Archive for February, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Monday, February 25th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Michel Gondry, the music video maestro who champions a handmade, do-it-yourself craftiness in the process of making his films, might never top “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which has thus far been the strongest realization of his work as a director and Charlie Kaufman’s as a screenwriter. Sadly, Kaufman is not on hand to sculpt the story of “Be Kind Rewind,” Gondry’s tale of Passaic, New Jersey misfits who shoot their own low-tech versions of features including “Ghostbusters,” “Rush Hour 2,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “King Kong,” to name a few. Gondry calls this process “sweding,” and despite the movie’s anachronistic VHS time-warp, members of generation YouTube will smile at the remakes, mash-ups, and collages.

With characteristic calm, Mos Def plays Mike, a counter jockey at Be Kind Rewind, a dusty rental outlet that has so far avoided upgrading its inventory to DVD. Mike’s obnoxious pal Jerry (Jack Black) inadvertently erases the entire collection of tapes, and out of desperation, foolishness, and perhaps a smidgen of stupidity, the buddies shoot fifteen and twenty-minute condensations of hit movies with a beat-up camcorder and special effects that rely heavily on cardboard, wire, and any other unwanted junk that happens to be lying around. Their sketchy renditions cause a sensation in the neighborhood, and pretty soon supply is buried under an avalanche of demand.

Corporate suits arrive to levy a multi-billion dollar fine for copyright infringement, and Gondry manages a few sly asides about big media’s clampdown on creativity that echo some of Lawrence Lessig’s astute comments. Oddly, viewers of a certain vintage will identify striking similarities between the premise of “Be Kind Rewind” and the “Blockblister” sketches of Nickelodeon’s “The Amanda Show.” Charges of plagiarism are as tricky as the funhouse mirrors of “The Lady from Shanghai,” though, when the director’s raison d’etre is the intertextual flattery by imitation of homemade fan films, which have been around for a very long time.

On another level, “Be Kind Rewind” speaks to the intimate connection between audiences and their favorite films, and even though many of the “sweded” titles would not qualify as classics, the trippy digests point to an obsessive zeal that has manifested in the real world in works like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” and the recently resurrected “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation.” At a certain point, however, aping one’s heroes pales in comparison with making something unique, even if Gondry likes to have it both ways. Ultimately, the filmmaker presumes that his efforts deserve an audience, though the vast majority of the amateurs encouraged by Gondry to pick up a camera and “swede” their own favorites end up making mediocre or awful garbage entertaining only to the participants.

The best aspects of “Be Kind Rewind” follow the directive that originality is more valuable than the replica, and the production of a documentary about Fats Waller by the Be Kind Rewind team and members of the surrounding community sound the movie’s expressive blue notes. Reminiscent of “Cinema Paradiso,” the exhibition of “Fats Waller Was Born ‘Here’” nearly transcends the silliness that constitutes far too much of the movie’s running time. It is pure fantasy to imagine that a no-budget, black and white biopic fabricating both the birthplace and the resume of a jazz musician who died in 1943 would fill the streets with bewitched and mesmerized passersby, but for folks who believe in the power of moviemaking, it sure is nice to think so.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/25/08.


Monday, February 18th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Any person hoping that director Doug Liman would recapture some of the pulse-quickening glory of his past successes should steer clear of “Jumper,” a disappointing and empty-headed hybrid of action and science fiction with no reverence for the strongest concerns of either genre. Based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Steven Gould, Liman’s movie version changes several key incidents present in the book, and few of those alterations make any sense. It took multiple drafts and a handful of writers to concoct the screen version of “Jumper,” and every person involved seems to have forgotten to include memorable characters and a coherent narrative. The end result is a movie that wants to go everywhere, but ends up stuck in one place.

Hayden Christensen, who replaced actor Tom Sturridge following the start of production, plays David Rice, a young man who discovers that he possesses the ability to teleport anywhere in the world merely by concentrating on where he would like to be at any given moment. Like Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner of the X-Men, Rice’s power carries with it the suggestion of super-heroism, but the callow punk prefers the trappings of unearned cash and expensive toys to helping others. Rice’s materialism might have been a theme worth exploring, but “Jumper” has the attention span of a butterfly, never alighting on one idea long enough.

Instead, Rice bounces around the globe, familiarizing himself with top vacation destinations until he feels confident enough to whisk his childhood crush Millie (Rachel Bilson, as blank and nearly as bland as Christensen) off to Rome for a private tour of the Colosseum. In the meantime, another “jumper” named Griffin (Jamie Bell, whose character should have been the movie’s main protagonist) reveals himself to Rice, confirming that a group of shadowy operatives known as Paladins methodically hunt and destroy teleporters. Little reason is given for the zeal of Paladins, but white-haired leader Roland Cox (Samuel L. Jackson, shouting), who pursues Rice like Javert chases Valjean, proclaims things like “There are always consequences!” in a booming voice.

Liman has a gift for staging frantic action, and “Jumper” contains a few scenes in which the movie’s premise is fully realized. Logical or not, Griffin can teleport large objects (like double-decker buses) with him as long as they are moving, and the result is a moment or two of genuine spectacle trapped amidst the wreckage of a story about which nobody cares one iota. “Jumper” is certainly made for teenage boys, and its preoccupation with mindless fighting and chasing, as opposed to a genuine interest in the culture of the places selected as “jump sites,” is a millstone around the film’s neck.

Strangest of all is the movie’s treatment of Rice’s mother, played by Diane Lane in a virtual cameo. Unlike the novel, Mrs. Rice harbors a secret of her own, but the film leaves the mother-son relationship frustratingly unresolved, and a late scene feels utterly half-baked, as if something more substantive should follow. Instead, “Jumper” retreats into the recesses of adolescent wish fulfillment, where it is as shallow as a puddle.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/18/08.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Monday, February 11th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Academy Award nominee Julian Schnabel makes films that often focus intensely on the trials of a reflective (some would say self-obsessed) male protagonist. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” adapted from French “Elle” editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir, follows Schnabel’s previous two features, “Basquiat” and “Before Night Falls,” in such a manner, fixating on a person who sees the world with a particular and idiosyncratic vision. Bauby suffered a massive and virtually completely paralyzing stroke in 1995, and the result left him bedridden and totally dependent on the care of others. He was able to control the muscles of just one of his eyelids, and eventually dictated his thoughts through blinks that corresponded with letters of the alphabet.

Schnabel depicts a great deal of the film’s action from the first person point of view of the incapacitated Bauby, played effectively by Mathieu Amalric. Working closely with ace cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Schnabel labors to bring the viewer inside Bauby’s so-called “locked-in syndrome,” which approximates the sensation of being buried alive. The arresting opening sections of the film shift in and out of focus along with Bauby’s consciousness. Double exposures, shifts in light, and rapid fades to and from black share the limitations of Bauby’s post-trauma. In one highly stylized shot, the audience witnesses the sewing shut of Bauby’s eyelid from his vantage point. The moment is not for the squeamish.

Schnabel’s training as a painter lends the proceedings a self-conscious artiness, but the purposefulness of the sequencing, which replicates Bauby’s snail-paced cycle of days, often sucks the air out of the film and leaves viewers in want of something meatier to chew over. Schnabel might have desired to excise the risk for melodrama inherent in a showdown between Bauby’s mistress and the mother of his kids, but he lacks the skill of a Bresson, and doesn’t quite pull it off. Instead of approaching transcendence by withholding necessary scenes, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is more apt to make us wonder where the key interactions went.

Amalric, who spends most of the movie with his face frozen in a droopy-lipped mask, is a terrific actor, and Schnabel fortunately includes scenes of Bauby’s memories, (including a vacation to Lourdes with a pious lover) which give the performer an opportunity to move around. The supporting cast is strong, and Max Von Sydow is every bit his legendary self as Bauby’s nonagenarian father, dominating the screen in a pair of excellent scenes.

Some viewers might feel that Schnabel holds Bauby at too great a distance, refusing sentiment in order to sidestep the traps that would plunge the movie into the realm of the maudlin. Not surprisingly, the film crackles to life when Schnabel assembles certain abstractions; the opening and closing credits, designed by the director, are expressive bookends. In the former, titles are layered with close-ups of milky x-rays. The latter shows a montage of massive shelves of ice reattaching themselves to glaciers as the film is run in reverse motion. It is a beautiful and startling effect.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/11/08.

The Savages

Monday, February 4th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Tamara Jenkins, whose overrated semi-autobiographical debut feature “Slums of Beverly Hills” managed to wring some humor out of desperate living, attempts more of the same with “The Savages,” a blackly comic movie of the week with most of the melodrama and sentimentality left on the cutting room floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and what remains might please moviegoers interested in emotionally conflicted, adult children faced with the challenge of caring for an aging parent who can no longer care for himself. No director could ask for better performers than Laura Linney (Academy Award-nominated for her role) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but Jenkins saddles them with a script (also Academy Award-nominated) that spins its wheels for an unnecessarily long running time.

Linney and Hoffman play Wendy and Jon Savage, siblings who find themselves quickly at odds over how best to address the needs of their nearly estranged father, now on a slippery slope into dementia. Following the death of his longtime companion, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) can no longer live in the home they shared, and the Savage children wrestle with the decision to place him in a nursing home. Despite expository hints that Leonard left much to be desired as a father, Wendy finds herself tormented by guilt even as Jon proceeds swiftly, and with conviction, to find an elder care facility that will accept the old man.

Jenkins possesses an eye and an ear for all kinds of familiar, everyday details inherent in a brother-sister relationship, and “The Savages” succeeds as a rare examination of something that many would argue is one of life’s most emotionally draining trials. Additionally, we are also witness to the broken dreams and unfulfilled potential of the Savage kids, who aspire to careers in theater (she as a dramatist, he as a Brecht scholar). Reduced to temping, stealing office supplies, and applying for multiple grants, Wendy’s shortcomings are compounded further by a dead-end affair with a married man.

The depressing milieu of “The Savages” virtually challenges viewers to stick with the movie, and by the halfway point, some people will be checking their watches and eyeing the exits. Because the film is deliberately character driven, many of the middle scenes come across as inert, or as prelude to something more important that never happens. When Jenkins offers glimpses of vintage fare like “The Jazz Singer” and “Night and the City,” classic movie fans will want the camera to linger on the clips to alleviate some of the tedium.

Linney and Hoffman are two of the current cinema’s finest actors, and both bring vulnerability and humanness to their roles. Jenkins has named the pair after two of J.M. Barrie’s most famous characters, and by replacing the adjectival surname Darling with Savage, makes transparent her dramatic intentions. In one scene, a young actor escapes his abusive tormentor by means of the kind of flying harness that would be used in a stage production of “Peter Pan.” In “The Savages,” Barrie’s popular theme is inverted as Jon and Wendy are forced to grow up, whether or not they are ready, willing or able.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/4/08.