Archive for August, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

Monday, August 27th, 2007

2007nannydiaries

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Dozens of reviews of “The Nanny Diaries” have compared the movie to the much stronger “The Devil Wears Prada,” and it is easy to see why. Both films are adapted from popular books and both stories deal with wide-eyed young women attempting to negotiate the impossibly airtight worlds of ultra-wealthy New Yorkers. Additionally, both film versions follow a predictable trajectory in which the central character discovers self-reliance after putting up with cartoonishly grotesque abuse and humiliation from a so-called superior. Much more uneven than “The Devil Wears Prada,” however, “The Nanny Diaries” will be forgotten quickly.

At the outset, it might appear to savvy viewers that “American Splendor” co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini will be an asset to the proceedings, transporting their sharp observational skills to the Upper East Side from the vivid Cleveland depicted in their brilliant Harvey Pekar biopic. Several unusual touches, from the incorporation of clever anthropological dioramas to a Mary Poppins-esque umbrella ride above the city, occasionally alleviate the tedium arising from the movie’s toothless satire. The filmmakers, who also crafted the script based on the book by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, make the mistake of trading character for caricature, resulting in a sloppy, dull slog of a show.

Scarlett Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a recent college grad who would much rather pursue behavioral field studies than business. She literally stumbles into a gig as the nanny of a wealthy family, hiding the nature of her job from her hardworking nurse mom. Echoing “The Devil Wears Prada” again, the central conflict revolves around the impossible demands of a seemingly demonic boss. Laura Linney plays Mrs. X, a neurotic, self-centered, spoiled wife of a piggish, unfaithful, and distant husband (Paul Giamatti). The talented thespian digs deep in order to find some shred of sympathy for Mrs. X, but the tone of the movie is discombobulated and inconsistent.

“The Nanny Diaries” might have had something insightful to say about parenting, the class divide, and immigration, but its predictable, feel good conclusion only serves as a reminder that sights were set too low. Annie’s relationship with Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans), superficially intensified by the fact that he comes from privilege and she from the working class, proves another missed opportunity. Despite some mostly playful sparring and a directive from Mrs. X that Annie not be allowed to fraternize with anyone in the building, the partnership between the young lovers is smooth sailing all the way.

The movie’s critical relationship exists between Annie and her young charge Grayer X (Nicholas Reese Art). Transforming almost instantly from a devilish brat into a fawning angel, Grayer stirs Annie’s sympathies because he is a pawn in the battle between Mr. and Mrs. X. Naturally, the little boy becomes emotionally attached to his nanny, creating an impossible situation that can only end sadly. The movie plays more like a television pilot than a feature with an A-list cast. Without the prospect of a continuing storyline, however, details need to be meaty and satisfying in short order, which is something “The Nanny Diaries” does not offer.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/27/07. 

Superbad

Monday, August 20th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Superbad” marks another successful collaboration from the collective that orbits around Hollywood’s current comedy golden boy Judd Apatow. Co-written, co-starring and co-executive produced by Seth Rogen, who helped make a major hit out of Apatow’s recent “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” is targeted at a younger core audience sure to keep cash registers ringing throughout back-to-school season. The movie’s clever balancing of take-no-prisoners vulgarity and self-deprecating introspection marks it as a generous cut above most of its teen movie competition. In addition to the appealing lead performances of Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, “Superbad” marks the screen debut of scene-stealing Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a pitch perfect goofball who will have a devil of a time avoiding being typecast as an uber-geek.

Rogen penned the screenplay with pal Evan Goldberg, commencing work on an early draft when the two were newly minted teenagers. Cera and Hill play Evan and Seth, best pals facing the end of high school with the daunting prospect that they will not be attending the same college. To make matters worse, third wheel Fogell (Mintz-Plasse), who irritates Seth to no end, will be rooming with Evan at Dartmouth. A few weeks prior to graduation, the boys have an opportunity, at least in their own minds, to play smooth heroes when attractive classmate Jules (Emma Stone) enlists the fellows to purchase alcohol for a celebratory bash. The best-laid plans come apart at the seams, however, once Fogell reveals his ridiculous fake I.D., which depicts him as a twenty-five year old Hawaiian organ donor with the single moniker “McLovin.”

Like “American Pie,” “Superbad” revolves around a testosterone-fueled quest of high school seniors seeking to attain some degree of carnal knowledge prior to graduation. In fact, there are few landmark teen comedies “Superbad” doesn’t reference or acknowledge, and various elements and scenes echo titles as far ranging as “American Graffiti,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Weird Science” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Fans of those movies will likely find much to enjoy in “Superbad,” which incorporates a catalogue of recognizable situations encompassing teenage rites of passage. Director Greg Mottola handles the performers with finesse, particularly capitalizing on Hill and Cera’s comic timing.

Once the simple plot is set into motion, the movie cuts back and forth between a storyline involving Fogell/McLovin’s post-liquor store misadventures with a pair of outrageously incompetent police officers (played by Rogen and Bill Hader), and Seth and Evan’s long and winding road to secure booze for the evening’s big party. While the cops end up behaving along the lines of the Keystone, “Super Troopers,” and “Police Academy” variety, Seth and Evan find themselves in equally bizarre situations. The movie spends a little more time than it ought to getting to the party, and older viewers might grow impatient for the payoff sequence.

On the downside, “Superbad” plays it entirely safe as a “guy movie.” Despite its welcome testimonials to adolescent anxieties, the movie focuses solely on the male point of view, leaving its handful of bright and talented female performers without much to do beyond fuel the lust of Seth, Evan, and Fogell. That is too bad, since the girls in “Superbad” are played by smart, promising performers who prove every bit as interesting as Seth and Evan in their few scenes together. In the end, however, “Superbad” reveals the depth of love that Evan and Seth feel for one another, another example of the comically homoerotic “bromance” that elicits nervous recognition from scads of close young buddies in the audience.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/20/07. 

Hot Rod

Monday, August 13th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

It is easy to point out the numerous flaws in the moronic “Hot Rod,” a cheap stuntman comedy that was to have starred Will Ferrell in an earlier incarnation. The script breaks a sweat trying to ape vibes from “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Anchorman,” and “Zoolander.” Characters are sketched too thinly for much emotional investment on the part of the watcher. Repetition is embraced so firmly by the filmmakers you’ll swear that some of the movie’s endless training montages are used twice. Despite the drawbacks, however, “Hot Rod” is just the ticket for a lazy Sunday matinee, and it might find an audience with fans of absurdist, nonsensical comedy.

Like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Hot Rod” channels core elements from the childhood and coming-of-age eras of the principal creative team. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Andy Samberg, along with his Lonely Island partners Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, whip up a surreal simulacrum of the 1980s. Every other song on the soundtrack is vintage filler from Swedish hairspray giants Europe; shrewdly, the film omits their huge hit “The Final Countdown,” which would have seemed like overkill. The childhood motif extends to the nebulous ages of the core group of characters. They all appear to be in their late 20s but they live with parents and behave like pre-adolescents.

Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a largely clueless wastrel with pipe dreams of becoming a stuntman like Evel Knievel, whom he believes worked with his father. Kimble and his team of dim-witted pals, including Taccone, Bill Hader, and Danny McBride, can’t pull off a decent jump to save their lives, and it never seems to occur to them until the end that a moped is not going to have enough juice to clear a swimming pool. Much of the movie is given over to images of hilarious stunt mishaps. The endless parade of body punishing humiliation will remind some people of “Jackass,” but “Hot Rod” eschews virtually all vulgarity in favor of a goofy innocence.

Rod’s arrested development doesn’t appear to bother Isla Fisher’s Denise, a big-hearted sweetie who admires her childhood pal’s never-give-up attitude. Pam Brady’s screenplay was allegedly rewritten heavily by the Lonely Island team. None of the drafts apparently had much use for the Denise character, which is the movie’s greatest loss, since it utterly underutilizes the tremendously talented Fisher, who deserved much more than “adorable cheerleader” status. The same goes for Sissy Spacek and Ian McShane, who might have been wondrous in more fleshed-out roles.

Surprisingly, “Hot Rod” connects as often as it misses, with all sorts of off-the-wall gags that draw hearty laughs. In one scene, the phrase “cool beans” morphs into a stuttering rap performance piece that appears out of nowhere. Samberg delivers another gut-busting bit during a “punch dancing” training sequence in the woods that extends into one of cinema’s lengthiest tumbles down the side of a hill. “SNL” favorite Chris Parnell turns up as a wonderfully smarmy AM radio station owner who broadcasts Rod’s big jump. “Hot Rod” will not appear on too many top ten lists at the end of the year, but it is enjoyable all the same.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/13/07. 

The Bourne Ultimatum

Monday, August 6th, 2007

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

While it is not quite the instant classic many critics have touted, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is one of the season’s finest sequels by default. Relying on the well-oiled formula that made the first two Bourne outings so good, the latest installment, helmed by the excellent visual stylist Paul Greengrass (who also directed “The Bourne Supremacy”), fills in even more of the mysterious operative’s complex backstory. Robert Ludlum’s well-known creation appeals to many because the enticing premise invites close identification with the title character. Even as the world of highly trained super assassins remains wholly far fetched, we sympathize with Jason Bourne because he asks the question we ask ourselves: “Who am I?”

Greengrass manages to pose this query anew while forging jittery, adrenaline-fueled action sequences and intelligent political debate that masquerades as cat and mouse espionage. The spy thriller’s genre conventions are practically worn out, but the Bourne filmmakers hit the ground running and never look back. Similarly to his gripping “United 93,” Greengrass toggles between two locations as one major event simultaneously unfolds: Bourne on the move and the CIA command center attempting to trace Bourne’s path.

As the principal character, Matt Damon does the most comfortable acting of his career, inhabiting the relentless operative with a studied intensity and razor focus. Bourne’s superhuman abilities in hand to hand combat, his skill in languages, his aptitude for driving anything with a motor, and his preternatural gift for geography might liken him in some ways to James Bond, but the flavor of the Bourne series is substantially darker, which allows Damon to infuse the character with a combination of weary frustration and understated, cerebral contemplativeness.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” is not without its challenges. The shaky, handheld camerawork, designed by series director of photography Oliver Wood, will not be welcomed by every ticket buyer. A strong argument can be made, however, that the imagery tends to place the viewer directly in the middle of the action and lends an air of documentary-style verisimilitude and immediacy to the many scenes set in heavily peopled public spaces. This is evidenced in the sensational Waterloo Station sequence near the beginning of the movie as well as the harrowing rooftop chase through Tangier. Greengrass is especially adept at choosing visuals that convey to the audience a sense of spatial relationships between the pursued and the pursuers.

As a sequel, “The Bourne Ultimatum” attempts to provide both Bourne and the viewer with some enlightenment regarding the character’s amnesia and his origins. Although the answer is not particularly surprising, one specific element delivers a jolt. Greengrass stops short of nihilism, though, wrapping up the action with a coda suggesting that justice will be served to those most in need of it. Damon has indicated that he does not plan to return to the Bourne character, and if this is the case, he can be proud of completing a well-built trilogy, certainly a cinematic rarity. If Bourne does return, one hopes that the filmmaking team remains largely intact and as committed to visual storytelling as Doug Liman on the first and Paul Greengrass on the second and third installments.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/6/07.