Archive for February, 2009

Fired Up!

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

firedup

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Movies that resort to unnecessary punctuation in their titles, particularly exclamation points, ought to provide enough fair warning for discerning moviegoers. “Fired Up!” is trashy, pointless, and lacking in taste, but nobody needs reminding that it is also a PG-13 cheerleader sex comedy that blends elements of “Bring It On” (which might as well have used an exclamation point in its title) and earlier, much rowdier and raunchier flicks like “Animal House,” “Porky’s,” and “Revenge of the Nerds.” “Fired Up!” certainly doesn’t have anything new to say, even on the relatively uncomplicated subject of cheerleading, but the results should please moviegoers looking for a break from award season seriousness.

Anyone who does not fit the teen heterosexual male demographic will not take a rooting interest in protagonists Eric Christian Olsen and Nicholas D’Agosto, a dirty-minded and ever more foul-mouthed pair of priapic primates who outwardly assess all young women strictly in terms of the likelihood of a hook-up. Both lead actors – and a great deal of the other performers – would never pass for high school students. Sarah Roemer plays Carly, the one cheerleader who knows the boys are up to no good, and she does as much as she possibly can with her shaky material. “Fired Up!” is more buddy movie than romance (no matter how lustful), which unfortunately relegates the female cast members to bland blank slate status.

The screenplay of the movie is the first credited work of Freedom Jones, a moniker that sounds suspiciously like a pseudonym for a staff of scribes, so it is surprising that much of the writing consists of snappy sarcasm interspersed with the kind of inane, phony “slanguage” that imagines an alternate universe of how teenagers speak to one another. It is probably safe to say that few, if any, high school students would offer “You’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit” without running the risk of a beating, but then, movies in which horny football players decide to learn cheerleading in order to have easier access to potential conquests reside in the realm of pure fantasy.

Many of the featherweight popular cultural references will be passé by the time “Fired Up!” makes its appearance on DVD, but enough gags work effectively to guarantee a healthy afterlife for the movie once it disappears from theaters. “Fired Up!” pays tribute to pompon movie ground zero “Bring It On” during a sequence in which the entire cheerleading camp gathers for an outdoor showing of the Kirsten Dunst movie on the big screen, and every single line is recited back with the stunning accuracy of a much-repeated religious litany. John Michael Higgins is a blast as overzealous camp director Coach Keith, but the movie doesn’t find an effective way to use the talents of vets like Edie McClurg and Philip Baker Hall.

“Fired Up!” is not even a great representation of its derided genre, but as brainless sex comedies go, it surpasses many of its recent competitors. The music choices are on the nose, especially the clever selections meant to ridicule Carly’s lame boyfriend Dr. Rick (David Walton). In one scene, he pulls up in his convertible with Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” blaring, and audience members old enough to remember the song’s popularity in 1996 can smile knowingly at the character’s obliviousness.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/23/09.

Frozen River

Monday, February 16th, 2009

frozenriver

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” is a taut, sober drama that uses the tension of human smuggling to comment more subtly on the challenges of single motherhood. Veteran actor Melissa Leo leaves a strong impression as Ray Eddy, the minimum wage-earning mom of fifteen-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and five-year-old Ricky (James Reilly). Ray ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence, and some days the boys’ only meal is microwave popcorn and Tang. Ray’s problems are exponentially exacerbated when her husband leaves with the cash that has been set aside for a new prefabricated home.

Through a series of chance encounters, Ray becomes involved in a small smuggling operation that transports illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States across the ice of the St. Lawrence River. Hunt directs the movie with little stylistic ornamentation, and her choices effectively serve the material. Unlike a few arguably derisive glances at the working class in “The Wrestler,” particularly the firefighter-obsessed party girl who seduces the protagonist, “Frozen River” pursues a social realist agenda in earnest.

In his almost shockingly condescending review in the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Mick LaSalle wondered rhetorically whether audiences would really want to “see a listless movie about a woman whose dream is to move into a double-wide trailer.” “Frozen River” is not listless – if anything it errs on the side of manufacturing dramatic tension in some of the smuggling sequences – and LaSalle should know that from “Norma Rae” to multiple films by John Sayles and Mike Leigh, escaping poverty is a dream shared by millions.

Undoubtedly, “Frozen River” succeeds on the combination of Hunt’s writing and Leo’s central performance – both of which have been nominated for Academy Awards. In so many ways, the movie presents the opposite of typical silver screen escapism, even though Hunt includes some expectation-defying sacrifices and choices that soften the impact of the story’s more complex depictions of race and class bias. Ray is not always easy to like, and her ignorance of others manifests in some disturbing and dangerous ways. Leo and Hunt both recognize the value of depicting Ray’s skepticism and fear with layers of complexity, which turns out to be one of the movie’s strongest dimensions.

Other than Leo, and indie regular Mark Boone Junior, “Frozen River” does not feature recognizable “names” in the roles, and some critics have griped about the lack of polish displayed by many of the supporting performers. Working at Leo’s skill level is no small task, though, and the supporting cast never fails to be wholly believable. Missy Upham, as Lila Littlewolf, is an ideal companion for Leo. Both women play characters victimized by depressed economic circumstances and the lack of a support system. They are also mothers who want to provide for their children, even if it means engaging in illegal activity to do so. “Frozen River” is an assured debut, but its shortcomings, especially the neat and tidy ending, keep it from brilliance. Hunt is a keen observer of nuance, however, and “Frozen River” takes an interest in a type of trafficking that remains mostly unknown to middle-class Americans.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/16/09.

The Wrestler

Monday, February 9th, 2009

wrestler

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A beneath-the-underdog story that would be right at home as a produced-for-cable movie of the week, “The Wrestler” transcends its familiar structure by way of the title performance of previously washed up star Mickey Rourke, whose unsavory antics and questionable plastic surgery torpedoed his once healthy career.  The fourth feature from Darren Aronofsky, “The Wrestler” is easily the director’s most conventional movie to date.  Written by Robert D. Siegel, the film never strays from the formulaic hallmarks of weepy melodrama, but Rourke manages to apply his old charm where it is needed most, and the result will satiate moviegoers who might otherwise find the whole thing more than a little reheated.

Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson (birth certificate: Robin Ramzinski), a once famous professional wrestler whose long ago successes have been replaced by part time work at a grocery store and weekend bouts for small cash payouts that don’t quite cover the rent on the Ram’s dingy trailer.  Many will not care why the script fails to account for Robinson’s epic fall from the tower of fortune, but the filmmakers clearly have no intention of exploring that aspect of the character’s biography.  Instead, we take the guy at face value: he’s a seemingly decent, working stiff who roughhouses with the neighborhood kids in the daylight and frequents a strip club at night.

One of the screenplay’s many contrivances is the tenuous relationship that develops between Randy and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a veteran pole dancer who takes a shine to the grizzled grappler.  Tomei fills in the blanks in an underwritten part (although the scene in which the merits of the 1980s are discussed feels phony), and Aronofsky effectively parallels the routines of the two characters.  Both Randy and Cassidy depend on their bodies, and the eyes of spectators, for their livelihood, and both figures are, according the story, past their prime.  The difference seems to be that Randy only comes to life when he pulls on his tights, while Cassidy is numb to the requirements of her occupation.

The writing practically trips over itself manufacturing a good reason why Randy and Cassidy cannot date one another (it’s against the rules!), but it is the Ram’s failed relationship with his now grown daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) that chokes the hardest on cliché.  Desperately hoping to reestablish a connection, Randy reaches out to the young woman, despite her reluctance to let him in to her life.  The handful of scenes between father and daughter allow Rourke an opportunity to deliver some juicy, moist-eyed apologies.

Throughout the movie, Aronofsky’s camera lingers over Randy’s battered physique, leaving no scar unexamined, no physical trauma unexplored.  Like one of the characters in the dreadful “Seven Pounds,” Randy is the owner of a weak and strained ticker, and the metaphoric possibilities are applied in broad strokes.  The manipulation of the audience hides in plain sight, but Rourke plays his part with so much pride and dignity, only the most cynical will fail to identify with the Ram.  Somehow, most of “The Wrestler” works real magic – thanks to Rourke – who delivers what might be the portrayal of his life, in both senses of the phrase.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/9/09.

Milk

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

milk

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Gus Van Sant cleverly links past and present in “Milk,” a sturdy, carefully crafted biopic of the martyred gay rights activist. The past is represented by frequently integrated archival footage that the director combines with the fictionalized dramatizations of Harvey Milk’s political failures and triumphs. The present finds parallels between Milk’s 1978 campaign against Proposition 6 (an anti-gay California state ballot measure better known as the Briggs Initiative) and California’s 2008 Proposition 8, preventing same sex couples from marrying. Unlike several of Van Sant’s more lyrical, experimental features, including “Elephant,” “Last Days,” and “Paranoid Park,” “Milk” embraces a conventional storytelling approach that effectively serves the detailed screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.

Tracing the relatively short political career of the first openly gay non-incumbent politician elected to substantial office in the United States, “Milk” owes much to cinematographer Harris Savides’ beautiful imagery, Bill Groom’s evocative production design, and the understated costuming of Danny Glicker. Despite its 1960s and 1970s setting, the movie never gets bogged down in too much period specificity, and one suspects that the effect was consciously crafted. Van Sant also tempers the “highlights” approach so common in the movie biography with enough behind-the-scenes bonhomie that gay and straight viewers feel welcome in Milk’s company.

In the lead role, Sean Penn senses the grand opportunity before him and runs wild with it, infusing Milk with an almost bottomless wellspring of wit, charm, and warmth. By the time Milk has perfected his rallying refrain of “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you,” most audience members will be ready to join the colorful band of characters pulled in by Harvey’s gravitational field. Penn’s Milk tends to the idealized (see the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” as a valuable companion piece), and Van Sant ignores the suggestions that Milk could wield an ugly temper. Fortunately, the streamlining does not make Harvey Milk any less interesting.

Milk was murdered along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978 by Dan White, who had recently resigned his position on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. Josh Brolin plays White in the film, and largely avoids turning him into a bogeyman or a caricature. One of the movie’s most effective scenes sees an intoxicated White approach Milk
with almost gasping desperation. There is more than a hint that White wishes to explore some deeply submerged curiosities, but mostly, the audience witnesses White’s jealousy, frustration, and incredulity at Milk’s effortless popularity.

Many of the movie’s other supporting players register as memorably as Brolin. Emile Hirsch, as activist Cleve Jones, steals every scene in which he appears. James Franco plays Milk’s boyfriend Scott Smith, who grows weary at Harvey’s relentless self-promotion and quest to take center stage. Diego Luna, as Milk’s unstable lover Jack Lira, is not given as much screen time as the others and suffers as a result. The audience has little incentive to invest in the character, which negates any power Lira’s later scenes might otherwise project. In the end, however, the success of “Milk” rests mostly with Penn, who adds yet another impressive chapter to his storied acting career.

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