the coffee shop scene, Haley and Jeff don’t register as real people either, eliminating any opportunity for audience identification. Instead, they rear up like ghastly figments of the imagination. With its name-dropping references to Jean Seberg, Zadie Smith, and Roman Polanski, “Hard Candy” wants to be taken more seriously than it deserves to be. Once the film reaches an improbable climax (a hilariously awful exercise in crosscutting that would make D.W. Griffith blush), viewers will only feel a sense of relief that it is over.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/5/06.