Archive for July, 2009

Orphan

Monday, July 27th, 2009

orphan

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A thoroughly disappointing variation on “The Bad Seed,” “Orphan” will find a loyal audience in viewers who revel in murderous children and creepy psychosexual games. Despite a late twist that provides the movie with a concussive blast, “Orphan” collapses under the weight of its bloated, unnecessary running time and its lack of imagination. Playing on nonsensical cultural fears related to adoption, “Orphan” cooks up all kinds of unpleasantness and mayhem involving preteens, perpetuating the mythology of a class of cinematic cherubs ready to manipulate adults and unleash hell when no one is looking.

Attractively photographed in Quebec, “Orphan” mostly takes place in and around a gorgeous modern domicile that would be right at home on the pages of “Dwell.” Wealthy John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga), already parents to a pair of sweet-faced kids, remain devastated by the stillbirth of a daughter. They adopt 9-year-old Esther (the effectively unsettling Isabelle Fuhrman), a poised Russian with a bizarre penchant for old-fashioned dresses and velvety neck ribbons. Despite the wariness of adorable, hearing-impaired Max (Aryana Engineer) and brother Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), the clueless adults fail to recognize warning signs until it is too late.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also helmed “Goal II: Living the Dream,” has not improved much as a horror filmmaker since his 2005 remake of “House of Wax.” Resorting again and again to cheap shocks underscored with loud musical stingers and bursts (just to make sure everyone jumps out of their chairs), the director never bothers to attempt building suspense when nerve-wracking sensual assault will do. One can only imagine what a storyteller like Alfred Hitchcock might have accomplished with the wild material, but it would certainly contain more wit, intelligence, and respect for its audience than Collet-Serra can offer.

Working from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson and a story by Alex Mace, the director is not shy about depicting very young people in perilous mental and physical situations. The film’s target demographic is not likely comprised of parents, but compassionate viewers will flinch at many of the disturbing, emotionally scarring horrors to which the very young characters are subjected. The criticism is especially vexing in the case Max, who witnesses the majority of the traumatizing atrocities committed by her new sister against classmates, acquaintances, and family members. Broken bones, death by hammer, tree house arson, handgun violence, stabbing by knife, and icy drowning are all on the movie’s unappetizing menu.

By the end of the feature, “Orphan” has provided a clinic in lumbering horror flick clichés. The final sections of the movie, down to the Killer Who Will Not Die, practically pulsate with unrelenting trashiness, from a ghoulish seduction scene to a black-lit gallery of fluorescent erotica, which makes one wonder where Esther received her graphic arts training. All three of the child performers turn in solid work despite the shaky source material. Farmiga and Sarsgaard also bring a level of talent to what would under most circumstances be an embarrassing low-budget quickie – a good description of most of the Dark Castle Entertainment filmography.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/27/09.

Food, Inc.

Monday, July 20th, 2009

foodinc

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Food, Inc.” is the best of a group of movies focused on issues and problems related to the corporatization of the food industry in America and beyond, even as the documentary opts for breadth over depth on a topic as huge as the ever-expanding waistlines of our population. In recent years, movies including “Super Size Me,” “Fast Food Nation,” and “King Corn” have all tackled various aspects of the way we eat, but “Food, Inc.” summarizes many familiar themes in a compelling admonition that raises many important ethical, moral, and fiscal questions about diet and nutrition and the hazards of unchecked big business.

Director Robert Kenner loads his double-barreled shotgun with journalists Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), who appear on camera to explain several of the central arguments of their popular books. Included among the observations is the unsettling idea that the highly industrialized system of American mass food production has changed radically in the post WW 2-era, and can be blamed for increases in contamination as well as a decline in the quality and nutritional value of practically everything we consume.

Critics of the movie’s anti-big business acumen have claimed that “Food, Inc.” is hurtful to the American farmer, citing the 2007 USDA Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms statistic that 98 percent of farms are owned by families and not corporations. This charge misses the mark, however, as Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (whose Polyface Farm was featured in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) is depicted as the closest thing to a hero in the movie. Salatin, with charm and humor, delivers folksy, commonsense advice on responsible and sustainable livestock management. Along with Gary Hirshberg of organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, Salatin represents an alternative to the heavily criticized models of the mega-corporations.

The movie’s section on seed company and agribusiness titan Monsanto is frustrating and frightening, spinning an Orwellian vision of domination so complete that the mind boggles at a culture that supports the residual effects of gene patenting. Like Tyson, Smithfield, and Perdue, Monsanto declined filmmaker invitations to appear on camera, but the company was vexed enough to include a section on its website (www.monsanto.com/foodinc/) devoted to the refutation of charges made in “Food, Inc.” In a bulleted list, Monsanto engages in bizarre spin, stating that the movie “demonizes American farmers,” even though the film does no such thing. Perhaps Monsanto equates “American farmers” with industrial food producers.

No matter where one’s beliefs fall along the political spectrum, it is difficult not to be moved by the story of food safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-year-old son Kevin died after eating burgers tainted with E. coli bacteria. Kowalcyk’s tenacious activism, which takes her to the offices of politicians in Washington, demonstrates the underlying optimism of the film – which sometimes lives in the shadows of the stomach turning imagery of slaughterhouses and the dispiriting scenes in which illegal workers are arrested even though the companies that knowingly hire and exploit them face no consequences for their actions. “Food, Inc.” covers so many topics, it might just as easily have been made into a series of episodes for a show like “Frontline.” Even so, it is compelling and necessary viewing.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/20/09.

Moon

Monday, July 13th, 2009

moon

Movie review by Greg Carlson

An impressive feature movie debut for advertising veteran and David Bowie scion Duncan Jones, “Moon” succeeds as both technical acting clinic and science fiction brainteaser. Like several of his father’s tunes, most notably “Space Oddity,” Jones’ story – which was crafted into screenplay form by Nathan Parker – ponders helplessness on a cosmic scale. Despite the movie’s lunar setting and spectacular views of starry space, the director focuses on the cramped confinement and numbing monotony of the central character’s miserable existence on the moon. Genre fans will be pleased with the film’s thoughtfulness and acuity.

Created on a modest budget that does not hinder the alternating scenes of claustrophobic isolation and the endless darkness outside the base, “Moon” introduces Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a tired Helium-3 miner nearing the completion of a three-year employment contract. Struggling to hold his sanity together, Sam’s only companion is an artificially intelligent computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey in shades of Douglas Rain) that keeps tabs on Sam’s fragile mental state. Some of the best scenes in the movie exploit the cat and mouse dynamic between the two that sees Sam trying to outsmart his minder.

It is impossible to address “Moon” without acknowledging the movie’s sizable debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 landmark “2001: A Space Odyssey.” From the antiseptic and strangely quotidian feel of the capsule interiors to the image of Sam jogging on a treadmill, Jones is not shy when it comes to emulating the master. “Moon” also includes Kubrickian videophone messages and hibernation pods, and Gerty’s presence closely mirrors the HAL 9000. The shadow of “2001” looms large over nearly every post-1968 science fiction movie with an intellectual agenda, and “Moon” joins Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh versions of “Solaris,” and Danny Boyle’s more recent “Sunshine” as stylistic offspring.

Following an accident in a moon rover, Sam awakes to discover his doppelganger, a perfect replica of himself. The two Sam Bells accept an uneasy coexistence as they try to solve the impossibility of their dilemma. Jones expertly directs the action to allow Rockwell the opportunity to not only inhabit two differentiated versions of the same character, but to play many scenes that require impeccable timing as the two men heatedly confront one another. Combining new and old-fashioned moviemaking tricks that would make Hayley Mills proud, “Moon” should tantalize would-be performers.

In an explanatory coda, “Moon” appears to close off several possibilities suggested in its early scenes. Some viewers, myself included, prefer to wonder whether Sam Bell’s otherworldly encounters might reside in his fatigued and strained imagination. Instead, the protagonist’s crucible functions more directly as a commentary on corporate greed and irresponsibility. The oft-repeated adage that the best science fiction uses a metaphoric future to comment on the present can be applied to “Moon,” and the movie’s fictional Lunar Industries (which echoes the mercenary culture of the Weyland-Yutani organization in the “Alien” series and the Tyrell Corporation of “Blade Runner”) will remind many of the post-Enron world in which giant, barely regulated machines operate without any moral gravity.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/13/09.

Easy Virtue

Monday, July 6th, 2009

easyvirtue

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Noel Coward’s play “Easy Virtue” is reinterpreted for film by Stephan Elliott following the director’s nine-year hiatus from moviemaking. Elliott fails to match the charm of his beloved cult hit “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” but “Easy Virtue” is an entertaining enough variation on popular Jazz Age themes celebrating new attitudes about pleasure and the assertion of individuality. Between the clever insults and the pretty design, there is enough to enjoy in “Easy Virtue,” even if it is nowhere near great.

“Easy Virtue” previously made it to the screen in 1928 as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent features, but the version produced by the future Master of Suspense is unmemorable, despite its focus on scandal and infidelity. One imagines that a chief draw of Coward (who was in his mid-twenties at the time he wrote “Easy Virtue”) is the repartee, and in that department, Elliott’s spin, co-written by Stephen Jobbins, retains many of Coward’s one-liners and snappy retorts. While the number of brilliant lines is in shorter supply than in some of Coward’s other work, there are still several killers that hold up, including one exchange in which the heroine has a terrific response when asked if it is true whether she has had as many lovers as rumored.

“Easy Virtue” focuses on a battle of wills and wits between a bold American race car driver named Larita (Jessica Biel, holding her own against the seasoned British thespians) and her new mother-in-law Veronica Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas) following Larita’s impulsive marriage to the inexperienced John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). The action is typical of the drawing room comedy, and even though outright farce is kept to a minimum, several outrageous complications are thrown in the pot (including a doomed Chihuahua, a motorcycle in a fox hunt, and a saucy cancan sans culottes).

Larita is more comfortable around her new father-in-law, Colonel Whittaker (Colin Firth), a disheveled wreck whose sarcastic put-downs are the only thing keeping his nasty family members in check. Firth lends gravitas to his role as a numbed WW I veteran, which enhances his character’s ultimate payoff. Ben’s vicious sisters join Veronica in undermining and picking on Larita, and the Colonel is the only person decent enough to speak up on her behalf. Oddly, husband John fails to understand the extent of Larita’s ordeal, and if there is one dimension of “Easy Virtue” that would benefit from some additional exploration, it is the specifics of the marital relationship of Larita and John.

The theme of upper crust hypocrisy hovers in the margins of the movie, which moves along at a leisurely pace appropriate to its relatively tight 96 minute running time. Elliott does manage to have some fun tweaking the period setting, blending a handful of newer pop songs (including “Sex Bomb,” “Car Wash,” and Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” in clever, jazzy arrangements) with a group of vintage tunes by Coward and Cole Porter.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/6/09.