Archive for November, 2006

Casino Royale

Monday, November 20th, 2006

2006casino

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Breathing new life into a dinosaur franchise, Daniel Craig makes an absolutely smashing James Bond, infusing the character with a raw sense of humanness to go along with the dashing cosmopolitanism, the seductive charm, and the formidable talent for using that license to kill.  The Pierce Brosnan run of Bond films was tremendously lucrative, and the performer made a decent spy, but for all of its pyrotechnical prowess and budget-busting action, the last several movies in the series have been mired in dull repetition, forgettable villains bent on Dr. Evil-esque plans for world domination, and a general haze of self-parody and musty anachronism.

“Casino Royale” erases virtually all of those problems, carving out a terrifically rousing Bond tale that makes the most of its “back to basics” mentality.  The lion’s share of the credit rests with actor Craig, whose discovers all sorts of dimensions never explored by any of the other men who have portrayed 007, and that includes undisputed critical favorite Sean Connery.  If the upcoming Bond screenplays offer Craig opportunities to avoid the arch disdain and aloof derision that has been a hallmark of Bond portrayers, he could very well find himself in the position of all-time best Bond.

While that assertion sounds the alarm for cries of sacrilege among the Connery faithful, Craig’s work in “Casino Royale” is marvelous.  Reinventing the Bond series by serving up details of an origin story certainly helps, as the movie introduces us to an agent in the process of earning his stripes.  Bond’s exchanges with the caustic M (Judi Dench) are invigorating for viewers who never expected to discover that 007 had so much to learn.  Better yet, the movie wisely omits as much of the goofy gadgetry and groan-inducing punning as possible.

“Casino Royale” might be the best James Bond film in a very, very long time, but it is not without its drawbacks.  The 144-minute running time works against big chunks of the final act, when plot developments reconfigure enough material to nearly merit another film.  The familiar, stylized opening credits sequence is one for the Bond history book, but the theme song “You Know My Name,” sung by Chris Cornell, is a dud.  Like many other contemporary thrillers, there is altogether too much reliance on and screen time allotted to cell phones.  The pluses outnumber the minuses, though, and “Casino Royale” appears poised to entice a whole new generation of Bond fans.

Eva Green is first-rate as the treasury hawk who aids Bond during the high stakes poker game that serves as one of the film’s tastiest sequences.  Green’s Vesper Lynd is everything that previous Bond “girls” are not: shrewd, competent, and able to match James line for line.  More importantly, she exists as a fully formed character whose interactions with Bond don’t solely function as a pretext for sex.  Hard as it may be to believe, something like love enters the equation, and it is just the sort of break the series needed.  Additionally, director Martin Campbell, who helmed “GoldenEye,” stages several of the best adrenaline-rush moments in franchise history.  Near the beginning of the film, a parkour-inspired scramble that utilizes urban free-running practically shouts that “Casino Royale” is going to be better than the average Bond.  Like several other moments in the movie, it surprises you with its exhilarating images of extremely physical acrobatics.  If the next Bond movie works even half as well as “Casino Royale,” one of the cinema’s longest-lived series has new places to go.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/20/06. 

Borat

Monday, November 13th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

As Borat Sagdiyev, a coarse, socially awkward TV reporter who hails from Kazakhstan, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen shines a light on all manner of prejudice, from racism to anti-Semitism, homophobia to misogyny. That he does so by parading as a moronic but earnest correspondent helps him to attract unsuspecting marks like flies; these days, everyone wants a shot to be on television, even if the broadcast is planned for central Eurasia. Many have already compared Cohen to Peter Sellers, and the description is apt. The young performer, like the great Sellers, is a ridiculously gifted humorist willing to commit so totally to his creations he manages to fool audience members despite primary screen credit indicating it is all make believe.

In “Borat” Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Cohen retools a number of the sketches he had already perfected on “Da Ali G Show” and “The 11 O’Clock Show,” which means that longtime fans will not only recognize the sources of some of the movie’s best material, they will also reluctantly say goodbye to the cult status of Borat. Like Cohen’s other characters, the success of the Borat character is predicated on the ability to convince the other people who appear with him on camera that he is for real. The more fame Borat attains, the fewer people are likely to fall for his trap.

While that scenario has already taken some of the wind out of Ali G’s sails, audiences new to Borat will be treated to one of the most thoroughly funny films of the last several years. Blending a range of comic styles, including vicious social satire, broad slapstick, and all sorts of straight-faced gags at the expense of the folks foolish enough to have signed a release form, “Borat” thrives on transgression and inappropriateness. Reports of walkouts over matters of taste aren’t likely to diminish ticket sales. Young men in particular seem to have an unquenchable thirst for jokes involving fecal matter and male nudity.

Cohen’s clumsy, libidinous Borat largely avoids the creep factor by amplifying his sense of childlike innocence, even when publicly masturbating or asking a car salesman where the “pussy magnet” is located on the auto he clearly cannot afford. “Borat” packs in dozens and dozens of side-splitting moments, with Cohen’s mangled English providing the cherry on the sundae nearly every time. Visits to rodeos, antique shops, and genteel dinner parties invariably end in disaster and/or humiliation.

The likely secret to the success of the Borat character is his ability to take advantage of the way in which Americans hospitably tolerate their alien guest. Getting rednecks and drunken frat boys to spew out all kinds of disgusting rubbish is almost too easy for Cohen, but even with the kindlier folks he meets, like the driving instructor and the dinner party host, Cohen manages to push past limits. Fortunately, Cohen never prioritizes his political agenda over the belly laughs that accompany the lewdest displays he can concoct. The approach delivers something for everyone, and the thought of teenage “Jackass” aficionados in cinematic communion with well-educated culture vultures is a testament to Cohen’s prodigious skill.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/13/06.

Flags of Our Fathers

Monday, November 6th, 2006

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A visually arresting exploration of the legend behind AP photographer Joe Rosenthal’s iconic World War II image of the Mount Suribachi flag raising, “Flags of Our Fathers” considers a range of ideas about heroism, propaganda, and the life of the soldier. Director Clint Eastwood, continuing to capitalize on the public and critical perception of his mature career gravitas, crafts an impressive drama, particularly in the story thread that considers the life of Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, in the movie’s best performance), one of the Marines who appeared in the fateful snapshot.

Fans of the combat film will no doubt identify striking similarities to co-producer Steven Spielberg’s own “Saving Private Ryan,” which employed the same style of desaturated imagery, especially during the battle sequences. Both movies attempt to honor the sacrifices of the “citizen soldiers” who served during World War II, while still taking the time to ruminate on the surreal absurdity and haphazard nature of killing for one’s country. Eastwood approaches the story elements out of chronological order, carefully and purposefully striking a balance between the events of Iwo Jima and the manner in which the United States government raised substantial sums of money trading on Rosenthal’s powerful photo.

One strength of “Flags of Our Fathers” lies in the careful explanation of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the photograph itself, which has fascinated generations of people who read about and study World War II. Because faces were not visible in the image, a certain amount of confusion surrounded the identification process. Only three of the pictured men survived the fighting, and an earlier planting of a smaller flag on essentially the same spot added to the commotion when sorting out details became a priority. Claims that the picture was staged, as well as the misidentification of one of the flag raisers, didn’t help either.

Along with Hayes, survivors John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) are called upon by military brass to make public appearances for war bonds. Each man deals with the attention in a different manner, with Bradley’s introspection contrasted with Gagnon’s more gung-ho attitude. Hayes, troubled by the idea that he should even be considered a hero, descends into alcoholism and deep depression. Additionally, Hayes deals on a regular basis with racist comments, and Beach is called upon to deal with the difficult task of portraying psychological pain.

Eastwood is certainly savvy to the ways in which events of well more than half a century ago apply to Americans today. “Flags of Our Fathers” will be joined by the director’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” next year, which will address the battle from the perspective of the Japanese. Certainly, “Flags of Our Fathers” can be addressed on its own, but the upcoming film will invite new readings and interpretations. If “Flags of Our Fathers” makes any missteps, it is in the unnecessary final summarizations that try to put into words thoughts better left expressed in visuals. Eastwood continues to show audiences that his career behind the camera can be every bit as compelling as the work he does in front of the lens.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/6/06.