Archive for January, 2007

Pan’s Labyrinth

Monday, January 29th, 2007

2007pans

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Critics have lined up to sing the praises of Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a well made, if slightly overrated fantasy set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Juggling outré surrealism with equally ghoulish reality, del Toro returns to some of the same territory he covered in “The Devil’s Backbone,” a movie just as good as “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Following the tale of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl whose stepfather is a cruel military officer, “Pan’s Labyrinth” will delight fans of the filmmaker’s fantastic imagination. Far from a masterpiece, however, the movie tempers one’s enthusiasm with several lost opportunities, including a better handling of the heroine’s relationship with some of the supernatural creatures she encounters.

Following exposition that introduces Ofelia and her very sick, very pregnant mother, del Toro dissects the movie into two related spheres: the hallucinatory otherworld that Ofelia visits in order to receive instructions from the half-man, half-goat faun of the title, and the nightmarish compound where Ofelia’s violent stepfather Vidal (Sergi Lopez) oversees an operation to stop a group of rebel fighters in the surrounding woods. Toggling back and forth between the two storylines, del Toro might have taken more steps to integrate them, but taken individually, scenes regularly crackle with suspense and intrigue.

Like many fairy tales, Ofelia is given a set of three tasks she must accomplish in order to restore her crumbling world. In one sequence, she descends into the root system of a gnarled tree to face a bloated, phlegmatic toad. In another, she encounters the nightmarish Pale Man (Doug Jones, who also plays Pan), a beautifully realized bogeyman who keeps his eyeballs in the palms of his hands. All of the creature design is impeccable, but some viewers might become impatient with a pronounced lack of clarity in the rules and regulations of the fantasy realm, and exactly how Ofelia’s assignments are tied to a particular outcome.

In terms of narrative coherence, del Toro does a great deal better when he is dealing with Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), Vidal’s housekeeper and a secret ally and conspirator with the guerillas. As Mercedes develops into a surrogate mother for Ofelia, she finds herself in constant danger of being discovered by her sadistic employer, and Verdu brings a perfect blend of defiance, determination, and fear to her role. The inevitable showdown between Mercedes and Vidal is a heart pounding showstopper of a scene that will have the more squeamish viewers burying their faces in their hands.

By the time “Pan’s Labyrinth” marches to its potent, emotionally charged conclusion, del Toro has slowly but surely engrossed his viewers, and the film has a mostly satisfying resonance. Some will likely read Ofelia’s encounters with the fantasy world merely as her means of dealing with the unfathomable conditions of her situation, while others will identify an allegorical treatment of wartime cruelties. Yet another option simply believes in fairies, fauns, and other magical brutes. Del Toro doesn’t require us to choose, which makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” very much a movie worth seeing.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/29/07.

The Last King of Scotland

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

2007lastking

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Kevin Macdonald, who previously directed the often engrossing “Touching the Void” and the brilliant “One Day in September,” makes his narrative feature filmmaking debut with “The Last King of Scotland,” an adaptation of Giles Foden’s well-regarded 1998 novel. Proving that he might still be better equipped to deliver gripping documentaries, Macdonald is occasionally hamstrung by the odd blending of fact and fiction, a regular distraction in a movie that causes audience members to wonder which things Ugandan dictator Idi Amin really did and what was merely cooked up for the sake of the drama.

Forest Whitaker, as the title character, goes to town in the role, catching Amin’s gregariousness and outlandish charisma without losing sight of the bloodthirsty tyrant who ordered scores of deaths among his own people. Whitaker shows just how easily one might have been seduced by the charming military man who promised a new Uganda to enthusiastic crowds, only to make a steady string of awful decisions that spiraled the country into misery. It is no easy task to empathize with such a well lampooned monster, but Whitaker brings his expert fire to the role, accomplishing a performance that ranks with his work in Jim Jarmusch’s underappreciated “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and Clint Eastwood’s “Bird.”

Despite Whitaker’s domination of the film, the story is told through the eyes of the fictionalized character Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scottish M.D. who literally picks out Uganda from a spin of his bedroom globe. Following a flirtation with the fetching wife of the local physician, Garrigan unwittingly impresses Amin when the dictator’s hand requires medical attention following a car accident. Amin, who just won’t take no for an answer, cajoles Garrigan into service as his personal doctor, and the early sections of the movie delight in the strange relationship between the two unlikely acquaintances.

Macdonald strains to show how a person in Garrigan’s position might have been kept largely in the dark about Amin’s atrocious actions, but the young man’s initial exuberance for Amin is quashed when he witnesses the aftermath of an attempt on the leader’s life. In a risky move that completely obliterates credulity, Garrigan also begins an affair with one of Amin’s wives (Kerry Washington), a woman embittered because of Amin’s anger and shame over their epileptic son. It is virtually impossible to believe that anyone in Amin’s orbit would dare to seduce one of his wives, and this section of the movie is one of its least convincing, despite Washington’s wonderful acting.

As Garrigan’s relationship in Amin’s inner circle begins to collapse under the weight of the leader’s increasing paranoia, “The Last King of Scotland” relies more on melodrama and less on the effortless quirkiness that outlines the movie’s first half. A major plot point piggybacks on the well-known hijacking of an Air France flight that Amin invited to land in Entebbe. While Garrigan’s story in that episode has been fabricated, it shows the symbolic turning of the tide against Amin, and might have made an intriguing movie on its own.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/22/07.

Dreamgirls

Monday, January 15th, 2007

2007dreamgirls

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Many admirers of Jennifer Hudson’s breakthrough performance in “Dreamgirls” might be simultaneously thrilled at her Golden Globe win and perplexed that it was bestowed for work in a supporting role category. Her presence in the screen translation of the Tom Eyen/Henry Krieger Broadway show commands our attention at every turn and functions as the movie’s core. Yes, the players form an ensemble, but it doesn’t take much to argue that Hudson could just have easily been awarded as a lead. By the time she belts the powerhouse tearjerker “And I Am Telling You That I’m Not Going,” she’s utterly taken control of the movie.

Despite not winning best musical when it debuted in the early 1980s, “Dreamgirls” snared half a dozen Tony awards and developed into a well-loved show. Filmmaker Bill Condon, who tackled the screenplay for the feature film adaptation of “Chicago,” as well as helmed interesting projects like “Kinsey” and “Gods and Monsters,” wears both hats on “Dreamgirls” and he excels at each task. The movie version of “Dreamgirls” occasionally reminds viewers that some things might work better with the immediacy and urgency of live performance, but like the finest Broadway to Hollywood translations, “Dreamgirls” regularly manages to work as a movie while maintaining an essential fidelity to the source material.

Even for folks unfamiliar with the basic plot, “Dreamgirls” will ring some bells. A thinly veiled spin on the story of the Supremes, “Dreamgirls” charts the meteoric showbiz ascendancy of an African-American “girl group” that crosses over from regional popularity in Detroit (transposed from the play’s original Chicago setting) to connect with white audiences. The issue of race is cannily addressed throughout the movie, reiterating the frustration of artists who saw their vibrant contributions to popular song pigeonholed as “race records” while bland covers by white artists dominated the charts and airwaves and sold millions of copies. As a Berry Gordy-esque manager, Jamie Foxx has the difficult task of playing a character caught between his desire to appeal to the broadest possible audience while avoiding his performers’ accusations that he’s selling out.

Once Hudson’s Effie is demoted from lead vocals to singing backup, some of the story’s energy shifts to the less worldly Deena, and Beyonce Knowles finally has a role worthy of her talent. While Deena, who suffers some tremendously spiteful comments from Foxx’s Curtis, is in many ways a less interesting character than Effie, Knowles fits perfectly into the Diana Ross mold, and fans will thrill at the way in which a seemingly endless parade of Ross-like costumes, hairstyles, and even musical phases and trends are dazzlingly replicated.

Appearing alongside the younger performers are veterans Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy, who are both warm and memorable in their respective parts. Murphy, as James “Thunder” Early, knocks one out of the park, lighting up his character with a combination of moves and traits borrowed from the likes of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, and Marvin Gaye, among others. While a number of alterations have been made to the original property, including a quartet of tunes written just for the film, Condon’s version of “Dreamgirls” will likely appeal to a new generation of fans, some of whom might even feel compelled to seek out the original cast recording to hear for themselves how Jennifer Hudson stacks up against Jennifer Holliday.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/15/07.

Children of Men

Monday, January 8th, 2007

2007childrenofmen

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A powerful and thought provoking bazooka of a movie, “Children of Men” represents the best work yet from director Alfonso Cuaron. Based on P.D. James’ dystopian novel, “Children of Men” is stunningly accomplished, from its incorporation of “Blade Runner” style retro-futurism to the woozy, visceral immediacy of its photography. Despite its bleak, nightmarish vision of 2027, the film carries with it an undeniable sense of hope, and the experience of viewing it will leave many with a profound desire for self reflection. There’s no clever Easter Egg following the end credits, merely one word repeated three times that reminds us of the movie’s leitmotif.

Carved with some of the same gritty, documentary-style design as Paul Greengrass’ gripping “Bloody Sunday,” “Children of Men” places the viewer in the center of its alarming universe, a police-state Great Britain, which turns out to have the last functioning government in the world. Following an infertility epidemic, no babies have been born on the planet for 18 years. A terrorist organization known as the Fishes wreaks much havoc in fierce battles with government soldiers assigned to the streets to staunch the waves of refugees, called “fugees,” attempting to breach fences designed to keep them out. With no apparent future, the earth descends into chaos and despair.

The movie’s exposition is largely accomplished in the margins of its stellar production design, courtesy of Geoffrey Kirkland and Jim Clay. We learn of the cult of personality surrounding “Baby Diego,” a worldwide celebrity due to his status as the globe’s youngest person. We also see advertisements for companies peddling suicide kits, as well as other spots for procedures designed to help people preserve their youth. Orwellian public service announcements warn citizens to report suspected illegal immigrants. In the midst of it all, hard-drinking Theo Faron (a terrific Clive Owen) is reluctantly caught up in an odyssey to shepherd some very precious cargo to a group of activists en route to a mysterious rendezvous that may or may not exist.

Matching the quality of the production design is the visual impact provided by Emmanuel Lubezki’s phenomenal work as the film’s Director of Photography and George Richmond’s almost unprecedented skill as camera operator. Several carefully rigged sequences, including a hair-raising car/motorcycle chase and a long, unbroken shot (digitally stitched together from several takes) during a ferocious urban battle, will provide movie lovers and cinematography fanatics with study material for years to follow. Few films in recent memory come as close to placing the viewer at the pounding heart of the action.

Detractors have sniped that the movie fails to address the wealth of issues raised by its intriguing premise, and several conservative critics have lashed out at the perceived liberties taken by Cuaron in transposing the novel to the screen. Cuaron strikes a balance, however, allowing his audience to puzzle out many of the movie’s enigmas. Other answers are intentionally missing. Where some see only indelicate broadsides leveled at the current state of U.S. policy, in terms of the war in Iraq and other ills of the Bush administration, others will discover a subtler parable that raises questions more than it points fingers.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/8/07.