Archive for October, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Monday, October 30th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Nathan Lee recently wrote that to accuse Sofia Coppola “of lacking ideas presumes she has any interest in them.” While this left-handed compliment deflects a certain type of negative criticism often leveled at Coppola’s still emerging filmmaking style, “Marie Antoinette” will likely frustrate more viewers than it enchants. To be sure, her gossamer spin on the famous royal should not be judged on its historical accuracy or its fealty to storytelling conventions. Had the director rehashed the expected Marie Antoinette signposts, such as the Affair of the Necklace or the queen’s trip to the guillotine, imagine how the critics would have howled at her.

“Marie Antoinette” is not a bad movie. On the contrary, Coppola manages for the third time to capture the quintessence of a certain kind of isolation and loneliness, and she does this with an authority that eludes most filmmakers. Unfortunately, Coppola also refuses to take any risks with relationship development. Throughout the movie, the filmmaker stubbornly resists exploring the bond between Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI. Dialogue is always eschewed in favor of exhilarating montage, and this is where the writer-director ultimately comes up short.

Not everyone will appreciate the casting of Kirsten Dunst in the title role, but the choice is perfectly suited to the thematic foundation upon which Coppola builds her version of the tale. The movie reminds us that Marie Antoinette was only fourteen when she was married off to the French dauphin. As seen through the eyes of a young girl, “Marie Antoinette” replicates the rhythms of teenage existence, alternating between sleepyhead somnolence and giddy hyperactivity. The film roars to life whenever there is an opportunity to indulge the queen’s passion for parties and shopping. Shooting at Versailles does wonders for the weight of the film’s overall design presence, but Milena Canonero’s opulent costumes seal the deal, and steal nearly every scene.

Coppola further hammers home her strategy of contemporization by scoring the film with an armload of bulletproof rock tracks, many from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The song choices have a mesmerizing effect on the scenes they accompany, and for viewers of a certain age, their incorporation will set off a heady rush of nostalgia. Bow Wow Wow’s version of “I Want Candy” bounces along with images of conspicuous courtly consumption, as all manner of chocolates, libations, gowns, and shoes (including a quick and winking glimpse at a Chuck Taylor canvas All-Star sneaker) fill the frame. Additionally, Gang of Four, New Order, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees adroitly match the visuals with which they are paired.

Coppola’s decision to largely ignore the political upheaval taking place outside Marie Antoinette’s window mutes the impact of the film’s final movement. The queen has been so thoroughly cut off from the commoners that even a grand gesture of respect, eerily shot on the same balcony where the historical event took place, fails to arouse the kind of breathtakingly awed response it intends. The very final set of shots moves to reclaim some of the territory lost by so completely focusing on the title character’s spacey, shallow narcissism.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/30/06.

Half Nelson

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

All the expected baggage that comes with the “white teacher touches lives in inner city school” set-up of “Half Nelson” evaporates in the first reel of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s remarkably restrained narrative feature, an expansion of their award-winning short piece “Gowanus, Brooklyn.” Smart enough to leave plenty of questions unanswered and many stones unturned, “Half Nelson” has an uncanny grasp of the dangers of its genre’s cliché-ridden booby traps, and avoids them all. The result is an absolutely engrossing drama that ranks among the year’s finest films.

In the movies, scenes featuring classroom teaching often veer into alien territory, as inspiring speeches and light-bulb epiphanies replace the more familiar routines of daily instruction. “Half Nelson,” like many other films that take the viewer to school, pairs the messages and metaphors of its lesson plans with the after-hours action happening to the main character. Ryan Gosling, equaling or bettering his terrifyingly good performance in “The Believer” hits a grand slam as Dan Dunne, a smart, left-leaning idealist who riffs on dialectics to his middle school charges by day and smokes crack by night.

Gosling’s brilliance is matched by young costar Shareeka Epps, who plays Dunne’s student Drey, a quiet and intense eighth grader struggling to come to terms with an absentee father, an incarcerated older brother, and a mom pulling double shifts to make ends meet. Drey discovers Dunne, obliterated and pipe in hand, in the locker room following a basketball game. Rather than spill the beans, Drey keeps the information to herself, and her silence has the uneasy effect of constructing a peculiarly adult relationship with the teacher she admires and respects.

One expects that Dunne’s self-destructive personal choices will impact his teaching and imperil his job, but the filmmakers are shrewd enough to tone down the melodrama to the extent that an almost Bressonian austerity settles over the film. The technique heightens the tension, as we wait nervously for Dunne’s addiction to catch up with him. In one incisive scene, Dunne confronts Frank (Anthony Mackie), a dealer in the process of luring Drey into his employ. Faced with the double standard of his own awful role-modeling behavior, Dunne backs off, confused and shaken.

In the margins, “Half Nelson” quietly builds a second set of thematic concerns, as the filmmakers play show-and-tell with archival footage of stories including the murder of Harvey Milk and the U.S. support of Augusto Pinochet. A glimpse of Dunne’s liberal parents, who choose to step lightly around the elephant of their son’s drug dependency, offers a few hints at the circumstances of the young teacher’s downward spiral. Underscoring the scene is Rosey Grier’s performance of “It’s All Right to Cry,” which for some, calls to mind the killing of Robert Kennedy (Grier was a friend of the senator, and prevented Sirhan Sirhan from firing additional shots by placing his thumb behind the trigger of the murderer’s weapon). For others, the use of a track from “Free to Be… You and Me” alludes to that recording’s impact on a generation. The album’s messages of empowerment, equality, and tolerance inspired fierce idealism in many who came of age in the 1970s.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/23/06.

The Science of Sleep

Monday, October 16th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

While “The Science of Sleep” is nowhere near as fulfilling as director Michel Gondry’s exquisite “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” it will satisfy viewers seeking something entirely different from the rest of the fare on the current movie menu. Crammed with Gondry’s inimitable sense of handmade craftsmanship, “The Science of Sleep” operates in that suspended space between dream and reality, past and present. A kaleidoscopic nostalgia trip that instantly signals a potent layer of autobiography, Gondry’s film makes up in brain-bending creativity what it lacks in narrative unity.

With “The Science of Sleep,” Gondry steps out as his own screenwriter, and the result clearly owes something to previous collaborator, fellow visionary, and “Eternal Sunshine” scribe Charlie Kaufman, whose storytelling is tighter, if no less bizarre. Like “Eternal Sunshine,” “The Science of Sleep” shifts restlessly between the actual and the fantastic to the extent that the border between the two is uncertain to characters, audience members, and perhaps Gondry himself. The disorientation caused by this blurring effect is tempered by the film’s joyful belief in the power of invention.

As the movie gets underway, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an immature artist, moves to Paris from Mexico to take a position at a printing company. Despite his mother’s assurance that the job requires artistic skill, Stephane immediately realizes that he’ll be just another frustrated office drone. Fortunately, the other employees, including the amusingly vulgar Guy (Alain Chabat), break up the tedium of old fashioned cutting and pasting. Stephane also strikes up a friendship with Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the girl who lives across the hall, and their tentative, awkward flirtations provide the movie with its central thematic ballast.

When it comes to addressing issues of love and romance, Gondry presents a curious world where Stephane’s paralyzing fear of rejection is masked by his eagerness to operate in the more comfortable space where his childlike constructions and assemblages are admired and appreciated. When grown-up feelings threaten to undermine the delicately balanced equilibrium of his fragile worldview, Stephane retreats to the safety of what he knows best: odd little inventions like a one-second time machine or projects that require items like buttons, felt, cardboard tubes, cotton, and cellophane. Stephanie, a dreamer in her own right, takes pleasure in sharing Stephane’s passion for do-it-yourself entertainment, but Stephane’s emotionally arrested development seems to block out any hope that they might be more than friends.

For all its whimsy, “The Science of Sleep” evokes feelings of longing, regret, and sadness. Stephane’s infantilism comes to bear its fangs, and the ugliness of his behavior can make one wince with familiarity at the way that we can ferociously derail a friendship when attraction goes unrequited. In “The Science of Sleep,” adult relationships are incompatible with the precious pixie dust that fuels the world of the very young. In this worthwhile movie, Gondry has located the intersection between retaining the unfiltered wonder of childhood and the butterflies that come with being a fully-grown person. Much like the contents of the protagonist’s cranium, Gondry’s film leaves us with the bittersweet memory of images suspended between the way things are and the way we want them to be.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/16/06.

The Departed

Monday, October 9th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Trust Martin Scorsese to deliver the goods even when the picture he’s serving on a silver platter is a remake of a Hong Kong mole movie with a tantalizingly preposterous premise. Massive suspension of disbelief is required to buy a set-up in which a mobster grooms an underling to infiltrate the police department even as an undercover cop manages to breach the same mobster’s own inner circle. Think about it too much and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards, but buckle up for the ride and “The Departed” is likely to stick to your ribs a whole lot longer than “The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York.”

With this welcome abandonment of overlong, fussy period pieces, critics have strained their keyboards trying to come up with ways to bear-hug Scorsese, the potentate of contemporary American gangster cinema, the first two “Godfather” movies notwithstanding. While “The Departed” is no “GoodFellas,” it is one of the veteran filmmaker’s strongest theatrical features in years, in no small part due to a rollicking screenplay by William Monahan, who serves up heaps of delicious dialogue to counterbalance the snaky turns of the convoluted plotting.

While Scorsese’s trademark craftsmanship, abetted by longtime collaborators like DP Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, works like crazy glue, an armful of colorful star turns further stacks the deck. Leonardo DiCaprio, making his third feature with Scorsese, is at last well-suited for the role in which he is cast. Matt Damon is comfortable on the familiar turf of the movie’s Boston setting, and he’s got the authentic-sounding accent to prove it. The flashiest role, however, belongs to Jack Nicholson, whose deviant thug Frank Costello marks another standout character in the great performer’s impressive arsenal. Costello’s voracious appetite for sex and violence laces the film with a lethal combination of humor and menace. Squeamish viewers should be warned: “The Departed” has more head shots than a modeling agency file cabinet.

Filled with quicksilver exchanges, Monahan’s script trades in beautifully crafted put-downs and wonderfully vulgar insults. Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, and especially Mark Wahlberg, who nimbly steals all the scenes in which he appears, are the chief beneficiaries of Monahan’s gift of gab. The script ripples with hilarious, foul-mouthed taunts, often delivered so rapidly that great lines are buried by even better ones. Occasionally, Scorsese is unable to corral Nicholson, but honestly, who cares? Nicholson’s Costello is such a juicy role, you can practically see the electrical charges whenever he appears on the screen.

For Scorsese fanatics keeping score, “The Departed” is not without noticeable flaws. Linking the two double-agents through a love triangle with Vera Farmiga’s shrink is a strategy that doesn’t pay off (and didn’t exist in the original “Infernal Affairs”). Also, at two and a half hours, “The Departed” nearly overstays its welcome. The story threads need so much attention that elements of character, especially the relationship between Costello and Damon’s Colin Sullivan, are merely implied when they should be fleshier. Even so, “The Departed” only strikes a few sour notes. The vast majority of Scorsese’s latest composition provides the cinematic equivalent of soaring arias and dazzling guitar solos.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/9/06.

The Heart of the Game

Monday, October 2nd, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

An entertaining if not always polished sports documentary along the lines of “Hoop Dreams,” “The Heart of the Game” presents the sometimes curious story of the Roosevelt High School Roughriders girls basketball team in Seattle, Washington. Peopled largely by white, middle and upper middle class students, Roosevelt saw its hardwood fortunes turn around with the arrival of University of Washington accounting teacher Bill Resler, a neophyte coach whose daughters had once attended Roosevelt. Director Ward Serrill frames the first part of the film around the unorthodox Resler, who immediately does away with any offensive strategy in favor of a relentless full-court press.

Resler miraculously turns the Roughriders into one of the most explosive teams in the state, and with each season, he introduces a new theme to his teenage gym rats. With evocative monikers like “Pack of Wolves” and “Tropical Storm,” these themes are as amusing to the audience as they are to Resler’s players. Something about them, however, resonates with the girls, who gleefully shout “Draw Blood!” during time-out huddles. Resler’s oddball strategies pay off, and attendance at games soars. Amazingly, Serrill followed the ups and downs of the team for seven years, which provides a real sense of continuity as the various story threads emerge and evolve.

Strangely, Serrill only highlights a few of the Roughriders as individuals, a frustrating tactic that no doubt disappointed some of the girls who fade into the background. Despite a gripping – but all too brief – glimpse at one player’s sexual victimization, “The Heart of the Game” shifts its attention during its second half to Darnellia Russell, a phenomenal basketball player whose decision to attend Roosevelt, and play on a team comprised mostly of affluent white players, provides Serrill with the opportunity to comment as much on race as he does on gender. Russell’s off-court struggles, including a frustrating eligibility fight that ends up before a judge, make for engrossing viewing.

Serrill strains to make Russell the central story of his film, but many observers will be left wondering why more time was not spent examining the intense cross-town rivalry between the Roughriders and the Garfield High School Bulldogs, coached by two-time All-American and former Harlem Globetrotter Joyce Walker. Perhaps Serrill did not have the same kind of access to Walker as he did to Resler. Whatever the reason, it’s too bad, since Walker is every bit as intense and interesting as Resler.

Although the movie doesn’t seem to be aimed at teenagers, younger viewers might find plenty of interest in the film. Its PG-13 rating likely covers a handful of profanities, although it is far from shocking that in the locker room, high school girls express themselves as colorfully as their male counterparts. Underneath the falsely projected overconfidence that masks a strong dose of teenage insecurity, the Roughriders appear to learn a great deal from Resler. One of the movie’s strengths is the almost complete absence of parents; Resler instructs the girls of the team to form an inner circle to deal with conflicts. That he insists on his own exclusion is powerful stuff.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/2/06.