Archive for April, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Monday, April 28th, 2008

forgettingsarah

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the latest Judd Apatow-produced comedy to prominently feature performers who have appeared on “Freaks and Geeks,” actor Jason Segel does double duty as the movie’s screenwriter. Despite the candid raunchiness, which is now presented as a matter of fact in the Apatow universe, Segel’s mostly routine screenplay lacks the zest displayed by “Superbad,” penned by pal Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. To be fair, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has more in common with the relationship-focused “Knocked Up,” but the movie sometimes comes across as half-baked. It resembles a sitcom episode more than it should.

Segel plays composer Peter Bretter, a decent fellow whose ambitions to complete a puppet rock opera based on “Dracula” have been placed on the back burner since he began collecting steady paychecks writing moody instrumental filler for a “CSI”-esque TV cop show. Better yet, the slacker doofus is blessed with the improbable good fortune to be the real-life boyfriend of the series’ hot star, the Sarah Marshall of the title (played by Kristen Bell). Their too-good-to-be-true romance melts down in the opening sections of the movie, propelling Peter into tearful one-night-stands to salve his shattered heart. For virtually no other reason than convention, Peter ends up in Oahu at the very same resort where Sarah has shacked up with her new beau, a narcissistic British rocker with the wonderful name Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

With the big pieces of the puzzle in place, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” introduces the typical complications, and in spite of the painful awkwardness, nobody seriously considers just leaving. Peter is befriended by gorgeous front desk clerk Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis, easily the best thing about the movie), and even kindergartners would recognize that she, not Sarah, is the one for Peter. Perhaps we are meant to believe that Rachel sympathizes with Peter because she went through a harsh break-up of her own, but she falls for him too quickly. Kunis, however, works wonders with her underwritten role, easily holding down the movie and besting the entire cast. She should have been the movie’s central character.

Several Apatow regulars are launched into orbit around the principal quartet. Paul Rudd plays a forgetful surf instructor. Jonah Hill appears as an eager waiter starstruck by Snow. The usually trusty Bill Hader is out of focus as Peter’s scolding brother. Honeymooner Jack McBrayer struggles to consummate his marriage. In a better movie, the various subplots would connect and contribute to the central storyline, but here they function mostly to pad out the running time. Worse, the talented actors play caricatures rather than characters.

Even when the film settles on the main thread of action, director Nicholas Stoller cannot seem to make it all work. Segel himself might take some of the blame for writing his own screen counterpart as an aimless, people-pleasing softie, but the movie tanks in its treatment of the title character. Presented variously as a calculating cheater and a self-centered starlet, Sarah is not seen as a recognizable person until it is too late. Even then, her own insecurities compromise her integrity and put Peter in jeopardy. By the end, one is not sure whether to feel sorry for Sarah or to hate her for the way she has behaved.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/28/08.

Shine a Light

Monday, April 21st, 2008

shinealight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Paid attendance for another Rolling Stones concert film assumes a kinship with the subject matter, and fans new and old alike are offered plenty of sights and sounds to quicken the pulse during the course of Martin Scorsese’s spry crack at one of rock’s unstoppable acts. It may or may not be the same as winning an Oscar, but Scorsese joins an elite rank of filmmakers who have attempted to capture some essence of the Stones. Over the years, Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Ashby, Robert Frank, and Albert & David Maysles directed the band to varying degrees of success, and Scorsese’s encomium serves as an excellent companion piece to several of the earlier works.

Assisted by a jaw-dropping army of some of the finest cinematographers in the game, including Robert Richardson (the credited lead D.P.), Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, Andrew Lesnie, John Toll and Emmanuel Lubezki – to name a handful – Scorsese puts the viewer right on the stage of NYC’s Beacon Theatre. The movie’s tongue-in-cheek prologue sees the increasingly wizened Scorsese acting the part of the befuddled maestro, wringing laughs from his inability to track down a set list. After a speakerphone conference with Mick Jagger, a mock-exasperated Scorsese whimpers that it would be nice to be allowed a camera that moves. It’s all something of a put-on, working as a kind of tease before the band takes the stage.

“Shine a Light” is not “The Last Waltz,” but then, not as much is at stake. The Rolling Stones have defied the odds as the years have yielded to the decades, and like Bob Dylan, the subject of Scorsese’s superior “No Direction Home,” the group deserves some credit for its unprecedented longevity. Yes, they are obliged to perform “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up,” because the largest numbers of fans love to hear them. The deeper cuts are more satisfying, however, and “Shine a Light” slips in several outstanding arrangements, including a terrific (albeit slightly sanitized) “Some Girls,” a delightful “Far Away Eyes,” and a sweet Keith Richards/Ron Wood duet on the former’s signature “You Got the Silver.”

The unlikely trio of special guests – Jack White, Christina Aguilera, and Buddy Guy – are allotted one number each. In what might be the movie’s highlight, White and Jagger trade lines on a tremendous rendition of “Loving Cup,” often sharing the microphone for the song’s ebullient refrain. Jagger was 37 years old when Aguilera was born, but he still feigns well-practiced libidinousness on a decent run at “Live with Me.” Buddy Guy, age 70 at the time of filming, has a few years of seniority on the Stones, and they treat him with appropriate reverence. His switchblade-sharp work on Muddy Waters’ “Champagne & Reefer” hurts so good, an awestruck Keith gives his guitar to Guy at the song’s conclusion.

Periodically, Scorsese intercuts career-spanning interview footage of the band. It mostly serves to reinforce the inspiring journey of four decades of hard work as the fellows now write their autumnal chapter. The images are also striking for containing evidence of Jagger’s patience and politeness. In clips dating to the 1960s, he courteously answers a battery of inane questions, exposing their ridiculousness with his earnest-sounding responses. Surely, he would rather be on stage, and for the most part, “Shine a Light” is happy to oblige.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/21/08.

Smart People

Monday, April 14th, 2008

smartpeople

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A shapeless mess of half-formed characters and overly familiar scenes of bitter domesticity, “Smart People” does not appear to have been crafted by moviemakers who share the title’s description. Even with an excellent cast containing several familiar faces, “Smart People” switches between shrill exhibitions of passive-aggressiveness and melancholic bouts of serious self-pity. With minor exceptions, none of the movie’s inhabitants is likable enough for audience members to muster much sympathy, and the low-key direction and leisurely pacing will cause some to check their watches more than once.

Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a crusty Carnegie Mellon English literature professor still reeling from the death of his wife. Resented by students and barely tolerated by colleagues, Lawrence holds the world in contempt for the miserable state of his day-to-day existence. Along with the typical bursts of withering verbal sarcasm, we know that Wetherhold is a jerk because he takes up two spaces with his shoddy parking. One such incident leads to an unlikely act of rash physicality and a mild injury to the professor’s cranium. The convenient head trauma brings Wetherhold into contact with lonely ER doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student who once harbored an inexplicable crush on the grouchy sourpuss.

Forbidden by the hospital to drive his vehicle, Wetherhold reluctantly grants his irresponsible slacker brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) room and board in exchange for chauffer duties. Once ensconced in his brother’s house, free-spirit Chuck forms an unlikely bond with niece Vanessa (Ellen Page), a studious Young Republican who outwardly ridicules her uncle’s lack of ambition. Glad for the company, Chuck introduces Vanessa to alcohol and weed, and she repays him with an awkward and inappropriate crush. Both sets of couples are mismatched for comic effect, but Mark Poirier’s script is so zealous, every intended point of connection between opposites turns out to be a missed opportunity.

Page delivers another performance that shows off her effortless charm as a wiseass, but Vanessa Wetherhold is no Juno MacGuff, and her incestuous affection for Chuck lands like a brick. Actor Ashton Holmes, who plays Vanessa’s poet brother James, suffers through a part so completely underwritten he didn’t even rate inclusion on the movie’s one-sheet. Quaid is thoroughly unlikable in the film’s key role. Why a successful physician like Parker’s Hartigan would tolerate his arrogance and self-absorption is never successfully explained. Of the principal cast, only Thomas Haden Church comes close to playing someone who might be fun to know.

First time feature helmer Noam Murro relies too heavily on syrupy score cues from once and future Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt (who at one point virtually plagiarizes Jimmy Page’s “That’s the Way” chord structure). Collaborator Poirier’s writing doesn’t help matters, but Murro fails to find a comfortable tone. It is uncertain whether the viewer is supposed to identify with the dysfunctional clan or chuckle at their obvious faults. The moviemakers seemingly want to have it both ways, and the result is an inedible stew. “Smart People” has nothing on similarly themed works from which it seems so obviously derived. Skip it and rent “The Squid and the Whale” or “Wonder Boys” instead.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/14/08.

Stop-Loss

Monday, April 7th, 2008

stoploss

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Stop-Loss,” Kimberly Peirce mostly follows the strong filmmaking instincts she displayed in her chilling feature “Boys Don’t Cry,” although the story this time is far less gripping. A war movie in the sub-category of “returning home” tales, “Stop-Loss” jettisons political fire in favor of a handsomely drawn portrait of a small town coming to grips with the social costs exacted by combat. The movie’s vibe is occasionally reminiscent of Vietnam films like “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home,” two well-remembered late-70s works that overshadow “Stop-Loss” in most respects. American audiences will likely ignore the movie, and it is precisely this apathy about the war in Iraq that hamstrings the film’s thematic agenda.

Ryan Phillippe, who recently played a disillusioned soldier of World War II in “Flags of Our Fathers,” applies more of the same clenched-jaw stoicism to his Staff Sgt. Brandon King. Depicted by the moviemakers as a squared-away, by-the-book straight arrow, King is overwhelmed by grief and guilt when he loses men in tense urban combat in Tikrit. Once he and pals Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to Brazos, Texas, it is instantly clear that stateside readjustment will not come easy. Peirce ladles out generous portions of genre tropes, from post-trauma flashbacks to alcohol soaked binges to domestic abuse.

Abbie Cornish, who plays Steve’s long-suffering fiancée Michele, receives second billing and a seat in the getaway car next to King when he goes AWOL. “Stop-Loss” might have had something more powerful to say about the coping mechanisms of family members with loved ones in the military, but the story is unrelentingly filtered through King’s eyes, leaving Cornish with little to do beyond react to King’s run of troubles. All of the movie’s female characters are given precious little screen time, and suffer the same fate.

“Stop-Loss” caroms wildly between shoulder-shrugging support for the war and the central character’s indignation at being mistreated by a government he dutifully served. Despite spitting out a line of profanity admonishing George W. Bush (likely designed to draw cheers of approval in many theaters), the movie plays it completely safe in the arena of too-familiar gung-ho abstractions like honor, duty, and brotherhood. As a result, the movie cannot win, since doves will feel let down by the outcome and hawks won’t stand for the movie’s long road trip of bitter disobedience.

Peirce can be commended for at least trying to make a serious-minded feature about a conflict that is still unfolding, but the movie is too confused, toothless, and squishy to stand for anything specific. Does Peirce disagree with a policy that, in essence, operates as a “back door draft” (to use the movie’s term) to keep overtaxed soldiers on the front lines? One might say the answer is “I guess so,” but “Stop-Loss” feints when it should be swinging hard. It acquiesces when it could take a stand. The movie, which too often relies on the adrenaline-fueled, ass-kicking jingoism of chest-thumping American might, flits between scenes that would be at home in a recruitment video and reminders that young men come home missing their eyesight or limbs. This ambiguity is a liability, and “Stop-Loss” never finds a solid grip.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/7/08.