Archive for December, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War

Monday, December 24th, 2007

charliewilson

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A nimble blend of politics, sex, and modern history, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is ten times more fun than a cinematic civics lesson ought to be. With Mike Nichols behind the camera and Aaron Sorkin at the typewriter, the movie’s liberal disposition will surprise nobody, but the film contains a tacit approval of hawkishness that lends the enterprise a sobering subtext. Conservatives will seethe at the suggestion that clandestine, Reagan-era armament of Afghan Mujahideen set the table for the Taliban and the rise of terrorism perpetrated by Islamic extremists, but the filmmakers are not afraid to connect the dots provided by George Crile’s 2003 book “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History.”

With its trio of Academy Award winning performers in starring roles, “Charlie Wilson’s War” might have easily been a bloated prestige picture designed to reel in trophies even as it put audiences to sleep. Fortunately, Nichols and Sorkin streamline the source material into an aerodynamic bullet train, and the movie’s 97-minute running time turns out to be one of the film’s biggest assets. Nichols also understands better than nearly any director that a spoonful of comedy helps the political exposition go down, and makes certain to skirt didacticism whenever satire and farce will do.

Stepping into the shoes of the Texas Congressman known as “Good Time Charlie,” Tom Hanks works his self-deprecating charm into overdrive, emphasizing Wilson’s predilections for whiskey and women without losing sight of the man’s keen interest in world affairs. Wilson’s very friendly relationship with Houston socialite Joanne Herring (embodied seductively by Julia Roberts), involves him in the anti-Soviet cause, and in a blink, he’s helped appropriate substantial piles of cash to provide anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles to fighters in Afghanistan. Aiding and abetting Wilson is surly C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose rapid comebacks and quicksilver wit perfectly complement his intense expertise and unwillingness to suffer fools.

Sorkin has honed his ability to balance bleak, darkly comic cynicism with I-told-you-so piety, and his screenplay demonstrates the best example yet. The dialogue is so crisp and sharp, it makes you wish people were able to speak with such consistent bite in the real world. Sorkin has a knack for both illuminating and simplifying the messed-up ironies inherent in the U.S. political machine, and once the dust begins to settle, the audience shares Wilson’s indignation at the refusal of his colleagues to spend a measly million dollars to finance schools in Afghanistan after the tide has turned against the Soviet Union.

Of course, the idea that Wilson was able to get everything done with a wink and a drink plants “Charlie Wilson’s War” firmly in the tradition of Frank Capra’s Capitol Hill fantasies. This breezy approach enhances rather than diminishes the movie’s sparkle, except in the few instances when the filmmakers opt for seriousness. Scenes in which villages are strafed by U.S.S.R. attack helicopters feel out of place, especially when Nichols takes us into the cockpits for some subtitled gallows humor. Minor complaints like this, however, can scarcely stand in the way of the movie’s grand old time.

This review was originally published for Southpawfilmworks the week of 12/24/07.

I Am Legend

Monday, December 17th, 2007

iamlegend2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Richard Matheson’s 1954 cult novel “I Am Legend” makes another big screen appearance this week, and like its cinematic predecessors, it fails to capture the essence of the original story. Trading vampires for poorly designed, super-powered zombie creatures that look like they are on loan from a videogame is only one of the mistakes. The movie’s biggest crime is a flagrant refusal to believe in Matheson’s sobering apocalypse and see it through to the end. With films like “Children of Men” and “28 Days Later” already demonstrating dazzling retro-futuristic design in the tradition of “Blade Runner,” the bar has been set too high for “I Am Legend” to clear.

Following a sensational first section that vividly renders Manhattan as a weed-infested wasteland, director Francis Lawrence totally chokes, piling on the carnival ride shocks without the smallest hint of finesse. Old-fashioned suspense would have better served the material, but Lawrence seems incapable of believing in the intelligence of the viewer. As a result, the monsters are never scary, and the movie’s reliance on sub par CG imagery makes the whole enterprise feel half finished. “I Am Legend” is good until the night seekers turn up. The early, off-screen suggestion of their power, evidenced in the way Neville nervously checks his watch as daylight slips away, is more ominous than phony villains hewn mostly out of pixels.

At least Will Smith is a terrific choice to play Robert Neville, transformed from the “Average Joe” protagonist of the novel into a super-fit military scientist whose immunity to a plague of biblical proportions has made him a likely candidate for last man on earth. Whether he is working alone, interacting with a German Shepherd, or playing opposite others, Smith makes the most implausible of scenarios feel credible. His typical grit and determination suit Neville, whose mental struggle with the psychological implications of his predicament adds a thoughtfulness often missing from action heroes. Smith’s presence will undoubtedly secure substantial box office returns.

Despite being the first film version of the story to use Matheson’s super cool title, “I Am Legend” essentially ignores the meaning, opting instead for a diluted conclusion that deletes the book’s most essential plot element. Neville’s neighbor Ben Cortman (one of the novel’s cleverest touches and most interesting characters) is replaced by the boring Alpha Male (Dash Mihok), a ghoulish cue ball left with nothing to do other than writhe, shriek, and leap around unconvincingly. Practically all of the novel’s other surprises are excised in favor of less satisfying battles between Neville and the horde.

Two scenes that do not appear in Matheson’s story stand as embarrassing examples of damage that can be done by misguided additions. In one, Neville conveys the strain on his sanity by imitating the voices in “Shrek.” The odd moment is at best a grotesque display of product endorsement and at worst an amplification of the minstrelsy of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey. In the other scene, Neville delivers an embarrassing lecture about the power of Bob Marley. Someone should have mentioned to Lawrence that nothing is worse than being told about the emotional importance of something. To paraphrase the old saying, if you need to explain, they wouldn’t understand.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/17/07.

I’m Not There

Monday, December 10th, 2007

imnotthere

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A dazzling visual exercise that can be both mesmerizing and maddening, Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” celebrates the myths of Bob Dylan in a carnival of re-imagined incidents from the eventful life of the self-proclaimed “song and dance man.” A labor of love garnished with the blessing of (at least) Dylan’s management, “I’m Not There” trips and skips through the singer-songwriter’s canon, eschewing chronology and coherence for stimulating conjecture and imaginative speculation. Casting six actors as Dylan-esque figures, a ploy that works better on film than it sounds on paper, Haynes stitches together one of the year’s most stimulating movie experiences.

The director aims for a kind of transcendence through suggestion, and achieves the effect just enough to keep amateur and professional Dylanologists from pulling out their hair. Two masterstrokes of casting involve African-American adolescent Marcus Carl Franklin as a freight train-hopping hobo who calls himself Woody Guthrie and chameleon Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a twitchy doppelganger of the “Don’t Look Back”-era Dylan. Other performers weave in and out with varying degrees of impact. Heath Ledger plays an actor who portrays a Dylan-like figure in a movie within the movie. Christian Bale manages two sides of Dylan. Richard Gere’s version is a graying Billy the Kid, and Ben Whishaw rounds out the interpreters as Arthur Rimbaud.

No other film has been released this year that so directly calls to mind the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, and “I’m Not There,” as a spiritual homage to the 1960s, gleefully appropriates the stylistic and politically minded accoutrements of the French New Wave. Individual images attest to the élan of discovering the power of “Masculin Feminin” and “Band of Outsiders”: Quinn machine-gunning the folkies who fail to appreciate amplification; Quinn floating above the rooftops, ankle tethered to prevent total ascension; Jim James in Rolling Thunder whiteface, singing “Goin’ to Acapulco” next to the open-eyed corpse of a young girl propped up in a pine box while a giraffe wanders by.

Ultimately, Dylan is most powerfully felt not through impersonation but rather in the spectacular collection of music that fuels nearly every scene. In choice cuts of both familiar and rare material as well as outstanding cover versions, Dylan’s songs act as another form of narration, and their arrangement and placement throughout the movie speaks more loudly than any of the actors. Among the highlights is Richie Havens leading Franklin through a masterful take on “Tombstone Blues.”

The most strangely successful element of “I’m Not There” lies in Haynes’ outright refusal to explain, finalize, or otherwise put a period on the end of the movie’s sentences. Like Dylan’s songs, the film honors the value of creating something that will not yield to seekers of the concrete who demand an answer for everything. Bruce Greenwood, who turns up as an antagonistic journalist type (immortalized by Dylan in “Ballad of a Thin Man” as Mr. Jones) and as a cantankerous evocation of Pat Garrett, perfectly embodies the threats of authority. Greenwood provides just one of the many reasons to see “I’m Not There,” another chapter in Dylan’s often odd relationship with the cinema.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/10/07.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

magorium

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Upon seeing the trailer for “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” many weeks ago, my friend Jim Shands asked whether “The Simpsons” hadn’t already said it better with Troy McClure in “The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.” “The Simpsons” often manages to cut to the quick of manufactured whimsy packaged as entertainment, and “Magorium” writer-director Zach Helm should have swallowed a much needed dose of vinegar to temper the syrup he cannot wait to spoon all over the place. Fancy-titled movies aimed at young audiences are not inherently detestable, but most of them suffer a grim fate when they fail to include material that can appeal to grown-ups as well.

Borrowing liberally from Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl to name just two, Helm skirts the boundaries of familiar fantasy stories. Mr. Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is the 243-year old proprietor of a toy shop that appears to experience human emotions. Inexplicably preparing for death (always referred to in irritatingly fuzzy euphemisms), the aged magician makes known his desire to leave the store to longtime manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a blocked composer struggling to finish a major opus. Despite Magorium’s entreaties, Mahoney refuses to accept his impending departure, and Helm reveals a deep “Harold and Maude” fetish as the story plays out between the youngster and the senior citizen.

In addition to the generational transfer of wisdom, Helm inappropriately conjures Hal Ashby’s masterful cult film in a scene set to Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy.” Involving the movie’s two other principal characters, the Mutant (Jason Bateman) and narrator Eric (Zach Mills), the unspoken exchange feels both manipulative and overly cute in its commentary on making friends and the tension between work and play. Most of the movie alternates between thunderously obvious pronouncements about believing in life and strained exhibitions of gleeful frolicking.

As Magorium, Hoffman looks like he is only there to cash a fat check. Decked out in colorful pinstripe ensembles and a mad scientist fright-wig with eyebrows to match, the veteran actor phones it in with a thoroughly galling lisp that makes his creaky gags sound even older than the age of his character. Portman fares little better, squirting crocodile tears whenever the script calls for them. Worse yet is Mills, cute enough to cause cavities; his unnecessary voiceover narration is one of the movie’s biggest liabilities. Only Jason Bateman, playing a variation on the straight man he honed to perfection on “Arrested Development,” provides a shred of common sense amidst the would-be madcap antics.

Helm, who previously penned the screenplay “Stranger Than Fiction,” appears to make a serious effort to avoid the gross-out humor that has become commonplace in kiddie fare. For that he should be commended. The problem is that he hasn’t replaced vulgarity with anything remotely engaging to the brain. “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” has plenty of eye candy for sale, but the lack of depth in its characterizations stops the movie in its tracks. While it earns points for earnestness and family friendliness, older viewers might be dreaming about the more satisfying wonderlands conjured in the tales of Pippi Longstocking or “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/3/07.