Archive for October, 2008

The Duchess

Monday, October 27th, 2008

duchess

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Keira Knightley fans anxious to see the talented performer in another sumptuous period melodrama will not be as disappointed as 18th century history buffs by “The Duchess,” a beautiful but largely inert costume ball helmed by Saul Dibb.  Recounting the remarkable life of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, who became the wife of William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, “The Duchess” makes up in production and costume design what it lacks in compelling narrative.  What could have been a captivating tale of the intellectual maneuvering and gamesmanship needed for a woman to survive the oppression of a crushingly sexist era ends up a fairly average example of the genre.

As discussed by Amanda Foreman in her book “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire,” upon which the movie’s script is based, the young Duchess successfully navigated the challenging social and political worlds of the late 1700s while trapped and constrained in an unhappy match.  The film is far less successful in balancing those two themes than was Georgiana, and most of the time the viewer’s attention is directed to the enormous pressure on the heroine to produce a male heir.  The movie includes the horrific reality of marital rape, but avoids dealing in any complex manner with the particulars of the Duke and Duchess’ interpersonal day-to-day, beyond the suggestion that the man was cold, distant, and more interested in his dogs than his spouse.

While Dibb does manage to squeeze in a fair number of scenes based on anecdotal record, including a brief dramatization of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play “The School for Scandal,” the movie spends most of its duration focused on the title character’s marital discord and unfulfilled promise.  The audience is reminded numerous times of Georgiana’s popularity with the public, but the film accomplishes very little in the way of explaining the convictions behind the young woman’s Whig Party beliefs.  One extravagant dinner scene offers the tiniest glimpse of Georgiana’s rhetorical gifts, but too often the political takes a back seat to affairs of the heart, including the steamy, doomed flirtation between Georgiana and childhood friend Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who would become Prime Minister.

Arguably the most compelling angle of Georgiana’s story is the open ménage a trois completed by the Duke’s romantic entanglement with the Duchess’ friend and confidante Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), who lived openly as the Duke’s mistress for a number of years.  Even though the three shared a home, the movie neglects to explore the psychological impact of her husband’s affair on the Duchess in any depth, and blithely skips from Georgiana’s sympathy with her close friend to bitter jealousy without stopping to consider much of anything in between.

Knightley is as good as usual, but her dominance of the frame takes away screen time from several superb actors in supporting roles.  While Ralph Fiennes is in fine form as the Duke, both Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana’s mother and Simon McBurney as Charles James Fox are never quite given the juicy scenes they deserve.  The audience is left to imagine that the best parts of their conversations with Georgiana happened either just before or just after the scenes that were left in the film.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/27/08.

Quarantine

Monday, October 20th, 2008

quarantine

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A derivative, vertigo-inducing horror cheapie based on the 2007 Spanish movie “REC,” “Quarantine” starts with promise but soon unravels into a haphazard hodgepodge of gimmicks.  Exclusively employing handheld, shaky photography meant to appear as if shot from the point of view of a character in the movie, “Quarantine” belongs to the same category of quasi-cinema verite shockers as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield.”  Viewers prone to motion sickness will want to steer clear of the movie, which lurches and wheels from start to finish like a dinghy in a squall.

Director John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote the screenplay with sibling Drew Dowdle, spends the first section of “Quarantine” establishing a relationship between TV reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and firefighters Jake (Jay Hernandez) and Fletch (Johnathon Schaech) during their usually uneventful overnight shift.  In hindsight, the fire station sequence is mostly time-filler, as it turns out Dowdle is not as interested in developing Angela or the other characters as first appears.  Accompanied by cameraman Scott (Steve Harris), whose lens provides the entirety of the film’s imagery, Angela tags along with the firemen on an emergency call to a downtown Los Angeles apartment complex.

Shortly after the crew’s arrival on the scene, an elderly resident attacks one of the first responders, and the panicked residents are gathered by police officers in the building’s main floor lobby.  The situation turns from bad to worse once the Center for Disease Control seals off the entire structure, trapping the protagonists inside with an unknown threat.  Dowdle cleverly builds tension in the first half of the movie by presenting the events of the story in real time and keeping both the audience and the characters in the dark about the nature of the calamity.  Unfortunately, the feelings of suspense and dread are soon replaced by the far less interesting techniques of shock and ambush.

As viewers learn more and more about the rabies-like disease that has infected some of the renters, the movie’s intrigue evaporates and the filmmakers expect a great deal more suspension of disbelief than the story can sustain.  Shooter Scott continues to roll tape long after any sane person hoping for self-preservation would shut off the camera.  The CDC agents surrounding the building are presented as silent storm troopers, offering no words of explanation or comfort from behind their anonymous hazmat suits.  A veterinarian played by Greg Germann offers his theory for the outbreak, but the actual summary, which unspools in the final reel, turns out to be a half-baked post-9/11 terror tale.

The most disappointing dimension of “Quarantine” is the erosion of Angela’s resourcefulness and confidence when people literally begin foaming at the mouth.  Once the ghouls emerge from the shadows to do gruesome harm, the young woman’s assertiveness melts away as she transforms into another sobbing, imperiled victim so common to the genre.  The climax, which tries to ape the night vision adrenaline of “The Silence of the Lambs,” falls short, and the dubious inclusion of its scenes for the movie’s trailer and poster thoroughly extinguishes any hope for needles-and-pins surprise.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/20/08. 

Body of Lies

Monday, October 13th, 2008

bodyoflies

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A familiar, by-the-numbers political thriller content to play by the rules of its own slightly skewed logic, “Body of Lies” comes packaged with several players from Hollywood’s elite but does not add up to much. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, the movie trumpets its own self-seriousness in addressing America’s preoccupation with shadowy Islamic fundamentalists who seek to terrorize the West. Joining a pack of recent films on the subject, including “The Kingdom” and “Rendition,” “Body of Lies” aspires to the level of intelligence and intrigue provided by “Syriana,” but never comes close to matching that movie’s quality. The very best thing about “Body of Lies” is the quotation from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” that appears at the beginning. How could the movie that follows be as eloquent?

Written by William Monahan and based on the novel by David Ignatius, “Body of Lies” oversimplifies the relationship between CIA operatives in the field and the geographically isolated commanders who give orders from the safety of Langley, Virginia. Time and again, Scott cuts between DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris, imperiled in the streets of various locations throughout the Middle East, and Crowe’s Ed Hoffman, who calmly makes life and death decisions via cell phone while he pads around in his bathrobe at home or takes his kids to school. While there might be something to the argument that America’s failure to make real progress in the so-called “War on Terror” has to do with arrogance and elitism, Crowe’s version of the blunt manager borders on caricature.

The contrast between the characters played by the principal performers is so great, Crowe comes across as more of a supporting actor than a full-fledged lead. Meanwhile, DiCaprio throws himself into his part with gusto, and Scott puts him through his paces in a physically demanding role. DiCaprio’s Ferris is a rising agency star who – unlike his boss – understands the importance of face-to-face intelligence gathering. Fluent in Arabic and comfortable bouncing around Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and other locales, Ferris establishes a valuable relationship with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), the head of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department.

“Body of Lies” asks the audience to accept a variety of far-fetched situations, and one of the least believable subplots revolves around a tentative romance that blossoms between Ferris and an Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). It is difficult to swallow the premise that a seasoned professional like Ferris would risk attracting negative attention by initiating a public courtship, especially when he is in the middle of cooking up an intricate plot designed to draw out an elusive terror mastermind. Convention apparently requires some kind of love interest, however, even if the result fails to cohere.

One wonders whether Hollywood ever manages to come close to the way in which covert operations are carried out in the real world. “Body of Lies” perpetuates the notion that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles transmit high-definition images back to giant banks of monitors, while tactical decisions are made quickly and effectively thousands of miles from the action. The reality must be far messier than that, but the concept provides Scott with an opportunity to orchestrate action sequences whenever the dialogue gets too dull. Unfortunately, after awhile even the action becomes routine, making “Body of Lies” a rather disappointing current events picture.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/13/08.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Monday, October 6th, 2008

nicknorah

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Adapted from the popular novel of the same title by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is much better than the typical teen movie, floating above some of the genre’s usual limitations while falling prey to just a few of the others. Sadly, the characters bear no spiritual relation to the effortlessness and élan of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s more well known Nick and Nora, but the Charles family detectives were as grown up as Michael Cera’s Nick O’Leary and Kat Dennings’ Norah Silverberg are adolescent. Director Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) makes the most of the storyline’s “American Graffiti”-esque odyssey, and the movie’s leads are clever and appealing.

Unfolding during the course of a magical NYC evening, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” establishes its musical pedigree with animated credits trumpeting some of the flavors-of-the-moment who grace the film’s soundtrack. Devendra Banhart and Bishop Allen provide tunes and appear onscreen. Band of Horses, Vampire Weekend, Tapes ‘n Tapes and the Real Tuesday Weld join many other artists with varying degrees of Pitchfork Media acceptability. Most of the music is well chosen, and only time will tell whether the soundtrack will take on the kind of cult status enjoyed by the groupings of songs in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Movies that incorporate rock music or rock musicians as part of the plot more often than not come off as utterly phony, and it is difficult to buy the cast’s enthusiasm for tracking down a secret gig by the elusive and too-cool-for-mere-mortals Where’s Fluffy, a fictional group beloved by the film’s in-the-know hipsters. While Where’s Fluffy remains unheard for the duration of the film, Nick’s band the Jerk-Offs does play, and there is something endearing about Cera as the only straight boy in the group. Cera repeats the geeky earnestness he perfected during the run of “Arrested Development” and then later in “Juno” and “Superbad,” but he is so good at it, most viewers won’t mind.

Along with Cera, Dennings is the main attraction, and both performers manage to flesh out somewhat thinly written characters. The supporting players, almost across the board, scarcely register as recognizable human beings, reduced instead to the stereotypes of the bitchy, selfish princess, the drug and alcohol-fueled party girl, and the extroverted homosexual pal. Possibly to maintain some level of Big Apple credibility, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” acknowledges, at least in passing, a rainbow of signifiers and identifiers for the variety of mostly privileged kids who pass through the scenes.

Despite an amplified orgasm that takes place at the storied Electric Lady recording studio, Sollett maintains a chaste romanticism throughout the film. The characters talk frankly about sex, but the film keeps its distance from the raunchiness that defined teen movies in the wake of “American Pie.” Some gross-out material, including a disgusting running gag about a piece of well-traveled chewing gum, feels a little forced. The good news is that the boy and girl falling for each other stuff, for all its familiarity, is warm, sweet, fun and wonderfully awkward.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/6/08.