Archive for February, 2007


Monday, February 26th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Robert Hanssen, currently serving a life sentence for selling classified information to the Soviets, is a fascinating figure. In “Breach,” Hanssen is portrayed by Chris Cooper as a bitter, conflicted individual whose contradictions make little sense to Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), the young FBI clerk assigned to help take Hanssen down. Director Billy Ray relishes the schism in Hanssen’s character, and builds a movie that neatly balances the imaginative intrigue of post Cold War-era espionage with the dreary, corporate reality of government desk jockeys frustrated with their lot in life. “Breach” is certainly not a great movie, but its sensational subject matter will interest history buffs and spy movie aficionados.

Hanssen was the person responsible for arguably the worst security breach in the history of the United States. During the course of at least fifteen years, he traded secrets for diamonds and cash that ultimately totaled well more than one million dollars. Among his ignominious activities, he sold out a trio of KGB agents who were working for the U.S., he revealed the course of action for U.S. officials in the event of a nuclear attack, and he offered up the names of American double agents. One can only speculate as to the reasons Hanssen decided to betray his country, and for the most part, “Breach” avoids simplistic generalizations.

Instead, the filmmakers reveal Hanssen as seen through the eyes of O’Neill, which allows viewers to discover the stupefying extent of the traitor’s duplicity with the same incredulousness as the young FBI man. At first, O’Neill is, in the parlance of the bureau, not even completely “read in” to the case; he believes he has been assigned to his new desk because Hanssen is a sexual deviant. While Hanssen’s secrets-for-cash deals with the Russians turn out to be much worse than O’Neill realizes, Hanssen’s other behaviors can make the hairs on one’s neck stand on end.

Cooper, a tremendously gifted actor, manages to make Hanssen a richly textured, thoroughly engrossing character, despite the man’s creepiness. Hanssen’s political double-dealing is mirrored in his personal life. A devout Catholic who virtually never misses Mass, Hanssen also videotapes himself having sex with his wife and mails copies to a friend. Ray makes a choice to abstain from a psychological exploration of Hanssen’s unusual peccadilloes, and one wonders how different the movie might have been had it been filtered directly through the consciousness of Hanssen as opposed to O’Neill.

Phillippe is well cast as O’Neill, and brings to his role a nicely tuned mixture of arrogance and naivete. Despite the withering sarcasm and criticism he suffers daily from his new “boss,” O’Neill comes to admire Hanssen for a time, and Phillippe brings the audience with him. O’Neill’s attitude only shifts for good once the extent of Hanssen’s violation is revealed. “Breach” has very few scenes that would appear in a fantasy spy movie, but it makes the most of its opportunities to cook up suspense. For a story with a well-known outcome, it is a movie that generates a fair share of tension in its telling.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/26/07.

The Queen

Monday, February 19th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” dramatizes the short span of time between the surreal death of Princess Diana and the even more surreal outpouring of grief that culminated in her memorable funeral. Perfectly blending documentary footage with the performances of a circle of thespians more than up to the task of playing familiar public figures, “The Queen” offers viewers a delicious, if fancifully speculative, glimpse behind the royal curtain. The movie principally toggles between freshly elected PM Tony Blair’s adroit handling of the crisis and the seemingly brittle stoicism offered by Queen Elizabeth and her kin.

The screenplay, by Peter Morgan, is almost entirely sharp, clever, and engrossing. What at first seems like a simple struggle of wills between tradition and modernization blossoms into a thoughtful examination of the meaning of public service, as both Blair and Elizabeth learn a great deal from each other over the course of the ordeal. Frears bookends the movie with a pair of face to face meetings between the two characters, interspersing the remainder of the running time with a handful of exquisitely strained telephone exchanges. Just when it seems that Blair might be spinning opinion away from the royal family in his own favor, he demonstrates an almost uncanny level of sympathy for Elizabeth and her exasperating behavior following Diana’s death.

As Elizabeth, Helen Mirren delivers a top-notch performance. Smoothly avoiding the traps of playing a well-known person merely as a satirical caricature, Mirren manages to strike a perfect balance between the monarch’s icy remove and her genuine belief that she has been called upon by God to serve the people of her country. Because we are allowed to spend so much time with the ruler and her family behind closed doors, Mirren takes advantage of the terrific opportunity to humanize the iconic figure. Who would have imagined the sight of Elizabeth piloting an SUV over the bumpy roads of her Balmoral Castle estate in search of the hunting party made up of her husband, son, and grandsons?

Beyond the queen, the other members of the House of Windsor are depicted in less flattering terms. Elizabeth’s consort, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is played by American James Cromwell as a nasty, elitist snob. Son Charles (Alex Jennings) fares better than his father, calling for, and sometimes receiving, all kinds of disruptions to protocol during the planning of Diana’s memorial. The Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms) provides the lion’s share of comic relief, frowning with displeasure that the funeral arrangements she so carefully designed for herself might be appropriated for Diana.

Fans of political drama should be delighted with the juicy, imaginatively conjured hustle and bustle that attends life with her majesty, as a great deal of attention is paid to the minutiae of how one is supposed to interact with the queen. The real source footage, which includes several snippets of interviews with Diana herself, recalls the young woman’s magnetism and grace, making it that much easier to understand Elizabeth’s unspoken jealousy at Diana’s immense popularity.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/19/07.

Old Joy

Monday, February 12th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy” is a wispy but mostly well-observed rumination that contrasts the life paths of two friends who have grown apart. Essentially an “anti-buddy” movie, Reichardt’s film intends to accomplish a great deal in the margins of its frames and the silences on its soundtrack. Some moviegoers will connect with the tension between the responsibilities of settling down and the romantic allure of living to the beat of one’s own drum, while others will find the rapport between the central characters alienating and off-putting. “Old Joy” has as many flaws as it does charms, and to its great credit, a spare running time prevents it from wearing out its welcome.

Soon-to-be-father Mark (Daniel London) somewhat reluctantly agrees to accompany pal Kurt (Will Oldham) on a quickie camping trip to the Bagby Hot Springs in Oregon. Seeking approval from his scowling wife, Mark embarks anyway, and his lazy drive to fetch Kurt, underscored by Air America broadcasts on the radio, sets the movie’s minimalist tone. Once onboard, Kurt babbles about recent travels that have expanded his mind, trying to convince himself as much as his companion that drum circles and bonfire jumping have salved his spirit.

Reichardt, adapting the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond from his short story, easily sketches the sense of fleeting youth through beautifully composed shots from the windows of Mark’s Volvo station wagon. Anyone who has ever sought retreat by means of a road trip into the wilderness will recognize the diners and gas stations that appear between the stretches of woods as the city turns into the country. Predictably, Mark and Kurt cannot initially find the place they’re seeking, but once they do, Reichardt constructs a potent scene at the hot springs. Kurt shares the story that provides the movie with its title as Mark sits quietly nearby. A moment passes between the two friends that ripples with an uneasy acknowledgment of something Reichardt purposefully leaves up to the viewer to determine. It is the film’s strangest, saddest passage.

“Old Joy” doesn’t comment more authoritatively on the dropout/contributing citizen divide than Richard Linklater’s superior “Slacker,” a much stronger movie that covers a great deal of the same ground. “Old Joy” bypasses the self-deprecating humor of “Slacker,” and as a result, a blanket of melancholy settles over practically everything that Mark and Kurt experience together. Certainly, Reichardt purposefully withholds all kinds of explicit information about the sorts of things that have passed between the two men, but her reticence tends to generate the kind of frustration that comes from someone who refuses to share a secret, choosing instead to taunt and tease.

While neither of the central characters is thoroughly drawn, the performers manage to create familiar, recognizable types. As the more loquacious Kurt, Oldham strikes a neat balance between tiresome palaver and warm insight. Masking his neediness behind a façade of easygoing cool, Oldham delivers the sadness necessary to make the audience occasionally experience the depths of Kurt’s regret and uncertainty. Reichardt’s final shots of Kurt are the most haunting images in the movie. Despite his copious indie credibility, however, Oldham remains a more accomplished musician than a movie actor, although his presence is one of the joys of “Old Joy.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/12/07.


Monday, February 5th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the opening scene of Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver,” a group of women tends to cemetery plots, scrubbing and polishing the memorials of departed loved ones. While a strong wind makes these dutiful acts rather challenging, Almodovar quickly sketches one of his movie’s central themes: how the living think about and relate to the dead. “Volver” is hardly a morbid movie, however, and despite some of its extraordinary plot points, it emerges as one of the great filmmaker’s most accessible and straightforward works. Almodovar has been one of world cinema’s most consistent storytellers of the past quarter century, carving a personal style that pays homage to all sorts of legendary directors, including the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel.

Almodovar’s American fan-base might divide over the apparent simplicity of “Volver,” which lacks the sort of intricately structured, interwoven plot threads that marked the director’s masterful “Talk to Her,” one of the strongest features on the prolific moviemaker’s resume. “Volver” also lacks the outrageous sexual gamesmanship that has come to be identified as a hallmark of Almodovar’s world. The mostly one-thing-at-a-time narrative of “Volver” proves one of its essential assets, and the payoff, like that of so many Almodovar movies, leaves a deep impression on the viewer.

In her Oscar-nominated turn as the industrious Raimunda, Penelope Cruz fulfills the promise of her captivating beauty. It has been rightly pointed out by a number of observers that Hollywood has failed Cruz by consigning her to anemic roles that trade exclusively on her otherworldly allure. Acting on her home turf is a different matter. Cruz’s fellow Spaniard Almodovar knows that she is gifted enough to play a much greater range of roles than the ones that have been offered in America, and Raimunda is the performer’s most vivid creation. Determined, smart, and optimistic, even in the face of long odds and dire circumstances, Raimunda provides “Volver” with a pounding heartbeat.

It is almost too easy to point out that “Volver,” like so many of Almodovar’s signature movies, focuses on the lives of females. Raimunda is surrounded, materially and perhaps spiritually, by very important women. Her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo), her sister Sole (Lola Duenas), ailing friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo), elderly aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), and a handful of other female neighbors help and are helped by Raimunda throughout the course of the story. Fulfilling the promise of the title is the possibility that Raimunda’s dead mother Irene, played by Almodovar favorite Carmen Maura, has returned from the dead.

Even though “Volver” explores the pain of sexual abuse, cancer, murder, and infidelity, Almodovar miraculously locates a buoyant silver lining and a spirit of encouragement amidst the hardships visited upon the characters. Viewers new to Almodovar’s movies will see plenty of what makes the director’s body of work so satisfying, including his rich use of vivid color, which functions symbolically and aesthetically. Red is the dominant hue in “Volver,” and Almodovar uses it in a variety of arresting ways. Almodovar capitalizes on the color’s identification with blood and passion, two descriptors that could be applied to so many of the director’s tales.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/5/07.