Archive for April, 2007

The Lookout

Monday, April 30th, 2007

2007lookout

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran screenwriter Scott Frank makes a strong feature directorial debut with “The Lookout,” a crime caper/character study unafraid to echo stylish influences including “Fargo” and “Memento.” Frank is best known for having adapted “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” and his background research in a variety of forms of delinquency and malfeasance pays off, even though “The Lookout” is not likely to reap huge profits in its theatrical run. “The Lookout” largely skips the self-consciously cute humor present in the Elmore Leonard transformations, but Frank makes certain to include a healthy dose of sarcastic wit, mainly supplied by Jeff Daniels in a sharp supporting turn.

Working with a clear understanding of the value of character, Frank takes ample time to introduce the audience to Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former high school hockey star whose bright future evaporated following a devastating car accident. Dealing with the aftermath of a massive head injury, Chris struggles to make sense of simple tasks that so many take for granted; a small notebook allows him to keep track of sequences that he would otherwise mix up. Even with his pencil and paper system, Chris routinely locks his keys in his car and is tormented trying to locate the can opener. Only the presence of blind roommate Lewis (Daniels) appears to provide anything resembling a calming effect.

The numbing repetition of Chris’ highly regulated schedule is interrupted by the appearance of Gary (Matthew Goode, unrecognizable as the actor who appeared in “Match Point”), a smooth talker who claims to have known Chris some years ago. Gary is a born predator, exploiting the frustration Chris feels regarding the loss of his glory days. Along with a posse of shady colleagues, and a helping hand from the seductive Luvlee (Isla Fisher), Gary railroads Chris into aiding and abetting the thieves during their break-in at the bank where Chris works nights. To say more would be to say too much, and “The Lookout” pays nice dividends once the heist gets underway.

Frank takes notice of all the players in his cast, and despite the unexplained disappearance of one supporting character, the ensemble is colorful and lively. Goode and Fisher are both aces, and Daniels shoplifts every scene in which he figures prominently. As a friendly nightshift deputy, Sergio Di Zio plays several fine scenes with the star. Gordon-Levitt anchors the whole enterprise, and following his notable work in “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin,” continues to create a compelling argument that he is one of the bright lights of his peer group.

Frank merely hints at some of the possible paths that “The Lookout” might have taken. Carla Gugino, playing Chris’ social worker, should have been included in an additional handful of scenes beyond what amounts to a fleeting cameo appearance. The relationship between Chris and his wealthy family piques viewer interest, but Frank chooses not to spend any more than the minimum amount of time exploring the emotional scars that exist between Chris and his father, played by the always capable Bruce McGill. Despite its small flaws, however, “The Lookout” is a smartly made movie completely at home in Frank’s carefully constructed world.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/30/07.

Hot Fuzz

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

2007hotfuzz

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Edgar Wright, along with his usual conspirators, does to the homoerotic buddy cop action movie what his “Shaun of the Dead” did to Romero-esque zombie flicks. “Hot Fuzz,” starring “Shaun” pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, skewers big-budget Hollywood “bullet festivals” with a witty script and a parade of winking and clever pop culture references. As parodies go, “Hot Fuzz” boasts a beefier budget than “Shaun,” and the movie wears its ambition on its sleeve. The greater scale translates into extra flab in the running time, but the overall impact should please fans of Wright’s bright, breathless intelligence.

Co-scripter Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a fastidious London police officer who finds himself banished to a quaint rural village by his somewhat jealous superiors. The movie’s opening scenes, aided by a trio of delicious cameo appearances by Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, and Steve Coogan, immediately set a tone of playfulness that Wright is eager to maintain. Once Angel arrives at his new assignment, an additional set of cleverly cast performers turns up to the delight of movie buffs. Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, and Edward Woodward, among others, relish the opportunity to spoof favorite films from the past.

Like “Shaun,” “Hot Fuzz” takes its sweet time getting around to what passes for plot, and Angel’s introduction to the Sandford police force is a slow-burn workshop. All of the town’s constables are memorably inane, from the indecipherable old-timer to the sneering, comically mustachioed plainclothes detectives. Frost plays Danny Butterman, the dim-witted but thoroughly lovable son of Broadbent’s chief who takes an immediate shine to Angel. Much to Angel’s chagrin, the two are partnered for long shifts spent visiting the local convenience store or searching for a missing swan. The screenplay uses Danny’s passion for American cop movies of the Joel Silver/Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer variety as a vehicle to skewer the boys’ not-so-latent “bromance. ” References to “Point Break” and “Bad Boys II” are particularly humorous and superbly integrated.

“Hot Fuzz” takes a turn toward the surreal when a series of outrageously gruesome murders grabs the attention of the suspicious Angel. Naturally, the townspeople argue that the deaths were mere accidents, and their increasingly odd behavior nods toward the original “Wicker Man” movie in several ways. Despite the more mundane dimensions of the mystery plot device, “Hot Fuzz” works because the filmmakers clearly relish the very movies they are sending up. Wright meticulously restages the smoldering, affectionate exchange of looks and the slow-motion “shooting in mid-air” tropes perfected in franchises like the “Lethal Weapon” series.

When the movie finally arrives at the mayhem required by the genre, it very nearly wears out its welcome. A grocery-store shootout, along with a car chase and the total obliteration of both the town square and a scale replica of the charming hamlet, subscribe to the more is more school of action filmmaking. The ear-splitting volume that accompanies the imagery does as much to inspire a headache as it does laughter. When things aren’t exploding or being shot up, “Hot Fuzz” boasts a standout soundtrack, with ace selections including T. Rex, The Kinks, and Jon Spencer and the Elegant Two.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/23/07.

The Host

Monday, April 16th, 2007

2007host

Movie review by Greg Carlson

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho launches a madcap monster bash with “The Host,” an all over the map thrill-fest that boasts a beating heart to go along with its gaudy CGI. Making a few minor commercial strides in the United States, “The Host” calls to mind all sorts of low-grade creature features, but its breezily maintained political subtext directly invokes “Godzilla.” Fans of “bug on the run” movies will find much to cheer in Bong’s cleverly constructed world. The director knows that the creature will attract curiosity seekers, but sharp focus on a tightly knit, comically dysfunctional family provides the dramatic heft.

A brief prologue depicts a grim American military officer at a Korean base ordering an ill-advised down-the-sink disposal of what seems like a lifetime supply of formaldehyde. The noxious chemicals flow into the Han River, and before you can say “horrific mutation” a pair of fishermen discover something rather nasty in the water. Despite the nod to U.S. military hegemony, Bong is generally more interested in staging sensational kicks of action and excitement. For the most part, he gets to have his cake and eat it too, as a subplot cooks up a governmental plan to spray the frighteningly named Agent Yellow on the populace in order to contain purported contamination related to the monster.

“The Host” follows the well-worn rescue plot structure. After the grotesque tadpole-like beast demonstrates in spectacular fashion that it is as comfortable on land as it is in the water, it ensnares the young daughter of a riverside food stand proprietor. Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is a phenomenally lazy clerk who sleeps on the job, sneaks food from customer orders, and takes lengthy breaks to watch his sister Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), a champion archer, compete on television. Despite his oafishness and sloth, Gang-du dotes on his daughter Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), and Bong makes it clear that all in all, he’s not such a bad father. Once Hyun-seo has been captured by the icky critter, Gang-du and the rest of his family resolve to find her.

Alternating between scenes of familial squabbling and slapstick action, “The Host” somehow manages to mix elements of creepiness, comedy, and poignancy. Some viewers might need to take in a few scenes to adjust to the director’s antic style, but the freewheeling attitude of the movie turns out to be a major asset, since its combination of moods prevents it from bogging down in something akin to the oppressiveness of tone common to so many horror-themed stories. Despite the movie’s relatively small budget, Bong also shows how one can do much with little, as the sweeping, apocalyptic scale of the film’s final movement demonstrates a near epic grandiosity.

The pluck and determination of Gang-du’s family, which in addition to Nam-joo and Hyun-seo includes brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) and patriarch Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong) is the glue that holds everything together. Bong, like Steven Spielberg, shows a particular flair for crafting recognizable human relationships amidst a supernatural backdrop. Also like Spielberg, Bong can stage feverish, dexterous set-pieces notable for spatial coherence. When the ugly behemoth attacks, it is clear where everything is in relation to the environment. “The Host” might not be a masterwork, but it virtually guarantees Bong employment for the foreseeable future.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/16/07.

Grindhouse

Monday, April 9th, 2007

2007grindhouse2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The most brilliant aspect of the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature “Grindhouse” is that it is almost impervious to negative criticism. By crafting a meticulous homage to the 1970s exploitation movies that fueled their young imaginations, the filmmakers can get away with literally anything. From missing scenes that carve out gaping plot holes to a nearly palpable hostility toward narrative development and coherence, the constituent elements of “Grindhouse” thrive on sensationalism and excess. As an experiment for the multiplex generation, some measure of the experience of attending this sort of film in an appropriately disgusting venue will be missing, but that will not stop hipster fans from dropping their jaws at the audacity and showmanship of the moviemakers.

Presented in the United States as a complete multipart program, “Grindhouse” sandwiches its pair of features in between all manner of nostalgic genre re-creations, including ratings certificates, outré trailers for coming attractions, and a host of telling imperfections that replicate scratched and banged-up prints chugging through occasionally malfunctioning, poorly maintained projectors. Accompanied by a gorgeously designed series of posters and lobby cards, as well as a promotional stockpile of t-shirts, soundtracks, actions figures, and the like, the modern day vertical integration of ancillary “Grindhouse” merchandise parts company with the gutbucket flicks that inspired it.

Following a terrific trailer for a revenge picture called “Machete,” Rodriguez launches a rocket with “Planet Terror,” a gory, goopy, bloody, toxic-waste monster romp in which an ensemble of miscreants and malcontents fends off the advances of a disgustingly infected populace hell-bent on crashing the local barbeque shack. Juggling several corny storylines, Rodriguez’s penchant for the utterly repellent is manifested in a nauseating motif revolving around testicular trauma. It is a small miracle that a number of the segment’s actors, including Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, and Marley Shelton, manage to breathe some life into their cartoonish characters.

Viewers will split their arguments regarding the superior half of the “Grindhouse” bill, but Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is a far more ambitious and impressive piece of filmmaking than “Planet Terror.” Filled to bursting with Tarantino’s signature loquaciousness and unabashed foot fetishism, “Death Proof” features Kurt Russell as psychotic road devil Stuntman Mike, a warped misogynist who hunts young women from behind the steering wheel of his reinforced Detroit muscle. Essentially divided into two sections that could practically operate as self-contained short movies, “Death Proof” shifts into high gear during its final car chase sequence. A marvel of old-fashioned, adrenaline pumping stunt-work, the intense road race features hair-raising exploits performed by real life daredevil Zoe Bell. The climax recalls aspects of Russ Meyer’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” delivering a knockout punch during a blazing steel pipe free-for-all.

The custom movie trailers shown during the “intermission” comprise a crowd-pleasing trio of spot-on spoofs. Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the S.S.,” channels Dyanne Thorne’s Ilsa series and sports a few cameo appearances guaranteed to earn a laugh from the audience. Edgar Wright’s haunted house movie parody is even funnier, peppered by emphatic but incomprehensible voiceover narration by Will Arnett that offers absolutely nothing to explain the plot. To print the title, which doubles as the trailer’s payoff, would not be fair. Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is a blood-splattered gem, crafting yet another holiday-themed horror flick. Featuring parade mascot decapitations, humans trussed like stuffed turkeys, and a killer dressed as a pilgrim, “Thanksgiving” pulls no punches, and is not for the prudish or squeamish. But then, neither is anything in “Grindhouse.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/9/07.

Blades of Glory

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

2007bladesofglory

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Will Ferrell has made an almost effortless transition from “Saturday Night Live” to feature film stardom, but it is no surprise that he is often superior to the movies in which he plies his trade. “Blades of Glory,” in which Ferrell plays one half of the world’s first same-sex ice skating duo falls squarely in the aforementioned category. Ferrell is consistently funny, but the movie itself leaves a great deal to be desired. Borrowing heavily from the “Zoolander” playbook, even down to the short video biographies that introduce the central characters, “Blades of Glory” scrapes up just enough laughs to make the whole enterprise bearable. The movie is a far cry, however, from Ferrell at his best, falling short of the absurdity of “Anchorman” and even “Talladega Nights.”

As the wolfish, egotistical, and sex-addicted Chazz Michael Michaels, Ferrell reheats some of the same oafish masculinity that has served him well in previous outings. Sporting a dark mop of hair and a closet filled with studded, fringed leather, Chazz relies on a lethal combination of shoot-from-the-hip improvisation on the ice and brain-dead non-sequiturs whenever he opens his mouth. His rival is the effeminate Jimmy MacElroy (John Heder), a former child prodigy adopted by a billionaire for the sole purpose of winning medals. Following an award ceremony scuffle, both men are banned for life from the singles division, but a rulebook loophole allows for the possibility of a partnered team-up.

As improbable as that sounds, the former opponents end up needing each other to revitalize their shattered skating dreams, and a weird alliance is forged under the direction of a seasoned coach played nicely by Craig T. Nelson. “Blades of Glory” scurries along at a mostly brisk clip, alternating between computer-assisted ice dancing routines and the behind-the-scenes politics of Jimmy and Chazz’s odd coupling. The movie also struggles mightily to squeeze some mileage out of a half-baked subplot involving an incestuous brother-sister team and their put upon younger sibling.

Real life couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett play Fairchild and Stranz Van Waldenberg, but the anemic screenplay affords neither of the gifted comics much of a chance to show the kind of brilliant comedy for which they are known. Their characters are scarcely recognizable as human beings, despite a handful of funny bits, including a number scored by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s staple “Good Vibrations.” As their younger sister, Jenna Fischer fares better, striking a balance between sweet innocence and naïve confusion as she navigates between her domineering siblings and a budding romance with Jimmy.

Viewers not expecting a great deal should be pleased, as “Blades of Glory” skewers a variety of expected figure skating clichés. From the sexually charged physicality of the complex choreography to the outré spandex costumes, the movie takes pleasure in good-naturedly chuckling at a sport that is ripe for parody. Cameo appearances by a gallery of skating stars add to the movie’s credibility, and nearly all of the routines, especially Chazz’s outlandish number set to Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” deliver the goods.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/2/07.