Archive for April, 2009

Obsessed

Monday, April 27th, 2009

obsessed

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A worthless and surprisingly chaste rehash of “Fatal Attraction” by way of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The Temp,” and “Disclosure,” veteran television director Steve Shill’s “Obsessed” is as forgettable as its bland title. “Obsessed” trades on all kinds of uncomfortable racial and gender stereotypes without attempting to say anything enlightening or even thought-provoking on the subject at hand. Despite the talents of several top notch performers, the movie sticks to its retrograde formula, which exists strictly in the service of setting up a clawing, scratching catfight in which one, and only one, outcome is possible. Anyone who sees the movie’s trailer, which telegraphs the whole shebang including the climax, will have no good reason to sit through the entire feature.

Ali Larter plays Lisa, a conniving, completely bonkers office assistant who sets her sights on Idris Elba’s Derek before he even has a chance to step off the elevator at his Los Angeles investment banking firm. Derek is a model husband and family man, but we learn that his wife Sharon (Beyonce Knowles in an embarrassing turn) was – once upon a time – his secretary, which presumably suggests that he might be inclined to workplace flirtations. Sharon instantly senses Lisa’s slatternly intentions and demands she be fired, but before Derek can distance himself from the loony Lisa, she has manipulated him six ways to Sunday.

Unlike “Fatal Attraction,” the characters in “Obsessed” do not consummate the forbidden relationship that develops, despite the intense passes of the predatory Lisa. From a Christmas party grope in a bathroom stall to a lingerie flash in Derek’s car, Lisa throws herself at the unavailable husband and father, and he resists her each time. Ali Larter does the best she can with a cardboard character, but Lisa has no motivation beyond lust for the dazzling array of shenanigans she pulls. When Christine Lahti finally enters the frame as a weary detective trying to get the straight story, one is compelled to shout back at the screen, warning her not to waste her time.

Most suckers who see the movie will go to watch Beyonce, but fans of “The Wire” suffering serious withdrawal will attend for the chance to spend some time with Elba, whose Stringer Bell would never tolerate the nonsense afoot in “Obsessed.” Elba deftly navigates most of the movie’s pitfalls, underplaying many of the scenes in which his less seasoned co-stars crank it up all the way. Knowles is given mouthfuls of silliness meant to convey wellsprings of angry, poisonous scorn, but her character is a minor plot contrivance – practically an afterthought – until the fistfight in the final reel shifts the focus to her pugilistic prowess.

“Obsessed” is riddled with genre chestnuts, including an opening montage in which Knowles and Elba explore the attic of their new home and notice that the flimsy plaster of the ceiling below could not support a person’s weight – a guarantee that the movie’s climax will return to that very spot. Had Shill not taken the whole thing so seriously, the audience might have been able to have a good time throughout the movie’s duration, instead of the fleeting moments when something moronic elicits a derisive chuckle.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/27/09.

The Great Buck Howard

Monday, April 20th, 2009

greatbuckhoward2

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A passable, nostalgia-fueled coming-of-age yarn about the relationship between an Amazing Kreskin-esque “mentalist” and his youthful road manager/assistant, “The Great Buck Howard” will interest followers of John Malkovich anxious to see anything featuring the quirky performer. Inspired in part by the real life experiences of writer-director Sean McGinly, who was at one time employed by Kreskin, “The Great Buck Howard” settles immediately for a congenial, relaxed tone that suggests very little, beyond a bruised ego, will be at stake as the story unfolds. Starring alongside Malkovich is Colin Hanks, whose pleasant, even-tempered demeanor is in desperate need of some sort of darker edge.

Hanks plays law school dropout Troy Gable, an aspiring writer – of what exactly, we never really come to know – who accepts a position with fading stage performer and titular supersensible Howard (Malkovich, smoothly negotiating the quick tempered, easily offended narcissist that he has essentially perfected). Troy’s serenity and relatively thick skin aid him as he defuses Howard’s tantrums and soothes his injured pride. Despite appearing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” sixty-one times, Howard hasn’t been much of a celebrity for years, and his act takes him to half-filled theatres in all kinds of lackluster burgs.

The psychological tension of superior/subordinate professional relationships that inevitably turn personal has been more effectively observed in films like “The Servant,” “The Dresser,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and countless others. Instead of exploring any possibility that Troy might become frustrated with Howard’s fussiness and react accordingly, “The Great Buck Howard” opts instead for a misty-eyed overdose of sentimentality, abetted by an unnecessary voiceover in which Troy repeatedly points out the obvious. To be fair, McGinly makes clear his intention to write Troy in such a way that the young man unfailingly sees the good in Howard, even though the act itself is dusty, corny, and repetitious.

McGinly introduces a spark of tension with the arrival of publicist Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt), apparently the only person in Howard’s orbit unwilling to sugarcoat the sad reality of his declining status. Valerie and Troy fall quickly for one another, but once again, the only dramatic mileage to be gained from their liaison appears in an expression of realization and resentment that plays across Howard’s face while he prepares a comeback effect that includes what looks like a pretty run-of-the-mill mass hypnosis staged in Cincinnati. Naturally, the big event fails to turn out the way Howard dreamed it would.

Celebrities from Gary Coleman to John Stewart pop up in “The Great Buck Howard,” and the number of familiar faces lends a feeling of backstage show business life to the fictional biography enacted by Malkovich. Most of the famous appear as themselves, but Colin’s real life dad Tom Hanks, one of the movie’s producers, drops by for two scenes as Troy’s disapproving father. “The Great Buck Howard” is too fond of its title character to sink a set of satirical fangs into the carefully constructed self-importance Howard wears like a cape. Had the film treated the audience to the mechanics of that particular illusion, McGinly might have conjured something really worth seeing.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/20/09.

Observe and Report

Monday, April 13th, 2009

observeandreport

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Critiquing a movie like “Observe and Report,” filmmaker Jody Hill’s follow up to the mildly amusing martial arts comedy “The Foot Fist Way,” is a daunting proposition. Engineered for maximum shock, “Observe and Report” defies its audience to sympathize with any of its reprehensible characters, despite the unfortunate likelihood that many members of its target demographic will not notice that the protagonist is delusional, or that we are not supposed to cheer his always boorish, sometimes criminal, actions.

Moviemaker intent and audience reception sometimes fail to connect – just think of viewers who thought the murderous, tennis white-clad torturers of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” were cool, or worse, identified with them – but it is hard to believe that Hill and the studio executives and marketers of “Observe and Report” assumed they were delivering a deeply considered meditation on mental illness instead of a willfully messed up goof. There is no doubt that we are meant to laugh at the characters in “Observe and Report,” but too many will be laughing with them.

Seth Rogen, in the riskiest role of his short career, plays mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt, a gigantic a-hole whose lusty fantasies of wooing equally moronic cosmetics counter jockey Brandi (Anna Faris, simultaneously underutilized and over-abused) practically explode when he finds himself with the opportunity to “protect” her from a creepy trench coat flasher terrorizing the shopping center. Despite the odorous stew of racism, misogyny, and general rudeness that defines Ronnie’s occasionally medicated bipolar sufferer, he has the wherewithal to note that the streaker is probably the best thing that has ever happened to him, since it brings him closer to Brandi.

Hill recently name-checked a variety of popular cultural source material for his twisted vision, including J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” While “Observe and Report” won’t be mistaken for any of those much, much better, more incisive, more intelligent works, one imagines that Hill’s film has a shot at developing a cult eager to analyze the depths of ugly, unrelenting depravity pumping whatever substance passes for blood through the black heart of the movie. Sympathy for any of the movie’s losers, particularly Ronnie, is fleeting at best, and Hill reinforces Ronnie’s failures so diligently, you leave the cinema feeling like you have been ground beneath the director’s boot heel.

Ultimately, “Observe and Report” is supposed to be a comedy, and even though it has a handful of hilarious scenes, the whole mess is fouled up by its disjointed, stop/start rhythms. Hill has not yet mastered the art of feature film pacing, and too much of “Observe and Report” fails to sustain viewer interest and investment. The movie wallows in many bizarre and macabre scenarios – including a vicious beatdown delivered to a clutch of parking lot skaters, a painful psychological assessment, and an already infamous, vomit-soaked date rape. Many scenes likely happen inside Ronnie’s head, and if they do, Hill refuses to definitively tip his hand one way or the other. The strategy will generate future conversation about the movie, deserving or not.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/13/09.

Adventureland

Monday, April 6th, 2009

adventureland

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Adventureland,” director Greg Mottola’s strong and welcome follow-up to “Superbad,” moves away from a steady stream of comic vignettes in favor of the more observational approach employed by the filmmaker on his debut feature “The Daytrippers.” A snapshot of a summer season in the life of a ragged Pittsburgh amusement park set in 1987, “Adventureland” is a deft blend of Reagan-era nostalgia and tried-and-true coming of age passages. The period is evoked largely through the 3+ dozen nicely selected pop songs on the soundtrack, exquisitely commenced with the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.”

Jesse Eisenberg covers the same basic territory as the characters he played in “Roger Dodger” and “The Squid and the Whale,” which is not necessarily a bad thing. The actor once again proves adept at projecting the insecurities of a bright young man whose theoretical knowledge of romance and the world outstrips his actual experience. Eisenberg’s James Brennan wears his innocence like a self-deprecating badge of equal parts shame and honor; he discloses the fact of his virginity to any interested party, perhaps hopeful that the right person might take pity and seduce him.

Clearly overqualified for his position as a “Games” hireling (a notch below the more glamorous “Rides” operators) – which means he fits in perfectly with the other Adventureland staffers – James falls quickly and hard for the guarded Em (Kristen Stewart), another whip-smart wage slave too clever, and we find out later, proud, to seek work elsewhere. Em hates herself for secretly dating married park handyman Connell (Ryan Reynolds, toned down a notch from the usual smooth operators he plays) and also broods over the recent loss of her mother. Naturally, naïve James confides his interest in Em to the older and seemingly wiser Connell, setting course for a misunderstanding guaranteed to result in hurt feelings.

Mottola fashioned some aspects of the movie’s basic premise from his own experience working at an amusement park years ago, and one thing that recommends “Adventureland” is the movie’s sense of culture in microcosm: the way in which a kind of self-contained society is forged from the misfits and oddballs who work alongside the beautiful people. Any viewer who has spent time as a clock-punching minimum wage earner will recognize the easy solidarity that flowers among the Adventureland laborers. They work and party together (sometimes simultaneously), and secrets that should be the business of nobody inevitably become known to everybody.

“Adventureland” calls to mind other period piece chronicles of crepuscular youth like Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” and George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” but the scope of Mottola’s film is more scaled back and focuses on a smaller number of personalities. Like both of the aforementioned titles, “Adventureland” makes room for some excellent supporting turns, including Martin Starr as a pipe-smoking Gogol admirer with no illusions about his lot in life, and Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the amusement park’s married, and slightly off-kilter, management team. The filmmaker’s affection for his characters is earnest and warm, which will only enhance “Adventureland” on repeat viewings.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/6/09.