Archive for December, 2008

Yes Man

Monday, December 29th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson


This review was published for Southpawfilmworks the week of 12/29/08.

Seven Pounds

Monday, December 22nd, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

With the release of “Seven Pounds,” superstar Will Smith earns the distinction of appearing in two of the year’s worst films. Along with “Hancock,” “Seven Pounds” makes a strong case that the charismatic performer has been taking ego-inflation lessons from pal Tom Cruise. Even so, Smith did not attain his global entertainment clout by being stupid, and he has thus far managed to insulate his persona from harm even when the films in which he appears smell like sewage. Reunited with director Gabriele Muccino, who fared better with “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith assumes the monumental challenge of breathing likability into a passive-aggressive, guilt-ridden, suicidal Good Samaritan.

A minefield of potential spoilers awaits any conscientious reviewer who attempts to untangle the dubious plot of “Seven Pounds,” especially since the film’s climax depends on one’s lack of knowledge of key details. From a screenwriting standpoint, the movie’s fractured narrative is a masterstroke in protection against criticism, covering up holes in logic too massive to be addressed in any other fashion. The film opens with the 911 call in which Smith’s Ben Thomas reports his suicide. Audience members are then left with the unsettling task of spending the remainder of the running time building up to the melodramatic moment.

Ben’s distress call merely signals the beginning of a herky-jerky parade of disjointed scenes that make little sense even when the movie’s devastating dark secret is revealed. A weird prelude of seemingly unconnected incidents suggests that Ben has decided to change the lives of several strangers, some of whom he has culled from the delinquency column of the IRS database. Among the group are Woody Harrelson as a blind call-center operator and Rosario Dawson as a printmaker with an enlarged heart. Like a bizarre stalker, Ben insinuates himself into their lives in a creepy way, determining whether they might be worthy of something he can give. In addition to Harrelson and Dawson, he also harasses a negligent nursing home director and signs over his oceanfront vacation home to a battered mother.

Through all of this nonsense, the script withholds too much vital information, which has the deleterious effect of making the whole journey completely frustrating. Clever and impatient viewers will be able to discern the meaning of the movie’s enigmatic title long before a revelatory shot in the final reel explains it. A similar title and storytelling strategy was used in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s superior if no less far-fetched “21 Grams,” but the poorly paced “Seven Pounds” lacks the directorial sophistication and thoughtfulness of the 2003 film.

Once Ben’s intentions are made known, “Seven Pounds” collapses like a beachcomber stung by a poisonous jellyfish. Simultaneously preposterous and grotesque, the entire enterprise feels something like a tasteless joke played on a naïve and trusting acquaintance. Perhaps not all of the blame rests with Smith, but Ben Thomas is a horrendous person, switching from self-effacement to vindictiveness as he passes judgment on others. In so doing, Thomas cultivates a smug, godlike status without addressing the possibility that he might be able to forgive himself. In the end, the real mystery of “Seven Pounds” is how it seemed like a good idea in the first place.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/22/08.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Monday, December 15th, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Robert Wise’s 1951 “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a touchstone of the science fiction genre. A smart, well-paced movie that has managed to transcend the handful of elements that are now outdated (in particular, the “gee whiz” dialogue of Billy Gray’s precocious Bobby Benson), the film boasts solid pacing, a memorable, theremin-infused and oft-mimicked score by Bernard Herrmann, and a trove of images that have become iconic. From robot Gort’s solemn watchfulness to the eerie landing of the flying saucer in Washington, D.C., “The Day the Earth Stood Still” inspired generations of filmmakers and film fanatics. A remake seemed inevitable.

Unfortunately for movie lovers, the new version fails to better the original in any significant way. Instead of addressing what minor narrative deficiencies existed in Edmund North’s screenplay, director Scott Derrickson’s take cranks up the action and the special effects without retaining enough of the original’s thoughtfulness. Fans have debated the ending of the 1951 version for decades, arguing about Klaatu’s warning of the Old Testament-like fury that will be unleashed if the human race continues to misbehave. Does the threat of destruction undercut the free will necessary for global societies to want to change for the good of the planet?

Keanu Reeves, projecting his well-worn, emotion-free persona, is not a bad choice to play alien messenger Klaatu, but he never measures up to the calm dignity of Michael Rennie. Jennifer Connelly assumes the role played by Patricia Neal, although Helen Benson’s occupation has been upgraded from secretary to Princeton scientist. Additionally, Helen’s son Bobby has been replaced by a stepson named Jacob. Unlike the trusting, well-behaved Bobby, Jacob is skeptical of Klaatu, and his distrust of the interstellar emissary contributes to one of the script’s biggest complications.

The 2008 update hangs on to Professor Barnhardt and his blackboard, but John Cleese is given only one scene in which to make an impact. The change of spaceship landing location from D.C. to NYC’s Central Park erases some of the political impact of Wise’s telling, and the smooth disc is now presented as a pulsating, glowing orb. Some credit should be given to the filmmakers for retaining the basic cyclopean design of Gort, even if the new robot has been spending more hours in the gym sculpting his physique. Gort’s role and function parallels his classic raison d’etre, but now he is capable of disintegrating into millions of insectoid nanites that devour whatever crosses their path like a plague of locusts.

More unwelcome is the presence of Kathy Bates’ Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson. Representing the typical lack of sophistication required of the government’s “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality, her scenes are forced and rushed in equal measure, and it is easy to tell that Bates spent very little time on the shoot. Had David Scarpa’s script jettisoned Jackson in favor of spending some time exploring the idea of Klaatu’s fellow travelers (tantalizingly introduced in a clever scene with veteran actor James Hong), it might have opened up more of the planet-wide perspective so ahead of its time in 1951.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/15/08.

Q & A with Tom Brandau

Monday, December 8th, 2008


Interview by Greg Carlson

In October of 2008, Minnesota State University Moorhead film studies professor Tom Brandau’s short documentary “Mr. Brown” was named best film in the Minnesota State Historical Society’s Greatest Generation Moving Pictures Film Competition.  HPR Associate Film Editor Greg Carlson spoke with Brandau about his accomplishment.  The movie is available to view in its entirety at

High Plains Reader:  First of all, congratulations on the award and the movie.  How did you originally hear about the contest?

Tom Brandau:  I had known about the contest for a few years.  It was an initiative that came out of the historical society’s program Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, which had been started a few years ago to recognize and honor the men and women who grew up in Minnesota during the Great Depression, came of age during World War II, and ushered in the boom years after the war.

My producer Jenn Bakken and I had been talking about making a film for the competition since the first year, but every summer something else would always come up and we’d run out of time. We knew that 2008 was going to be the final year and we were determined that one way or another we would have an entry ready by the deadline.

HPR:  What drew you to the topic area?

TB:  As far as my interest in the subject, well that goes back many years. I’m a history nut to begin with and I’m especially interested in the past hundred years. Like many people my age, I grew up hearing stories of the Great Depression and World War II from my parents and grandparents. Having an opportunity to make a film about someone from that era was more than enough incentive.

HPR:  How did you find out you had won?  What was that like?

TB:  Well the whole thing was somewhat dramatic and a bit nerve racking. The day of the awards ceremony all of the entries, in this case more than 50, were screened at different venues in the Twin Cities.  The ceremony itself was held at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.  None of the winners were announced beforehand; we just showed up and were told that all five of the winners would be screened in no particular order and then the awards would be announced afterward.

I was sitting with Lori Neal, one of the actors in the film, and when they showed “Mr. Brown” she grabbed my arm and said, “We won!”  Of course at that moment we didn’t know what we had won. I had assumed that if we were going to win anything it would probably be the award for Best Collaboration, especially considering that more than 50 people helped to make the film.

So when they announced the winner for Best Collaboration and it wasn’t us, we started playing “process of elimination.”  We knew that only three of the five awards could apply to “Mr. Brown” and when we eliminated those three, Lori looked at me with a big smile and said, “We took the top prize!”  It was a really fun moment.  I looked up at Jim Brown, sitting in the back, and he gave me a big smile too.

HPR:  Tell us a little bit about how Jim Brown became your subject.

TB:  I was originally going to make a film about Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella and the efforts to integrate minor league baseball in the late 1940s.  After talking with author Steve Hoffbeck, I set about researching the idea and began pre-production.  It was while I was researching the baseball idea that I came across Jim Brown.  Several people had recommended I interview Jim because he was very knowledgeable about the roots of black baseball in Minnesota and was old enough to remember going to minor league games back in the 1940s.

The problem was that no one knew how to get in touch with Jim.  At one point I was told he had published several stories on the Minnesota Historical Society website, so I went there and started reading his work.  I was immediately drawn to his stories, especially the autobiographical nature of them.

One story, “The Birthday Party” really struck me. It told of an incident that happened to Jim as a child, where he had been invited to a white friend’s birthday party only to be turned away at the door by the boy’s mother. I immediately saw the dramatic possibilities of retelling that poignant moment in Jim’s life.  I called my producer Jenn Bakken and said, “We’re changing focus.  We’re going to make a film about Jim Brown.”  After she read his stories she agreed and we finally found Jim and proceeded with the interview process.

HPR:  How much footage did you end up shooting?

TB:  We shot about ten hours worth of material. Of course most of that footage was interview material with Jim. I spent three solid days with him talking about the particulars of his life from childhood to the present. Other than his amazing memory for detail, the thing that impressed me the most about Jim during those sessions was his stamina.

He just turned 81 in August and when I finally talked with him he told me that he had been dealing with cancer treatments and had lost about 100 pounds.  I was concerned that the interview process might be too taxing on his health, but it really didn’t show. In fact I think it kind of rejuvenated him.  Jim’s a tough guy.

HPR:  What did Jim Brown say to you when “Mr. Brown” was named the winner of the contest?

TB:  He didn’t really say anything.  He just gave me a big smile and that was the best part of the whole thing. It was great to see Jim get the recognition he deserves.

This interview was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/8/08.


Monday, December 1st, 2008


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Longtime admirers comfortable with Baz Luhrmann’s “more is more” approach to filmmaking will roll with the sweeping pageantry of “Australia,” an expansive romance that wears its heart on its sleeve in every scene.  “Australia” is a long-winded pastiche of classic Hollywood cinema, aping significant chunks of revered titles from “The African Queen” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Red River.”  Infused with the director’s signature enthusiasm, “Australia” never quite finds a way to let its outsize comic earnestness live in harmony with a serious dearth of sophistication.  Of course, Luhrmann has never been on speaking terms with subtlety, but “Australia” sorely needs it, along with a pair of editing room scissors.

Clocking in at a button-popping 165 minutes, “Australia” is essentially two features glued together as one.  The movie’s first half, which focuses on the emotional transformation of a stuffy British aristocrat during a treacherous cattle drive, overshadows the second portion, which reconstructs the attack on Darwin by the Japanese in February of 1942.  The overall look and feel of the air raid echoes the worst of Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” and layers of digital compositing have a tendency to make the bombing resemble a cartoon.

Luhrmann has maintained a passionate love affair with movie culture, and “Australia” relies heavily on the filmmaker’s ardor for features of decades past.  “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” is used like a mallet whenever a lump in the throat is needed, and the song’s inclusion as a motif feels a little mercenary.  The jukebox pillaging that worked in “Moulin Rouge” does not fly this time, and Luhrmann shouldn’t need to rely on the work done by someone else’s masterpiece to manipulate the emotions of his audience.

Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman generate plenty of steam as the mismatched lovers of the Charlie Allnut/Rose Sayer school of opposites attracting.  Jackman, as a rough and tumble horseman known by his professional moniker as “the Drover” fares slightly better than Kidman, who never quite transcends the brittle, porcelain veneer that has served her longer than necessary.  It is a given that Luhrmann will stack the familiar tropes sky high, and the obviousness of beauty-and-the-beast screwball proves far easier to stomach than the moustache-twirling of David Wenham’s flat, putrid, racist, murderous villain, whose plot is wrapped up in the most ridiculous manner possible.

The best epic storytelling finds a way to balance interpersonal relationships and romances with the weight of historical events swirling all around, but “Australia” lurches in several directions as Luhrmann attempts to reconcile the Australian government’s treatment of Aboriginals of the “Stolen Generations.”  The adorable Nullah (Brandon Walters), often referred to in the movie as a “creamy” or a “half caste,” gives the angles dealing with indigenous Australians a near overdose of cuteness, but other performers, especially the phenomenal David Gulpilil and David Ngoombujarra are better able to convey some of the pain the movie seeks to examine.  “Australia” is by no means a disaster, but Luhrmann could use a strong collaborator who might help reign in some of the bold fantasist’s tendencies toward excess.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/1/08.