Archive for October, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Monday, October 29th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Wes Anderson’s fifth feature, “The Darjeeling Limited,” can be as sweet and seductive as Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” one of the many beautiful pieces of music selected to play on the movie’s soundtrack. An homage to several memorable India-set films, most notably Jean Renoir’s “The River,” “The Darjeeling Limited” works as both colorful travelogue and as another of the director’s examinations of young men coping with the no man’s land between immaturity and wisdom. Anderson’s recognizable stylistic touches bloom across the frames from first scene to last, and the screenplay, co-written by the director with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, combines the touching and the absurd as effectively as any of Anderson’s earlier efforts.

Moving into wider release, “The Darjeeling Limited” is now prefaced by its official Part 1, the thirteen-minute short “Hotel Chevalier.” Previously available for viewing online, “Hotel Chevalier” proves critical to the success of the central attraction, establishing both important character information as well as a number of thematic motifs that reappear all the way to the end of “The Darjeeling Limited.” The short prologue, which introduces Whitman brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and his unnamed ex-lover (Natalie Portman), is set in boudoir 403 in the titular Parisian lodging. The coy and enigmatic pas de deux withholds as much as it reveals, but the details we do see are both arresting and consequential.

Once the feature begins, Schwartzman’s lovesick Jack joins brothers Francis (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Adrien Brody), roughly one year following the death of their father, in order to journey by train through India. Each member of the trio arrives with literal and metaphorical baggage; Louis Vuitton artistic director Marc Jacobs designed the exquisite caramel-colored luggage set, embossed with wildlife illustrations by Anderson’s brother and regular collaborator Eric. The Whitmans themselves are wounded either in body or in psyche. Francis has sustained trauma in a motorcycle crash and his head is elaborately bandaged. Peter struggles to cope with the life changes that will accompany the upcoming birth of his child. Jack, still in possession of the code to his former girlfriend’s answering machine, calls in presumably to both torture himself and satisfy his curiosity.

Like “The River,” “The Darjeeling Limited” presents India through Western eyes, embracing and perpetuating images of vivid exoticism, spiritual enlightenment, and aromatic perfumes and spices. It is a limited reading, and the movie offers only a small handful of Indians fully developed as characters, but Anderson, like Renoir, recognizes his position as the tourist, and gleefully makes sport of the Whitman brothers. As coarse Americans behaving tactlessly, they gulp cold medicine, pop pills, and smoke in their no-smoking compartment. Peter purchases a venomous cobra and Jack pursues an affair with the pretty attendant Rita (Amara Karan). The constant squabbling and petulance of the siblings irritates the Darjeeling Limited’s Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia), who always seems on the verge of kicking the fellows off the train.

Where exactly “The Darjeeling Limited” will fit within the Anderson oeuvre can only be guessed. One supposes it will depend in part on how many more films he makes. Anderson’s meticulous, and at times airless, focus on composition and mise en scene over everything else entrances some and infuriates others. “The Darjeeling Limited” might feel like self-indulgence or self-examination, depending on one’s disposition, but either way it demands attention and consideration, a feat few moviemakers manage to accomplish with a single feature let alone a quintet.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/29/07.

Michael Clayton

Monday, October 22nd, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Tony Gilroy, whose work on the screenplays for the “Bourne” trilogy have earned plenty of accolades, not only writes but directs the spartan legal thriller “Michael Clayton,” a star showcase for George Clooney. Aiming for the vibe of 1970s paranoia-themed movies, Gilroy’s first behind-the-camera effort comes up a bit short, feeling instead at times like a cross between “Erin Brockovich” and several of John Grisham’s sillier yarns. At its best, however, “Michael Clayton” proves a great deal smarter than “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief,” and the well-cast movie is bound to please audiences in search of grown-up fare.

Michael Clayton works for Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, a huge corporate firm in NYC. Despite being credentialed to practice law, Clayton has become the firm’s clandestine fixer, a shadowy problem-solver whose instincts and connections allow the company’s hot shot attorneys to keep raking in cash. As the title character, Clooney opts to give Clayton a haggard, world-weary quietness that belies the assertiveness and persuasiveness he wields when in a tight spot. Most of the movie is told in flashback, a device that hinders the story in the early sections, but pays off handsomely in the last act.

The vertiginous opening portion of the film drops the viewer into the middle of another night at the office for Clayton, as he is called to deal with a jittery client who has hit a jogger with his car. Gilroy quickly begins juggling several threads, and viewers accustomed to having everything explained in detail must pay attention in order to keep up with the story. The movie’s rhythm and pacing, however, which favors a laid back thoughtfulness rich in well-observed detail, stands in contrast to the frenetic, white knuckle approach of the “Bourne” series.

One of the movie’s most problematic shortcomings has to do with Clayton’s value and position within the firm. He repeatedly refers to himself as a “janitor,” cleaning up potentially embarrassing and costly messes for his bosses. Given his personal access to and familiarity with several of the power players at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, one wonders why he is not better compensated. Gilroy withholds specific information, choosing instead to suggest that Clayton himself has been a wild card, gambling away a fortune on high stakes card games and a failed restaurant he bankrolled for his substance-abusing brother. Clooney comes off as far too bright not to have leveraged his unique occupation, and a late scene that literally forces him to choose between cash and conscience feels too obvious.

Clooney is surrounded by terrific actors, and Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack are vivid and memorable. As a mentally-ill litigator whose non-medicated mind sympathizes with the plaintiffs in a case he is defending, Wilkinson gets to play the movie’s most theatrical character. The veteran actor avoids nearly all the pitfalls of “movie crazy,” and brings depth and humanity to his part. Gilroy also spends just enough time with Swinton to make her unscrupulous aspirant to power chilling yet believable. Pollack, who makes masculine, old-school power-brokering look easy, runs away with his scenes, delivering the movie’s most acerbic lines with the perfect hint of sarcastic authority.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/22/07.

Into the Wild

Monday, October 15th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sean Penn delivers the finest and most satisfying of his quartet of features with an adaptation of John Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” the tale of a privileged young man who perished while camping alone in Alaska in 1992. Penn also adapted the text of the bestseller, and his screenplay effectively translates the book into cinema, leaving out passages that might have led viewers to embrace a simple explanation for the fierce idealism that sealed the protagonist’s fate. Instead, the director conjures up a heady, and oftentimes mystical, reflection on core themes that have interested headstrong young people throughout the ages.

Christopher McCandless, who often exchanged his given name for the roadworthy moniker Alexander Supertramp, captured the attention of millions when the details of his fatal odyssey were chronicled by adventure writers like Krakauer, who turned his original article for “Outside” magazine into a tremendously popular book. Krakauer might have speculated and theorized beyond the limits of caution, and Penn certainly does the same, but the story of McCandless continues to engage initiates for myriad reasons. Surely, had McCandless not kept a journal detailing his final days, nor taken several rolls of film, there would not have been enough fuel to fire the imagination or flesh out a portrait.

Because the vagabond articulated his convictions, sometimes in the margins of the copies of “Walden,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Education of a Wandering Man” that were found with his remains, readers identified with McCandless. His admirers and detractors, not a few of whom hail from the forty-ninth state, continue to argue about him. Emile Hirsch, the actor who portrays McCandless, gives a performance that is rich in suggestion regarding McCandless’ personality and harrowing in its physical transformation. Hirsch’s is a performance that in its seriousness and conviction echoes some of the memorable work Penn has done in front of the camera.

Penn’s canniest choice in the movie version of “Into the Wild” is to flesh out the various characters McCandless met on the road. Krakauer did the original detective work, tracking down many of the people whose fleeting interactions with McCandless would later resonate when he was no more. As family and friends of McCandless, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, and Brian Dierker all invest themselves in their roles. It is Hal Holbrook, however, as an elderly widower who forges a special kinship with McCandless, who radiates the warmth that gives the movie its beating heart.

“Into the Wild” resists the temptation to beatify McCandless as a visionary who perished in pursuit of the great truth. The contradictory nature of his brief life is fully explored, and we are allowed time to contemplate the apparent foolhardiness of walking into the wilderness without having taken the necessary precautions against peril and harm. In “Into the Wild,” Krakauer argues that to criticize McCandless for failing to do his homework utterly misses the point, and that McCandless knew the great risk he was taking when he trekked beyond the marked path. Penn takes heed of this, and as a result, “Into the Wild” should be seen by everyone who seeks to understand the inexplicably intoxicating appeal of treacherous, high-risk adventure.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/15/07.

Feel the Noise

Monday, October 8th, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Despite whatever benefit studio marketers assumed they might reap for hyping “Feel the Noise” as material from “producer Jennifer Lopez,” the movie is a boring mess. An uninspired laundry list of common music movie clichés, “Feel the Noise” squanders its opportunities at every turn, managing to transform the infectious energy of the reggaeton genre it documents into a listless snoozer. Recording artist Omarion Grandberry demonstrates nothing so much as a grave need for more acting classes, alternating between angst and earnestness as Rob, a wannabe MC from Harlem who relocates to Puerto Rico after being shot at by local bangers with a grudge.

Grandberry is certainly not helped any by Albert Leon’s awful screenplay, which eagerly trots out every chestnut in the “we can make it if we try” canon. From the estranged father who harbored his own dreams of playing music (done much better in “Purple Rain”), to the step-by-step process of building a hit record from scratch (again, done much better in “Hustle & Flow”), “Feel the Noise” succumbs to predictability in scene after agonizing scene. One might feel the need to suppress a chuckle when Rob finds sonic inspiration in the chirp of a bird that provides his single “Coqui” with a hot hook. Despite the silliness, however, the song itself is not bad, even though it is played to death throughout the film.

Cinematographer Zoran Popovic makes the most of a small budget, striking suitably different tones for the glass and steel-dominated NYC and the sunny island life of Puerto Rico. Better than any of the storylines, the location photography offers a fleeting diversion from the tedium of the characters’ soapy dramas. Steamy club sequences, in short supply for a movie supposedly about an irresistible genre of danceable music, are nicely captured, but the movie’s PG-13 rating keeps the heat from the sexy dances in check.

Alejandro Chomski’s direction occasionally makes hash out of what should be easy work in such a connect-the-dots plot. Characters are introduced and then forgotten, and some scenes are so short and underdeveloped that we hear only fleeting snippets of dialogue before moving on to the next diversion. Half the movie plays like an extended preview of coming attractions. The idea that Rob might be able to relate to love interest C.C. (Zulay Henao) with anything approaching rational thought cannot compete with the genre’s requirement that the lovers must quarrel before reuniting. Equally annoying is the depiction of Rob’s frustration with Jeffrey Skylar (James McCaffrey, totally somnambulant) the sleazy, opportunistic record producer who has sexual designs on C.C.

Most regrettably, the always excellent Giancarlo Esposito, playing Rob’s quiet dad, is criminally ignored. The only cast member with sterling acting chops, Esposito mostly pops up whenever the story demands a father-son conflict scene. In the hands of a stronger director, Esposito might have been allowed to provide some much-needed depth of characterization. Instead, “Feel the Noise” skips relationships altogether, opting for a phony, feel-good resolution staged at New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, complete with an unnecessary cameo by J. Lo herself.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/8/07.


Monday, October 1st, 2007


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In Steve Buscemi’s remake of Theo van Gogh’s 2003 “Interview,” the writer-director-star shares the screen with tabloid fixture Sienna Miller, who plays a bratty, spoiled starlet most audience members will assume is rather close to the truth. Of course, the gamesmanship on display between the two principal characters argues that there is no such thing as reality, and Buscemi’s nimble direction makes the most out of what is essentially a single location story. Van Gogh was planning an English language version of his loosely improvisational “Interview” at the time of his politically motivated murder, and Buscemi’s film operates as a tribute to the slain provocateur. Fans of theatrical, two-character drama will enjoy watching the intriguing exchanges that comprise the movie’s action, but those expecting cinematic fireworks must resign themselves to the fact that there are only so many ways one can frame a NYC loft.

Buscemi plays Pierre Peders, a bitter political journalist nursing a serious grudge against the editor who assigned him to a toothless puff piece on rising hottie Katya (Miller), a self-obsessed up-and-comer used to being the center of attention. Kept waiting at a restaurant for more than an hour, Pierre lets Katya know that she means nothing to him, and his admonishment triggers her most base narcissistic impulses. The interview seems to be over before it begins, but Pierre is injured in a minor fender bender caused in part by Katya, who insists he accompany her back to her apartment so she can attend to his wound.

Once Pierre and Katya settle in to her spacious pad, they begin a devilish dance that finds them swerving back and forth between weird attraction and total contempt for one another. The writing darts through all sorts of psychological minefields, alighting periodically on father/daughter baggage carried by both parties, as well as the easy codependence shared by longtime substance abusers. Alcohol, cocaine, and a variety of pills fuel the snaky conversation and loosen the tongues of the already uninhibited combatants.

The movie’s handheld photography, which is rendered in the muted tones provided by digital video, replicates the style preferred by van Gogh. As the performers circle each other, so do the cameras, instilling a sense of woozy, uneasy intimacy. Miller and Buscemi seem to relish the opportunity to sink their teeth into roles that allow for such violent mood swings, and the fact that their characters spin all sorts of lies for a living sustains interest throughout the essentially real-time unfolding of the story.

At one point in the movie, Katya and Pierre agree to reveal dark secrets to each other. By this time, the number of individual accusations, tantrums, crying jags, and quasi-seductions has reached a fever pitch, and viewers won’t know who to believe anymore. “Interview” doesn’t say anything new about the parasitic relationship between celebrities and members of the press, or for that matter the consumers who clamor for personal information about the rich and famous, but Buscemi and Miller are consistently compelling to observe. At the end, the battle of wits and wills between Katya and Pierre is revealed to have a clear victor, but one leaves the theater thinking that both of these unsavory vampires are more loser than winner.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/1/07.