Archive for July, 2006

Scoop

Monday, July 31st, 2006

2006scoop

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Only the most devoted Woody Allen fans are likely to find any joy in “Scoop,” the latest movie from the prolific filmmaker. Like his previous release, “Match Point,” “Scoop” utilizes many of the same crew members, leading lady Scarlet Johansson, and a London setting – not to mention a preoccupation with murder among the very well-to-do. Where “Match Point” was somber, intelligent, and often thought-provoking, “Scoop” tries to be madcap and zany. Instead, it is slack and devoid of any apparent ambition. It is not Allen’s worst film and neither is it a total bomb, but it is a far cry from masterful titles like “Annie Hall” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Allen’s enthusiasm for Scarlet Johansson is creepily implied in the movie’s opening, in which Johansson’s beautiful college journalist ends up sleeping with a much older film director she’s trying to interview. Our heroine, named Sondra Pransky, is naïve, bumbling, and not likely to win any Pulitzer Prizes. In a somewhat strained chain of events, Sondra befriends “Splendini,” a crotchety old magician whose actual name is Sidney Waterman. Allen, whose appearances in his own movies usually take one of two forms: the self-deprecating but sophisticated intellectual or the self-deprecating but uncouth lout, opts for the latter this time.

During one of Splendini’s performances, Sondra is selected from the audience to help out with a “dematerializing” trick. In the magician’s cabinet, she comes face to face with the spirit of recently deceased newspaper veteran Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, given merely a fraction of the scenes he deserves). From beyond the grave, Strombel has come into possession of information that might reveal the identity of the “Tarot Card Killer.” Even more astounding, if Strombel’s tip is correct, the murderer is none other than dashing nobleman Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman, dashing and noble).

What ensues is another of Allen’s spins on “An American Tragedy” (even down to the rowboat), as Sondra, now posing as “Jade Spence” woos and is wooed by debonair Peter. As Sondra becomes more and more romantically entangled, compelling clues begin to emerge that implicate the too-good-to-be-true beau. All the while, Sidney pretends to be Sondra’s father in order to aid the investigation. Along with a nod to Hitchcock involving a locked music room next to a wine collection, “Scoop” seems content to play out a largely familiar series of turnabouts and complications as it heads toward a predictable conclusion.

Johansson is as underwhelming here as she was gripping in “Match Point.” Mostly masking her sexy appeal by hiding her under large glasses and frumpy togs, Allen squeezes only a bit of mileage out of the couple’s onscreen banter. Moving from potential romantic partner to fatherly pal, Allen contents himself with some good-natured jabs at his “daughter’s” learning disabilities, etc. The one-liners inspire a chuckle or two, but nothing like the spectacular interplay of Allen’s better pieces. How long Allen will make films on British turf is yet to be seen (his next project will be made there), but many longtime admirers hope that a return to New York City might inspire another set of memorable films as Allen cruises past the forty movie mark.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/31/06. 

Clerks II

Monday, July 24th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Even for many Kevin Smith fans, “Clerks II” will taste like canned goods as caviar. As uneven and frustrating as the career of its talented creator, “Clerks II” struggles to keep up with the legacy of its predecessor (not to mention the multiple interlocked incarnations of its primary characters). While the original 1994 outing earned plenty of audience goodwill for its D.I.Y. aesthetic and homemade grittiness, the update comes with baggage and much higher expectations. Unfortunately, “Clerks II” is far less ambitious than the original. Like many of Smith’s films, the technical direction is suspect, the acting substandard, and the writing scattershot. For many, this translates into a slog, while for self-described citizens of the View Askewniverse, it will be just what the doctor ordered.

More than ten years down the road, little has changed for perpetual slacker pals Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). A mildly amusing prologue sets up the circumstances that force the boys to leave the Quick Stop for low paying gigs at fast food joint Mooby’s, home of the Cow Tipper. From there, the movie takes its sweet time to deliver more of the same: Dante is still caught between two women (his controlling fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach) and his scrappy boss Becky (Rosario Dawson). Randal still holds court on a variety of vulgar topics. Jay and Silent Bob still peddle nickel and dime bags in the parking lot.

Throughout the labored proceedings, one gets the feeling that on certain levels, Smith is a prisoner of the dickheads and dolts he expertly depicts. Pop culture academics will surely be able to squeeze a conference presentation or two out of Smith’s real life parallel to Dante’s predicament. Just as Emma wants Dante to accept a comfortable – dare we say mature – change of both lifestyle (by tying the knot) and scenery (by moving from Jersey to Florida), the siren song of fantasy girl Becky spins Dante in a different direction. You don’t need to wait until the last reel to realize this is no contest, for Dante or Smith.

Somewhat surprisingly, “Clerks II” is missing the parade of interesting customers that populated the first movie. Mooby’s is almost always empty, and the few patrons who do wander through the door manage to provide Randal an opportunity to unleash his thoroughly corrupt thought process (from rants about “Star Wars” versus “The Lord of the Rings” to a revelation of epic racial naivete). Smith has never been one to shy from even the most scatological topics, and makes sure to include a full-blown donkey show, a discussion of the merits of anal to oral contact, and a tribute to Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb’s penis-tucking trick from “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Even with these, and other coarse offerings, Smith works hard to wedge in some heartfelt sweetness and nostalgic whimsy. Trevor Fehrman, as counter jockey and nerdy virgin Elias, elicits sympathy much in the way that Todd Louiso did in “High Fidelity.” Becky and Dante also engage in a rooftop dance lesson (set to the Jackson 5) that turns into a colorful John Hughes tribute. A handful of other tracks, including well-chosen numbers by Talking Heads and Soul Asylum, complement the visuals. Like “Clerks,” the sequel will find new life once it disappears from cinemas for the friendlier terrain of home video.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/24/06. 

Down in the Valley

Monday, July 17th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Reactions to writer-director David Jacobson’s “Down in the Valley” will be all over the map, given the movie’s ambitious intentions and its often frustrating disappointments. A weird love letter to the romance of the Old West, the film buries its allusions to classic Westerns like “Red River” in a plot that rehashes the familiar conflict of a psychotic outsider desperately trying to worm his way into a family. Channeling movies like James Foley’s “Fear,” “Down in the Valley” is visually striking but ultimately airless. The routine story simply cannot keep pace with Jacobson’s ruminations on the attraction of cinematic cowboy mythology.

Edward Norton, who was also one of the film’s producers, plays an “aw shucks” loner who goes by the name Harlan Caruthers. In his dusty Wranglers, his weathered cowboy hat, and his snap-button shirts, he moves, speaks, and acts like he belongs to another era entirely. Meeting up with a free-spirited teenager named Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), the much older Harlan plunges headlong into an intense romantic relationship with the girl, much to the dismay and displeasure of Tobe’s hardworking corrections officer father Wade (the always impressive David Morse).

Given the substantial credentials of his cast, Jacobson is able to sustain – if only briefly – the notion that the strange, creepy Harlan would be able to get away with dating a girl roughly half his age. The red flags go up quickly, however, as Harlan runs afoul of the police when he “borrows” a horse from a cantankerous old man he claims is his pal. As Harlan’s ardor for Tobe intensifies, he even turns his attention to Tobe’s little brother Lonnie, teaching the boy how to fire a cherished single-action Colt .45 revolver.

Few critics will be able to resist pointing out the movie’s debt to ‘’Taxi Driver,” if only because the link is so obvious. Like “God’s lonely man” Travis Bickle, Harlan can be heard in voiceover writing letters to long lost loved ones and seen drawing his pistols in the mirror while he acts out his simmering rage. As the drama ramps up to an inevitable showdown, or series of showdowns, Jacobson piles on the Western accoutrements, even setting one of several climactic moments on an Old West movie-set main street, where the cameras are literally rolling.

Not all of Jacobson’s visual statements are quite as obvious. With the aid of Enrique Chediak’s widescreen cinematography, Jacobson manages to mournfully frame the contrasts of past and present. In one scene, Harlan maneuvers on horseback through houses under construction in a suburban development, underscoring Jacobson’s wistfulness for untamed, open spaces that have been paved over for some time. “Down in the Valley,” which refers to its San Fernando Valley setting, begins to drag at the halfway mark, and the film would have benefited from a bit more focus on Tobe. Additionally, some of the action in the final reel strains credulity, slipping in and out of melodrama – which just might be the ticket for viewers seeking yet another turn with one of American film’s most durable genres.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/17/06.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Monday, July 10th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The snazzy sequel to “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” glides into port bigger, louder, and (slightly) longer than the original, which will please as many viewers as it annoys. Loosely based on the beloved Disneyland theme park attraction, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise has turned into a juggernaut for producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski. Owing more to magnetic star Johnny Depp than any other single element, the second part of the trilogy, subtitled “Dead Man’s Chest,” tries to blend the charming presence of its leading man with bombastic computer generated effects – not always with brilliant results.

As pirate movies go, there’s nothing “Dead Man’s Chest” seems to fear. From the fabled Kraken to Davy Jones to the corporate evils of the East India Trading Company, the movie is just getting warmed up. There’s also the Flying Dutchman, enchantments and curses, a voodoo priestess, a tribe of hungry cannibals, and plenty of swordfights and swashbuckling for good measure. The film’s plot exists merely as a pretext to observe Depp in his element, cranking up the swishy persona of the colorful Captain Jack Sparrow.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, reprising their roles as ill-fated lovers, are merely along for the ride, but both performers have the opportunity to shine in a handful of entertaining gags. The movie is too busy, however, to allow our protagonists even a moment in which to share any meaningful personal affection. In the “Pirates” universe the supporting players are often the most outlandish, and “Dead Man’s Chest” delights in its gruesome gallery of beasties and baddies. Bill Nighy, virtually invisible under a squirming CG beard of tentacles, makes an impression as Davy Jones, proving every bit as dangerous as Sparrow’s first nemesis, Captain Barbossa. Naomie Harris is ideally cast as Tia Dalma, the bewitching voodoo sorceress.

Visually splendid, “Dead Man’s Chest” is a feast of costume and set design. Highlights include Jones at his magnificent pipe organ (which he plays with his facial appendages, naturally), Sparrow on the run as a personified melon kebab, and a spirited duel atop a giant Keaton-esque rolling wheel. While these treats are all welcome sights, the movie makes the critical error of subscribing to the more-is-more philosophy of summertime blockbuster filmmaking. Without question, the viewer would be better served – and probably just as happy – with a version significantly shorter than the two and a half hour marathon being presented.

“Dead Man’s Chest” also suffers a bit from “Part 2” syndrome, in that its function as the middle section of a three part saga forces it to leave several messes to be cleaned up in the final installment. It is probably too much to hope that the final chapter of “Pirates of the Caribbean” will focus on the kind of human interaction that stirs emotions as opposed to the skull-crushing action set pieces that dominate the threadbare plotting. If the franchise has a fatal flaw other than the bloated running times, it is certainly the mistaken notion that viewers do not appreciate depth and dimension alongside the explosions.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/10/06.

Superman Returns

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The Last Son of Krypton enjoys a mostly triumphant homecoming in Bryan Singer’s version of one of the most durable of superhero mythologies. “Superman Returns” is earnest, heartfelt, and stately, which are not necessarily bad things in the context of a storyline that has traditionally embraced fairness, civility, and helping others (not to mention “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”). Singer’s Man of Steel reveres key elements of D.C. comic book iconography and the Richard Donner film of 1978, which is consistently mined for both style and inspiration in this new incarnation, especially in the employment of John Williams’ familiar theme music.

A credit at the end of the movie dedicates the picture to Christopher and Dana Reeve, and many will note the remarkable physical similarities between Reeve and Brandon Routh, who dons the cape and tights with more dignity than one might imagine. Routh is not given a great deal to say – this Superman definitely prefers action to words – but his performance is better than passable. Not enough time is devoted to Clark Kent, however, and Routh’s humorous wet-noodle expressions when he appears as the “mild-mannered” Daily Planet reporter earn audience laughter and goodwill.

Following years of complicated development difficulties, the Singer vision of Superman is much stronger on special effects than it is on developing the well-known characters who interact with the Man of Tomorrow. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane, now romantically involved with another man and the mother of a young son, has won a Pulitzer for an article titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” If her writing isn’t indication enough, Lois is angry and bitter about Superman’s disappearance, and the movie never allows her an opportunity to recover. Kevin Spacey, as nemesis Lex Luthor, turns in a restrained performance, and with one or two exceptions, nibbles the scenery more than chomps it.

Notwithstanding the inevitable tweaking of the character’s continuity (which yields at least one major alteration this time out), hardcore fans will be anxious to see whether Singer’s imagination can conjure up some worthy set-pieces. A mid-flight rescue of a space shuttle and jumbo jet more than fills the bill. The early sequence is exhilarating, and also manages to demonstrate that despite his almost infinite abilities, being Superman is not easy. The flying effects are top notch, and many of the hero’s other powers, including x-ray vision and super hearing, are included for good measure.

Some viewers might find limitations in the serious tone of “Superman Returns.” The movie is certain to inspire an outpouring of discussion on the extent to which Singer utilizes elements of Christian theology. Perhaps more salient is Superman’s status as an outsider, reinforced by Marlon Brando’s beyond-the-grave dialogue. Secret identities almost always insist on some degree of loneliness in our costumed crusaders, and Singer clearly relishes playing up the somber sacrifices Superman constantly makes. If there is any significant complaint to be made about “Superman Returns” (other than its running time), it is that our suffering demi-gods and champions should be allowed to experience a little more joy in their extraordinary abilities.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/3/06.