Archive for 2009

Up in the Air

Monday, December 28th, 2009

upintheair

Movie review by Greg Carlson

If Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” is one of the year’s most Bressonian films, then Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is certainly its antithesis.  Manipulative, smug, and supremely confident of its own worth, “Up in the Air” is a movie of and for its time, a skittering commentary on economic despair coupled with a conventional “to thine own self be true” mantra.  George Clooney’s tremendously appealing performance saves the film from total disaster, but the movie is ultimately too dependent on self-actualizing epiphany – in other words, it has more than one big moment in which a character realizes that a major mistake has been made, and then sprints off in the opposite direction to try and fix it.

Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is a seasoned terminator who fires people for a living, a veteran air traveler more comfortable on a hotel room mattress than in his own seldom used bed in a drab apartment in Omaha.  He crosses the country in pursuit of 10 million frequent flyer miles (a substantial upgrade from the novel’s 1 million), distancing himself from the anguish he leaves in his wake.  As Bingham shuttles from city to city, he divides his time between seducing fellow road warriors like Alex (Vera Farmiga) and condescendingly putting up with his earthbound sisters.

Reitman, with co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner, overhauls and transforms Walter Kirn’s grim, sooty novel so radically that only a smattering of themes, ideas, and lines make it from the page to the screen.  Kirn’s Bingham, a discombobulated, paranoid, pill-gobbling conspiracy theorist, is edgier and less likable than Clooney’s calm opportunist, and the book is more interesting for it.  Additionally, the filmmakers concoct the entire subplot of Bingham’s indoctrination of Anna Kendrick’s ambitious efficiency expert/career transition counselor.

Reitman sounds the movie’s sourest note during a grounded wedding interlude in “authentic” Wisconsin.  The director dredges up several old chestnuts, from a groom with cold feet to the encouraging pep talk that validates the protagonist’s persuasive rhetorical gifts.  The sequence, which includes a queasy visit to Bingham’s old high school with his new squeeze, is scored with fragile, melancholy acoustic tunes like Elliott Smith’s “Angel in the Snow,” a device that has felt stale and imitative ever since “Miss Misery” earned an Oscar nomination for “Good Will Hunting” in the original song category.

“Up in the Air” probably wouldn’t have received as much love and praise had Reitman skipped the equivocation and moralizing, but that combination is one of the filmmaker’s hallmarks.  Studio publicity has milked the anecdote that the people who appear in the “getting canned” montages are not actors but regular folks who have lost their own jobs.  Somehow, though, Reitman’s casting gesture seems less than magnanimous and more than a bit exploitative.  “Up in the Air,” like Reitman’s other features, vigorously mixes the solemnity with heaping helpings of comedy.  My favorite moment was Sam Elliott’s cameo resurrecting the Stranger.  He does not happen to mention that Bingham is the man for his time and place, but seeing him did remind me to watch “The Big Lebowski.”  Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/28/09.

Bright Star

Monday, December 21st, 2009

brightstar

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In a recent interview with Maria Garcia in Film Journal International, director Jane Campion invoked the name of Robert Bresson, the colossus of unblinking austerity and scholarship of the soul, whose oeuvre has become a Rosetta Stone for generations of moviemakers.  Campion’s “Bright Star,” a love story based on the doomed courtship of Romantic poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne, reverberates with many of Bresson’s techniques, and even if Campion lacks the most rarefied of the French master’s gifts, her talents are considerable.  “Bright Star” is among the director’s finest films.

Literary superstars, especially tubercular poets who die at 25, defy quiet cinematic portraiture, and Campion wisely filters the consciousness of the narrative through Abbie Cornish’s Fanny Brawne instead of through Ben Whishaw’s John Keats.  Cornish is superb, and her performance so sensual it is easy to see how Keats might have fallen easily, speedily in love.  The two actors share an inviting chemistry and a smoldering eroticism that allows Campion to perfect the art of suspended and sublimated desire.  Few movies manage to effectively translate the emotional resonance of poetry without a share of pretentiousness, but Cornish and Whishaw recite some of Keats’ best known work as though the lines were showers of sparks.

Campion’s sharp eye has often gazed upon strong women who negotiate and subvert expected gender roles with fierce intelligence and reserves of dignity.  In “Bright Star,” Campion seizes upon Brawne’s keenness for fashion, imagining the teenager as an artist with a needle and thread whose facility for innovative clothing construction matches Keats’ way with words.  Far from reinforcing the old-fashioned concept that relegates supportive young women to homemaker-appropriate pursuits, Campion sees Brawne as Keats’ aesthetic peer.  One of the movie’s most potent images reveals an intricately embroidered pillowcase sewn by Fanny for Keats’ consumptive brother.

Campion’s vision of 19th century Hampstead Heath is simultaneously elegant and understated.  She directs from her own script (inspired by Andrew Motion’s Keats biography), and makes certain that the measure of daily life in Regency England is just as restrained and chaste as the restricted affair between Brawne and Keats.  With the exception of a few sultry kisses, Fanny and John must forego physical contact, but Campion turns the ache to her advantage.  In one stirring scene, Fanny transforms her quarters into a lepidopterist’s hothouse, filling the space with delicate butterflies while she swoons on the bed and attempts to articulate to her concerned mother the intensity of her feelings for Mr. Keats.

The brilliance of “Bright Star,” and one of its Bressonian traits, lies in how much Campion leaves unspoken and left to the viewer.  Paul Schneider, the American actor who played opposite Zooey Deschanel in “All the Real Girls,” steals several scenes as Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’ best friend and protector.  Brown dreads the spell Fanny casts over Keats, convinced that the flirtatious girl will obliterate the poet’s concentration and dilute the quality of his verse.  Brilliantly, Campion manages to legitimize Brown’s complaints without turning him into a grotesque or a villain (even though he does impregnate the Irish maid).  In an irony surely not lost on Brown, Fanny instead fuels some of Keats’ most brilliant achievements.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/21/09.

Invictus

Monday, December 14th, 2009

invictus

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like many of Clint Eastwood’s recent films, “Invictus” takes its sweet time to arrive at a conclusion determined from the opening moments.  A glossy and superficial account of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, the movie blends biopic with traditional sports genre elements, including lengthy sequences in which rugby games are photographed from every possible angle.  Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela with authority and gravitas, but too much of the dialogue is reduced to aphorism and platitude, conveying the feeling that as a political leader, Mandela was more angel than human.

Alongside Freeman, Matt Damon takes on the role of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, the Afrikaner flanker who came to understand the transcendent potential of a World Cup victory once Mandela reached out to him.  Somewhat strangely, Damon is given very little to do outside of his athletic duties, a frustrating aspect of a movie that might have had much more to say about the key personalities in one of South Africa’s most suggestive and meaningful sports accomplishments.  Pienaar leads the team that black South Africans cheered against, but his presence in the film is unusually apolitical.

“Invictus” follows a linear chronology that builds some momentum as the story unfolds, but the one-thing-at-a-time structure tries the patience when so many scenes alternate between snippets illuminating Mandela’s ulterior motives for taking such a keen interest in rugby and the progress of the Springboks as they struggle to develop a winning team.  Eastwood carefully modulates the way we come to know Mandela, opting to focus on the man’s incredible sense of forgiveness in the service of healing national wounds rather than on any particular demands of his role as the newly elected President of South Africa.

For all the time Eastwood lavishes on rugby, the audience learns very little about the rules of the game or the individuals who made up the championship Springbok team.  Ironically, Mandela is shown in one sequence studying a roster in order to be able to greet each player by name, but with the exception of Pienaar and Chester Williams, the only non-white member of the 1995 Springboks, the viewer is not expected to differentiate among the footballers.  Despite Williams’ claims that some of his own teammates spurned him with racist name-calling, the movie version focuses on Mandela’s anxiety that the winger’s injury will prevent him from being a visible black representative when the Boks take the field.

Eastwood’s decision to refrain from procedural explanations of rugby will divide viewers, but “Invictus” strains to make clear the tensions and stakes of post-apartheid South Africa.  Mandela shrewdly understands the symbolic power of showing up in Pienaar’s green and gold number 6 jersey, and Eastwood guarantees the audience won’t miss the point either.  An economical subplot concerning the racial integration of Mandela’s security detail covers the same territory, as does a series of shots in which a small boy, unable to gain entry to the Ellis Park final, loiters near a car to monitor the game on the radio.  The toughest cynics will have a hard time swallowing the climactic displays of black/white esprit de corps, but more shocking is the truth of the historical record.  Yes, Eastwood suggests that Mandela almost singlehandedly orchestrated the World Cup championship, but the against-the-odds win of the Springboks is a perfect illustration of real life drama tailor-made for big screen adaptation.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/14/09.

Brothers

Monday, December 7th, 2009

brothers

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A remake of the 2004 Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, “Brothers” adds nothing new to the tradition of the returning-from-war subgenre, even as veteran filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s steady hand guides an attractive and talented cast.  Three of Hollywood’s most promising young leads, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, and Jake Gyllenhaal, are not entirely convincing as representatives of the working class, but the stars do their best with a script that depends too heavily on doses of mountainous inevitability and dubious implausibility.

Maguire plays Marine Captain Sam Cahill, a veteran soldier who has seen men through several tours of duty in Afghanistan.  Sam dotes on his two adorable daughters and lavishes affection on wife Grace (Portman), his sweetheart since high school.  As Sam prepares to deploy, his troubled brother Tommy gets out of prison, and the extended Cahill family copes uneasily with the changes.  Shortly after Tommy’s return, Sam is believed killed in action, and Grace turns to her brother-in-law for comfort and support.  In love triangle movies, sport can be made of imagining the actors trading roles, and it is hard not to think that “Brothers” might have been more interesting had Maguire and Gyllenhaal switched parts.

It has been suggested that mainstream studio-released films addressing Operation Enduring Freedom carefully avoid taking any political position, but haven’t war movies always balanced on the edge of cheering tremendous personal sacrifice while ruing the horrors that inevitably scar the brave protagonists?  Movies dealing with the cruelty of combat appeal to the voyeur who craves images of inherently dramatic mayhem and yet laments the tragedy of killing.  Sam pays a horrific price that erases his ability to readjust to domestic routine, but the template of “Brothers” is familiar enough that the viewer can anticipate nearly every scene.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder propels the second half conflict of “Brothers,” in which Sam returns to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but the film’s presentation of the debilitating impairment doesn’t hold a candle to “Taxi Driver” or “Coming Home.”  The story demands that Sam be presumed dead long enough for Tommy and Grace to develop a relationship, but that very requirement challenges the audience to sympathize with the absent Marine, whose own children verbalize their desire for Mommy to partner with Uncle Tommy.  As Sheridan cuts between Sam’s ordeal in Afghanistan and Grace and Tommy growing closer, a tone of anxiety and unease clouds the narrative.

The deficiencies of “Brothers” include oversimplified and underwritten roles for the leads (Portman’s part in particular is egregiously neglected by screenwriter David Benioff), and a few farfetched plot complications.  Sam Shepard, who plays the alcoholic father of Sam and Tommy, praises his straight arrow offspring but makes no effort to hide his contempt for the one who spent time behind bars.  His hot and cold emotional shifts, represented as polar extremes, apply to many of the movie’s other relationships.  The Muslim bad guys are equally as flat, standing in as terror merchants whose lack of humanity feels contrived and convenient.  More disappointing, the principal characters in “Brothers” receive the same treatment, ending up as symbolic representations of dutiful wife, damaged soldier, and repentant lawbreaker instead of recognizable individuals.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/7/09.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Monday, November 30th, 2009

fantasticmrfox

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like each one of Wes Anderson’s features, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” comfortably floats in the space between the familiar and the not quite real, the grown-up and the childlike.  Loosely adapted from the 1970 book by Roald Dahl, the movie concerns the survival of the title character and his family and friends, but the great joy of the film lies mostly in the gorgeous execution of its handmade, meticulously crafted animation.  The miniature world inhabited by Mr. Fox is as artfully arranged as any of Anderson’s previous sets and equally as complete.  Repeated viewings will reveal a nearly endless supply of dazzling details, from the tiny oil painting of posing badgers to the “unaccompanied minor” tag pinned to a young traveler’s clothing.

The plot, a straightforward series of challenges between Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and a trio of awful farmers who aim to put an end to his thievery, alternates between the action chase and the kinds of scenes Anderson lovers expect: perfectly observed moments of pain and joy, where characters question their motives and jealousies aloud.  The style, like Shakespearean soliloquies with arid, arch, contemporary brevity replacing iambic pentameter, works like a charm in the mouths of the woodland cast.  One can almost hear Hamlet’s contemplative yearning when Clooney’s middle-aged larcenist muses on his nature, “Why a fox?”

Anderson’s drive to shoot the movie using stop-motion pays off tremendous dividends.  Despite joining a long tradition marked by the indelible imprint of past masters, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is wholly its own.  In other words, the technique may not be original, but the end result is sui generis: it’s not Willis O’Brien on “King Kong,” not Tadahito Mochinaga’s work for Rankin/Bass, not Harryhausen or Starewicz, neither Nick Park nor Henry Selick.  The fastidious Anderson outdoes himself with the level of minutiae in the production design, working with Nelson Lowry to achieve spectacular autumnal landscapes and richly textured interiors.

Like the conversations held between characters in his other ensembles, the exchanges in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” run the gamut from shocking self-disclosure to sly prevarication.  The director has always had a gift for externalizing self-doubt – particularly among the intellectually gifted – and Jason Schwartzman’s Ash is the very embodiment of wounded inadequacy.  Ash’s competition with talented cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) recalls similar dysfunctional rivalries in “The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but the younger age of these characters infuses their relationship with real tenderness.  A late night scene in Ash’s bedroom in which the kits address sleeping arrangements is among the movie’s most sublime treats.

Because “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was directed by Wes Anderson, the film will be scrutinized and analyzed by all sorts of bloggers and academics who will comb through the text for traces of submerged meaning.  Charges of racism, for example, have already been leveled at the movie, although Laura Bans appears to be on less solid ground than Jonah Weiner, who wrote about Anderson’s “unbearable whiteness” for “Slate” in 2007.  A more credible complaint is the movie’s dearth of important female characters.  Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), like Etheline Tenenbaum, is the glue that keeps her family from disarray, a wise maternal presence whose calm contrasts with her husband’s wilder nature.  Most of the speaking roles, however, belong to males.  It’s a minor complaint, but it would be nice to see a more equitable distribution in the future.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/30/09.

An Education

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

aneducation

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “An Education,” Danish director and Dogme 95 contributor Lone Scherfig abandons the constricting limitations of the movement’s so-called “Vow of Chastity” for a traditional and straightforward treatment of the bildungsroman.  Featuring a confident central performance by the beguiling Carey Mulligan, the movie has little new to say about a bright young girl caught between the allure of a charming older suitor and the possibilities afforded by a first-class education, but it still merits consideration.  Nick Hornby’s efficient adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber’s “Granta” essay (later a memoir) snaps with plenty of intelligence and wit, even if some of the thornier quandaries of the story are unaddressed.

Mulligan plays Jenny, a superbly talented 16-year-old aspiring to Oxford who accepts a ride in David’s (Peter Sarsgaard) handsome maroon Bristol one rainy afternoon.  With broad strokes that echo many sentiments expressed in the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” David seduces both Jenny and her parents – though not necessarily in that order.  Despite being more than twice Jenny’s age, David speaks with a silver tongue; he may be too good to be true, but Jenny quickly concludes that her life is more intriguing with David in it.  Even when she glimpses the darker aspects of his modus operandi, he preys on the very combination of Jenny’s precocious intellect and her naïve openness by telling her bluntly about some of the unsavory things he does to make a living.

Given the film’s early 1960s setting and the cautious, by-the-book attitude of Jenny’s father – warmly played by the endlessly compelling Alfred Molina – some viewers will no doubt find puzzling the movie’s liberal posture regarding teen sexuality, as well as the breezy acceptance of David by Jenny’s parents.  The film takes pains to raise the notion that Jenny’s father views marriage as a legitimate alternative to the difficulties of paying for college, but the ease with which Jenny manages to secure permission for weekend getaways might cause some parents’ hearts to skip a few beats.

Almost more troubling is Jenny’s unwillingness to scrutinize David more closely once cracks begin to show in his not so carefully cultivated persona.  Scherfig might well have intended the movie’s point of view to be so thoroughly filtered through Jenny’s subjective experience – Mulligan is hardly ever offscreen – that viewers see everything her way, but the character is far too smart not to pose tougher questions to David before the doomed moment of her undesired epiphany, which stands as one of the movie’s most self-conscious and least effective scenes.

Scherfig appears to sense some of the pitfalls of the coming of age story, and despite the inevitable revelations and recriminations (protagonist self-directed and otherwise) demanded by the genre, “An Education” remains true to the expanding outlook of its heroine.  Naysayers will deride several of the characterizations as broad and even cartoonish, but Olivia Williams, as Jenny’s wise teacher, quells much of that avenue of criticism.  The movie’s somewhat incongruous, late-stage moralizing and tidy wrapping up of loose ends belongs to another film, but Mulligan’s summery presence elevates “An Education” beyond the strictly conventional.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/23/09.

More Than a Game

Monday, November 16th, 2009

morethanagame

Movie review by Greg Carlson

An inspirational documentary covering the remarkable maturation process of a group of Akron, Ohio basketball players including NBA superstar LeBron James, “More Than a Game” makes up in heart what it lacks in depth.  Sure to invite comparisons to Steve James’ 1994 “Hoop Dreams,” “More Than a Game” focuses more attention on high stakes seasons and national rankings than it does questioning the surreal transformation of James from talented high school athlete of deficient financial means to household name/corporate brand/multi-millionaire.  Viewers seeking a penetrating examination of the ethics of contemporary sports culture won’t find it among the many images that reinforce a mostly wholesome and largely sanitized Horatio Alger-like telling of the American Dream.

Filmmaker and Akron native Kristopher Belman was only a young film student at Loyola Marymount when he proposed a smaller project on the close-knit team of ballplayers who began working together before junior high.  Through the inclusion of plenty of fuzzy home video footage, audiences experience the prowess of the protagonists from elementary school to the end of their senior year.  One of the movie’s uncanny delights is watching the little boys grow up, and the movie’s multi-year span affords the spellbinding pleasure of seeing literal physical transformation before our eyes.

To Belman’s credit, “More Than a Game” spends at least some quality time with each member of the squad, even if LeBron is the main attraction.  An unselfish player with dazzling passing skills, James extends his magnanimity to the other members of the Akron Fab Four (later Fab Five with the addition of moody outsider Romeo Travis).  Coach Dru Joyce II and his son Dru Joyce III emerge as key figures, and the film accentuates the diminutive younger Joyce’s tenacity on the court as well as the elder Joyce’s struggle to be an effective coach and father to his driven offspring.

Critical viewers will long for a closer, off-the-court examination of the players and their backgrounds.  James, who by necessity became a seasoned and cautious interview subject when he was still a teenager, talks about growing up without a father and sometimes having to stay with a coach instead of his mother Gloria, who was only 16 when LeBron was born, but the film offers no substantive information beyond James’ initial mention.  Belman, who is white, elects to bypass any discussion of race, a theme that might have enlarged and toughened the portrait.  We learn that the teammates elected not to attend a predominantly African American school in favor of the private, more affluent St. Vincent-St. Mary, but no additional examination of the related politics is entertained.

Belman also does not address James’ unsuccessful petition to enter the NBA draft following his junior year and the impact that decision had on his friends and teammates.  By the time James appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” he and the other Fighting Irish starters had already developed plenty of cocky swagger, but Belman’s only acknowledgment of the dangers of hubris comes courtesy of the section recounting the team’s state title loss to tougher Division II high school Roger Bacon in 2002.  Of course, with James listed as one of the movie’s executive producers, one shouldn’t expect the story to stray too far from confirmatory acclamation.  Despite the deliberate omissions, “More Than a Game” is required viewing for any basketball fanatic.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/16/09.

A Serious Man

Monday, November 9th, 2009

seriousman

Movie review by Greg Carlson

During the closing credit roll of “A Serious Man,” the Coens insist that “no Jews were harmed” in the making of their bleak and brilliant film.  This piercing reminder of Joel and Ethan’s particular worldview also points to the filmmakers’ finely tuned ability to deftly integrate the deadly serious and the ridiculously comic.  Few auteurs can match the siblings’ willingness to explore tragedy and personal failure with unrelenting laughter, and while many have posited that “A Serious Man” is their most “personal” film, it is simply one more in a chain of intimate and distinctive treasures stamped with unmistakable originality.   

Michael Stuhlbarg, expertly cast, plays nerdy academic Larry Gopnik, a cautious and careful man whose life unravels with alarming speed just ahead of his doubtful bid for tenure.  In short order, Larry is besieged by a manipulative student insistent on a passing grade, learns that his wife wants a divorce in order to marry a smug acquaintance, copes with his lazy brother’s protracted habitation on the living room couch, and fights lustful urges for the seductive nude sunbather who lives next-door while fearing the anti-Semitic encroachment of another neighbor.  Meanwhile, Larry’s son Danny spends more time getting high, listening to Jefferson Airplane, and squabbling with his older sister than studying for his Bar Mitzvah. 

Along with the major obstacles in Larry’s life, the Coens introduce several minor annoyances, ranging from auto accidents to pestering phone calls from the Columbia Record Club.  One of the movie’s funniest blow-outs observes Gopnik’s mounting exasperation at being sent the featured album selection “Santana, Abraxas.”  He repeatedly spits the title as if it were a curse, and one can picture Joel and Ethan fighting back tears of laughter behind the camera.  Of course, the film’s 1967 setting makes “Abraxas,” which was not released until 1970, an anachronistic choice, but Larry’s emphatic rejection – he does not want “Abraxas,” he did not order “Abraxas,” and he will not listen to “Abraxas” – parallels his spiritual deafness and demonstrates the dizzying skill with which the Coens layer their parable. 

Like their best work, which has now grown to a sizable collection of titles, “A Serious Man” capitalizes on the deadpan talents of a top-notch ensemble equipped to speak absurd Coen Brothers dialogue in earnest.  The excellent Richard Kind slithers through his role as freeloading Uncle Arthur.  Arthur constantly locks himself in the bathroom to drain the pus from a particularly stubborn sebaceous cyst, but his facility for complex mathematics has led to the design of the Mentaculus, a complex, mystical numerology that Arthur uses not to understand the workings of the universe but rather to cheat at card games. 

Arthur’s Mentaculus serves perfectly as a metaphor for the metaphysical considerations the Coens explore with vigor.  An ability to know the divine is impossible given the human impulses toward acquiring tangible, earthly rewards.  As Larry’s troubles multiply, he seeks counsel from rabbinical authorities, and each of the visits vibrates with superbly calibrated comic timing.  In one of the meetings, Larry is told a fanciful story about a mysterious inscription on the teeth of a goy, and is chided by the rabbi for wondering aloud what happened to the gentile.  “Who cares?” comes the response, adding another quintessential Coen moment to their wondrous archive. 

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/9/09.

This Is It

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

thisisit

Movie review by Greg Carlson

For Michael Jackson believers, especially those who held tickets for one of the 50 planned O2 arena live dates, “This Is It” will stir up strong feelings of ecstasy and heartache.  Because the footage used to compile the movie was not intended for public presentation beyond the possibility of some extra DVD content, “This Is It” simultaneously hints at the dazzling spectacle being rehearsed and thrills with its unguarded, rough-around-the-edges status as a work in progress.  Far from ghoulish exploitation, “This Is It” refocuses attention on Michael Jackson as a ferociously talented performer in his element.

Directed by Kenny Ortega, Jackson’s principal creative partner in the conception of the stage show that was scheduled to debut on July 13, 2009, “This Is It” blends aspects of the traditional concert film with several familiar tropes of the backstage musical.  The opening of the movie introduces many of Jackson’s grateful backup dancers, but before any individual personalities might be established in the style of “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” Ortega focuses intently and unwaveringly on the solo superstar, at one point reminding the members of the ensemble that they are there to function as an extension of MJ.

Ortega smartly resists the urge to truncate songs, offering full-length versions of most tracks even if they must be stitched together from several different video takes.  It is impossible to know whether the sequencing of the tunes in the movie follows the proposed concert program, but “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” makes for a blistering opener.  The classic fourth single from “Thriller” – which never had a music video – sets the tone for “This Is It,” taking viewers through a meticulously crafted arrangement that honors the song’s integrity without merely duplicating the recorded album version.

This pattern continues on most of the subsequent numbers, drawing heavily from “Thriller” and “Bad.”  The “Dangerous” and “Invincible” albums are also well represented, but curiously, the brilliant “Off the Wall” is thoroughly neglected.  Standout sequences include an elaborate 3D overhaul of “Thriller” with zombies crawling out of what appears to be a Napoleonic necropolis, a sultry “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and a stirring “Human Nature.”  Along with “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal” receives substantial pre-production attention, merging Jackson into film noir scenes with Hollywood legends like Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart.

Not all the production numbers sustain the spine-tingling magnificence of Jackson’s undisputed benchmarks.  A syrupy “Earth Song” is light years from “Billie Jean” in both intellectual acumen and musical quality, and the accompanying imagery of a cherubic moppet caught in a burned out nightmare of ecological decimation numbs viewers with its cloying, scolding prophecy.  Jackson’s socially minded work was never accused of subtlety, but alongside “Earth Song,” “Man in the Mirror” is a model of sophisticated restraint.  The musical performances throughout the documentary are frequently interrupted by glimpses of Jackson critiquing and calibrating the tiniest of details, and these pauses offer a stark turnaround from popular images of Jackson as a weak, addled, spaced-out weirdo.  Far from the incomprehensible, out-of-touch naïf seen in the media for years, Jackson commands the stage in “This Is It” like he was born on it.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/2/09.

Amelia

Monday, October 26th, 2009

amelia

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Reviewers should have a grand time coming up with all manner of clever aviation metaphors as they trash “Amelia,” a handsome but empty biopic of iconic pilot Amelia Earhart.  One might say that Mira Nair’s film fails to take flight, that the script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan crashes shortly after takeoff, and the dull experience of suffering through the feature will cause potential audiences to vanish without a trace.  Nair, whose hit-or-miss career as a filmmaker contains a substantial number of clunkers along with bright spots like breakthrough “Salaam Bombay!” and critical high point “Monsoon Wedding,” never gets a grip on her subject.  The result is the very nadir of the fictionalized biography: a superficial highlight reel that fails to connect us to an extraordinary life.

“Amelia” stars two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank as Earhart, and the casting is only one indicator among many that the filmmakers had set their sights on Oscar recognition.  Swank certainly embraces the challenge with fierce determination, but the off-putting accent – which never even flirts with credibility – and the thudding repetition of the scenes, do the performer no favors.  Neither does the glib voiceover narration, in which Earhart describes her passion to be airborne as if practicing to write greeting cards.

Earhart’s personal relationships with the various men in her life dominate the drama and siphon attention from her drive to empower women as pilots.  Nair flirts with the idea that Earhart’s fame was the result of calculating self-promotion, but the script resolutely paints the aviatrix as a sun-kissed saint disdainful of the product endorsements she made to help finance her expensive avocation.  Richard Gere, as Earhart’s publisher and husband George Putnam, plays the realist to Earhart’s idealist.  She reminds him that she just “wants to be free” so many times that “Amelia” might have inspired a drinking game were it not so crushingly insipid.

Alongside Gere, Ewan McGregor appears as commercial aviation pioneer Gene Vidal, who purportedly entered into an affair with Earhart.  McGregor’s character exists to service the dramatic structure as the third side of a romantic triangle, but save for one prolonged kiss in an elevator, the movie offers no hint that Earhart felt passion for anything but flying.  Christopher Eccleston, as Earhart’s navigator Fred Noonan, is reduced to an alcoholic liability, giving Earhart one more opportunity to convince Putnam that she can “handle it” when her husband fears the worst.  Supporting women fare even worse: Cherry Jones plays Eleanor Roosevelt in a fleeting cameo and Mia Wasikowska barely registers as rival pilot Elinor Smith.

Even though “Amelia” zips through many of Earhart’s notable accomplishments in advance of her ill-fated around-the-world attempt, Nair handles the disappearance with piety.  The decades-long public fascination with Earhart has much to do with the unsolved status of her almost certain death.  Unwilling to entertain any of the durable conspiracy theories many of us heard about as children (including legends that Earhart spied for FDR and/or was executed by the Japanese after surviving a crash landing), Nair stages the final moments of Earhart’s life with stoicism and reverence.  With the exception of these final scenes, however, the application of so much careful obeisance melts dynamic history into tiresome lecture.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/26/09.