Archive for September, 2007

Eastern Promises

Monday, September 24th, 2007

2007easternpromises

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Arguably more brilliant than “A History of Violence,” David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” proves one of the year’s most compelling, engaging, and sharpest films. The movie’s Christmastime setting in contemporary London conjures a thoroughly fascinating otherworld of Russian transplants who count themselves members of the “vory v zakone,” a crime organization that translates to “thieves in law.” After a young prostitute dies giving birth, the diary she leaves behind compels hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) to seek out information that might lead to the infant’s family. Instead, the miserable document delivers her into a den of wolves.

Cronenberg continues his late tradition of closely examining murderous impulses within a familial setting, and the result verges on the spectacular. The Russian gangsters, led by calm but menacing Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) are as perfectly drawn as any of Scorsese’s dynastic concoctions, and the jealousies, power plays, and intimacies that link Semyon’s weak, sadistic, and out-of-control son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) with his confidante Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, in a career-best performance) are utterly Shakespearian. As the movie alternates between Anna’s precarious foray into the mobster’s universe and Nikolai’s emerging depth, Cronenberg reveals layer after layer of thought-provoking insight into their respective worlds.

Some viewers will cover their eyes during Cronenberg’s signature episodes of lightning-bolt violence. Once again equaling or bettering Scorsese, the director settles his camera on several tremendously unsavory, nearly hideous, moments of intimate mayhem. As gunshots to the head were to “The Departed,” razors to the throat are to “Eastern Promises.” A slippery, steamy hand-to-hand combat sequence in a Turkish bath draws gasps from the audience, and Cronenberg documents a variety of gangland traditions with the clinical gaze of a coroner. Like many of his other films, the violence operates in service to the story, and not the other way around.

As the taciturn Nikolai, Mortensen completely runs away with the movie. In one of the film’s many standout scenes, Nikolai, stripped to his underwear, stands tall before the council of bosses who will decide whether or not to fully embrace him as one of their own. They read aloud the story told by his prison tattoos, and ask him to renounce his father. Nikolai explains that he has been dead since the age of fifteen, and in a line that sends a crawling chill, says “Now I live in the zone all the time.” Mortensen himself is in the zone as well, playing Nikolai as if he is someone the actor has known his whole life.

Working from an original screenplay by Steven Knight, Cronenberg strikes an almost perfect balance between the emotional drama of the central characters and the intricate machinery of the Russian mafia. With a master’s sense of timing and pacing, Cronenberg finds all sorts of beautiful ways to express thoughts about the cycle of life and death, the toll of being a stranger in a strange land, and the secrets that can simultaneously enable and restrict us. “Eastern Promises” is a movie that inspires thought long after one leaves the darkness of the theater, and should not be missed.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/24/07.

The Ten

Monday, September 17th, 2007

2007theten

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Despite inviting comparisons from critics partial to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog,” the strange anthology movie “The Ten” offers enough outrageous gags and sly wit to qualify as one of the year’s most audacious comedies. Created by members of comedy troupe the State, “The Ten” presents a series of shorts riffing on the biblical rulebook inscribed on those famous tablets toted by Moses. Thankfully, Charlton Heston is nowhere in sight, leaving a seasoned cast of contemporary comic firebrands to throw all sorts of ideas at the wall to see which might stick. Like so many movies comprised of segmented vignettes, not everything in “The Ten” works. Viewers partial to vulgar, smart, off-the-wall jokes will split over which sections work the best, and the movie is sure to be more successful on DVD, which allows for skipping over the dead weight.

“The Ten” gets off to a rocky start by introducing a narrator played by the typically sublime Paul Rudd, whose job it is to provide context and set-up for each of the shorts. Co-screenwriters Ken Marino (who appears in the movie as a surgeon with a criminally poor sense of humor) and David Wain (who also directs) fail to ground Rudd’s character until rather late in the proceedings, which makes the first several times we see him land with a series of thuds. The first segment, in which a stupid skydiver (Adam Brody) suffers an accident that turns him into a national celebrity, struggles to capitalize on its central conceit. Thematically, movies like “Network” and “Being There” have done it better.

Several of the next segments improve on the movie’s chief gimmick. Librarian Gretchen Mol travels to Mexico, where her mind is blown by a passionate handyman named Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux). A bouncy animated segment concerning the consequences of a truth-stretching rhino initially seems out of place, but ends up keeping with the odd spirit of the movie. In what is arguably the film’s most biting story, a prison inmate played by Rob Corddry finds himself deeply attracted to the “wife” of another felon.

Several of the stories are a bit tired, even if they manage to elicit some laughs. A mother played by Kerri Kenney-Silver hires a marginal Arnold Schwarzenneger impersonator (Oliver Platt) to play father to her grown sons. Winona Ryder is both believable and clearly enjoying herself as a woman who develops a major attraction to a ventriloquist’s dummy. In a bit that would have played better as a brief TV sketch, two neighbors attempt to best each other in a battle to acquire expensive medical equipment.

It is difficult to speculate whether the movie would have been improved had it jettisoned the story introduction device, which gets old rather fast. When Rudd’s character finally appears outside of the nearly empty stage from which he has delivered the bridging material, his scene with Famke Janssen hints at a better use for his screen time. It is unlikely that the content of “The Ten” will place it in the company of the creators’ “Wet Hot American Summer,” but it does exude the feeling that multiple viewings will isolate and pinpoint some tremendous laughs.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/17/07.

Crazy Love

Monday, September 10th, 2007

2007crazylove

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Directed by Dan Klores with Fisher Stevens, “Crazy Love” spins the almost unbelievable tale of Burt Pugach, a devilish con-man, and Linda Riss, the woman Pugach stalked and later married. Presented with the same sensational tone as the screaming late-1950s New York Mirror headlines it incorporates, “Crazy Love” parades its true-crime content as if it were dealing with a kooky romance instead of a sadistic and brutal nightmare. As documentary features go, the movie leaves out far too much to be considered truly gripping, and its unwillingness to dive beneath the surface frustrates mores than illuminates.

In the movie’s first third, which is also the strongest, a wealth of stock footage, vintage photographs and home movies, and other archival imagery is blended together to reproduce mid-20th century NYC. Ambulance-chasing negligence attorney Pugach lives the sweet life, using the income from his shady legal practice to finance powder blue Cadillac convertibles, a private plane, and even a nightclub. Despite the fact that he is married and has a severely disabled baby daughter, Pugach plays the field like a world-class lothario, initiating affairs with a parade of attractive young women. When the playboy lawyer spies movie star-gorgeous Riss, he pursues her with an intensity that should have merited a restraining order.

Despite being impressed by Pugach’s wealth and connections to celebrity, Riss insists that all bets are off until the older man finalizes a divorce. Pugach, who fibs as easily as Baron Munchhausen, draws up phony papers to appease Riss, but she exposes the ruse and breaks it off. For reasons that the movie never adequately explores, the jilted boyfriend reacts by hiring some hoods to throw lye in Riss’ face, partially blinding and disfiguring her. The melodrama is so thick to this point, that a more skillful moviemaker would have had enough material for a miniseries. Instead, Klores and Stevens are content to glide along, connecting the dots that lead to the even more outrageous revelation that Riss married Pugach following his release from prison for the crime he committed against her.

Both Pugach and Riss appear in muddy-looking talking head interviews, but neither one allows the viewer to see any deeper than the glossy surface of Riss’ dark cat glasses. Clips of the pair with Mike Douglas, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Joe Franklin merely reinforce the notion that the unlikely duo understands how to work with, and just plain work, the media. The moviemakers are complicit in the spin game, trading the opportunity for some claws-out discussion of Pugach’s horrific actions for total access to the subjects.

“Crazy Love” raises so many more questions than it dares to answer. By the end, when Burt and Linda are shown as a playfully bickering and bantering elderly couple, one has long given up on the possibility that the movie will reveal much about the psychology of their relationship. Letting the subjects off the hook is too easy, and the movie leaves much about gender roles and expectations unsaid. Playing the dark material for laughs, Pugach’s grotesque sense of sexual entitlement elicits nothing so much as incredulity at the notion that a victim would choose to be with the abusive gargoyle who took away her sight.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/10/07. 

Halloween

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

2007halloween

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Remaking, or as the studio would have it, “re-imagining,” a contemporary classic horror movie might win a generation of new fans, but for those old enough to remember John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s superior version of “Halloween,” Rob Zombie’s take doesn’t quite measure up. There is no question that the rocker-turned-auteur has a genuine affection, even reverence, for the most derided film genre, but like his earlier movies, “Halloween” loses focus during its too-long final third. Additionally, this contemporary re-working of the horror staple routinely tumbles into the “more is more” camp, with an unnecessary backstory and explanations that take all the mystery and fun out of the legend.

Like the recent remake of “Black Christmas,” Zombie’s version of “Halloween” aims to leave no exposition unexplored. Excruciatingly detailing the family history and origin of unstoppable bogeyman Michael Myers, played this time as a child by Daeg Faerch and as an adult by Tyler Mane, the new “Halloween” spends too much time checking off a list of the requisite serial killer tropes in young Michael’s life, from harming animals to sexual dysfunction to relentless suffering at the hands of bullies. The Halloween evening massacre is presented with plenty of bloody detail, which will please the gore hounds at the same time it disappoints those who favor suspense over shock.

Zombie shows more restraint than he did in “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” but that is not saying much. As a director, he appears to relish the extended climax, and “Halloween” suffers from a flabby, predictable endgame that might have been excised altogether. Most unfortunate is the director’s inability to infuse the script with vivid characters. Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), indistinguishable from either of the other two female characters who are supposed to be her close friends, is flatly written. Taylor-Compton proves that she has powerful enough lungs to pass the scream test, but the movie sorely lacks the spark provided by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles, and Nancy Loomis.

Malcolm McDowell, replacing Donald Pleasance in the Dr. Sam Loomis role, struggles mightily to make his execrable dialogue sound halfway intelligent. Zombie had a genuine opportunity to deepen the themes that made Loomis a figure of light to Michael’s shadow, but McDowell is mostly wasted, fulfilling the routine slasher flick slot of the modern day Cassandra, warning the non-believers that terrible things are afoot. Zombie does make certain, however, that Loomis is shown to sympathize with the hulking murderer, a good choice rarely explored in horror since the days of Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster.

It is the director’s sympathy with Michael that operates as the movie’s paradoxical strength and its Achilles’ heel. Zombie’s strenuous efforts to humanize and account for Michael’s inexcusable behavior don’t mix with the shocking body count tallied by the masked creep. Late in the movie, there is an interesting moment when Michael is shown to reach out to another character in an emotional acknowledgment of his past. Predictably, the connection isn’t made, and he quickly resumes his relentless, machine-like killing. Had Rob Zombie wanted to really expand the character, that scene should have had a different outcome.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/3/07.