Archive for August, 2008

Death Race

Monday, August 25th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A trashy update (in name only) of 1975’s Paul Bartel/Roger Corman “Death Race 2000,” “Death Race” continues to blur the line between motion picture entertainment and video game. So it will come as no surprise that the movie’s director is Paul W.S. Anderson, the helmer behind “Mortal Kombat” and “Resident Evil.” For genre fans, the movie fulfills its modest expectations: drivers pilot souped-up, armored vehicles around an industrial prison track, attempting to kill each other on the way to the finish line. Automotive mayhem dominates the reasonably tight running time at the expense of nuance and subtext, but the target audience is highly unlikely to mind.

Jason Statham, a terrific physical screen presence who just needs a couple of meaty roles to lift him out of the ghetto of typecast in which he toils (in, among even lesser things, one “Transporter” movie after another), plays protagonist Jensen Ames, an honest, hardworking family man framed for the murder of his wife. Sent to Terminal Island, a corporate-run maximum security correctional facility, Ames is strong-armed into accepting a role as a replacement contestant in Death Race, a pay-per-view money machine overseen by steely-eyed warden Hennessey (Joan Allen, playing so tight she turns coal into diamond).

Partnered with the wise lifer Coach (Ian McShane, perpetually awesome, even when stuck with dialogue light years from Al Swearengen), Ames at first reluctantly agrees to put pedal to metal, but warms up to the contest when he realizes it affords him an opportunity to directly avenge the death of his beloved. Anderson stakes out three rounds of behind-the-wheel carnage, and pauses briefly in between to connect the dots of Ames’ predicament. The look of the movie maintains a dingy palette of gun-metal gray, and the overall effect of the desaturation numbs the viewer.

Hilariously, albeit unintentionally, “Death Race” juices its erotic appeal by partnering the doomed road warriors with bombshell female “navigators” recruited from a nearby women’s lockup. With the exception of Tyrese Gibson’s Machine Gun Joe, who prefers the company of men, the cartoonish competitors rev their engines with women in the passenger seats, but the movie has no interest in exploring the dynamics of the unlikely pairings, a disappointing choice since the entire Death Race enterprise is supposedly concerned with boosting ratings among its fictional audience. Anderson sneaks in one cozy moment between Ames and Natalie Martinez’s character Case, but it is in the service of setting up a big explosion, not sex.

“Death Race” sidesteps its camp potential far too often, and the absence of humor will make it a long road trip for some viewers. As an architect of burning rubber, Anderson fails more often than he succeeds, choosing a frantic, rapid-fire editing style that refuses to stick with any one image long enough for it to have presence or authority. Occasionally, the director manages to string together some shots that cohere, but most of the time the viewer has no grasp of the racers’ positions on the course. At one point, the warden remarks that her paying customers can select preferred angles during the matches. If only the movie patron could do the same.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/25/08.

Q & A with Sean Dillon

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008


Interview by Greg Carlson

Trollwood Performing Arts School alum and Fargo, North Dakota product Sean Dillon, a New York City-based actor, has a small but memorable role in “The Wackness.” Dillon graciously and on short notice agreed to chat with HPR Associate Film Editor Greg Carlson about his experiences working on the film.

HPR: How long have you been in New York? As a performer, why did you choose the city over Los Angeles?

Sean Dillon: I’ve been in New York since the fall of 1999, when I came out for school at NYU. I really felt I was going to get a better education as an actor here than I would in Los Angeles, and I think I probably did. I do periodically mull over the idea of moving to LA, because I’d like to do more film or television, and there is a lot more of it there. But there’s something about the glossy fakeness of LA that turns me off. And having to drive everywhere. I really like not having to drive.

HPR: Tell us a little bit about the process of getting the role of Gruden in “The Wackness.” Did you audition? Was there a great deal of competition?

SD: Wow. I’d love to make up some funny story about hundreds of actors fake-vomiting one after another, but the truth is, I actually didn’t audition for it at all. Because Gruden doesn’t speak, the producers went to a casting company that ordinarily hires background performers. I had previously worked with them, and they had my headshot on file, so they submitted me for consideration.

I guess the director liked the look of me. The first time they offered me the role, I declined, because they were looking for someone dorky, skinny, and 18 years old, and I’m no longer skinny or 18. But for whatever reason, karma smiled on me, and the casting company begged. I guess every other blond, geeky 20-something was busy that week. Being begged is flattering. So I said yes.

HPR: Even though Gruden is not exactly a loquacious fellow, he shares a scene with two of the principal characters and another supporting performer. Tell us a little bit about the process Jonathan Levine used to create the mood of that scene. How long did it take to shoot? Was there room for improvisation during takes?

SD: I think the setting itself was dominant in creating the mood. We were in a spectacularly old dive bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and it was perfect. You didn’t have to think about the mood. The space just handed it to you. All of my scenes were shot between 10 AM one day and 4 AM the next day, in one long, marathon day of shooting. It was brutal, but it bred a sense of communal suffering that I think also contributed to the esprit de corp.

I’m told there was only a little improv in the film generally, but everyone definitely cut loose in the bar scenes. I’d never even seen the script, so I was 100% improvised, but everyone in the scene – Mary-Kate Olsen and Sir Ben Kingsley included – was totally receptive and playful, and Jon would let the camera run maybe thirty seconds after the last line, just to see what we’d do. Most of that, of course, wound up on the cutting room floor. But it was an incredibly rewarding way to work.

HPR: Did you receive any words of wisdom from Sir Ben Kingsley?

SD: It was an incredible opportunity to work with Sir Ben. Aside from wanting to be called Sir Ben – and who can blame him? – I was actually shocked at how totally low-key he was. He radiated a confidence as an actor that immediately put us all at ease. And he has an amazingly smart sense of humor. Many takes that night were ruined because the director laughed out loud during the shot.

This interview was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/18/08.

The Wackness

Monday, August 18th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A routine coming-of-age tale enveloped in the haze of 1994 memories and plenty of marijuana smoke, “The Wackness” mostly lives up to its unfortunate title. Writer/director Jonathan Levine clings to the bare bones basics of moviemaking in both plot and style, and the results will try the patience of audience members curious enough to take a chance. Levine is blessed by the presence of Sir Ben Kingsley (who has made some eyebrow-raising choices of late), a veteran performer who knows exactly what to do with a role that seems underwritten one moment and overwritten the next. The director is not quite as lucky with former Nickelodeon kid Josh Peck, whose droopy-lidded wannabe remains too much of a poseur to earn any sympathy from viewers over the age of 25.

Peck’s Luke Shapiro, shown during the anxious gap between high school graduation and the start of college, turns out to be a pretty dreary guy. Dealing large quantities of pot out of a frozen ice pushcart in what has to be one of the unlikeliest covers for a kid who lives on the Upper East Side, Luke sulks in a depressed funk. When he is not trying to tune out his bickering parents, he trades weed for therapy with Dr. Jeff Squires (Kingsley), a shrink whose own family life teeters on the brink of dissolution. Once Luke confesses that he has an amorous interest in Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the psychiatrist is less than enthused about the possible match.

Luke simultaneously develops separate relationships with father and stepdaughter, and occasionally Levine comes close to finding something interesting to say in the intersections of the triangle. Mostly, however, the movie is content to alternate between scenes of Luke’s blossoming romance and zany digressions detailing the increasingly erratic and desperate behavior of the self-medicating Squires as he becomes a dubious father figure to his young patient. In these moments, which Levine chooses to play mostly for comedy, Kingsley manages to find some strands of pathos.

Boasting a rich soundtrack that brims with nicely chosen cuts by Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Craig Mack, KRS-One, the Wu-Tang Clan, Biz Markie, and the Notorious B.I.G. – to name a few – “The Wackness” only superficially explores the relationship of white kids to African American popular culture. Luke, a devoted hip-hop fan, makes mixtapes of his favorite tunes, and the almost constant presence of period-specific material serves as the movie’s strongest reminder of the mid-1990s setting. Luke’s appropriation of slang and colloquial speech proves more grating than endearing, and the script could have done without its umpteen uses of “mad” as a modifier (i.e. phrases like “I got mad love for you shorty. That’s on the real.”).

In hindsight, it was a smooth decision for Levine to wrap his story in the NYC of fourteen years ago. Besides the bizarre image of Kingsley making out with Mary-Kate Olsen, the period setting has received the lion’s share of critical notice. Some of the references have a tendency to deflate a moment by calling gimmicky attention to themselves (like Squires asking Luke if he is upset about Kurt Cobain). Other allusions, particularly in some of the female fashions, hit just the right note. For viewers of a certain vintage, “The Wackness” will conjure memories both painful and pleasurable.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/18/08.

Pineapple Express

Monday, August 11th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Pineapple Express” will win plenty of stoner fans looking for an easy good time, but considering some of the creative team’s recent work, the formulaic movie stumbles too often to be recommended. Writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, under the producing tutelage of Judd Apatow, delivered last summer’s surprise comedy hit “Superbad” after dusting off a screenplay the duo penned when they were teens. “Pineapple Express,” despite a story assist from Apatow, practically reeks of the same vintage, and the movie works as a virtual companion piece to the earlier film. Indie auteur David Gordon Green seems like an inspired choice for the driver’s seat, but with the exception of a golden-hued interlude involving a game of leapfrog, little of his signature directorial style makes it to the screen.

Rogen takes a meatier onscreen role this time out, playing protagonist Dale Denton, a perpetually baked process server whose career choice facilitates getting high on the clock and frequent visits to the high-school attended by his girlfriend. Pot dealer Saul Silver (James Franco), a lonely, pajama-clad waster desperate for human intimacy with his best customer, likes Dale so much he breaks out the rare strain of the title, hoping that the potent offering will lead to that special bond now familiar to Apatow fans under the portmanteau “bromance.”

“Pineapple Express” starts with plenty of promise, and director Green smoothly embraces the principal pair and their lived-in milieu. The agenda of the filmmakers takes a dark and dreary turn, however, as Dale witnesses a murder that brings a large measure of mayhem down on his previously idyllic haze. Yes, the ridiculous bursts of over-the-top bloodshed and physical violence are intended as a parody of self-consciously hip capers of the Tarantino variety, but the predictability factor only cranks up the level of tedium. “Pineapple Express” needed to capitalize on the chemistry of the lead actors instead of stage protracted shoot-outs and fisticuffs involving Asian drug gangsters (stereotypes?) and loquacious, sensitive hit-men.

Undoubtedly, all of these arguments are void if one views the movie under the influence of mood-enhancing substances, and it is a relief that Franco’s Saul is so wonderfully, lovably pathetic. Franco steals every scene, which is no mean feat when pitted against the criminally hilarious showboater Danny McBride, whose unfailingly polite double-crosser ad-libs some very funny material. Like “Superbad,” “Pineapple Express” hits its stride when exploring the fragile insecurities of its heroes. After what seems like an eternity of ghoulish ear trauma and abdominal gunshot wounds, the movie arrives at a rather sweet diner conversation in which the fellows share their hopes and dreams.

Dale’s vaguely inappropriate relationship with the teenage Angie (Amber Heard) is played for laughs – not that we need reminding that this guy refuses to grow up. The whole girlfriend subplot, which periodically hints at a more interesting movie than the one you are watching, crashes and burns following a terrific nightmare dinner-with-the-parents riff featuring Ed Begly Jr. and Nora Dunn (who both just show up, blow the doors off their big scene, and then essentially disappear). Inexplicably, the script stashes Angie in a hotel room where she suffers the fate – inelegantly described as “bros before hoes” – pre-ordained by ultimate buddy movies: there is no time for girls when close pals have (un)important things to do.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/11/08.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Monday, August 4th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” clearly intends to wink at its audience and have a rip-roaring old time, but the writing is so painful and so laborious, smart moviegoers will feel like the joke is on them. A textbook lesson in hackneyed and forced, the latest entry in the most popular franchise ever to so thoroughly rip off the “Indiana Jones” series has little appeal beyond a handful of sumptuous fantasy locales courtesy of Canada and China. For a film with a massive 140+ million dollar budget, the computer-generated effects are sloppy and uneven, despite the fact that a few of them manage to make one forget their digital origin.

Director Rob Cohen takes the reigns from Stephen Sommers (who stayed on as a producer and reportedly as an uncredited script polisher), and he fails to muster his predecessor’s lighter touch with the material. While Sommers mostly managed to construct scenes with narrative clarity, Cohen’s approach is ragged. A few sequences, especially one involving a trio of oddly protective Yetis, manage to deliver on their outrageous promises, but most of the big action scenes eschew suspense in favor of questionably staged battles in which one never really gets a sense of what is going on or where it is supposedly happening. The whole thing is another example of over-edited, junk food cinema.

Alternating between a decrepit family drama that places adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) at odds with his adult son Alex (Luke Ford) and a drawn-out chase involving an ancient Chinese despot (Jet Li) who seeks immortality and world domination after being resurrected, “Dragon Emperor” will pick up a few curiosity seekers eager to check out the movie’s martial arts angle. Very little choreographed hand-to-hand combat is included in the film, though, since the balance of time must be given over to shots of Ray Harryhausen-esque armies of undead soldiers charging into battle.

From the first scenes, “Dragon Emperor” feels slapdash and hammy. Rachel Weisz, who was a breath of fresh air in the stale tombs of the first two “Mummy” movies, has been replaced by Maria Bello. Bello is a sensational actor who has given riveting performances in films like “A History of Violence” and “The Cooler,” but she is miscast and adrift as Evelyn O’Connell. John Hannah returns as Evelyn’s loopy brother Jonathan, but suffers the indignities of playing close-up scenes with a phony looking, airsick yak named Geraldine. Jonathan’s pants literally catch on fire in one scene, and he cries out “Spank my ass!” in what might be the movie’s most idiotic line.

Martial arts fans hoping to see Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh in action will be let down. Foolishly, the moviemakers opt to use chunks of Li’s screen time transforming him into a variety of monsters, even though he is much more interesting in human form. Yeoh manages to bring her usual dignified air to dialogue so silly it would seem more at home in a fourth grade drama production. As Yeoh’s daughter and Ford’s love interest, Isabella Leong is a welcome addition to the cast. Unlike the majority of the other performers around her, she convincingly appears to interact with the fabulous fakery, and any person who can establish rapport with a benevolent group of Abominable Snowmen deserves some kind of recognition.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/4/08.