Archive for May, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Monday, May 28th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following the messy, incoherent, and bloated second installment of the wildly popular Disney franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” manages to be just as messy, incoherent, and bloated as “Dead Man’s Chest.”  Obviously, this will not stop audiences of all ages from attending the movie or attempting to convince themselves that they liked it more than they really did.  Required, at least on one level, to wrap up some plot lines, “At World’s End” might be a hint more satisfying than its predecessor, but like so many “more is better” sequels, this one defines the law of diminishing returns.

Echoing one of the lines in the movie, director Gore Verbinski appears to be making it all up as he goes along, which produces something akin to fatigue as opposed to a feeling of fresh improvisation.  According to a variety of sources, “At World’s End” began shooting without a completed script, and the movie’s pile-up of twists, reversals, double-crosses and triple-crosses supports this notion.  Despite the studio’s plea to critics to keep the movie’s secrets, there is nothing that would qualify as shocking or unexpected in the clattering roundabout that comprises the film’s narrative.

To be candid, “At World’s End” leans more toward product than it does art, and the computer generated special effects have come to replace what now looks like the quaint charm of the first “Pirates” movie.  As expected, the picture’s saving grace is Johnny Depp, who always manages to perform Jack Sparrow without appearing to care or worry about the financial return on investment his employers expect.  Depp blithely swishes and sashays from one crisis to another, and his performance is the only effortlessly enjoyable aspect of the movie.

Oddly, the romantic relationship between Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) often recedes into the background.  Knightley benefits most from the change of direction, as Elizabeth is regularly placed in the center of action while Will continues to be stuck dealing with his cursed father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard).  More time is spent introducing new characters like Chow Yun-Fat’s Captain Sao Feng, a Singapore-based plunderer who exists as an excuse to show off some dazzling set design.  Production designer Rick Heinrichs and supervising art director John Dexter deliver a variety of eye-popping images that should please the fans who insist that the movies honor the original theme park dark ride in some capacity.

Less honorable is the treatment of Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), the exotic soothsaying priestess.  The writers take her in a direction that makes about as much sense as her indecipherable accent.  Geoffrey Rush and Bill Nighy, who also reprise their roles, fare better.  The much touted cameo appearance of Keith Richards amounts to little, and should have been funnier and more sprightly.  If the pirates decide to set sail again, and that outcome seems likely, the filmmakers ought to go back to the drawing board.  The current course is well charted, and all the treasure appears to have been dug up.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/28/07.

Away from Her

Monday, May 21st, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Away from Her,” based on a short story by Alice Munro, marks a strong directorial debut for performer Sarah Polley, who evidently picked up a thing or two when working for filmmakers like Atom Egoyan.  Egoyan happens to serve as one of the executive producers of “Away from Her,” which carries several clear signs of his influence.  Polley’s movie has received strong word of mouth, in particular for the casting of Julie Christie in one of the picture’s two major roles.  The strongest performance, however, is given by Gordon Pinsent, as a husband who struggles to deal with his wife’s decline as a victim of Alzheimer’s.

The intimately contained scenario introduces the audience to Fiona and Grant Anderson, a couple whose forty-four year marriage begins to unravel when it becomes clear that Fiona suffers from a disease for which there is no cure.  Polley efficiently sketches the comfortable routine that the Andersons have honed to comforting regularity.  They cross-country ski, prepare meals, and sit by the fire as Grant reads Auden aloud to Fiona.  Even as habits are carefully kept, Fiona cannot slow her decline.  She places a just washed cooking pan in the refrigerator.  She wanders in the cold until tracked down.

The movie becomes compelling once Fiona decides to separate from Grant and move into a residential health care facility, largely against the wishes of her husband.  Policy dictates that new patients not see any relatives for the first month of transition, a fact that nearly causes Grant to back out of the plan.  Polley manages to make the conflict palpable and wrenching, despite the mostly flat, slightly clinical portrayal of the cold administrator who rarely demonstrates any warmth toward Grant.  Christie and Pinsent share several powerful scenes together, and their separation resonates with believable humanness.  Requesting some private time prior to being admitted, Fiona reminds the staff that she and her husband have not been apart from one another for a month in their entire marriage.

As Fiona becomes accustomed to her new life, Polley develops a rhythm that switches the action between two central timelines.  Additionally, Grant’s own memories of the first part of his relationship are glimpsed in grainy, stylized images.  We discover that the Anderson marriage was far from perfect, and Grant even suspects that Fiona occasionally pretends to have lost her memories in order to be able to punish him for his infidelities.  Grant develops a relationship with the wife of a patient to whom Fiona has become oddly attached.  He also seeks some small comfort from conversations with one of Fiona’s nurses.

Polley develops these initially strange pairings of the sufferers with notable sympathy.  Caregivers Grant and Marian (Olympia Dukakis) understand one another as their afflicted spouses also come to depend on and help one another cope.  Some viewers might argue that the content of “Away from Her” might seem better suited to presentation on the small screen, but Polley’s almost complete avoidance of melodrama and histrionics laces the film with a subtleness that many will find arresting.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/21/07.

The Ex

Monday, May 14th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Ex” could have been a bitingly funny satire of young adult insecurities that occur in the first flush of parenthood, job loss, and relocation. Instead, it is an intermittently funny trifle that largely wastes the formidable talents of its cast in favor of a series of up and down gags. Director Jesse Peretz goes about his business with workmanlike efficiency, but the screenplay by first timers David Guion and Michael Handelman lacks sophistication and smarts. Several moments capture the hilarious awkwardness of the Farrelly brothers at their best, but the plotting is as formulaic as a junior high school drama production.

As Tom Reilly, Zach Braff plays another variation of his self-effacing, flip charmer. Chef Tom is married to out-of-his-league lawyer Sofia Kowalski (Amanda Peet), and he happens to get fired from his job on the very day his wife gives birth to their first child. Far too much time is spent milking the mostly unfunny labor sequence, which plays like a loop of all the familiar delivery room clichés. Even worse, it is preceded by a slapstick food fight that mostly squanders the cameo appearance of Paul Rudd as Tom’s hateful boss.

Tom and Sofia make the radical decision to leave New York City in order to move near her parents in Ohio. While Sofia takes care of the baby, Tom accepts a position as a “assistant associate creative” at the cutesy advertising agency where her father Bob (Charles Grodin) is employed. Grodin, who has not appeared in a feature for more than a decade, is a welcome addition to any movie, and his fans will be reminded of more exquisitely painful exercises in hubris and humiliation from years ago. Sadly, “The Ex” is closer to “Beethoven” than “The Heartbreak Kid.” Even so, one wishes that Grodin would spend more time on screen.

Despite Grodin’s return to movies, “The Ex” is a showcase for Jason Bateman, one of the most underrated comic performers of his generation. Longtime supporters were vindicated during the abbreviated run of “Arrested Development,” which showcased Bateman’s chops in the role of a lifetime. In “The Ex,” Bateman plays paraplegic Chip Sanders, a creepy co-worker of Tom and Bob who backstabs and manipulates on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis. Chip is never shy about using his disability to his advantage, and he finds a new enemy in Tom.

The origin of Chip’s vendetta against Tom is traced to a brief high school romance between Chip and Sofia, and Tom is routinely treated to the intimate details of Chip’s lovemaking prowess. In the movie’s best scene, Chip treats Sofia and her folks to an outrageously inappropriate movie night. Most of “The Ex” is devoted to the escalating rivalry between Chip and Tom. No matter how hard Tom struggles to expose Chip’s cruelty, he seems destined to suffer a series of bitter defeats. As dictated by the conventions of the genre, however, all is well that ends well as “The Ex” ties up its loose ends. One imagines it might have been a better movie had it given in to the darker side of its nature.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/14/07. 

Spider-Man 3

Monday, May 7th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The first major studio release of the 2007 summer blockbuster season, “Spider-Man 3” proves that a movie’s ability to stuff a bank vault has nothing to do with the actual quality of the goods.  Word of mouth is not likely to be kind to Sam Raimi’s third outing with the gigantic franchise, as the movie sputters and stalls out again and again.  Many fans will be scratching their heads, wondering what went so wrong so quickly.  “Spider-Man 2,” after all, bested the original in terms of wit, depth, charm, and storytelling.  The latest one offers none of these qualities, instead presenting a warmed over rehash inexplicably dumbed-down even as the special effects budget is pumped up.

The good things about “Spider-Man 3” can be counted on a rather short list.  Bruce Campbell’s cameo is as entertaining as Stan Lee’s is painful.  As Gwen Stacy, Bryce Dallas Howard squeezes every ounce of value out of her poorly written role.  Beyond that, the movie is nearly wretched.  Dialogue scenes are almost always shot in tight close-up, the CG is two-dimensional and unconvincing, and Raimi never passes an opportunity to shamelessly wave the American flag.  Hurricane-force nepotism places no fewer than five additional Raimi family members in the cast or crew, and Sam should be ashamed for allowing one to exclaim “wicked cool!” during an action sequence.

As the ever beleaguered Peter Parker, Tobey Maguire is at his most somnambulistic, going through all the motions as if he’s done it a million times before.  It doesn’t help that the old Mary Jane-in-peril saw tastes so stale, but this time, Peter is also written as clueless and vain.  Instead of demonstrating that with great power comes great responsibility, he has thoroughly regressed to a state of naivete and self-centeredness that jeopardizes his basic likeability.  Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane is equally gloomy.  You don’t want to spend time with either one.

Perhaps because it is the third part of a cycle, “Spider-Man 3” attempts to cram as much plot as possible into its unnecessarily bloated running time.  In addition to the half-hearted resolution to the Harry Osborn/Green Goblin/New Goblin thread that has been percolating in each of the films, two more marquee villains, Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Venom (Topher Grace) jockey for pride of place.  The multiple villain strategy is exactly what crippled the “Batman” series, as it diminishes the importance of any one rival by dividing the amount of time that can be devoted to crafting an interesting character.

There is little question that we will be seeing more “Spider-Man” movies in the future, although it is too early to say whether Maguire and Raimi will return.  It might be better to try something without them.  The current episode is completely devoid of the freshness and excitement that accompanied some of the first one and most of the second.  Perhaps the movie, which is rumored to have cost in the neighborhood of 300 million dollars, suffered because it subscribed to the more is more school of thought.  Without a well-written story, buoyed by compelling characters and sharply defined conflicts, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man looks appears to be running out of web fluid.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/7/07.