Archive for August, 2006


Monday, August 28th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The appealing “Invincible” notches another accomplishment in the Disney sports movie playbook. Another pure formula re-write of the underdog-to-hero myth, the movie is a sure-fire crowd pleaser, its release ideally timed for launch just ahead of the upcoming NFL season. For the pro sports league and the Mouse House, the movie is also a match made in heaven; fortunately for the cinemagoer, “Invincible” is also less pretentious than many of its celluloid kin. Massaging the unbelievable but true tale of Vince Papale, a working class bartender who miraculously made the roster of the 1976 Philadelphia Eagles through an open tryout offered by new coach Dick Vermeil, filmmaker Ericson Core and his team make all the right moves.

Infused with a penchant for tacky period detail, from the wallpaper to the wigs, “Invincible” immediately sets its thematic sights on the parallel between Philadelphia’s mid-70s blue collar woes and the losing ways of its once-proud Eagles. Director Core, a veteran cinematographer who served as his own director of photography on “Invincible,” captures the gritty deflation with an expert eye. Core has in Mark Wahlberg a terrific choice as Papale, as the performer’s ability to combine innocence with sadness (as evidenced in some of his best performances, in films like “Boogie Nights” and “I Heart Huckabees”) perfectly suits the tone of the movie.

Complementing Wahlberg is Greg Kinnear as Vermeil, freshly hired from his Rose Bowl victory with the UCLA Bruins. Brad Gann’s screenplay parallels the uphill battles of the two men, charting their self-doubt as they attempt to transform themselves from outsiders to accepted members of the team. One wonders to what extent the hostility of the other players was exaggerated for dramatic effect, but Core generally does a more than serviceable job of keeping invented, over the top, confrontations out of the frame.

The oft-repeated information that Papale was, at thirty years of age, considered something of a dinosaur, will remind viewers of “The Rookie.” It also enhances one of the film’s chief attractions: the subjective placement of the audience member in the place of awestruck Papale. Particularly impressive are the adrenaline-fueled trips through the tunnels of massive stadiums to the brightly-lit gridiron. Core offers just enough shots of Vince’s point-of-view to treat the viewer to the sensation of being in the big game. Even though the movie dials down the level of bone-crushing hits when compared to other football flicks, the restaging of plays always feels authentic (clips of the real Papale in action are included at the conclusion of the film).

“Invincible” includes a less effective subplot tracing Papale’s budding relationship with fellow bartender Janet, an almost too-perfect woman (Elizabeth Banks, playing a tough, funny, and sensitive beauty with a head crammed full of football statistics). Banks manages to make the most of a slim role, and to be fair, the script barely tries to invent any reason why Vince and Janet shouldn’t be together. The other performers, including Michael Rispoli, Kevin Conway, and Kirk Acevedo ably fulfill the Philly roughneck stereotype. It is too early to tell whether “Invincible” will join “Rudy” as one of the quintessential football movies, but like Papale himself, it certainly has a shot.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/28/06.

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Monday, August 21st, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” director Sidney Pollack (making his first documentary feature, which will be shown as an episode of the PBS series “American Masters”) explains his connection to the monumental architect: both men work in fields driven explicitly by the commercial demands of the marketplace, but both men think of themselves primarily as artists. The tension between these poles means that frustration and compromise occasionally trump the flights of self-indulgent fancy that would otherwise render their final products impossible. Like the doodles Gehry scribbles out on paper to chart the beginning of each of his projects, Pollack’s movie is a fairly easygoing introduction to Gehry that places admiration above anything else.

The “anything else” that does briefly make it into the movie is manifested in the form of professor and critic Hal Foster, the only major Gehry detractor given screen time. Foster makes several thought-provoking claims, but for each one Pollack is ready with praise from the likes of Dennis Hopper (who lives in a Gehry-designed house), Ed Ruscha, or Michael Eisner. Eisner, along with fellow power-brokers Michael Ovitz and Barry Diller, remind viewers of Gehry’s connection to show-business types, an arguably lowbrow element of his work that might dismay the scoffers and the snobs. If Pollack makes any major missteps, it is in the rather high pretentiousness quotient of the giant egos paraded from start to finish.

Gehry himself addresses the ego issue, but spends a great deal more time coyly cultivating the “aw shucks” self-effacement of a more humble man than the one capable of designing structures like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Vitra Furniture Museum. A meaty appearance by Milton Wexler, Gehry’s therapist for more than three decades, nimbly accounts for a slightly more accurate take on the monumental confidence and ambition of the movie’s titular subject.

Arguably best known for the spectacular Bilbao Guggenheim, Gehry’s magnificent post-1989 work reminds one of whimsical multi-paneled spaceships. The fluid alien landscapes of his buildings’ exoskeletons reflect light in shimmering, cascading waves, making the metallic plating appear to move as if it were alive. The legendary, late Philip Johnson nicely describes the importance of this component of Gehry’s style in one of the movie’s better interviews. Pollack also devotes a significant portion of the movie to explaining how computer programs allowed Gehry, with the support of his team of collaborators, to achieve previously unheard of options,

Pollack chooses to insert himself into the movie’s proceedings, following Gehry with a digital video camera. Their interactions give the movie a casual, conversational tone that beats the majority of the pompous talking heads (among them an over-the-top Julian Schnabel, sipping sprits in shades and a bath robe) that the director intersperses with his own one-on-one time with Gehry. Despite the movie’s mostly gritty, grainy look, the many images of Gehry’s buildings – inside and out – offer viewers a glimpse of the master’s breathtaking uses of space and materials. Whether one is an architecture enthusiast or is merely interested in seeing how a creative mind ticks, “Sketches of Frank Gehry” is well worth the effort.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/21/06.

Step Up

Monday, August 14th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thoroughly predictable and utterly generic teen dance movie, “Step Up” trots out a familiar and unremarkable set of moves. Creakily mounting the “unlikely partners” scenario that has fueled previous titles like “Dirty Dancing” and “The Cutting Edge,” “Step Up” doesn’t manage to improve on “Save the Last Dance,” with which it shares a writer. Young audience members probably won’t mind that “Step Up” often plays like a pale imitation of “Fame,” either, seeing as how a movie made in 1980 is ancient history. Choreographer turned director Anne Fletcher proves better at arranging numbers than she does at creating convincing drama.

Bland mannequin Channing Tatum, who was nearly as dull in “She’s the Man” earlier this year, plays moody bad boy Tyler Gage, an angry kid from the wrong side of the tracks who divides his time between arguing with his ill-tempered foster dad and stealing cars with his pals. Following a heavy-handed altercation with a violent thug that practically has the word foreshadowing emblazoned on it, Tyler breaks and enters the Maryland School for the Arts, netting himself a hefty community service sentence when he’s caught by a security guard. Mopping floors and emptying trash cans at the school gets old fast, so it’s a good thing a lead male dancer’s ankle injury coincides with Tyler’s arrival.

Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan), the uninjured half of the dance partnership, is desperate to continue working on her routine for the upcoming Senior Showcase, so it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to figure out that Tyler will – ugh – “step up” and fill in for her hobbled collaborator. In fact, Tyler’s willingness to dance with Nora is merely the first of the film’s titular metaphors, as a parade of clichéd subplots provides life lessons involving personal growth and responsibility. By the time the credits roll, Tyler will have learned to “step up” in multiple ways.

“Step Up” introduces so many secondary storylines that the dancing seems to disappear for long stretches. Worse yet, despite the promise that Tyler’s fluid street style will inject some needed zest into Nora’s traditional routine, nothing much comes of the hip hop influence that first introduces us to the Tyler character. It is a de facto requirement that dance movies end with a splashy production number that shows off the skill of the nascent lovers, and “Step Up” does indeed have such a scene. What is surprising, however, is that so little time is used for dancing set-pieces leading up to the finale.

When the movie turns its attention to the class differences that conspire to keep Tyler and Nora apart, it seems to run out of gas. Virtually nothing is done to explain the bond between Tyler and his best friend Mac (Damaine Radcliff), who is quick to blame Nora for his buddy’s waning interest in hotwiring autos destined for the chop shop. Not everyone is skeptical of performing arts high schools. In one too-good-to-be-true moment, professional criminal Omar (Heavy D) – the proprietor of the chop shop – attests to the value of an arts education. “Step Up” is filled with similar head-scratching scenes and turnabouts, from distant parents who seem to change overnight to frosty administrators who can be instantly won over by some smooth turns on the dance floor.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/14/06.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Monday, August 7th, 2006


Movie review by Greg Carlson

As a follow-up to the Adam McKay/Will Ferrell collaboration “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” ‘’Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is business as usual – and business is good for the comic team. The world of NASCAR replaces nightly news as the backdrop, and with its red-state appeal and brash patriotic swagger, the racing circuit seems like easy pickings for slapstick and ridicule. “Talladega Nights” provides many opportunities to rib good-ol’-boy culture, but McKay and Ferrell can be credited with allowing many of their characters room to breathe as people, not mere stereotypes. Yes, Ricky Bobby has two first names, but Ferrell continues his uncanny ability to believably embody foolish men with larger vocabularies and more imagination than their brains should allow.

With a structure that mirrors “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights” sets up its central oaf for a well-deserved fall from grace. Following a zippy first half that documents the rise to stardom of dim-bulb Ricky, the film introduces French Formula One ace Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen, playing with an accent so outrageous, it nearly transcends the template established by Peter Sellers in the “Pink Panther” series). The openly gay Girard’s confidence enrages Ricky’s pit crew, but when the Gallic speed demon proves impossible to beat, the wheels come off – literally – for Ricky.

Imagining that he has lost the use of his legs, Ricky spirals into the same well of self-pity that saw Ron Burgundy regretting his choice of milk on a hot day. Visits from crew chief Lucius (Michael Clarke Duncan) and best friend and driving teammate Cal (John C. Reilly) get him back to his feet, but crippling fear behind the wheel keeps Ricky from any victory laps. As Cal, Reilly proves his versatility yet again. Both funny and pathetic, he perfectly captures the blend of jealousy and awe that comes with being Ricky Bobby’s sidekick.

Even when a weird turn in the plot reconfigures the dynamics of the “shake and bake” bond shared by Ricky and Cal, Reilly holds on tight to his character’s understated loyalty. Despite the flashier rivalry that exists between Ricky and Girard, the deepest relationship depicted in the movie is the passionate male bond between childhood pals Ricky and Cal. Ferrell and Reilly have a field day with the homoerotic possibilities of their partnership, and most of the film’s funniest scenes show the two of them interacting on a nearly psychic level. The credit roll outtakes are not to be missed in this capacity, as a flood of hilarious ad-libs demonstrates just how hard it must have been to choose the takes that ended up in the final version.

For all of its joys, “Talladega Nights” feels a bit bloated. Despite great supporting performances from Gary Cole and Jane Lynch as Ricky’s parents, some of the subplot revolving around the tumultuous relationship between Ricky and his idle, shiftless pop could have been trimmed. The movie offers enough laughs, however, to guarantee that the audience won’t mind. Ferrell, who should almost certainly continue to write his own material if it means more movies like this one and fewer like “Bewitched,” knows exactly how to wring laughs out of humility.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/7/06.