Archive for November, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Monday, November 26th, 2007

nocountry

Movie review by Greg Carlson

An early holiday gift, “No Country for Old Men” is cinematic catnip for admirers of Cormac McCarthy, the Coen Brothers, or both. Tremendously faithful to its source material, the movie is a case study in novel-to-film translation, honoring most of the letter and all of the spirit of McCarthy’s grim tale. Joel and Ethan Coen, sharing screenplay and directing credits, operate comfortably within their element, combining bursts of grisly violence with moments of thoughtful reflection. The Coens also lace the story with their signature humor, served as black as midnight.

Essentially a lengthy cat and mouse pursuit, “No Country for Old Men” follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, never better), a southwest Texas hunter who stumbles upon the aftermath of a bloody drug deal and makes off with a briefcase stuffed with cash. Moss is smart enough to know he’ll be tracked by the good guys and the bad guys, and much pleasure is derived from watching him struggle to stay an eyelash ahead of the predators who aim to recover their prize. Leading the malevolent forces is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the sort of person one might cross the street to avoid.

Representing something akin to the Angel of Death, Chigurh is the stuff of nightmares. A relentless psychopath who sports a weird Prince Valiant coiffure, Chigurh is willing to dispatch anyone who crosses his path, a task he often performs with a captive bolt cattle stun gun. Occasionally allowing his victims the opportunity to save their lives with the toss of a coin, Chigurh operates with an ice-cold personal logic that leaves no room for second-guessing or remorse. Bardem plays his part with zest, discovering all kinds of opportunities to bring depth and humor to a figure of seriously damaged psychological complexity.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, embodied by Tommy Lee Jones as if he was born for the role, senses the depth of Moss’ predicament and aims to deliver him from harm’s way. An old-fashioned lawman concerned by what he sees as the erosion of values and traditions, Bell also instinctively knows he is up against something unusual and formidable, and tries to act accordingly. Chigurh and Bell, who travel along parallel paths that initially seem destined to intersect, make an ideal match, and the Coen Brothers effortlessly balance their importance to the narrative.

Typical of work by the Coens, the supporting actors are uniformly well chosen, and many bit players register memorably. “No Country for Old Men” also boasts top-notch technical credits, including gorgeous cinematography from ace collaborator Roger Deakins and smashing sound and production design. Some viewers may be surprised by just how much of the story is told without dialogue, a technique that pays off again and again, especially in blisteringly suspenseful sequences that recall the best of Alfred Hitchcock. Longtime Coen devotees will surely call to mind “Blood Simple,” another chilling yarn hell bent on gazing coolly at the stupid decisions people make, and how they have to live or die with them.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/26/07.

Beowulf

Monday, November 19th, 2007

beowulf

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Since the vast majority of its audience will not have read the original, only indignant professor-types, Old English scholars, and epic poetry nerds are likely to take issue with any of the changes brought to the latest interpretation of “Beowulf.” Clearly designed as a Hollywood money-making machine engineered to separate teenage boys from their allowances, Robert Zemeckis’ latest exercise in state-of-the-art motion capture technology reveals a mixed bag of filmmaking suspended somewhere between animation and live-action. On that score, “300,” which is being regularly compared to “Beowulf,” proves the victor, as the weird mannequins of the latter lack life in their glassy, CG eyes.

Zemeckis might be more enamored of the revolutionary filmmaking process than other directors of his rank, or maybe he just smells the money. Either way, the human characters look like they belong in a videogame rather than on the silver screen, a deficit that merely ratchets up the tedium when the movie hits any number of dull patches. Because the digital versions are modeled to mostly look like their human counterparts, audiences cannot help but be put in mind of the flesh and blood actors. While Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie are the most familiar, other renderings produce only off-putting approximations. Both Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman are stuck with doppelgangers whose eyes are spaced too close together.

Co-writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary labor to make their version of the title persona three-dimensional, and the character flaws they concoct, likely to bridge the half-century time gap between the story’s second and third sections, stretch Beowulf into a deeply flawed braggart whose tendency toward self-mythology strokes his ego beyond the edge of self-delusion. Surprisingly, this seems a solid choice, since it brings a shred of intrigue to the otherwise empty adventure. Beowulf wears hubris well, and the movie could have used even more of Gaiman and Avery’s experimentation.

Who would have imagined that Grendel’s mother looks like Angelina Jolie covered in gold paint? A long way from the monstrous hell bride, hag, or ugly troll lady depicted in different versions of the story, Jolie’s powerful seductress invokes the readings that focus on the awe-inspiring fearsomeness of a truly formidable opponent. Giant-size liberties are taken in the rendering of Beowulf’s showdown with Grendel’s mother, and viewers looking for a knock-down battle will instead be surprised to see a sexually-charged engagement ending with conception in the place of decapitation.

The wild, airborne clash between Beowulf and a fire-breathing dragon that constitutes the movie’s final set-piece makes good use of the attractively configured landscape. Finally delivering on some of Beowulf’s promised derring-do, the sequence compensates for the ridiculousness of the all-nude dustup between the hero and his hideously deformed foe Grendel. In the earlier scene, Zemeckis strategically places objects in front of B.’s genitals in what feels like a twisted homage to a similar device in the Austin Powers movies. Ultimately, no amount of humor, whether intentional or not, can rescue this variant from its wearisome shallowness, and neither can the allure of a digital Jolie au naturel.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/19/07.

Lars and the Real Girl

Monday, November 12th, 2007

lars

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Craig Gillepsie’s “Lars and the Real Girl” is more simple-minded than simple, a transparent family psychodrama without any original ideas beyond its outrageous premise. Awkward, guilt-ridden bachelor Lars (Ryan Gosling in twitching, grimacing nerd mode) stuns his brother, pregnant sister-in-law, and assorted townsfolk when he introduces them to his girlfriend Bianca, who turns out to be a sex mannequin. A far cry from cheap, inflatable plastic, Bianca is a “Real Doll,” a high-tech, anatomically correct silicone masterpiece with an internal skeleton and steel joints.

Voyeuristic viewers expecting something lurid or titillating will be completely disappointed, though, since Lars insists that Bianca is a Brazilian-Danish missionary with good old-fashioned values. She sleeps in the house while he steadfastly remains in his apartment in the garage. Despite some initial protest, Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider) joins his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) as world-class enablers. Because “Lars and the Real Girl” operates in a Lake Wobegone-like fantasyland, viewers are invited to chuckle at the eccentric, countrified rustics. It is a fatal design flaw, since the movie only rarely allows any of its inhabitants the opportunity to pose challenging questions related to the arrival of a gape-mouthed simulacrum.

Spun from Nancy Oliver’s script, “Lars and the Real Girl” is a far cry from “Harvey,” which it apes in spirit. Unlike the Jimmy Stewart classic, the people who encounter Bianca treat her as a human being and bend over backward with polite hospitality. The North-dwelling Scandinavians, played as broadly as any other regional movie stereotype, take a shine to the puppet, fussing over her hairstyle and electing her to the school board. Doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) wisely predicts that this will help Lars deal with his mental instability. She doesn’t comment, however, on the lack of psychiatric acuity demonstrated by the citizens who enthusiastically adopt Bianca into the community.

If the movie has a single redeeming quality, it can be found in the gentleness of Oliver’s scenario. The obvious option would have had angry locals taking up pitchforks to harass the moony Lars. With the sole objection of one stuffy curmudgeon, the movie dispenses entirely with cynicism and skepticism regarding Lars’ colorful choice of partner. Sidestepping conflict turns out to be a double-edged sword, however, since the movie crawls along without much of consequence ever taking place. The outcome can be seen from miles off, and by the time it arrives, Lars and the rest of the wacky populace have worn out their welcome.

Far too cute for its own good, “Lars and the Real Girl” plants shy, awkward Margo (Kelli Garner) in Lars’ path with heavy-handed obviousness. Fussing and weeping over the teddy bear a co-worker has ritualistically hanged by the neck until dead, space cadet Margo is Lars’ loopy perfect match. These two belong together like peanut butter and jelly, but some viewers will certainly prefer the stoicism and stateliness of Bianca, who recalls the well-known maxim, in variations attributable to Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln or Silvan Engel or Proverbs 17:28, suggesting it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/12/07.

For the Bible Tells Me So: Q & A with Randi Reitan

Monday, November 5th, 2007

forthebiblereitan

Interview by Greg Carlson

The regional premiere of “For the Bible Tells Me So” at the Fargo Theatre will take place on Friday, November 9 at 7 PM and will be followed by a discussion facilitated by Dr. Roy Hammerling, Concordia College Department of Religion. Additional panelists will include critic Tony McRae, Sandra Holbrook from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, and special guests Randi and Phil Reitan, who are featured in the movie.

HPR Associate Film Editor Greg Carlson asked Randi Reitan to talk about some of her experiences with “For the Bible Tells Me So.”

HPR: Randi, what kinds of activism are you and Phil doing currently?

Randi Reitan: Phil and I make a point to speak out whenever we see a situation regarding the gay community. I write many letters every week to pastors and others who are in position to be leaders for equality. I also write letters and commentaries to the editor when I see articles or statements that are anti-gay. We are still a part of Soulforce and just recently stood with them in an action in St. Paul called Seven Straight Nights. We are also doing all we can to get the word out about this film. We have witnessed the profound affect the film has on people. It is a powerful film that will help move this country to embrace the gay community and see the day of equality dawn. We have been in New York and Atlanta for their openings and plan to be in Fargo, Columbus, and Chicago to take part in discussions following the screening of the film.

HPR: You said in the movie that the Lutheran Church had an opportunity to take a stand and “blew it.” Are you involved with the church?

Randi Reitan: That clip was from a news piece that aired in 2001. We worked hard for four years within the Lutheran church to see the ban that is in place against the gay community lifted. We invited all the pastors in our Synod to our home to view a video by an ELCA Bishop about their family understanding and affirming their gay son. We helped a group in our church do a monthly “lunch and learn” event which brought gay people who spoke about their lives and their faith as well as well known theologians who discussed the Bible passages relating to homosexuality. Phil and I visited many pastors and even went to Chicago to speak to the Presiding Bishop in person. When no real concrete change happened after four years we needed to leave the Lutheran church.

HPR: Do you think the Lutheran Church will change the way it views homosexuality?

Randi Reitan: I do think the Lutheran church will change. I feel people are more open now than when we first started working for gay rights. My own faith has been strength on this journey. Jesus came to reach out to those who were considered the outcasts. He came to teach us to widen God’s kingdom, to open the doors so all may enter. In our work with Soulforce, we are pushing open the doors and we are standing arm and arm with the dearest children of a loving and caring God. I will also give you a quote of Jake’s to answer the question on whether the church will change. He says, “I believe every day is better than the last. Truth is infectious, and as long as good people of good will are working to speak the truth, it will spread. And it is spreading.”

HPR: What is Jake doing now?

Randi Reitan: Jake is in his second year at Harvard Divinity School working on a master’s degree in theological studies. He continues his work for gay rights in many areas. Jake was the founder of the Equality Ride that took students across the country visiting colleges with anti-gay policies. It was an amazing two-month journey with a bus of young gay Christian activists.

HPR: One of the most compelling scenes in the film details your arrest. Were you scared?

Randi Reitan: I will never forget that day. It was very moving for me to take a stand at Focus on the Family. Dr. Dobson’s anti-gay rhetoric has hurt many people over the years. I wouldn’t say I was scared but it is always very emotional to take a stand that could result in an arrest. But you must understand, it is an arrest for doing civil disobedience. It is a good arrest. It brought to light the terrible untruths that Dr. Dobson has been teaching through the Focus on the Family programs.

HPR: What happened once you were taken into custody by the police? Did Focus on the Family press charges?

Randi Reitan: When arrested for civil disobedience, you are typically taken into custody and booked. There are times when we and others with Soulforce have been held behind bars, but in this case, we were taken in, processed and released. Our case was handled by a local attorney. We paid the fine ordered.

HPR: Have you kept in touch with any of the other people profiled in the movie?

Randi Reitain: We know Rev. Dr. Mel White, Rev. Jimmy Creech and Mary Lou Wallner well because we are all a part of Soulforce. We have gotten to know Dan Karslake, the director, very well and stay in contact with him. We have also had the chance to get to know Bishop Robinson and his partner, Mark. All of these people were with us at Sundance and we all attended the premiere of the film in New York. They are wonderful people!

HPR: What is the most important thing that has happened to you since the movie came out?

Randi Reitan: We attended the Sundance Film Festival and a number of openings across the country. At these events we meet the dearest people who share their own stories with us. They are amazing stories of courage and patience and love. Once America hears these stories, it will realize how much the gay community has had to endure and how wrong the discrimination has been.

This interview was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/5/07.

For the Bible Tells Me So

Monday, November 5th, 2007

forthebible

Movie review by Greg Carlson

An unabashedly strong-willed documentary with powerful convictions, “For the Bible Tells Me So” is far more likely to reinforce the beliefs of the audience members who will seek it out than it is to alter the viewpoint of the anti-gay people of faith to whom it is directed. Compact, sprightly, and well edited, “For the Bible Tells Me So” uses essentially the same technique as Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s popular PBS documentary “The War”: intimate, personal portraits of a handful of families mixed with remarkably arresting archival imagery. Instead of World War II, however, the battle at hand in “For the Bible Tells Me So” pits religious conservatives against homosexuals.

Director Daniel Karslake, a veteran of the PBS newsmagazine “In the Life,” begins the movie with 1977 footage of Anita Bryant taking a pie to the face, setting an immediate agenda that symbolically reconstructs banana-cream assaults on a range of targets, many of them slow-moving and all too easy. From Jimmy Swaggart’s peculiar, rapid-fire enunciation of “abomination” to Focus on the Family and James Dobson’s incredible capitalist machinery, homophobia is shown to have been very good to the far right, financially speaking.

The families profiled in the film include the Reitans of Minnesota, who supported son Jake unconditionally when he came out to them, and the Gephardts of Missouri, who treated daughter Chrissy the same way. Chrissy’s dad, the perennial candidate for the presidency of the United States, is joined by several other well-known figures, including Desmond Tutu, who speaks as eloquently and compassionately as one would expect. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay clergyman to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church, and his parents share their stories. Brenda and David Poteat have a more difficult time dealing with the lesbianism of their daughter Tonia. The most devastating story belongs to Mary Lou Wallner, who lost her daughter Anna to suicide.

One of the most intriguing dimensions of the movie, and likely to be the most controversial, revolves around biblical interpretation of the chapters and verses purportedly indicating the immorality of homosexuality. Karslake’s choice of speakers on the matter, including two Harvard theologians, does not include enough dissenting opinion to give the impression of a true debate, but the message of love and tolerance remains both thoughtful and moving. Less effective is a humorous animation designed to resemble a vintage educational film. Despite its ability to draw laughs, it often takes the same preachy, scolding, superior tone of the haters it skewers.

Karslake’s condemnation of organized religion on the matter of homosexuality raises the question of whether mainstream denominations will be able to change. The consecration ceremony of Robinson, during which he famously wore a bullet-proof vest after receiving multiple death threats, provides one example that negative attitudes can give way to acceptance. Given its hateful rhetorical power in modern language usage, it is certainly not an easy task to convince skeptics that the concept of abomination simply means “against custom” as opposed to the connotation that it refers to the vile, shameful, and detestable. “For the Bible Tells Me So” alludes to other abominations cited in the Bible, including the eating of shrimp, which reinforces the idea that interpretability is a necessary condition in the process of understanding Christian Scripture.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/5/07.