Archive for March, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening

Monday, March 31st, 2008

starting

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Frank Langella shares a tremendous performance as Leonard Schiller, a fading, aging novelist courted and flattered by the attentions of an ambitious graduate student in “Starting Out in the Evening.” Adapted from the 1998 novel by Brain Morton, Andrew Wagner’s screen adaptation is a literate, quiet experience that will please voracious readers as much as it will bore those who crave action and spectacle. Deliberate, placid and visually quite stunning, the labor of love was shot in less than three weeks on a budget of roughly half a million dollars on location in New York City.

Despite flirting with the pitfalls of a May-December story, “Starting Out in the Evening” sets its sights on a great deal more than the expected trappings. The movie is self-conscious enough to acknowledge the naked ambitions of its central characters, and we get to know them as fully rounded individuals prone to the twists and turns of vanity and self-doubt. The appropriately named Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) might be the more obviously calculating of the central pair, but the movie doesn’t skimp in revealing just how much the nearly forgotten Schiller basks in the fawning sweet talk of the much younger woman. Who wouldn’t enjoy being called important and underappreciated?

The movie is slightly less compelling when it leaves the company of Schiller and Wolfe for Schiller’s almost forty-year-old daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor). Ariel, desperate to have a child before she reaches middle age, rekindles a romance with an old beau (Adrian Lester) even though he refuses to consider the possibility of starting a family. The draining hourglass metaphor that drives both father and daughter might work better on the page than on the screen. Taylor, however, is an accomplished performer, and her presence in the movie is welcome, especially in the slightly bitter dutifulness she brings to her occupation as the offspring of a once lauded artist.

“Starting Out in the Evening” succeeds in the depiction of Schiller’s caution in the presence of the beguiling Heather. The old man initially keeps his admirer at a distance, painfully aware that a quid pro quo offer is on the table from their first meeting. Heather wants a story, a thesis, and eventually a publication out of the relationship; Schiller knows it but succumbs to his ego anyway. When the opportunity for physical intimacy rolls around (with a kind of persuasive inevitability), the movie hits its stride. An erotically charged pas de deux, beginning with an anointing by honey and ending with a shot of aching restraint, is memorably rendered and thoroughly believable.

Sometimes, the movie comes close to taking itself too seriously. Schiller himself is nearly humorless. Characters occasionally seem to point out the all too obvious, which can feel slightly condescending. “Starting Out in the Evening” is nothing if not earnest, though, and all four of the major actors are terrific. When Schiller and Wolfe venture outside his tastefully appointed Upper West Side hibernaculum, we glimpse the dog-eat-dog enterprise of NYC’s publishing world, stuffed to bursting with cruelty and rejection. It is no wonder the moviemakers side with the austere, old-fashioned wordsmith whose time has come and gone.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/31/08.

Drillbit Taylor

Monday, March 24th, 2008

drillbittaylor

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Tepid comedy “Drillbit Taylor” might have been titled “Superbad: The Early Years,” given the movie’s familiar teaming of an overweight motormouth, a slimmer, more sensitive best pal, and a bizarre, third-wheel goofball bringing up the rear. Unfortunately, the characters in the more recent movie aren’t nearly as charming or as smart as Seth, Evan, and McLovin. Despite a producing credit for Judd Apatow, an appearance by Leslie Mann, and writing contributions by Seth Rogen, “Drillbit Taylor” is strictly bottom-shelf material completely unworthy of the talents involved. Interestingly, another writing credit belongs to Edmond Dantes, the pseudonym of the often-AWOL 1980s teen-movie kingpin John Hughes. Needless to say, “Drillbit Taylor” is no “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – from which it cops several gags. Heck, it isn’t even “Weird Science.”

Owen Wilson plays the movie’s title character, a homeless con artist who agrees to protect the nerdy schoolboys from the unwanted attentions of a thuggish bully. The movie never decides whether the audience should primarily identify with the title character or the hapless kids who hire him. Caroming haphazardly between the two points of view, “Drillbit Taylor” manages to forego character development almost entirely: McLovin was lavished with the kind of tiny details that made him three-dimensional in “Superbad,” but his “Drillbit Taylor” counterpart remains irritatingly shapeless. The same is true for nearly everyone else.

“Drillbit Taylor” goes overboard with unnecessary montages, and in one of them, Adam Baldwin shows up sporting the same style of military jacket worn by his character Linderman in the cult classic “My Bodyguard.” Presumably, Baldwin is on hand to acknowledge the moviemakers’ debt to the earlier film, but he merely serves as a painful reminder of the superiority of the original article. “Drillbit Taylor” gleefully references all kinds of pop movie culture of the past thirty years or so, from Wilson’s Colonel Kilgore attire to the “Fight Club”-esque intimacy of male bonding through violence. The references, apropos of nothing, just sail past.

If the movie has a silver lining, it is manifested in the comic touch of Leslie Mann. As a teacher whose poor judgment has led her through a series of relationships with dirtballs and losers, Mann could easily anchor her own feature instead of being stuck with the thankless task of playing the love interest to the less interesting Drillbit. Mann and Wilson share a weird chemistry, and both actors are good enough to convince us that their dysfunctional relationship, despite its lack of logic and plausibility, could happen. The way that the two lustily eyeball each other during their first meeting in the faculty lounge is one of the few genuinely funny moments in the whole movie.

The failure of “Drillbit Taylor,” however, rests with its timid conventionality. “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” were often praised for their willingness to incorporate a level of sensitivity nearly always absent from the raunchy slapstick designed for young male audiences. “Drillbit Taylor” feels like it pulls all its punches, and it is most definitely impaired by its PG-13 rating. Director Steven Brill never finds the right rhythm for the half-baked screenplay, and the laughs are few and far between.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/24/08.

Persepolis

Monday, March 17th, 2008

persepolis

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Marjane Satrapi’s four volume graphic novel memoir “Persepolis” comes to life in beautifully rendered animation in the Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name. Recounting the author’s journey from childhood to young adulthood, “Persepolis” will offer the majority of its American viewers the rare opportunity to peek inside a largely unknown world of experiences. In addition to its memorable design, which breathes stark, expressionistic life into Satrapi’s drawings, the movie neatly balances coming-of-age themes common to all cultures with the particularity of the social and political upheaval of the Islamic Revolution.

The story commences in Tehran in the late 1970s, as Marjane’s progressive family watches in fear as the Shah’s monarchy crumbles under Khomeini. As one repressive system yields to something even more frightening, Marjane (voiced as a kid by Gabrielle Lopes) takes things in stride, mostly trusting the word of her family, skeptically challenging her teachers at school, and ignorantly acting out with a group of friends. Satrapi, who co-wrote the adaptation and co-directed the movie with comics artist Vincent Paronnaud, stuffs the frame with all kinds of humorous detail, including her own mania for pop music. Acquired on the black market, the cassette tapes Marjane adds to her collection include an eclectic range of performers: ABBA and the Bee Gees vie with Michael Jackson and Iron Maiden.

Once the Iran-Iraq War commences, Marjane’s parents send her to the French Lycee of Vienna, and the separation leaves a lasting impression on the youngster as she struggles through puberty. In terms of plot, “Persepolis” adopts a linear, episodic chronology, but Satrapi infuses the narrative with her ever-changing personal philosophy, made all the more impressive by the author’s healthy dose of self-deprecation. As Marjane explores a range of ideologies, including nihilistic and existential leanings that feed into her anger and depression, the movie retains a refreshing honesty about the changes one undergoes on the path to maturity.

“Persepolis” includes a few brief color sequences, but the majority of the movie unspools in elegant black and white. Despite the film’s computer assisted enhancements, the traditional 2D, hand-drawn work, which was completed on paper and then felt-tip inked by a team of artists, immediately evokes an unmistakable warmth that cannot be replicated by software. Animation enthusiasts will positively swoon at the craftsmanship of the feature, and it is a safe bet to suggest “Persepolis” will be scrutinized by animators interested in alternatives to the dominance of 3D modeling and graphics programs like Maya. At times, “Persepolis” nods to animation history, with cutout-style moments that recall seminal work like Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed.”

Not too surprisingly, the Iranian government has voiced displeasure at “Persepolis,” and made a successful bid to have the movie withdrawn from the Bangkok International Film Festival. A few screenings of “Persepolis” have taken place publicly in Tehran, although according to the Middle East Times, a number of scenes were censored before the showings received the go-ahead. Viewers in the United States might take the privilege of criticizing their political leaders for granted, but “Persepolis” hardly strikes one as anti-Iranian. If anything, it aches with the central character’s longing and love for her homeland, even as she lives in exile.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/17/08.

The Bank Job

Monday, March 10th, 2008

bankjob

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Jason Statham effectively plays the leader of a gang of robbers in “The Bank Job,” a decent British caper movie in the classic tradition. Loosely based on actual events that took place in London in 1971, the screenplay prefers speculation and invention to historical precision, which ideally suit the movie’s working class ambitions and dry sense of humor. Statham has been primarily known to American audiences for his tough guy roles in Guy Ritchie movies as well as for his martial arts proficiency in the “Transporter” films. In “The Bank Job,” the actor is provided a chance to shine as a more dimensional character, and demonstrates a genuine charisma that should lead to bigger and better opportunities.

Despite its convoluted plot involving compromising photos of Princess Margaret, the Black militant known as Michael X, corrupt police officers, a sleazy Soho porn producer, an ex-model turned government instrument, and a possible media blackout driven by national security concerns, director Roger Donaldson manages to keep the intertwined plot threads relatively clear, mostly entertaining, and nearly always on track. So many balls in the air at once inevitably reduce the allotment of time that can be devoted to developing the supporting players, but with few exceptions, the characters are fleshed out and interesting.

Statham’s Terry Leather is a sports car mechanic and dealer who reconnects with old flame Martine (Saffron Burrows) when she approaches him about tunneling under a Lloyds vault to make off with the contents of safe deposit boxes. Like all heist movies, a team of specialists is required, and “The Bank Job” fulfills its obligations efficiently, introducing a Rogues Gallery of affable conmen who certainly appear to be more amateur than professional. Martine, hoping to earn immunity following an airport drug bust, doesn’t tell the fellows that in essence, they are being set up, since she is literally and figuratively in bed with an operative and every step of the burglary is being monitored by spooks from MI5.

The safecracking itself is picked up by a ham radio operator listening in to walkie-talkie chatter (one part of the movie that is rooted in history), and the suspense cranks up as one set of cops closes in while the intelligence agents watch and wait. Donaldson has an affinity for the nearly bumbling thieves, and the plot often employs fortunate breaks and blind luck to keep the protagonists one step ahead of the various factions that would like to apprehend them. By the final act, the cat and mouse games turn on a series of public meetings in which documents are to change hands, and Statham partakes in some of the physical violence that seems to be expected of him.

“The Bank Job” doesn’t compare to legendary genre examples like “Rififi” or even more recent offerings like “Inside Man,” but there is something reassuring about the clockwork expectations of caper flicks that enthusiasts will find appealing. Burrows’ smoldering femme fatale complements Statham’s steely eyes and square jaw. Donaldson doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with their relationship, and cuts away when the two succumb to their mutual attraction. In a different movie, the adulterous romance might have been explored in more detail, but “The Bank Job” is strictly about business.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/10/08.

The Other Boleyn Girl

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

otherboleyngirl

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Streamlining the Philippa Gregory novel upon which it is based and stream-rolling a good chunk of historical record, “The Other Boleyn Girl” generates interest in the casting of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, two starlets who often make choices a cut above their well-paid young peers. Originated on high definition digital video, the movie boasts a reasonably attractive look in comparison with 35mm motion picture film. A prequel of sorts to Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” films, “The Other Boleyn” girl easily trumps last year’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which traded a strong central performance for a stilted screenplay and a gargantuan sense of self-importance. The ambitions of “The Other Boleyn Girl” are substantially less bombastic, and the result is a workmanlike, if forgettable, period costume drama.

As Anne Boleyn, Natalie Portman turns in a strong and colorful performance. While Johansson’s Mary is faithful and naïve, Portman’s Anne is devilish and calculating. Portman manages the challenge of playing a character whose manipulative scheming shifts precariously toward the unsympathetic. When lashing out at her sister, Anne’s ambition can make her ugly, but Portman finds complexity underneath the icy surface, and she ultimately wins the sympathy of the viewer, especially when facing the executioner’s blade.

The movie is not without serious deficiencies, and chief among them is a blithe ignorance regarding the politics behind the couplings that dominate the action. In essence, “The Other Boleyn Girl” unfolds like a sudsy teen-focused TV show, turning Henry the Eighth into a smoldering, conceited football quarterback perpetually led around by his single-minded desire to bed every attractive female in sight. There is little that can be done by Eric Bana, who succumbs to a flat and undernourished depiction of a priapic monarch. Henry’s desire for a male child is merely given lip service; this king just wants to get it on.

Despite Anne’s iron-willed determination and sharply honed sense of self, “The Other Boleyn Girl” also fails to adequately examine the reprehensible manner in which papa Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and his brother-in-law the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) openly and shamelessly use the beautiful sisters as sexual pawns in a bid for favor, power, and wealth. As Anne and Mary’s mother, Kristin Scott Thomas occasionally rages against the ethical void created by the literal pimping of her children, but the movie certainly could have paid more attention to the ways in which gender impacts governance and the affairs of state.

The wonderful Ana Torrent, whose performance in Victor Erice’s masterful “The Spirit of the Beehive” in 1973 has assured her cult status, comes the closest to exploring the double standards dividing men and women in “The Other Boleyn Girl.” As Katherine of Aragon, Torrent radiates a courtly calm. Katherine’s inability to produce a male heir jeopardizes her position as queen consort in the Tudor line, but her long marriage to a philandering royal has given her a perspective unfathomed by the impetuous Anne. Had the movie shared more of Katherine’s point of view, it might have been more than just another screen melodrama imagining the lives of crowned heads.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/3/08.