Archive for January, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Monday, January 28th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A staggering and singular piece of intimately personal storytelling that recalls many of the director’s adored 1970s period piece inspirations like “Days of Heaven,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and “Chinatown,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” is one of the year’s most memorable movie experiences. Despite acknowledging Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” as its source material, Anderson uses the book merely as a jumping-off point, erasing most of Sinclair’s sprawling social and political tableaux as well as the literal-minded debates on war, Bolshevism, and labor unions. Instead, Anderson is concerned with the moral and mental decline of his central character, allegorically renamed Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an unstable oil wildcatter who loses his sanity as he finds a fortune in the black gold of California in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Despite his proven skill as a director of large ensembles, Anderson also jettisons many of the novel’s supporting characters, ditching the businessman’s family to reshape Plainview as a completely isolated man. The movie suggests that Plainview adopts his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) following the death of a worker killed in a drilling accident. Other alterations, principally the shift in focus from the son (the book’s central protagonist) to the father, allow Anderson the opportunity to pay complete attention to Plainview, who is artfully embodied by Day-Lewis in yet another sensational performance in a career full of them.

Anderson has always been wonderful with his performers, and Paul Dano, playing brothers Paul and Eli Sunday, is a perfect foil for Day-Lewis’ Plainview. Eli rises to prominence as a faith healer and minister in the Church of the Third Revelation, and the bitter rivalry that develops between the young preacher and the old oilman develops in a series of scenes of increasing intensity as the determined men try to outdo one another. Dano is not as accomplished a performer as Day-Lewis, but his calculating evangelist proves every bit as fascinating as Plainview, and their final scene together packs a punch that leaves many audience members reeling.

Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant, unsettling score rings out like nothing less than a herald of the apocalypse, and several of the movie’s scenes are rendered more frightening with Greenwood’s music as counterpoint to the images. Amidst all the Old Testament thundering, Anderson also takes time to remind his viewers that he has a sense of humor, although its inclusion in “There Will Be Blood” is as black as Plainview’s petroleum. Two favorites examples are Kevin O’Connor sharing the information that he is a “brother from another mother” and Day-Lewis slurping and bellowing “I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”

“There Will Be Blood” has already been a critical success, and many writers have noted both the movie’s similarities to 1970s material (Anderson ends the movie with a dedication to Robert Altman) and its indebtedness to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Citizen Kane.” The comparisons are apt, and by the conclusion of “There Will Be Blood,” it is clear that Anderson has proven himself a filmmaker of the first rank.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/28/08.

Private Fears in Public Places

Monday, January 21st, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Legendary French filmmaker Alain Resnais returns to playwright Alan Ayckbourn for source material, adapting “Private Fears in Public Places” for the screen. Known as “Coeurs” outside of North America, “Private Fears in Public Places” offers the octogenarian a prime opportunity to explore one of his long-held thematic obsessions: loneliness and the ways people deal with it. Connecting the often unfulfilled lives of its six Paris inhabitants in sometimes surprising ways, the movie transcends its theatrical origin, even if Resnais never seems particularly bothered by it in the first place. Although the quality of the piece never comes close to the director’s best known movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it will please viewers seeking wistful, bittersweet romanticism.

Real estate broker Thierry (Andre Dussollier) lives with his younger sister Gaelle (Isabelle Carre), a frustrated single who seeks companionship through contacts made in personal ads. Thierry shows apartments to Nicole (Laura Morante), whose engagement to moody boozehound Dan (Lambert Wilson) appears less than stable. Additionally, Thierry’s seemingly prim co-worker Charlotte (Sabine Azema) moonlights as a personal caregiver for the verbally abusive father of bartender Lionel (Pierre Arditi), who works at Dan’s favorite watering hole. Additionally, Charlotte loans Thierry videotapes of her favorite television program, and he discovers mysterious erotic content after the episodes have ended.

Most of the characters also intersect in other pairings, and with the exception of Nicole and Lionel, who often disappear from the action, Resnais nimbly juggles the storylines. Much of the movie is composed of fairly short, fairly tidy scenes that have the effect of building upon one another as terminal velocity is reached. Some of the outcomes are satisfying, while others seem to demand more explication. A few of the characters also act out with almost hypocritically confusing actions, which will delight some and frustrate others. Charlotte in particular would provide a psychoanalyst with a meaty case study.

The purposely artificial quality of the production design enhances the tone of the movie, and Resnais occasionally chooses to peer down at the characters from an overhead angle, a tactic that evokes the attitude of a casual god observing laboratory specimens. Rooms are visually divided in two, from the severed apartment Nicole considers renting in the first scene of the movie to the sleek beaded curtain behind the hotel bar where Lionel pours drinks. To top it off, Resnais also keeps the snow falling from start to finish, which blankets the proceedings with wintry beauty.

Resnais clearly relishes observing human behavior, and the movie regularly incorporates scenes in which messages are perhaps sent but not received, or signals go misinterpreted. Small humiliations are depicted with affection, and serve as rueful reminders of our own embarrassments. “Private Fears in Public Places” is also quite funny, and Resnais coaxes many slyly humorous bits from the seasoned cast. None of the characters in the story are novices in life, and the suggestion of their collective life experience serves as a welcome contrast to movies celebrating callow youth just coming of age.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/21/08.

Margot at the Wedding

Monday, January 14th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most recent movie, “Margot at the Wedding,” is a polarizing experience that will alienate at least as many viewers as it enchants. Critic-proof in the sense that it wholly embraces the selfish, sadistic, and shitty narcissists whose frustrating lives it illustrates, the movie serves in some ways as a grim companion to Baumbach’s previous outing, “The Squid and the Whale,” a stronger film in virtually every capacity. Gruesome, hateful characters don’t necessarily translate to gruesome and hateful moviegoing experiences, but “Margot at the Wedding” defies its audience to sympathize with its inhabitants, a pack of emotionally damaged jackals who practically lick their chops at the opportunity to snipe, whine, and grouse at one another.

As the title character, Nicole Kidman uses her icy charisma to terrific effect. Traveling to her sister’s nuptials with all kinds of self-serving motives, writer Margot spends most of her time inappropriately blurting family secrets to her curious but confused son Claude (Zane Pais). She also mines family pain for her short stories. Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose husband is the film’s auteur) plans to marry the clownish, unsavory, and unemployed Malcolm (Jack Black), and Margot immediately disapproves of the match, peppering her commentary with barbed, contemptuous insults.

As a director, Baumbach displays an almost reckless confidence that his audience will appreciate a plotless psychodrama that clearly contains a splash of Bergman and a jigger of Chekhov. It’s refreshing to find a dark-hearted movie with such well-known performers, but the psychological warfare waged among blood relations, friends, and neighbors has a tiring effect. The metaphoric rotting tree, under which Pauline and Malcolm intend to be married, is the least subtle of symbols, and its fate is sealed as soon as it is glimpsed in Harris Savides’ gray-hued cinematography.

Given the centrality of the family tree motif, “Margot at the Wedding” might have been a more powerful experience had Baumbach spent as much time with the children as he does with the adults. The filmmaker’s uncanny understanding of the pain and challenges of adolescence, perfectly tuned in “The Squid and the Whale,” is only hinted at here. Claude, his cousin Ingrid (Flora Cross), and neighbor Maisy (Halley Feiffer) form a trio with as many possibilities as the grown-ups around them, but short of a scene or two, Baumbach leaves their inner lives unexplored.

The movie’s disjointed, episodic structure is also its principal cinematic strong suit. Aided by editor Carol Littleton, Baumbach stitches moments together with an array of interesting juxtapositions and jump cuts. Often, we enter or exit scenes in the midst of the action, a stylistic device that intensifies the movie’s sense of anxiety. While some viewers might argue that too many people spend too much time crying or running and falling down, Baumbach locates the humor that emerges from our ability to identify with humiliation, even if the movie presents it in concentrated form. At one point Pauline defecates in her drawers, and Margot’s response is to remind Claude that sooner or later, this will happen to all of us.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/14/08.


Monday, January 7th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jason Reitman’s film of Diablo Cody’s screenplay “Juno” can be a frustrating concoction that pits sweetness and warmth against manipulative calculation. It is already the hipster movie of the moment, destined to rotate through several cycles of praise and hatred before it develops a major following theatrically and then on home video. Essentially a “Knocked Up” for the current high school generation, “Juno” largely employs a predictable plot template to detail the comic misadventures and life lessons learned by the title character, a 16-year-old smart-mouth who always knows exactly what to say. As Juno, Ellen Page cements her reputation as a talent to watch, even if her character speaks more like a jaded grown-up than someone born in the 1990s.

“Juno” is the kind of movie that constructs a much cooler version of the world we actually inhabit; glittering D.I.Y. pop adorns the soundtrack and kids talk on vintage hamburger-shaped telephones. Juno’s accidental pregnancy can scarcely muster a raised eyebrow from her doting dad and step-mom, and sometime boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera, terrific as ever) carries himself with such poise and maturity, you’ll wish you knew someone like him when you were in high school. Juno’s support system is so strong that if it weren’t for Ellen Page’s charm, the whole thing might collapse under the weight of its just-obscure-enough pop culture references.

By the time Juno has decided to give her baby up for adoption to a seemingly perfect yuppie couple, the story has settled in to a comfortable, if predictable, sequencing of events. In spite of the Oscar buzz already in the air for Cody’s script, the movie’s structure is formulaic. By far the film’s biggest liability is that everyone talks, thinks, and sounds like a single person. The cast works wonders in the attempt to differentiate, but the movie almost entirely avoids showing anyone who doesn’t agree with Juno’s flippant handling of every situation, or doesn’t let loose with a perfect rejoinder to every statement.

Only Jennifer Garner, who plays the woman desperate to be the mom to Juno’s baby, transcends the screenplay’s homogeneity. Amidst all the moments designed to tug at our heartstrings, Garner’s Vanessa Loring is the lone soul who earns it, giving her character a depth that initially seems hidden underneath the vaguely creepy façade of perfection she maintains with jingle composer husband Mark, a good but ultimately miscast Jason Bateman. Bateman is always a joy to watch, but he fails to make a convincing case that his emotionally stunted, selfish manchild would actually watch Herschell Gordon Lewis movies or listen to Sonic Youth (even if he does favor their cover of the Carpenters’ “Superstar” over “Daydream Nation” or “EVOL”).

Reitman, whose “Thank You for Smoking” skipped along at a brisk pace even while it tackled politically charged subject matter, just as deftly handles the action in “Juno.” Juno’s sarcastic quips pile up so quickly, fans will likely turn out multiple times, scanning for the ready-made catchphrases that bring to mind “Napoleon Dynamite,” another seemingly unassuming crowd pleaser that could run for miles. “Juno” works just as hard to win over its viewers, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/7/08.