Archive for June, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

Monday, June 29th, 2009

girlfriendexperience

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” is as lean and brutal as its chief attraction Sasha Grey, the young starlet whose appearances in more than 150 porn videos lend the movie an air of authenticity – real or imagined – to the story of a high-priced call girl working in NYC during the midst of the current economic collapse.  Adding another chapter to the tale of Soderbergh’s fascinating balancing act that alternates between big budget Hollywood fare like the “Ocean’s 11” series and the modestly priced, intimate digital features that offer a different kind of introspective artistry, “The Girlfriend Experience” is the most successful of the director’s smaller scale projects.

Covering five days in the life of Chelsea (Grey), “The Girlfriend Experience” is presented out of chronological sequence, and the editing technique parallels the fractured, revolving door nature of the central character’s rigidly compartmentalized life, especially as it relates to Chelsea’s challenging task of maintaining a relationship with her live-in boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos).  The inevitability of Chelsea and Chris fighting over her profession is a foregone conclusion, despite the suggestion that an agreement has been reached some months prior to the period of time glimpsed in the movie.  Soderbergh does not take full advantage of the opportunity to let us see a more vulnerable, more human side of Chelsea.  Perhaps he just refuses.

Grey’s placid inscrutability might arguably be called an inability to act, but her persona and the manner in which she projects it complement Soderbergh’s considerations of a time and place in society when everything is branded and commodified.  When Chelsea is not engaging her wealthy clients in the nuanced small talk of perfectly feigned interest that gives the movie its title, she is seen going over her books and meeting with web designers who might be able to help her refine the business model that she uses to sell herself as a sophisticated total package.  In one clever scene, real life film critic Glenn Kenny plays the Erotic Connoisseur, a reptilian blogger whose notions of supply and demand suggest a sleazy quid pro quo.

Soderbergh takes less interest in the emotional lives of Chelsea and Chris than he does in presenting the ways in which the escort and the personal trainer both cater to a particular line of work that depends on serving a clientele in a manner that creates an illusion of intimacy.  Some viewers may find the comparisons a bit too obvious, but Soderbergh is confident enough in his filmmaking gifts to comment on a variety of issues swirling around the October 2008, pre-presidential election milieu.  Soderbergh’s conflation of capitalism and prostitution is more wryly raised eyebrow than sourpuss jeremiad, and the accompanying tone prevents the viewer from becoming dispirited.

Like “Bubble,” “The Girlfriend Experience” was made available as a pay-per-view video download at the same time it was being presented theatrically, and while the tactic has made some filmmakers nervous, Soderbergh has seemingly embraced a level of flexibility that might well become more and more necessary as audiences expect to see content on their own terms and timelines.  Whether you see it in the theatre or at home, “The Girlfriend Experience” is well worth a look.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/29/09.

Every Little Step

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

everylittlestep

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Every Little Step,” a documentary chronicling the grueling audition process for the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line,” achieves some of its lofty goals while leaving just as many stories of the venerable musical frustratingly unexplored. Directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern are clearly more interested in the macrocosmic, shaping their movie around the ineffable desire that sees so many hopefuls compete for so few jobs. The movie conveys the strange unity that binds together the affectionately-monikered “gypsies” who bleed, perspire, and weep as they face nearly insurmountable odds to find work in their chosen profession. For anyone interested in the workings of Broadway theatre, “Every Little Step” should not be missed.

“Every Little Step” squeezes in a great deal of drama during its 96-minute running time, including previously unheard material from the original 1974 audiotape sessions that evolved into the workshops that would eventually bring “A Chorus Line” to a whopping run of 6137 performances. Alternating between brief sketches of the show’s origins (though mostly ignoring some key contributors like Ed Kleban and James Kirkwood) and the rounds of monologues and dance combinations at the revival auditions, the documentary engages the same “And Then There Were None” strategy put to good use in Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound.”

Given the popularity of talent shows like “American Idol,” the elimination format of “Every Little Step” is a built-in intrigue generator that keeps most viewers engaged as the casting process moves ever closer to the final decisions. “A Chorus Line,” with its inward-directed gaze, is the perfect meta-musical test case for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the parameters of its creation. At various times, the movie begins to reflect and refract images like a hall of mirrors (such as the scenes in which Baayork Lee, the original Connie Wong, helps to cast an actor playing an actor in a part based largely on Lee’s own life).

“Every Little Step” contains several gripping scenes, most notably a section of Jason Tam’s stunning audition for the role of Paul. Tam’s heartfelt line readings reduce the grizzled decision makers to tears, and the sequence leaves one yearning for more detail about the actor. Unfortunately, this is a common deficiency of “Every Little Step,” as the moviemakers never fully connect with any of the people trying out for roles. Instead, the interviews contain a multitude of show business chestnuts that ironically shield the performers from revealing anything specific about their own journeys to the stage.

Viewers of “Every Little Step” will not see any content addressing the controversies aroused by choreographer/director Michael Bennett during and after the original production of “A Chorus Line.” Bennett is deified by every talking head in the movie, particularly Donna McKechnie, whose closeness – and onetime marriage to Bennett – affords her a special authority. Surely the documentary would have been more involving had it opened up to a comprehensive accounting of the history of “A Chorus Line,” but given the fact that Bennett estate executor John Breglio is one of the film’s executive producers, “Every Little Step” predictably remains a respectful tribute.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/22/09.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Monday, June 15th, 2009

takingofpelham

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It should go without saying that the freshly released Tony Scott remake of the 1974 Joseph Sargent version of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is utterly unnecessary. Most remakes, reinterpretations, and re-imaginings are. Blasting off with a thumping remix of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” the new “Pelham” honors the original hijack/caper movie at least as far as painting a portrait of life in and around the NYC subway system. While the original movie’s tough, gritty New York attained a cult following (with members including the Beastie Boys and Quentin Tarantino), Scott’s version of the city emphasizes a post-Giuliani metropolis understandably concerned with the safety of its metro transit customers and inevitably oriented toward the possibility of terrorism.

Despite his unsavory, headache-inducing predilection for swooping camera movements and jumpy, hyperactive editing, Tony Scott manages to inadvertently get a few things right in his retelling. The supporting cast members, including John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, and Michael Rispoli, often transcend the boilerplate dialogue offered to their characters. Denzel Washington’s self-effacing transit official provides the star with another opportunity to skillfully project grace under pressure (even if one misses the grumpiness of Walter Matthau). And despite considerable gaps in logic, the pacing is confidently speedy.

Robert Shaw’s cagey Mr. Blue is replaced by a jittery, twitchy John Travolta seemingly fashioned after a Tom of Finland leatherman illustration. Travolta’s aptly named Ryder is an anarchic bundle of nerves whose seductive aural courtship of Denzel Washington’s Walter Garber infuses the film with a homoerotic subtext that closely parallels the “Top Gun” speech delivered by Tarantino in “Sleep with Me.” Scott’s hyper-masculine world – which predictably has little use for women – does make time for plenty of sadism and suggestions of prison rape.

Many of the director’s worst tendencies manifest prominently throughout the movie. Vehicular mayhem occurs much more than necessary. Characters repeatedly point out painfully obvious information that the audience has just seen. The product placement is as shameless as the musical score is manipulative. In addition, all the modernizing updates fail to enhance the narrative, especially the villain’s intense interest in online stock market updates and an undernourished subplot in which a hostage maintains an open video chat with his girlfriend (open question to screenwriter Brian Helgeland: why does the girlfriend have to be depicted as stupid and emotionally needy?).

Finally, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” stumbles down the stretch, cutting between a silly runaway train straight out of D.W. Griffith and a good guy/bad guy standoff with only one possible outcome. While the 1974 version depended on a nearly farfetched detail to sew up the story, it worked within the particular world that had been created and kept faith with the film’s dark humor. Scott’s universe, on the other hand, is much less clever and much more predictable. Where the 1974 version showed considerable smarts, the 2009 attempt swaps in action. The difference between the two movies (purposefully ignoring the made-for-television version of 1998) is simple: one leaves the latest version feeling like one of the subway car hostages, relieved to be free of the ordeal.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/15/09.

Sugar

Monday, June 8th, 2009

sugar

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to their excellent “Half Nelson” is called “Sugar,” and like their previous feature, the movie is a sharp-eyed examination of character and human nature that digs much deeper than the minor league baseball premise would suggest. Following the blossoming but shaky prospects of hopeful Dominican Republic pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), the movie travels from the D.R. to the United States, with stops in Arizona, Iowa, and finally the Bronx, where the story’s stirring conclusion is set.

“Half Nelson” flirted with the dangers inherent in movies about teachers and students, but transcended the clichés of the genre by focusing on the most telling details in the lives of its central characters. “Sugar” wisely adopts the same template, even though the movie’s many baseball scenes are handled with a strong sense of no-nonsense realism. Ultimately, “Sugar” functions effectively as a meditation on the ways in which the American Dream can fail those from poor countries who make their way to the United States. The film is even more effective as a slice of life that examines one individual seduced by a system in which the odds of winning are nearly as daunting and farfetched as the Powerball.

Boden and Fleck, who share writing and directorial credit on the movie, make the most of a modest budget and “Sugar” capitalizes on each of its sharply defined locations. Sugar’s sojourn in Bridgetown, Iowa, where he boards with an elderly couple, registers deeply, and the directors mostly avoid turning the rural baseball fans into Midwestern farm caricatures. In Iowa, Sugar’s inability to speak English isolates him just as much as his ethnicity, and the moviemakers construct several vivid vignettes – ranging from the comic motif that shows the non-English speaking ballplayers repeatedly ordering French toast at the diner to the wordless display of racism that erupts on the dance floor of a crowded bar – that bring Sugar’s experiences to life.

Because the movie is filtered through Sugar’s point of view, the audience does not get to know many of the supporting characters beyond the surface interactions they share with the protagonist. One minor subplot, involving Sugar’s attraction to his Iowa host family’s granddaughter, might have turned into a major detour in the story, but Boden and Fleck maintain a level of restraint that will leave many viewers hoping for something more. The final section of the movie, in which Sugar forges a friendship with a fellow Spanish speaker, offers no earth-shattering epiphany, but the very last shots of the film have a way of staying with you long after the film ends.

“Sugar” might be described by some as a sorrowful movie, but unlike traditional sports films, the highest peaks and the lowest valleys are left alone so that the moviemakers can plot a tale of the middle ground that applies to scores of wannabes from all kinds of places, including the United States, who dream of major league glory but settle for some professional playing time instead. A substantial portion of Sugar’s modest paycheck is always wired home to his mother in the Dominican Republic, and the young man’s loneliness is described so palpably that casual baseball fans might think twice next time they see the almost anonymous names stitched on the backs of minor league jerseys.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/8/09.

Up

Monday, June 1st, 2009

up

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Nowhere near as good as several earlier Pixar efforts, “Up” still manages to engineer breathtaking technical moviemaking, personal flourishes, and (less attractively) a nose for commercial prospects in its archetypal story of loss, hope, and renewal. Like immediate predecessor “WALL-E,” the movie’s first third is easily its strongest, and the “anything goes” aspects of its South America-set center section trade a share of logic for unbridled action that will please the younger members of the audience. The movie can be as uplifting as its title, but it also manages to jerk some tears along the way.

Crotchety, mailbox-shaped Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is an elderly widower who takes his entire house to the skies just as he is about to be carted off to a retirement home. Propelled by hundreds of colorful, helium-filled balloons, Carl’s rather unusual gesture is complicated by Russell (Jordan Nagai), an accidental stowaway. It’s a foregone conclusion that the two unlikely traveling companions will learn a lot from one another, but directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have a talent for purely visual storytelling, and they mostly keep the sentimentality in check. The prologue that shows the course of Carl’s life prior to the principal action of the movie is rendered with the same kind of powerful emotional impact communicated by the “When She Loved Me” sequence in “Toy Story 2.”

Like every Pixar movie, “Up” salutes numerous examples of classic cinema with differing degrees of success. “Citizen Kane,” “King Kong,” “Star Wars,” and the 1925 version of “The Lost World” are among the references, some of which are subtle while others are played for obvious laughs. Despite existing in a world of magical realism, the movie worms its way around the conceit of cute talking animals by concocting a literal device that bestows speech to an army of dogs. Most of the silly stuff, such as canine-piloted biplanes, is merely a distraction from the finer elements of the story, which explore Carl’s grief.

The most charming things about “Up” include Pixar’s meticulous attention to story detail and nuance. Much of the character design, from Carl’s stony squint to the iridescently plumed Kevin’s squawk to canine Dug’s unconditional affection, telegraphs reserves of inner life. Even better than the running “Squirrel!” gag is the manner of Dug’s earnest simplemindedness. His sincere “I have just met you and I love you” is an accurate a distillation of every friendly puppy’s demeanor, and young and young at heart will love him right back. Precocious Junior Wilderness Explorer Russell contains more recognizably human grit and determination than meets the eye, but the same cannot be said for the movie’s odd antagonist, the Kirk Douglas-esque Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).

Considering how carefully Pixar massages the story during the preproduction process, it is somewhat odd that the villainous Muntz is the weakest of the major characters in the movie. Introduced in a clever Movietone-style newsreel at the beginning of the movie, the once great Muntz should have been rendered with the same range of complexities as Carl, but instead functions as a single-minded, deranged lunatic who attempts to let an 8-year-old plummet to his death from an airborne zeppelin. That Muntz distracts from the personal odyssey of Carl never overwhelms the movie’s smaller joys, but the antics of the swashbuckling old rogue do prevent “Up” from achieving real greatness. Despite its flaws, however, “Up” follows the dictum that even less-than-perfect Pixar is still better than most everything else in sight.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/1/09.