Archive for July, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

Monday, July 30th, 2007

2007simpsons

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following nearly two decades as a television institution, “The Simpsons” transitions to the big screen as an almost completely delightful variant of its smaller self. The series, which appealed to people of all ages for its uncanny ability to blend surrealism, corniness, satire, and sentiment, has shown signs of wear for any number of seasons now, but few would argue the show’s status of one of the truly great series in the history of the medium. The prospect of a feature film version of the show has been gestating for at least a decade, and the movie was absolutely worth the wait.

The plot of “The Simpsons Movie” scarcely matters, but it predictably incorporates several favorite, longstanding targets. Following an effort spearheaded by Lisa to clean up the environmental waste that has been dirtying Springfield, Homer manages to trigger a toxic disaster when he dumps his pet pig’s leavings in the water supply. The government overreacts, an angry mob forms, feelings are hurt, and wrongs must be righted. Curmudgeons will carp that central plot elements, like Bart identifying Flanders as a surrogate father or Lisa developing a seemingly hopeless crush, have already been used, but the movie somehow manages to operate as a greatest hits collection that also takes a few liberties afforded by a PG-13 rating.

Like the best episodes of the show, “The Simpsons Movie” delivers one-liners, puns, sight gags, slapstick, and well-observed jabs at high and low culture with blazing speed. Naturally, not every joke is laugh-out-loud funny, but the zingers far outnumber the bombs, and the movie boasts dozens of brilliant moments. Homer’s instant identification with a doomed porker, which has featured prominently in the movie’s advertising, is terrific. The beast is nicknamed both Spider-Pig and Harry Plopper, and Homer’s somewhat misplaced, childlike affection provides Dan Castellaneta an ideal canvas to demonstrate his genius voice talents.

Creator Matt Groening’s universe owes much to his collaborators, and longtime relationships with folks like James L. Brooks, David Silverman, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti forged what has been often called the pinnacle of TV comedy. The co-conspirators labor diligently to make certain that the movie works as a feature film, building in a comfortable sense of rhythm and pacing that operates with sprightliness and verve, never once wearing out its welcome.

Like “Twin Peaks” and other TV shows that managed a leap to the cinema, “The Simpsons” boasts far too many beloved characters to cram into one feature. As painful as it is, several series stalwarts are given scant screen time. Montgomery Burns in particular deserved a bit more than what amounts to a glorified cameo. One cannot complain too much, however, that the focus remains on the titular nuclear family, as their foibles remind us of our own hopes and fears. The reach and influence of the show has been part of the cultural landscape for so long, it is easy to forget that “The Simpsons” did it first and did it best. The movie is a glorious reminder of that, and just might inaugurate another generation of fans.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/30/07. 

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

2007inowpronounce

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Nobody who attends “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” should expect to see a document of genuine compassion for gay couples struggling for domestic partnership benefits, despite the film’s tepid, half-hearted message that tolerance is good. The preview sums it up and does it better than the movie itself: a straight fireman calls in a favor from his best friend requiring the pair to appear as a gay couple in order to receive family health insurance. The premise leaks like a colander, never managing to move beyond the impulse to make infantile, retrograde fun of people who don’t happen to be straight. “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” is easily one of the worst movies of the year.

Adam Sandler, stretching credulity beyond the snapping point, plays Chuck, a lothario so skillful he routinely beds women several at a time, presumably because his services are irresistible. One wouldn’t guess it from his personality, however, which is another variation on the shrill, cynical, phony jerk that has made the man a fortune. Chuck’s heterosexual prowess seems to exist primarily as a means to reassure Sandler’s constituency that their man is light years from queer. After spending an eternity lobbing an endless supply of gay jokes, including his own use of that other F word, the best Sandler can do is remind viewers at the end of the movie that to call homosexuals hurtful names is no different from disparaging him for being a Jew.

Under different circumstances, namely an entirely new set of personnel in front of and behind the camera, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” might have been able to cleverly tackle the relevance of its topic, but its creators are hell-bent on stooping to the lowest lows. Ving Rhames is the frustrated, closeted co-worker whose big scene is an unconvincing shower room version of “I’m Every Woman,” which immediately follows a protracted “don’t drop the soap” routine that would have been dated decades ago. Larry (Kevin James) is perfectly content to use homosexuality as a cover, but can’t deal with the fact that his pre-adolescent son prefers show tunes to baseball. In a word, ugh.

Gays are hardly alone as the targets of the movie’s lame jabs. In addition to making certain that there are no believable homosexual characters in sight, Rob Schneider hides behind buck teeth and a bowl haircut in order to cook up a grotesque Asian stereotype that competes with the horror that is Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Jessica Biel and all the other women in the movie are regarded merely as sexual playthings. The group of heroic Brooklyn firefighters with whom Chuck and Larry work can scarcely be bothered to put the homophobia in check for more than a minute.

The movie’s screenplay is so shoddy, it wraps up the action in a shockingly rote courtroom hearing scene that refuses to deliver a much needed smooch between the title lads. Sandler probably fretted that his legions would abandon him if he performed a heartfelt lip-lock with another fellow, so he leaves the dirty work to Rhames, who proves game in a gay wedding epilogue. Gay or straight, viewers will be hard pressed to find anything worthwhile in this counterfeit canard. It’s laughable in all the wrong ways.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/23/07. 

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Monday, July 16th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Despite being an undeniable financial success at the box office, the Harry Potter film series has always been faced with the impossible task of balancing faithfulness to the source material with good filmmaking. Typically, the producers err on the side of the former, making the film franchise slow going for audience members who do not keep up with the books. It is surely a good thing that at 138 minutes, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is officially the shortest of the five Potter films, running just a few ticks behind the best of the movies, the Alfonso Cuaron-helmed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Director David Yates, who will be returning for the next Potter movie, and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, who replaces Steve Kloves for the first time in the series, have their hands full paring down J.K. Rowling’s massive 850-plus page tome. Predictably, the result is a somewhat bland streamlining process that compresses action, eliminates subplots and explanations, and most unfortunately, short-shrifts all sorts of characters. Hermione and Ron, Harry’s true blue pals, must compete with the usual superstar lineup of British acting royalty and the fresh-faced newcomers chosen to play Harry’s classmates at Hogwarts.

Audiences will likely be divided over the film’s mostly dismal tone, which now marks Harry as a brooding young Hamlet who carries the weight of the world on his fragile psyche. Following an opening set-piece attack by a pair of ghastly Dementors, Harry defends himself before the Ministry of Magic for casting a spell in the presence of a Muggle. Narrowly avoiding expulsion, he returns to Hogwarts only to find that Ministry representative Dolores Umbridge (a perfectly cast Imelda Staunton) has joined the staff. Umbridge wastes no time asserting her strict brand of discipline and control, forcing Potter to go underground with a group of stalwarts branding themselves Dumbledore’s Army.

When he is not avoiding Umbridge or practicing spells, Harry finds himself in the grip of cold-sweat nightmares revolving around the return of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who appears to be drawing closer by the day. Both Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who shares some personal history with Harry, and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, in the movie’s standout performance), who unwillingly reveals painful memories to Harry, are on hand to offer the young wizard some protection. The film’s climactic battle is gripping and satisfying.

Typical of the series, the production values are extremely handsome. Computer generated effects continue to develop by leaps and bounds, and a comparison to the early entries shows a remarkable advance. Even so, some of the CG imagery, particularly Hagrid’s giant kin Grawp, lacks the same sense of wonder conveyed by actual physical objects. With the release of Rowling’s final novel neatly coinciding with the current movie, Potter mania will remain as strong as ever. As of now, the last Potter movie is scheduled for release in 2010, which puts all three of the principal performers in their twenties by the likely release date. So far, the transition from childhood to adulthood has been adroitly handled in the films, and it will be interesting to see how the last two stories make the leap to the screen.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/16/07.

Transformers

Monday, July 9th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Michael Bay, one of Hollywood’s most clueless and bombastic moviemakers, sucks all the potential fun out of “Transformers,” a massively budgeted, feature-length headache that is equal parts military recruitment propaganda and car commercial. Based on a line of Hasbro action figures, “Transformers” will appeal only to pre-teen boys and adults who still think and act like pre-teen boys. Loud, stupid, and obnoxious, not to mention ridiculously overlong, “Transformers” will be a gigantic hit in spite of itself. Anyone seeking a movie with heart, warmth, or realistic human characters should look elsewhere.

One must exhibit a very robust suspension of disbelief to accept the premise that warring factions of oversized, sentient robots that can reconfigure themselves to look mostly like GMC vehicles have come to earth in search of a MacGuffin known as the “Allspark.” Metallic baddie Megatron, leader of the Decepticons, has literally been kept on ice for years by the U.S. government, but his fellow machines are drawing ever closer to securing a pair of eyeglasses with crucial information embedded in the lenses. Manic, twitchy dweeb Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf, tremendously annoying), a descendant of the explorer who originally owned the specs, is trying to sell them on eBay.

As a filmmaker, Bay has never been acknowledged for demonstrating sensitivity, and his casual racism and sexism sink “Transformers” like a stone. Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson are reduced to playing painfully strident caricatures. Of the young female characters, Megan Fox is stuck in the thankless “hot girlfriend” part and is given a cursory back-story that leads to a laughable misunderstanding straight out of a bad sit-com. Rachael Taylor fares no better, playing a computer wizard who figures out all sorts of important things and then is completely ignored once the action cranks up.

Neither human nor Transformer is immune to a blockheaded reductionism that saddles each entity with a single defining trait. In what is perhaps the most painfully unfunny sequence in the movie, Sam’s mother accuses him of masturbating in his bedroom (lifted unsuccessfully from the vastly superior “Weird Science”) while the young man desperately attempts to hide both a girl and several gargantuan robots from his nosy folks. Sam’s Transformer pals, having learned earth language from mediated popular culture, behave like clumsy children, exclaiming things like “My bad” when accidentally crushing the family flowerbed.

When the titular creations engage in a massive orgy of destruction in the final section of the film, Bay falls back on his tried and true methods: an inexplicable combination of unnecessary slow motion shots presumably meant to instill a sense of grandeur and awe, and a cacophony of machine-gun quick cuts so disorienting you have absolutely no idea which robot is which and who is doing what to whom. The design of the Transformers is particularly vexing. Despite the advanced computer design that has rendered them with tens of thousands of moving parts, it is impossible to differentiate between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Sadly, no amount of dazzling special effects can compensate for an absence of good storytelling.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/9/07.

Ratatouille

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A major improvement over the disappointing “Cars,” Pixar’s “Ratatouille” is a delightful movie buoyed by top-flight animation, gorgeous design, and confident storytelling.  Despite the obvious challenges of marketing a movie dealing with a rat who yearns to be a gourmet chef, “Ratatouille” will please even the most demanding animation fans with its rich palette of colors and flavors.  Director Brad Bird, whose movies “The Incredibles” and “The Iron Giant” have marked him as one of the finest practitioners of feature-length animation, equals or betters his earlier work, and “Ratatouille” already seems destined for both critical and commercial accolades.

Pixar movies have regularly drawn from the Disney model that values a particularly difficult to achieve level of quality, and many of their stories feature central characters who aspire to greatness in a given field.  In “Ratatouille,” a gifted rodent named Remy (Patton Oswalt) uses his highly developed sense of smell to distinguish between good food and bad.  Initially, Remy’s skill is employed mainly to separate regular garbage from rat poison, but the rat hones his gift after being inspired by a television show featuring the recently deceased master chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), a gourmand who lived by the motto “Anyone can cook.”

Since the death of its namesake, Gusteau’s restaurant has lost its prominence and luster, as new boss Skinner (Ian Holm) devotes more time to cashing in on a line of Gusteau frozen dinners than he does to culinary excellence.  One evening, Remy completes a soup started by garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy naïf with zero cooking skill.  The dish is a smash hit, and before too long, the rat and the human have worked out a system that allows Remy to prepare food by offering direction from underneath Linguini’s toque.  Linguini’s rise in popularity does not go unnoticed by the suspicious Skinner nor by the pretty Colette (Janeane Garofalo), who also happens to be the toughest chef in Gusteau’s kitchen.

Bird took over “Ratatouille” from Jan Pinkava during production, but there is no evidence of behind-the-scenes strife.  Instead, the film is an absolute feast for the eyes, presenting more evidence of the steadily developing art of computer animation.  A credit at the end of the movie boasts that no motion capture was used in the production of “Ratatouille,” and the statement is clearly a major point of pride for the animators who deliver one dazzling series of images after another.  The level of detail is tremendously impressive, and the hustle and bustle of a busy restaurant kitchen, especially the process of cooking itself, is rendered in tones that are sumptuous, savory, and rich.

“Ratatouille” succeeds on many levels, and much credit must be given to Bird for astutely avoiding the shopworn clichés that mar the majority of contemporary animated features.  “Ratatouille” has plenty of squirm-inducing shots of swarming rats, but there are few gags that rely on bodily functions.  Additionally, the film adroitly resists the temptation to pepper the action with references to popular culture.  This almost instantly imbues the proceedings with a timelessness that will surely age better than the vast majority of “Ratatouille’s” competition.  “Ratatouille” will be challenging for its youngest viewers, but like certain cheeses and wines, it will be even better when those kids have grown old enough to appreciate it.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/2/07.