Archive for September, 2006

Jackass Number Two

Monday, September 25th, 2006

2006jackass

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following a handful of half-hearted attempts to penetrate Hollywood as a comic actor, Johnny Knoxville returns to form as the leader of one of the most obnoxious and fearless crews of louts to appear on the big screen. Belonging to a strange genre almost completely its own, “Jackass Number Two” combines staged stuntman spectacle with an almost handmade, do-it-yourself documentary aesthetic. Comprised, like its ridiculously profitable predecessor, of random clips of Knoxville and friends performing monumentally offensive and stupid tricks, gags, and practical jokes, the movie is guaranteed to appeal to its massive teenage male constituency.

Often risking life and limb – one wonders how many pages of releases and waivers and insurance forms are signed prior to production – Team Jackass alternates between “Wild Kingdom”-style animal encounters and the sort of ambush street theatre of “Candid Camera.” When not doing one of those two things, the boys tend to cook up non-stop opportunities to expel or ingest various bodily fluids, sometimes expelling and then ingesting. Audiences without any tolerance for an invention known as the “Fart Mask” are not likely to wander into “Jackass Number Two” accidentally, but even so, it might be worth a word of warning.

In so many ways, the “Jackass” franchise is utterly critic-proof, which makes the sequel’s largely positive print reception all the more surprising. While comparing the nature of “Jackass” to Luis Bunuel, who is thanked in the credits, is a stretch, there is something to be said for the anarchic spirit Knoxville and company bring to the proceedings. Yes, the image of a razor slicing open an eye in “Un Chien Andalou” continues to startle decades later, but seeing a real leech attach itself to Steve-O’s eyeball can also trigger a visceral reaction. Weak-hearted viewers might feel compelled to look away any number of times, and the screening attended by this critic resulted in at least one occasion when a person briefly excused herself for some fresh air.

For some “Jackass” connoisseurs, the sequel might be missing something. It turns out that coming up with new ways to potentially injure oneself takes a great deal of imagination, and some of the movie’s bits feel reheated. Guest star John Waters, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo, is completely underused; of all people, he might have been able to say something witty and intelligent about all the debasement and debauchery. Instead, he merely introduces a “magic trick” in which Wee Man is smothered by an obese woman’s belly flop.

The movie’s best segments, however, demonstrate a great deal of inventiveness. A four-way teeter-totter placed at the center of a rodeo ring takes on a Tex Avery-esque quality once an angry bull is released. Another rodeo-themed scene uses a suspended fire hose as a stand-in for a bucking bronco. The movie’s most elaborate and complex set-up involves the application of a beard made entirely of cast members’ pubic hair, a cab ride to the airport involving a phony terrorist, and a dirty double-cross in which an undercover Jay Chandrasekhar pulls a gun on the unsuspecting Ehren McGhehey. It’s a clever scene, and will keep devotees happy until the next “Jackass” film makes its way to the multiplex.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/25/06.

The Black Dahlia

Monday, September 18th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A rather odious piece of genre-worshiping cheese, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel “The Black Dahlia” is a tremendous disappointment and a near-complete misfire. De Palma, who hasn’t made a truly electrifying movie in a very long time, is the sort of director who insists that every possible shade of gray be excised from his narratives lest his audience miss the thunderous point. Complete with a “Scooby-Doo”-like denouement in which a roomful of wagging tongues explains everything in detail (accompanied by the director’s helpful flashbacks no less), “The Black Dahlia” is a mystery thriller with no thrills and no mystery.

Using the notorious, grisly, and unsolved 1947 Los Angeles murder case of Elizabeth Short as its jumping off point, “The Black Dahlia” constructs a bizarre labyrinth of suspects and clues as it circles around the lurid story of a young woman with alleged ties to prostitution and pornography (links that were discredited in the actual case, but proved far too juicy to leave out of the fictionalized version). It is too bad the titular character doesn’t function as more than the catalyst for the storylines of the cops ostensibly trying to solve her murder, since the only time the movie sparks is when the audience catches glimpses of Short in uneasily voyeuristic reels of going-nowhere-fast screen tests (Mia Kirshner plays Short, De Palma provides the voice of the off-screen director).

Not coincidentally, screenwriter Josh Friedman apes the central triangle of Ellroy’s superior “L.A. Confidential” right down to the defining character traits, substituting Aaron Eckhart for Russell Crowe, Scarlett Johansson for Kim Basinger, and Josh Hartnett for Guy Pearce. Unfortunately, the new movie has none of the subtlety, depth, and intelligence demonstrated in Curtis Hanson’s Academy Award nominee for Best Picture. The chances that “Black Dahlia” will receive any major nominations come Oscar time are exactly zero.

Competing with the ghost of the victim, Scarlett Johansson looks out of place as the woman caught between the so-called “supercops” who watch over her. Like every character in the movie, Johansson’s Kay Lake harbors secrets, but by the time they are revealed, nobody sitting in front of the flickering screen will care. Hilary Swank, trying out a new type of character as well as a Hepburn-tinged accent, fares a bit better as Madeleine Linscott, a twisted rich girl at the center of a creepily dysfunctional family.

One’s enjoyment of the movie might hinge on whether or not you accept Josh Hartnett as a hard-boiled film noir detective. Frankly, nobody is going to claim that the young actor is in the same league as Humphrey Bogart, and the clunky voiceover narration – filled with woozy, period-esque similes and metaphors – has the tendency to inspire more laughter than it does respect. The movie breaks a sweat trying to suggest that dirty, cynical Los Angeles is collectively responsible for Short’s death, but the failure of “The Black Dahlia” lies squarely with De Palma. A good movie about this material might be made one day, but De Palma’s version is not it.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/18/06.

Hollywoodland

Monday, September 11th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Structured like “Citizen Kane” meets “Rashomon, ” “Hollywoodland” speculates on the death of actor George Reeves, who played the Man of Steel on television from 1952 to 1958 (following an appearance in the low-budget quickie “Superman and the Mole-Men”). For generations of grade-school kids, Reeves’ demise has been the subject of speculative urban legends, from the notion that mental instability convinced the actor that he could fly like the character he portrayed to the equally unlikely claim that he believed bullets would bounce off his body. “Hollywoodland” suggests several scenarios – ranging from accidental murder to calculated hit – but the one that makes the most sense is the official version: a depressed Reeves took his own life.

“Hollywoodland” hedges its bets by tracking both George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and a private investigator named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is trying to piece together the facts of what appears to be a conspiracy. Sewn together like a crazy quilt, first-time screenwriter Paul Bernbaum’s script spends a great deal more time than it should contemplating the emotional troubles of the Simo character, when the Reeves storylines are infinitely more compelling and worthwhile. A rickety subplot involving Simo’s estranged wife and son doesn’t do the movie’s pacing any favors either.

Whenever the film takes up with Reeves, it sputters to life. Affleck makes a strong impression as the frustrated TV star, whose relationship with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the married wife of a thuggish studio executive (Bob Hoskins), provides the central focus of the flashbacks. As suggested in “Hollywoodland,” Reeves resents being a “kept man,” as the wealthy Mannix – engaged in a very open marriage – buys Reeves lavish gifts, including a rather nice house. As Reeves begins to think that his inability to find film roles has as much to do with Toni’s wishes as it does with his inseparable identification with the Superman role, “Hollywoodland” invents a number of fictitious flashpoints, the most intriguing of which is a test-screening of “From Here to Eternity” that results in Reeves being left on the cutting room floor because the audience can’t stop cracking wise (digital magic places Affleck in the same frame as Burt Lancaster, which will intrigue many film buffs).

Another of the too-good-to-be-true anecdotes revolves around a child who pulls a loaded handgun on Reeves during a public Superman appearance. While stories of surly brats testing the actor’s “powers” have become a well-oiled aspect of the Reeves legend, the veracity of the scene remains suspect. Even so, it makes for a cinematic moment – a point not lost on M. Night Shyamalan, who used the idea in “Unbreakable.” In or out of the blue tights and red cape, Affleck brings a weary dignity to Reeves, showing us a man who tried to accept his fate with as much cheer and good humor as he could muster.

First time feature director Allen Coulter (a veteran of a number of HBO series, including “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under”) approaches the material in a workmanlike fashion, and the result occasionally feels as suited to cable television as it does to theatrical distribution. The supporting roles are filled by terrific performers (Jeffrey DeMunn, as Reeves’ agent is a standout). Smartly, the movie mostly avoids milking the far-fetched possibilities surrounding the man who gave birth to the “Superman curse,” settling instead on the human elements of a broken tinseltown dream.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/11/06.

Wordplay

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

2006wordplayMovie review by Greg Carlson

A consistently charming glimpse into the world of crossword puzzles, their creators, and the folks – both regular and famous – who solve them, “Wordplay” is a delightful documentary in the same vein as “Spellbound.” Even though its brainy subject matter might at first glance seem like a solitary activity not exactly suited for a gripping visual treatment, filmmaker Patrick Creadon (serving as his own director of photography) employs plenty of eye-catching strategies to involve the audience members (some viewers at the screening attended by this critic occasionally felt compelled to shout out answers at the screen).

Cutting between an interesting mixture of celebrity crossword addicts, including New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, and Bill Clinton, as well as a handful of the fastest competitive solvers who participate in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Creadon examines a variety of perspectives on the nature of what to many might seem like a waste of time. “Wordplay” focuses exclusively on the puzzles of the New York Times, arguing firmly that its offerings are the undisputed gold standard of crosswords. Puzzle creator Merl Reagle, a regular contributor to the Times puzzle feature, offers a humorous history of the development of the modern crossword puzzle, sharing all sorts of fascinating tidbits about the de facto rules that go into creating a great puzzle (one example: no clues about bodily function allowed).

Reagan’s confederate is Will Shortz, the veteran crossword editor of the New York Times. Shortz comes across as an affable, down-to-earth fellow brimming with curiosity and driven by an obsession with accuracy and a love for the possibilities of language. Shortz, who created his own major in college revolving around language puzzles (enigmatology!), runs the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the contestants profiled in “Wordplay” represent a goofy assortment of wonderfully nerdy characters.

Former champion Ellen Ripstein, who also enjoys twirling a baton, perpetual third-place winner Al Sanders, gifted youngster Tyler Hinman, and word wizard Trip Payne are some of the key players who converge on the 28th annual tournament. Following several rounds, in which the puzzlers fill in squares with seemingly impossible speed, the top three finishers work the final puzzle on oversized boards as the audience watches their every move. To bring us to that moment, Creadon patterns “Wordplay” almost exactly like “Spelbound,” as we wonder who will walk away the champ.

If “Wordplay” reveals any major flaws, they reside in the guarded reticence of Shortz, whose career is presented devoid of intellectual struggle or conflict. It is hard to fault the movie for espousing a positive tone – it is, after all, about something that millions of people do for fun. “Wordplay” is also very funny, waxing about whether solvers do the puzzle with a pencil or with a pen, for example. To Creadon’s credit, the movie doesn’t come off as elitist or snobbish. Sure, the top solvers belong to a pretty exclusive group, but Creadon reminds us that anyone who enjoys language can take pleasure in the grid, whether it takes five minutes or twenty-five minutes to finish.