Archive for September, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

Monday, September 29th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A largely frustrating, mostly disappointing adaptation of James McBride’s novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” bears the hallmarks, and then some, of many a Spike Lee joint.  Despite the seasoned filmmaker’s audacious personal stamp, the movie plays like an overwrought made-for-television miniseries, piling numerous subplots on top of one another with little regard for audience sympathy.  This author wrote recently that Joel and Ethan Coen sometimes make movies in which they demonstrate contempt for their characters.  In Spike Lee’s case, it is the viewer who appears to be on the receiving end of the moviemaker’s scorn and derision.

The old writing adage “show don’t tell” is not a lesson Lee has learned.  He shows plenty, but he also has the tremendously annoying habit of spoiling many beautiful moments by adding some dialogue that points out the obvious.  At his very best, in movies like “Do the Right Thing,” Lee tempers his loquaciousness with a talent for sensational compositions and strong pacing.  “Miracle at St. Anna” occasionally seems like it was directed by someone else entirely, and the battle sequences in particular unfold with little sense of narrative space and time.

Lee seems unwilling to commit the film to a single tone, and lurches wildly from vicious violence to heavy-handed social commentary to the odd and out of place provinces of magical realism.  The latter is expressed in some dimensions of the unlikely relationship that blossoms between PFC Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), a mountainous, superstitious, and deeply religious manchild, and Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), a young Italian boy whose life is saved by Train.  Angelo refers to Train as the “Chocolate Giant,” and the protective bond that forms will remind some viewers of “Life Is Beautiful,” and not in a good way.

It is possible that the inconsistency of tone owes something to the unwieldy number of diversions and red herrings that bob up in scene after scene.  Instead of drawing the central quartet of soldiers as fully dimensional characters, the script dwells on a group of Italian villagers with varying political allegiances, a handful of partisans led by a guerilla known as the Great Butterfly, some Nazis looking to reclaim one of their own missing fighters, and a romantic rivalry over a pretty villager.  Additionally, Lee frames the movie with a murder mystery involving the pilfered head of a priceless statue.

There is definitely a great movie in the story of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit that was the only outfit of African Americans to see European combat during World War II.  “Miracle at St. Anna” is not that movie.  The role of African American soldiers, who faced racism on a regular basis from white officers, gets buried amidst all the other story threads, even though as a theme, it is the most promising component of the movie.  One of the most intriguing juxtapositions in the film occurs early, as members of the 92nd attempt a river crossing while a German truck broadcasts dispiriting messages from Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara), a seductively voiced English speaker who reminds the men that they are fighting for a country that does not care about them.  If Lee had opted to pursue that idea to the exclusion of most of the movie’s others, “Miracle at St. Anna” might have succeeded.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/29/08.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Monday, September 22nd, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A tasty dessert prepared with just the right combination of sweet and tart, Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is one of the year’s most enjoyable movie experiences. Buoyed by delightful performances from an ensemble of gorgeous creatures made all the more beautiful by the alluring Spanish surroundings, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” like Allen’s finest films, considers romantic love from a multitude of angles. Funny, charming, and clever, the movie reinforces the director’s longstanding worldview: Allen privileges the epicure’s delight, even though he knows most of us will err on the side of convention and caution.

Seasoned enough to pull off the inclusion of voiceover narration in which the audience is introduced to two young American women spending the summer in Barcelona, Allen sets up his title characters as diametric opposites in temperament and taste, despite their enduring friendship. Vicky (Rebecca Hall), whose sharp dialogue will remind Allen aficionados of the director’s own enduring comic voice, is a skeptic who depends on the comforts of predictability and routine. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is impetuous, restless, and slightly reckless when it comes to relationships. As the movie explains more than once, Cristina is not sure exactly what she wants, but she knows what she doesn’t want.

Shortly after arriving in Spain, the friends make the acquaintance of Javier Bardem’s sensual artist Juan Antonio, who introduces himself by suggesting the three of them share a weekend of sex together. The women, like the viewers, are initially shocked, and press for some clarification. In one of the best lines in the film, Juan Antonio defends his bold proposition by explaining that “Life is short, dull, and full of pain.” While this particular sentiment might not be enough to placate hardened cynics, Allen presents it with such straightforward simplicity that many audience members burst out laughing at the blunt, unfiltered audacity of the idea. Juan Antonio, a hedonistic painter who initially seems like nothing more than a macho, Latin lothario stereotype, turns out to be much more complex than meets the eye, and Bardem is perfect in the role.

What follows includes a series of turnabouts, reversals, and surprises, and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” would have been a good movie merely to follow the couplings to their conclusions. Allen has more ambitious things in mind, however, and lights a fuse with the introduction of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). Cruz’s sudden appearance changes the entire dynamic of the movie’s relationships, and the performer demonstrates tremendous flair, delivering her lines in a rapid-fire blend of Spanish and English that leaves all interlocutors begging for mercy.

For decades, Allen has dissected affairs of the heart with deft comic timing and no small amount of heartache and longing for an ideal that doesn’t exist outside of our own fantasies. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” proves a nice addition to that tradition, and might just inspire some moviegoers to rent some of Allen’s classic work to see what the fuss was about thirty plus years ago, when the filmmaker was the toast of both cineastes and a public out for a good time at the movies.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/22/08.

Burn After Reading

Monday, September 15th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen have for years been accused of showing contempt for their audiences, and “Burn After Reading” is likely to add new voices to the din.  For many, however, the allure of the brothers has always been their idiosyncratic and intimate storytelling; they make movies for their own pleasure, viewers be damned.  Working as something like a breezy counterpart to their Academy Award-winning “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading” traces the gross incompetence of a series of greedy and shallow suckers who lack both brains and heart.  The Coens are always better when their movies feature protagonists worth cheering, but they have demonstrated again and again that this quality is certainly not a prerequisite of their filmmaking.

Weaving together a tapestry of intellect-challenged D.C.-area dwellers into what John Malkovich’s character Osborne Cox hilariously describes as a “league of morons,” “Burn After Reading” loosely employs espionage as the vehicle by which the Coens gleefully attack the adulterous nincompoops who form their talented ensemble.  One’s enjoyment of the movie will depend largely on a tolerance for exquisite and prodigious profanity and shocking, unexpected violence.  In Joel and Ethan’s world, nobody is safe from the physical horror that can be so quickly and cruelly applied by fate and circumstance.

With the exception of Malkovich’s bald CIA analyst, the Coens have a field day saddling their stars with less than flattering coiffures.  Long a staple of the Coen aesthetic, outrageous haircuts often take the place of character development, and the parade of pompadours and pageboys worn by the likes of Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand delivers one of the film’s funniest running gags.  George Clooney trades on his killer looks as a horny U.S. Marshal who builds sex chairs in his spare time.  Tilda Swinton, as Clooney’s lover and Malkovich’s wife, has to be one of the world’s cruelest pediatricians.

As is typical of the Coens, the supporting cast of “Burn After Reading” often upstages the major players.  J.K. Simmons is effortlessly funny as a CIA boss and Richard Jenkins, in probably the only sympathetic characterization in the movie, is as indispensable as ever as the gym manager who carries a torch for McDormand’s narcissistic half-wit.  Raul Aranas, in a microscopic role, gets plenty of mileage repeating the line “Just lying there” in dumbfounded stupor.  The Coens have made sport of transcendent moments like that one for years, and “Burn After Reading” adds several more to the long list, including a Princeton reunion sing-along that puts another knife in the heart of insufferably self-important men in suits.

With its serpentine twists and knot of relationships, “Burn After Reading” reminds us of the filmmakers’ fascination for the pulpy literature of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  Those hard-boiled authors, whose fictions often contained a fatalistic, black-as-pitch humor congruent with the Coen style, occasionally penned stories so complex one needed a flowchart to keep everything straight.  The plots of some of their books didn’t always matter as much as the style, and this same charge has been leveled at the Coens more than once.  “Burn After Reading” will certainly be a tougher sell to the mainstream than “No Country for Old Men,” but stalwart Coen loyalists will find plenty to applaud.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/15/08. 

Bangkok Dangerous

Monday, September 8th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

An absolutely terrible assassin thriller remade from the 1999 original by brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, “Bangkok Dangerous” is dreadfully dull, poorly paced, and ridiculously acted by star Nicolas Cage, who may have been attracted to the movie’s brooding, neon-lit setting. Alas, even moviegoers who normally enjoy Cage’s oddball line delivery will find little of camp value in this lethargic mess. “Bangkok Dangerous” makes other action-oriented Americans-in-East Asia movies, like Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain” and Philip Kaufman’s “Rising Sun,” look brilliant by comparison. While the aforementioned movies were essentially police procedurals, “Bangkok Dangerous” attempts to sell its American audience on the promise of exotic Thailand.

Peppered with leaden voiceover narration in which killer-for-hire Cage stoically explains the four basic rules of contract murder (and then spends the rest of the movie violating all of them), “Bangkok Dangerous” cannot be bothered to build any kind of rapport with its audience. Instead of character development, the Pangs substitute a wholly unnecessary prologue in which Cage’s sniper drops a baddie with a perfect shot from a high-powered rifle during a police interrogation in Prague. The action then moves to the city of the title, and the Pangs do little to inspire an uptick in tourism, choosing instead to emphasize Bangkok’s poverty, crowdedness, and crime rate.

Wearing a comical mop of inky, unkempt hair that does his face no favors, Cage drones on about his career choice, lamenting the assassin’s difficulty in finding a dinner companion after work. The dialogue is preposterous, and when Cage falls for a deaf pharmacist you can feel the audience rolling their eyes in unison. Apparently breaking one of the cardinal hitman rules works like gateway drugs: Cage also decides he wants to teach, and passes along his martial arts wisdom to a gutsy young courier who runs the man’s dangerous errands. Normally, a superfluous training montage would at least inspire a good chuckle or two, but “Bangkok Dangerous” poses no threat to “The Karate Kid,” or “Hot Rod” for that matter.

“Bangkok Dangerous” jumbles together a grab bag of unconnected scenes, and even though we are told that Cage has been hired to carry out four killings, not a single set-piece delivers the goods. Instead, the Pangs resort to some run-of-the-mill gunplay and one weird murder in which Cage drowns a corpulent gangster, alligator-style, in a swimming pool. “Bangkok Dangerous” throws in a combination boat/motorcycle chase and a disorienting climax in which Cage descends on the main bad guy’s compound, dispatching scores of toughs in video game-like fashion.

“Bangkok Dangerous” is a hyper-masculine ode to violence with no use at all for women. Of the two females who appear onscreen in any substantive way, one is a nightclub dancer used at will by powerful thugs and the other is a deaf-mute. Both are in need of rescue at some point or other and neither one exists as a fully formed character. Several critics have complained that these women fulfill the stereotype of the passive Asian. Imagine how much more interesting the movie would have been had the Pangs considered the points of view and perspectives of the movie’s non-male characters.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/8/08.

The Singing Revolution

Monday, September 1st, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A worthwhile historical document, “The Singing Revolution” provides an impassioned clinic on civil disobedience and national unity as it chronicles the modern history of Estonia. Despite the promises of the movie’s trailer, “The Singing Revolution” does not focus the bulk of its attention on music, but spends much of its running time reconstructing a chronology that details Estonia’s grim status as a nearly perpetually occupied victim of mighty regional powers en route to its eventual independence in 1991. Well-paced and artfully crafted, “The Singing Revolution” will be of particular interest to people of Estonian heritage, but the movie also entertains and enlightens anyone captivated by the rare spectacle of non-violent political change.

Coined by artist and activist Heinz Valk in an article he wrote following a mass singing of folk songs and hymns at the 1988 Estonian Song Festival, or Laulupidu, the term “Singing Revolution” eventually came to be associated with Latvia and Lithuania as well as Estonia as a description of numerous musical and non-musical events demonstrating the desire of Baltic people to free themselves from Soviet occupation and rule. Despite being essentially forbidden, the music performed during the song festivals galvanized the citizenry, and some observers claim that more than a fourth of the entire population of Estonia participated in the 1988 Laulupidu.

Assisted by Linda Hunt’s expert narration, directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty blend a wealth of archival footage with contemporary interviews. The vintage newsreel and historical material contains a number of unflinchingly brutal and graphic images, including World War II-era clips in which prisoners are executed at point blank range. The horrific nature of some of the atrocities perpetrated against the Estonians contrasts sharply with the peaceful protesting espoused by group singing, and younger viewers might find the depictions of death disturbing. The inclusion of this content, however, underscores what was at stake.

The filmmakers include a great deal of nicely arranged information, but a few sequences leave out enough detail to frustrate viewers hoping for more depth than breadth. For example, the fascinating anti-Soviet guerilla movement known as the Forest Brothers, or Metsavennad, is tantalizingly introduced via an interview with a surviving member who shows off one of the underground hideouts used by the resistance soldiers. The sequence is brief and the Forest Brothers are ultimately glossed over as the film turns its attention to other significant dates and events. Later set pieces, including the August 1991 standoff at the Tallinn TV tower, are rendered more vividly.

“The Singing Revolution” discusses mass singing more than it actually shows it happening, but when the movie does intercut huge choral performances with the extensive interviews, the result can be emotionally moving. The film itself wears the pride of cultural heritage on its sleeve, but one cannot help but smile at the pluck and determination of the Estonian faithful who persevered for generations against the odds. Taking advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies, Estonians embarked on an unshakable journey to nationhood. “The Singing Revolution” effectively shares this story with moviegoers who might not know the tale.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/1/08.