Archive for July, 2008

Step Brothers

Monday, July 28th, 2008

stepbrothers

Movie review by Greg Carlson

At least until “Pineapple Express” comes out in a few days, Adam McKay’s “Step Brothers” should fill a certain segment of the viewing public’s appetite for ridiculous slapstick and the kind of humor arrested in adolescence. A person’s enjoyment of the movie will depend entirely on the Will Ferrell tolerability index, which for this reviewer is generally pretty high – despite several duds on the funnyman’s resume. In “Step Brothers,” Ferrell plays a jobless slacker pushing forty who still lives with his mother.

The foolish concept – that Ferrell’s mom marries a man who happens to live with his own adult son and they all agree to share a home – demands a level of suspended disbelief upon which director McKay has staked most of his filmmaking career. Perhaps best summed up by the image of roving gangs of television newsmen engaging in a bloodthirsty melee in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” McKay’s bizarre flights of fancy arrive from left field and defy all logic and credulity. “Step Brothers,” with its misbehaving men-children building bunk beds in order to have more floor space for “activities,” follows along in that tradition.

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly had solid chemistry in “Talladega Nights,” and they bring much of the same kind of straight-faced lunacy to their warring sibling act in “Step Brothers.” The rest of the cast is also game, and Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins are in top form as the newlywed parents who hope their overgrown boys will soon leave the nest. Adam Scott, as Ferrell’s sickeningly successful brother, can play an a-hole to glorious perfection. Kathryn Hahn, as Scott’s trapped wife, also delivers a brilliant comic performance.

Like McKay and Ferrell’s previous collaborations, all manner of gag is thrown at the wall in the hope that many will stick. From Pablo Cruise t-shirts to Chewbacca masks to “Miami Vice,” pop culture references act as a kind of glue binding together the nonsensical sequences that so often result in physical violence and destructive mayhem. Despite not being blood relations, the characters played by Ferrell and Reilly discover so many mutual passions one begins to believe they might have been separated at birth. Hilariously, they both sleepwalk, and the movie does not hold anything back as the clumsy somnambulists lay waste to the family kitchen.

“Step Brothers” earns its R-rating with liberal use of profanity and the outrageous image of Ferrell applying his scrotum to Reilly’s prized drum kit. The violence is cartoonish, excessive, and often very funny (the sight of Ferrell and Reilly smacking each other with golf clubs and baseball bats has the same kind of gleeful anarchy found in the oeuvre of Larry, Moe, and Curly). In a universe where movies about men who refuse to grow up dominate the major studios’ comedy slate, some filmgoers will dismiss “Step Brothers” as another obnoxious entry in a chain that dates back at least as far as “Dumb & Dumber.” It would be pointless to convince them to attend, even if “Step Brothers” makes a few sly comments about the dependence of adult children on their parents and the ways in which families get along with measures of love and hate.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/28/08.

The Dark Knight

Monday, July 21st, 2008

darkknight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Picking up where “Batman Begins” left off in 2005, “The Dark Knight” propels the Caped Crusader to a level of fan expectation not seen since Tim Burton’s first crack at the franchise back in 1989. With interest in the movie fueled in large measure by actor Heath Ledger’s death at the age of 28 (which has created a kind of James Dean effect), director Christopher Nolan’s second visit to Gotham City tops “Batman Begins” in nearly every department. The movie is more lavish and epic than its predecessor, and Batman’s colorful arch-nemesis the Joker easily trumps the villainous second stringers selected for “Batman Begins.”

Nolan co-scripted “The Dark Knight” with his brother Jonathan, and the movie deftly juggles mega-budget action set pieces with the sort of introspective psychological examination (or at least the appearance of it) favored by the moviemaker in “Memento” and “Insomnia.” The film’s themes traffic in the currency of duality and dialectics: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), on his way to becoming Two-Face, plays Gotham’s “White Knight” to Batman’s dark one. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) beats himself up wondering whether he is part of the solution or part of the problem. Ghastly trickster Joker ponders aloud the conundrum of how much he and Batman need each other.

Even if Ledger had lived to see the movie’s premiere, his performance would have drawn some of the best notices of his career. Ledger steals every scene in which he appears, and is easily the scariest screen incarnation of the Joker to date, eliminating all traces of Jack Nicholson’s courtliness and Cesar Romero’s cackling merriment. Ledger focuses his energy on the character’s sadism and murderousness, recalling the almost satanic pleasure of the evil clown’s 1940 debut story in Batman #1 and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s popular 1988 one-shot “The Killing Joke.” Ledger taps the Joker’s tendency toward chaos and anarchy, positioning him as a threatening terrorist whose motiveless “mayhem for the sake of mayhem” creed keeps the Batman busy.

The movie includes a few fleeting moments of comic relief unrelated to the frightening gallows humor provided by Ledger’s magnetic Joker, but Nolan envisions Batman’s world as a grim, oppressive prison dominated by perpetual existential crises. For many fans, this would be an improvement over the camp impulses that form the other pole of Batman’s place in popular culture. The clever marketing campaign, built around the Joker’s query “Why so serious?,” causes one to wonder whether Nolan ever asked himself the same thing. By the time the credits roll, the body count is high, and does not necessarily include the obvious candidates.

So much ground is covered during the course of “The Dark Knight” that Nolan purposefully leaves several things frustratingly unexplained. The most glaring example takes place when Batman leaps out of a window to rescue old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), abandoning the Joker to a roomful of wealthy donors at a ritzy fundraiser. The filmmaker chooses simply to cut away to the future, as if he cannot be bothered to clarify the fate of Gotham’s jet set. Another oversight ignores the details of a dual kidnapping, opting for a lazy, after-the-fact account instead of the visual and narrative clarity that is needed in the set-up. Nolan might have heeded the adage to do fewer things but do them better, as there was enough material in “The Dark Knight” for at least two movies.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/21/08.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Monday, July 14th, 2008

hellboy2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Director Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” manages the trick of pleasing existing fans of Mike Mignola’s big red demon and winning new converts to the franchise. “Hellboy II” might be better than del Toro’s first outing with the character, although both movies share the same strengths (inspired creature design, a sense of humor, and the director’s affection for the material) and weaknesses (convoluted mythologies, haphazard plotting, and not enough development of the very colorful characters). In a season saturated with super-hero movies, “Hellboy II” falls somewhere in the middle; it’s neither as good as “Iron Man” nor as awful as “Hancock.”

With the exception of the young male demographic for which the movie was principally made, viewers of “Hellboy II” will lose patience with the scattershot storyline, which involves assembling pieces of an enchanted crown in order to control an army of hulking clockwork soldiers. As Hellboy stories go, this one isn’t as engaging as some of the more folkloric tales explored in the comics, but it does boast several thrilling sequences, including a visit to the wonderfully grotesque Troll Market, a battle between Hellboy and a tree-like forest god, and a showdown set in and around giant rotating gears. The whole movie is notably less indebted to H.P. Lovecraft than the first “Hellboy,” which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Hellboy’s previous movie companions see their roles expanded for the better. Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) is given both a love interest and a more pivotal place as confidante to Hellboy and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). One memorably entertaining sequence sees a heartsick Hellboy and Abe slurping beer and singing along to Barry Manilow. Even though a major change in Hellboy’s relationship with Liz is disclosed up front, the thread is virtually ignored until the latter portion of the film. The revelation moves disappointingly toward standard issue soap opera territory, and suggests a variety of possibilities for the inevitable “Hellboy III.”

Unquestionably the linchpin in Hellboy’s leap from page to screen, Ron Perlman embodies the title character with tough guy panache. Perlman carries the mantle of Hellboy’s distinctive crimson physicality, including filed-down devil horns and the oversized, stony “Right Hand of Doom,” with comfort and ease, and one immediately sees the advantages of employing a real human actor as opposed to the lifelessness of computer-generated performers in movies like “The Incredible Hulk.” Perlman treats Hellboy with respect and plays him straight, a tactic that pays big dividends for the movie as a whole. While Red’s signature traits, including his fondness for candy bars and cigars, remain intact, he thankfully mutters “Oh crap” less often than last time.

Del Toro’s “more is more” attitude works visual miracles, even if the script isn’t A-game stuff. Even though plenty of computer enhancements are used to fuel the action, del Toro clearly seems to prefer the tactility of prosthetics, and the real-world quality consistently shows. The filmmaker will have plenty of opportunities to strut his stuff when he tackles “The Hobbit” for Peter Jackson and company. If that project is even a fraction as successful as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it might provide del Toro with an opportunity to take even greater risks when he revisits “Hellboy” sometime in the future.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/14/08.

Hancock

Monday, July 7th, 2008

hancock

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The best thing about “Hancock” is its tight running time. In recent history, the Fourth of July weekend plus Will Smith’s impervious likability equals substantial box office receipts, but “Hancock” is poor to the point of insulting – a sarcastic metafiction that appears to have been assembled by committee. Word is that the original screenplay went through major rewrites, but regardless of the script’s origins, the garbage that ended up on the screen is a complete misfire. With a steady stream of winks to the audience, “Hancock” wants to send up the superhero genre, but it depends too much on its cruddy CG effects and a rote climactic showdown to make an effective argument for satire.

Smith plays the title character, a reluctant, almost suicidal do-gooder who so loathes his role as a Los Angeles-based, crime-stopping savior that he has taken to drink, profanity, sarcasm, and property damage to overcompensate for his super services. As embodied by Smith, Hancock has all the necessary ingredients for a terrific character. It’s the writing that lets him down scene after scene. After establishing a relationship between the derelict hero and a PR executive whose life Hancock saves, an insensible plot twist is sprung on the audience a little more than halfway through the film. It might be unfair to share the details of this revelation, but the result is so goofy, it belongs in another movie, like “Highlander.”

Charlize Theron factors into the cockamamie surprise, and like Smith she is engaging even when saddled with a wholly wretched character. Theron, as much as Smith, is called upon to do all sorts of things that snap credulity in two, and she does them with a conviction the movie doesn’t deserve. She plays the doting wife of Jason Bateman’s public relations man, and by the time the film gets around to its water-drenched climax, Theron suffers the indignity of writhing in agony in a hospital bed while all hell breaks loose around her. The sight of it is sheer nonsense, and one cannot help but feel a little bit embarrassed for the Academy Award winner.

“Hancock” is a tasteless brew of competing themes, agendas, and cinematic styles. Director Peter Berg stages too much of the action in frustrating, handheld close-up, and the result is a nauseating tour of the lead actors’ nostrils and facial pores. Tobias Schliessler’s gritty cinematography suggests that “Hancock” might have intended to construct a more plausible universe than the ones offered up in recent Marvel and D.C. adaptations. Too bad that the story finds no incentive to follow through on the possibilities, opting instead to lard the pietistic, self-satisfied displays with juvenile gross-outs revolving around Hancock’s ability to literally shove a man’s head up another man’s rectum.

Such touches, along with Hancock’s disdain for wearing a costume that might be perceived as less than straight, flaunts a boorish homophobia that undermines the movie’s position as an enlightened social commentary. Berg spends too much time with his hand on the throttle of squishy exposition and incomprehensible backstory, and neither endears Mr. Hancock to the viewer. The movie’s ending is a shambles, reintroducing the most forgettable hook-handed villain in recent memory. “Hancock” is a sickening waste of the talents involved and should be avoided even if a friend offers to buy you a ticket.

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