Archive for March, 2007

The Lives of Others

Monday, March 26th, 2007

2007livesofothers

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The latest Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, “The Lives of Others” is a well-observed and often suspenseful drama that manages a satisfying payoff despite a leisurely pace and an overstuffed running time. The feature debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, “The Lives of Others” reconstructs mid-1980s East Germany, where the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry for State Security, has embarked on an Orwellian project of intimidation and surveillance against any citizen suspected of disagreeing with the official policies of the GDR. Naturally, artists and writers are frequent targets of the Stasi creeps, and “The Lives of Others” powerfully links together predators and prey.

In an eerie eavesdropping mission, by-the-book agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) sets up an elaborate network of bugging equipment in the apartment that playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) shares with his lover, acclaimed stage actor Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler’s attitude begins to shift, however, once he discovers that a high-ranking official has authorized the operation merely because he intends to sexually blackmail Sieland and move Dreyman out of the way. As he listens to each and every intimate detail coming from the tapped dwelling, Wiesler finds himself taken with the private lives of his subjects, and he begins to alter his reports even as the stakes begin to escalate.

Following the suicide of one of Dreyman’s close artistic collaborators, the writer pens a biting editorial that is subsequently smuggled past the border, causing a minor media stir that embarrasses Wielser’s superior. The Stasi reels in Sieland for interrogation, forcing Wielser to make a series of dangerous decisions revolving around the film’s MacGuffin, a portable typewriter with a red ink ribbon. Even though the movie doesn’t trade much in action, the terrifying intrusions of government heavies expressionlessly rifling through personal property has a chilling effect.

One of the movie’s unique thematic linkages revolves around the shifting emotional allegiances of Wieland and Dreyman as the two men unwittingly find themselves at the center of a sticky web. Frustratingly, the movie struggles to unlock the emotional core of either man, leaving viewers to wonder to some degree how they arrive at their risky decisions. Sieland functions on some level as a muse for both, and “The Lives of Others” wryly suggests that both Wieland and Dreyman depend on the artistry of their writing ability to make their way through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where saying the wrong thing could cost someone his or her freedom.

While the movie begins just a few years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, an extended post-climax coda knits together a few story threads that take place after the Wall’s collapse. These scenes resonate with the viewer, provoking thought about how people, and particularly artists, intellectuals, and dissidents, manage to make meaning of their lives and work when residing in an oppressive society. The film’s strongest stroke resides in Wiesler’s profound change from hardcore loyalist to compassionate sympathizer, and the film really takes flight once Wiesler involves himself directly with those he has been monitoring. That Wiesler’s portrayer Muhe was spied upon by the Stasi adds a fascinating layer to the drama.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/26/07.

Venus

Monday, March 19th, 2007

2007venus

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In one of the most poignant scenes in “Venus,” aging thespians Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) pay a visit to St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, which is popularly known as the “Actor’s Church.” The two gaze at memorials for the likes of Laurence Harvey, Robert Shaw, and Boris Karloff while some chamber musicians practice behind them in the otherwise empty chapel. Just as it begins to dawn on the audience that O’Toole’s own name is as well known as any of his departed peers, and that his finest hour as a performer might be behind him, Maurice and Ian share a sweet little dance. Death might be around the corner, but these indomitable actors will dance until the doorbell rings.

Credit a moment like this as much to director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi as to the legendary O’Toole. Without the deft choices of the collaborators, a movie like “Venus” could easily curdle into mawkish melodrama or invite an overload of scenery chewing. Instead, the movie is a small gem. By description on paper, “Venus” sounds unlikely to avoid “dirty old man” status, as a geriatric Humbert Humbert pursues the grandniece of his best pal. Fortunately for all, the physically libidinous elements largely take a back seat to a variety of other concerns, particularly the indescribable élan and zest for life that can occur at any age.

When Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a nineteen year old with vague plans to pursue modeling, moves in with her granduncle Ian, the old grouch detests her laziness as much as her lack of culinary skill. Ian’s good friend Maurice, however, flatters her in the same way he has flattered countless women through the years, and Jessie initially doesn’t know what to do with his attention. Once the young woman realizes that she might be able to extract some kind of recompense from Maurice in exchange for small physical favors, they begin an odd courtship in which each person achieves both expected and unexpected satisfaction.

Occasionally, Maurice attempts to move beyond the allowable realm of innocent kisses on Jessie’s shoulders, and the consequence is typically a sharp jab in the ribs. One of the movie’s small joys is that it manages to effectively balance the sit-com-like humor of an old lothario with a measure of sympathy when one begins to realize that Maurice’s interest in Jessie has a genuine depth to it. Late in the movie, an excellent scene outlines pangs of ruefulness when Maurice feels betrayed by his youthful companion. It is a testament to O’Toole’s skill as a performer that scenes like this work at all. Even more impressive, he manages to do it entirely with his eyes rather than words.

“Venus” is not the sort of movie that will likely inspire impassioned philosophical discussion, but the film does raise enough questions to pique the interest of any viewer willing to invest in the experience. Is Maurice’s affection for Jessie some kind of apology for the way he ended things with his ex-wife (beautifully played by Vanessa Redgrave)? Redgrave and O’Toole are smashing in their moments together, and the movie surely would have benefited from another scene or two exploring Maurice’s wintry regret. “Venus” ultimately fails to measure up to O’Toole’s golden-era performances, but as a fond valentine to one of cinema’s beloved marvels, it is as pleasant as a summer day.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/19/07.

Black Snake Moan

Monday, March 12th, 2007

2007blacksnakemoan

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Black Snake Moan,” writer-director Craig Brewer’s follow-up to his surprise hit “Hustle & Flow” appears eager to flaunt its obvious politically incorrect pitfalls. As if its racism and sexism aren’t enough, the movie operates from a simplistic social conservatism that argues in favor of marriage as a cure-all for even the deepest psychic scars. The film’s expertly designed poster is better than the movie, and equally as provocative. A scantily clad young white woman is held on a chain by a much older black man in a mock dime store pulp novel cover complete with creases, tatters, and stains.

Brewer’s visual sensibility injects those paperback imperfections directly into the style of his movie. Taking place in a rural Tennessee backwater seemingly frozen in the 1970s, “Black Snake Moan” intertwines the lives of two wildly different people. Rae (an underfed Christina Ricci) is a sexual abuse and rape victim whose only comfort is a jittery National Guardsman shipping out to Iraq. Lazarus (a weathered-looking Samuel L. Jackson) is a hardscrabble produce farmer and once-upon-a-time blues musician whose wife has left him for his own brother. Following a chemically-enhanced evening that sees Rae and Lazarus separately messed up, their paths finally cross when Laz discovers a bloodied, incapacitated Rae outside his shotgun shack.

What happens next belongs to the tradition of vintage exploitation cinema, as the grieving Lazarus takes it upon himself to “cure” Rae of her outrageous, misplaced nymphomania. Despite Jackson’s fine effort, his character is reduced to the age-old stereotype of the spiritual, self-sacrificing African American who corrects a deficiency in an undeserving white person. Brewer’s decision to have Lazarus chain Rae to his radiator lacks the necessary groundwork to achieve any kind of verisimilitude, but Ricci and Jackson turn the shocking scenario into a battle of wills laced with an off-kilter humor. Many viewers, however, will not find laughs of any kind in the situation.

To make matters even more salacious, Rae is periodically gripped by an uncontrollable desire to couple with any man within arm’s reach. Brewer initially seems smart for sidestepping any real sexual tension between the two principals, but Lazarus’ steadfastness also eliminates the film’s arguable primary thematic opportunity. Instead, the filmmaker widens the circle of folks who know about Lazarus’ reluctant captive to include a local adolescent and a sensible minister who takes the shocking situation in stride.

“Black Snake Moan” never manages to reconcile its over-the-top improbability with its pedestrian platitudes about salvation and redemption. Its final overtures are so odd and awkward that they veer dangerously close to ridiculousness. Only a last minute coda manages to return matters to earth. Brewer bookends the movie with footage of Son House explaining the connection between sex and the blues, and his appearance simply serves as a reminder that the film’s take on music works much better than its corny sex, age, and race-transcending friendship angle. Even though the best scene in the movie is a slow-motion gutbucket juke-joint jam and dance session, “Black Snake Moan” is too long and not nearly insightful enough to demand much respect or attention.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/12/07.

Zodiac

Monday, March 5th, 2007

2007zodiac

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Followers of the career of director David Fincher have come to expect big things of the filmmaker. A stylish craftsman with a muscular command of storytelling and a ferocious appetite for impeccable technical specs on his films, Fincher has a rabid fanbase of moviegoers who enjoy journeys that explore the darker side of human nature. “Zodiac” is certainly Fincher’s most complete cinematic experience, even if it will never achieve the same kind of cult that surrounds “Fight Club.” At two and a half hours, it comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome, but Fincher’s obvious interest in the material, combined with his smart sense of pacing, elevates “Zodiac” to the front rank of its director’s impressive resume.

While the movie focuses on the events surrounding the still-unsolved Zodiac serial killer case that began as the 1960s came to an end, Fincher’s thematic concerns transcend a simple cat-and-mouse exploration of good guys out to catch a very, very bad guy. The screenplay’s obsessive attention to a dizzying array of details immerses the viewer in the maddening process of chasing a ghost who ironically seems to recede as the facts and clues and case file folders pile up. It has already been suggested that “Zodiac” works best as a study of life in the information age, and this may be true. The film is also a study of the odd lengths to which people will go in order to achieve some kind of recognition. This eerily applies to the Zodiac himself as well as the men who hunt him.

While the actors acquit themselves admirably in their roles, “Zodiac” is decidedly not a performer’s showcase. Because the narrative focus is shifted among a group of key players in the unfolding Zodiac saga, the audience has the opportunity to follow along with both Jake Gyllenhaal in his turn as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who ended up authoring more than one book on the Zodiac, and Mark Ruffalo as David Toschi, the police detective who spent a considerable amount of time and energy in the initial investigation. We also cross paths with a gallery of intriguing folks who might lack in screen time, if not the ability to leave an impression. Robert Downey Jr. lightens the mood as SF Chronicle writer Paul Avery, Brian Cox makes a perfectly pompous Melvin Belli, the high-profile lawyer, and John Carroll Lynch, as suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, inspires nightmares.

Many true crime buffs agree that the allure of the Zodiac lies in his personal relationship to the press and the police, and Fincher lovingly re-imagines the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle in the early 1970s. The killer was fond of sending encrypted messages and other missives to the Chronicle and other newspapers, and the correspondence established a ghoulish connection between the murderer and the media. As for the murders themselves, Fincher keeps the most graphic violence to a minimum, although the film’s opening set piece, along with a daylight attack on a pair of lakeside picnickers, is visceral and unsettling. While the Zodiac case remains open in some jurisdictions, it is inevitable that Fincher would have to find an alternative resolution to the film. That he succeeds in satisfying his viewers is a mark of his increasing skill as one of the industry’s most fascinating moviemakers.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/5/07.