Archive for June, 2007

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Monday, June 25th, 2007

2007windthatshakesthebarley

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” continues the director’s tradition of naturalistic depictions of societal and political struggle pitting the marginalized against the powerful.  A gripping indictment of unwanted military occupation and the costs of armed conflict, the movie echoes contemporary news reports without specifically functioning as an allegory for U.S. involvement in Iraq.  Even so, the guerilla tactics employed by the Irish Republican Army form parallels that are hard to deny.  Loach has spoken about how the past can illuminate the present, and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” rarely feels like a period piece.

Set in the early 1920s during the lead-up to the Irish Civil War, the movie follows the actions of Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney), brothers who take up arms for the IRA in the hopes of driving the British from Ireland.  Loach begins the film with a harrowing incident in which a small squad of Black and Tans harasses a group of young men.  The one who defiantly answers the interrogators in Gaelic pays dearly for his pride and the episode has such a profound effect on Damien, he immediately abandons his plans to study medicine.

Working with screenwriter Paul Laverty, a frequent collaborator, Loach refuses to shy away from the fierce brutality that accompanied what surely must have been a terrifying day-to-day existence for the working class in County Cork.  The horrifying acts of violence are not limited to the oppressors, however, as Damien himself begins to carry out unspeakably grim tasks.  Loach’s unadorned, fly-on-the-wall approach allows scenes to unfold with raw immediacy and a tension that suggests anything might happen.  Given the things he is asked to do, Damien and the audience are forced to contemplate the limits of what one might do for a cause.

Some of the best scenes in the film pause to contemplate the political deal-making that results in hard to swallow compromise.   When uneasy accords are reached, brother is divided from brother over whether or not the painful struggle has been in vain.  The fraternal conflict sounds like the makings of classic melodrama, and to some extent, the relationship between Damien and Teddy is played out in terms befitting a Greek tragedy.  Pragmatism goes head to head with idealism, and the outcome is as black as night.

As a storyteller, Loach layers his tale with much to contemplate.  To his credit, the movie resists a preachy tone.  The running time occasionally slackens, but the scenes that count the most are delivered with a striking tautness and economy.  Murphy, known to American audiences primarily for his work in “Red Eye” and “Batman Begins,” is outstanding as the troubled fighter.  As is typical of Loach’s films, however, the entire ensemble seems to operate like a single organism, and the many supporting performers are as integral to the movie as Murphy.  “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” might scare away some viewers reluctant to invest in what at first glance looks like a dour history lesson, but viewers who do opt to see it will be rewarded.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/25/07.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Monday, June 18th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” already ringing up massive receipts due in no small measure to its kid-friendly PG rating, is catastrophically poor.  The best children’s movies contain content that appeals to grown-ups, a notion utterly ignored by the moviemakers in this case.  From dismally one-note characterizations to iceberg pacing, “Rise of the Silver Surfer” does not hold a candle to the intriguing comic book that inspired it.  Only the nonsensical, souped-up CG effects distract from the rotten proceedings, but handsome visuals alone do not an entertaining feature make.

Despite earning an armload of negative reviews, the original Fantastic Four outing proved a cash cow.  The complaints attending the original movie apply to the sequel: execrable dialogue, undisguised sexism, and moronic interactions that resemble one of ABC television’s TGIF sitcoms.  The creaky plot revolves around the impending nuptials of Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) and Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba).  On his wedding day, Mr. F feigns interest in the lavish, highly publicized affair, despite being more engaged by his Baxter Building laboratory tinkering and the sudden appearance of an unexplained force wreaking havoc on the earth’s climate.

The meteorological mystery turns out to be none other than that interplanetary lover of the longboard, the Silver Surfer. The Surfer is voiced by Laurence Fishburne with mock gravitas, and Doug Jones and millions of pixels share the physical manifestation of the character.  The Silver Surfer often looks impressive, particularly when he is zooming around through space, but screenwriters Don Payne and Mark Frost, working from a story by John Turman skim the figure’s origin story.  The Surfer’s relationship with Galactus is left unexplored, much to the disappointment of fans old enough to have read the comic book.

In the first movie, the Human Torch (Chris Evans) and the Thing (Michael Chiklis) shared comic relief duty.  In “Rise of the Silver Surfer,” the formula holds with a vengeance.  The Thing’s humanity is replaced with belch jokes and blustery indignation.  In the air, the Torch manages to look cool, but on the ground, he merely riffs on the same old womanizing jerk routine.  In another putrid scene that rivals the stupid dance sequence in “Spider-Man 3,” Mr. Fantastic cuts a rug in a nightclub, using his elasticity to dazzle two partners simultaneously.  Saddest of all is the movie’s dismissal of Invisible Woman.  Alba is arguably the biggest name in the picture, and yet she is reduced to playing an ineffectual helpmate for Mr. Fantastic who appears to have neither skill nor interest in the high-tech science and engineering practiced by her mate.  Instead, she uses her talents to make a zit disappear from her forehead.

Director Tim Story favors a tone of breeziness that in more capable hands might have played like an antidote to the depressing soul-searching that dominates Marvel’s other massive franchises.  The result is so flat, however, that “Spider-Man 3” practically seems like Ernst Lubitsch next to the miserable and decidedly not fantastic quartet.  “Rise of the Silver Surfer” is the very definition of banal.  The chemistry-free interactions of the performers are so vacant that if you look closely, you can almost see the reflections of dollar signs in their eyes.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/18/07.

Ocean’s Thirteen

Monday, June 11th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

That unluckiest of numbers adorning the title to Steven Soderbergh’s third “Ocean” caper serves as a harbinger of the events contained within.  Weak, dull, and very often insulting, “Ocean’s Thirteen” never misses an opportunity to remind viewers that they will never possess the charm, wealth, and luck necessary to frolic like the movie stars they are supposed to admire.   The movie operates without any suspense, a condition that sucks all the air out of the viewing experience.  Viewers will undoubtedly assume that the movie is just a breezy good time, and the house stands to collect a pile of money.

The movie’s essential plot is a warmed-over reheating of the events that transpired in the earlier movies.  Ruthless casino owner Willy Bank (Al Pacino) double-crosses Danny Ocean’s (George Clooney) mentor Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) on a real estate deal, leaving the old veteran bedridden and traumatized.  The Ocean gang rallies around their wily teacher, vowing to get even during the grand opening of Bank’s ostentatious new venture, which bears the owner’s apropos moniker.  Naturally, breaking the Bank’s bank requires a ridiculous series of spectacularly coordinated cons, but is there any doubt that the team will fail?

The first movie in the series managed some success because Ocean adversary Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) appeared to be as cunning and crafty as his opponents.  Compared to Benedict, Pacino’s Willy Bank is a babe in the woods.  The awful script, by “Rounders” scribes Brian Koppelman and David Levien, depicts a man oblivious to the treachery surrounding him.  One wonders how he managed to reach his position of wealth and power in the first place.

The only female star in the movie is Ellen Barkin, and the screenplay reduces her to a lustful lump of putty in the hands of Matt Damon’s Linus Caldwell.  As Bank’s top employee, Barkin should have been a razor-sharp threat to Ocean’s plan.  Instead, one whiff of a powerful aphrodisiac renders her instantly orgasmic, despite the fact that Damon is wearing a disguise that makes him look like a Halloween party version of Dr. Evil, right down to the pointy fake proboscis.  Luckily, this subplot contains a refreshing turn of events involving an FBI agent played by the hilarious Bob Einstein.

The absence of Julia Roberts, handled by a few unconvincing lines of exposition, leaves a substantial hole in the movie.  At least Roberts appeared to play a character who recognized that Ocean was arrested in adolescence.  In “Ocean’s Thirteen,” nobody is on hand to baby-sit the boys, resulting in a dish that is all sugary sweet with no tartness to offset the flavor.  Soderbergh, despite his usual asides to the audience, directs the movie purely as if he is just going through the motions and connecting the dots required by the formula.  In addition to a winking exchange that acknowledges Clooney’s “Syriana” weight gain and Brad Pitt’s fatherhood, “Ocean’s Thirteen” literally claims that one cannot run the same gag twice.  The line is meant to be a tongue in cheek admission that the director and his confederates are doing exactly that, but it comes off as a snarky reminder that what we are seeing is just another variation on the old con game.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/11/07.

Knocked Up

Monday, June 4th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Superior in nearly every way to previous outing “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” is the rare comedy that gets to have its cake and eat it too.  Appealing to both stoners/slackers in search of a devilishly crude set of bawdy jokes and the audience seeking the liquid center of heartfelt, feel-good romantic warmth, “Knocked Up” is at home in both camps.  Apatow’s stock company, used more effectively than in any of his projects since “Freaks and Geeks,” continues to operate like a well-oiled machine and the writing is as pointed as ever.

In his first role as a leading man, Seth Rogen plays Ben Stone, a responsibility-free loafer with only a vague idea of a possible career trajectory.  It’s a bit of a stretch to think that Ben would not already be intimately familiar with the Mr. Skin website, but he and a quartet of housemates, including Apatow regulars Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Jay Baruchel, and Jonah Hill, dream about providing an internet service that directs like-minded fanboys to nude scenes in their favorite movies.  Ben’s carefree lifestyle undergoes a major change following a one-night stand with Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), who discovers herself pregnant several weeks after her encounter with Ben.

Nobody is going to believe for a second that Ben would stand a ghost of a chance with the way out-of-his-league Alison, but in Apatow’s world the charm is pitched at just the right angle to allow one’s suspension of disbelief.  Heigl is every bit as good as Rogen, and the two have a wary chemistry that shores up the incredulity of the beauty-and-the-bong partnership.  Heigl is also abetted by Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann, who plays her sister, and Paul Rudd as her brother in law.  As a young married couple with kids, Mann and Rudd serve as much needed counterpoint to the quartet of lotus eaters who serve as Ben’s support system.  In another sweet bit of casting, Harold Ramis plays Ben’s dad and Joanna Kerns plays Alison’s mom, although both might have been given just a bit more screen time.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical response, “Knocked Up” is not without its deficits.  The nature of the loose adlibbing fosters too many highly topical pop culture references that will date the movie in just a few months.  “Spider-Man 3,” for example, gets name-checked at least once too often.  Additionally, the last third of the movie, while remaining as funny as what precedes it, is occasionally unwieldy and unfocused.  Contributing to an unnecessarily long running time, this indecisiveness makes one a bit antsy for the story’s inevitable outcomes.

Apatow’s frank, almost matter-of-fact presentation of seemingly disparate elements conveys a certain freshness unheard of in similarly themed comedies.  “Knocked Up” is just the sort of movie that will reveal new layers of humor with multiple screenings.  No matter how fleeting the role, the supporting players, including Charlyne Yi as Martin’s spaced-out girlfriend, Ken Jeong as Dr. Kuni, and Kristen Wiig and Alan Tudyk as Alison’s clueless E! TV bosses, are all spot-on.  Better than any of the blockbuster sequels with which it is competing, “Knocked Up” is one of the summer’s most enjoyable movies.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/4/07.