Archive for November, 2008

Twilight

Monday, November 24th, 2008

twilight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It is no secret that most youth-oriented film franchises are created for and marketed to teen boys, so the idea of a wildly popular series aimed at girls of the same age makes “Twilight” a little easier to swallow than its tepid construction might otherwise merit. Based on the inaugural volume in Stephenie Meyer’s publishing juggernaut, director Catherine Hardwicke’s movie version captures only the tiniest spark of the best filmmaking qualities she displayed in the slightly overrated “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown.” An overhaul, or perhaps more to the point, revamp (pun intended), of the lore and legend of bloodsuckers from Stoker’s Count Dracula to Rice’s Lestat, “Twilight” juggles several expectations while remaining true to the genre’s seductive and sensual foundations.

Like Joel Schumacher’s 1987 “The Lost Boys,” “Twilight” jettisons most of the unsavory aspects of vampirism in favor of teenage angst and cool. When Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) leaves sunny Arizona to live with her police chief dad in perpetually drizzly Forks, Washington, she falls hard for pale Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a member of a clan of nosferatu pledged not to drink human blood. Edward might think of himself as a “bad guy,” but his actions prove the opposite, especially when he draws on his superhuman strength and speed to save Bella from serious injury in a car wreck.

Meyer’s conceptual masterstroke, which translates efficiently to the big screen, is Edward’s internal struggle to refrain from sinking his fangs into Bella’s pretty neck. Working perfectly as an allegorical corollary to the teen abstinence movement, Edward’s pledge to protect Bella and remain in control of his desires is the engine that drives the movie’s blend of perpetual longing and honorable chastity. Stewart and Pattinson have the chemistry to pull it off, and several of the movie’s strongest scenes allow the lovers to explore their romantic feelings without going “all the way.”

The courtship of Bella and Edward unfolds leisurely during the first half of the movie, and Hardwicke reasserts the aptitude for the rhythms and patterns of teen communication that she demonstrated in her previous features. “Twilight” takes a major nosedive, however, with the introduction of a silly trio of nomadic vampires who encroach on Cullen family turf. The script fails to explore the motivations of the movie’s true antagonists, and viewers are left with flat, wooden villains unable to generate any intrigue or interest. An insensible ballet studio showdown with one of the evil revenants meant as the movie’s dramatic climax comes across as a futile and dreadfully dull story-topper.

“Twilight” tacks on a shameless denouement that all but trumpets the inevitable sequel. As the credits roll, the tragically hip will cringe at the inclusion of Radiohead’s “15 Step,” out of place alongside the more pedestrian sounds of Linkin Park, Mute Math and Paramore. The younger viewers will not locate any disparity in the choice of tunes, two of which are performed by star Pattinson. Instead, they will be comparing notes on the latest actor to achieve virtually instant heartthrob status and imagining what it would be like to be held in his arms, high above the ground in the branches of a towering tree.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/24/08.

Quantum of Solace

Monday, November 17th, 2008

quantum

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Quantum of Solace” is several notches below “Casino Royale,” but Daniel Craig continues to demonstrate that his James Bond is arguably the best.  Directed by Marc Forster, whose eclectic choices behind the camera can be hit or miss, “Quantum of Solace” manages a noteworthy pair of Bond statistics: it is the shortest movie in the series to date, running more than a half hour tighter than its predecessor, and it is also the first of the Bond films to pick up immediately where the previous story left off.  Beyond those two facts, there is little to distinguish “Quantum of Solace,” which is encumbered by hellacious, disorienting editing during its many action sequences as well as an awful, thudding score by David Arnold.

While nowhere near the bottom of the heap in the Bond archive – it is handily better than any of the Brosnan and Dalton entries – “Quantum of Solace” won’t be placed near the top by many franchise fans either.  Forster spends too much time staging action at the expense of the downtime needed to explore the revitalized Bond, who is still learning the ropes and figuring out the angles of the 00 license.  It is still novel, if not fascinating, to see a Bond portrayal that suggests a rookie as opposed to a veteran, but one gets the feeling that by the next outing, that particular aspect of the storyline will be shelved.

The movie Bond’s voracious sexual appetite for exotic partners has been scrutinized by pop culture academics for years (recall the discussions of the post-HIV epidemic Bond in the reviews of an earlier decade’s “reboot”), but the agent’s persuasive way with the opposite sex has been a sacred cow, as certain as the sunrise.  No rules demand that Bond have intercourse with every significant female whose path he crosses, and “Quantum of Solace” is particularly lean on eroticism.  Bond’s relationship with fellow revenge-seeker Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is chaste, but the screenplay does squeeze in a dalliance with Gemma Arterton’s Strawberry Fields, whose fate is revealed in a clever visual nod to “Goldfinger.”

Considering the popularity of the “Bourne” series, one can easily understand why a Cold War relic like the Bond suite would brush the dust from itself in imitation.  Some longtime followers will cringe at the latest Bond’s similarities to Bourne, but if the Craig era continues to explore a darker Bond of the “blunt instrument” variety described by Fleming (and Judi Dench’s M in “Casino Royale”), it makes sense to linger a bit when the man chokes the life out of an attacker.  A less cartoonish Bond universe, which seems to be Craig’s cup of tea, beats the silly gadgetry and inane wordplay that some admirers cling to like a security blanket.

If one accepts the premise that there can be a Bond for every generation, then making the character a bit richer and deeper risks nothing; after all, if that tactic does not work, the series can find a new lead and start all over again (again).  “Casino Royale,” in allowing Bond to develop feelings for Vesper Lynd (who is very much missed in “Quantum of Solace”), recalled “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a cult favorite.  In the new film, we are told that Bond acts out of grief, but the screenplay avoids any kind of psychological exploration of the operative’s motives.  The inclusion of that sort of content could really shake up the rigid Bond universe.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/17/08.

Role Models

Monday, November 10th, 2008

rolemodels

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It is a safe bet that many of the published reviews of “Role Models” will reference its similarity to the movies of current comedy juggernaut Judd Apatow. Apatow has perfected the art of the “bromance” as well as the blending of warm-hearted positivism and crass vulgarity. Movies like “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” have set a course for a kind of contemporary American humor that will be identified as its own particular subset of the comedy genre in years to come. David Wain, a brilliant comic mind in his own right, is the director and co-writer of “Role Models,” but the movie lacks much of the skewed worldview that defines funnier efforts like “Stella” and “Wainy Days.”

Actor Paul Rudd, who has collaborated with Wain on several projects, is joined by Seann William Scott, still effectively mining the oversexed party animal persona he originated as Steve Stifler in the “American Pie” series. The two of them are supposed to be best pals, although one immediately gets the feeling that Rudd’s bitter, angry, and sarcastic Danny doesn’t feel the same level of fraternity as Scott’s Wheeler. As pitchmen for an overpriced energy drink, Danny and Wheeler travel to schools in a tricked-out minotaur-themed monster truck. On one especially bad day in a chain of bad days, Danny’s rage leaves the buddies on the wrong side of the law.

Wain never seems very far away from fellow members of cult comedy troupe The State, and finds many laughs in the story of a pair of man-children whose arrested development catches up with them in the shape of court-ordered community service in a mentorship program called Sturdy Wings. Thanks in no small part to the effortless timing and charm of Rudd (another of the film’s credited writers), “Role Models” sustains its featherweight premise for more than half of the total running time. Filmmakers who emulate Apatow in the pursuit of his level of box office success, however, rarely have his uncanny ability to make the warm, fuzzy, lessons-learned part of the story work, and the last section of “Role Models” feels half-hearted, as if Wain might have preferred a less happy ending.

Once Danny and Wheeler meet their “littles” at Sturdy Wings, the movie divides its time between the nerd-heavy world of live action role-playing inhabited by cape-wearing Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is paired with Danny, and the sewer-mouthed antics of pint-sized Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), who alternates between antagonizing Wheeler and picking up the man’s girl-watching techniques. Both of the kids are good, although audience members familiar with Mintz-Plasse’s turn as McLovin in “Superbad” might not buy him as a seemingly younger, less worldly version of the high school geek.

The remainder of the cast, including terrific supporting players like Ken Marino (another of the movie’s writers), Ken Jeong and Jo Lo Truglio, is excellent, but it is Jane Lynch who steals the movie as Sturdy Wings founder and former cokehead Gayle Sweeny. Lynch is brilliant as the off-kilter, high-strung motivator, and the way in which she caroms wildly from protective and nurturing to thoroughly age-inappropriate provides the film with its most memorable moments. Blurting out intimate information with shockingly unfiltered self-disclosure, the veteran Lynch proves once again that she deserves her own lead role in one of these types of comedies.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/10/08.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

zackmiri

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like Fellini’s “8 1/2,” writer-director Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” fictionalizes the filmmaker’s own career aspirations through the gauze covered lens of sideways self-mythologizing. Mirroring Smith’s breakout debut “Clerks,” “Zack and Miri” is based on the premise that a group of pals can kiss minimum wage slavery goodbye simply by stitching together a raunchy flick that can be sold back to like-minded true believers. Smith’s latest reaffirms the director’s position as Hollywood’s ultimate underachiever. Neither the presence of Judd Apatow regulars nor the spiffy technical work can hide the fact that Smith has never been much of a visual storyteller. Instead, his greatest gift remains his ear for blue dialogue, which wallpapers nearly every square inch of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

Some Smith supporters might fawn over what passes for the movie’s heart, in this case the time-honored premise that two childhood playmates, despite the platonic boundaries of their longtime friendship, are really meant to be together as happily-ever-after lovers. In Smith’s world, these protagonists (not to mention the rest of the cast), curse like longshoremen, and their idea of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” entrepreneurship is to slap together an X-rated quickie just to be able to pay the water and electric bills.

Given the large number of “Zack and Miri” cast members who have appeared in recent Apatow-produced or directed comedies, Smith has taken some lumps for rehashing, reheating, and perhaps attempting to cash in on Apatow’s market. To be fair, Smith has long favored the blend of potty-mouthed vulgarity and romantic traditionalism packaged so expertly by Apatow, but one cannot help feeling that “Zack and Miri” suffers in comparison to “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” A few Smith stalwarts, including Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson, are on hand, although Mewes is nowhere near as much fun in the role of porn wannabe Lester as he is when playing his signature role of marijuana-addled Jay.

“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” never approaches the cleverness of “Chasing Amy” (still Smith’s best work), but it does transcend fairly low expectations in a couple of scenes, including a pre-Thanksgiving high school reunion and the brief tease of a “Star Wars”-inspired porn parody. The former, which captures a certain degree of the desperation felt by people in their late 20s faced with the prospect of explaining their lack of success to former classmates, stunt-casts Justin Long as Brandon Routh’s lover. The latter disappears almost as quickly as it arrives, as if Smith began to worry that a Dianoga dildo might raise the ire of George Lucas.

As the title pair, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks work up a sweat trying to act their way around the blandness of their characters as conceived by Smith. The homogeneity of the director’s creations – nearly all Smith’s mouthpieces think and speak alike – is the movie’s central deficiency. With the exception of Craig Robinson, the other members of Zack and Miri’s unlikely family of pornographers are flat and unformed as recognizable human beings. We learn nothing, for example, about Traci Lords’ Bubbles beyond her signature sexual talent. Had the movie been as funny as it is earnest, one might have overlooked these flaws.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/3/08.