Archive for August, 2009

Paper Heart

Monday, August 31st, 2009

paperheart

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like a less ambitious Sacha Baron Cohen, musician/actor/comic/diorama architect Charlyne Yi constructs in “Paper Heart” a world in which the phony and the real are so blurry they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Co-scripted with director Nick Jasenovec, who is played onscreen by actor Jake M. Johnson, the movie begins with Yi attempting to interview passersby about the meaning of love and ends with her own expectations and understandings of romance suitably reconfigured. “Paper Heart” wears its aloofness and nonchalance on the sleeve of its zippered hoodie, and Yi’s carefully formulated outsider persona elevates social awkwardness to performance art.

A minor cult personality best known outside of live comedy as the stoned girlfriend of Martin Starr’s character in “Knocked Up,” Yi projects an eccentricity that has a way of dividing viewer opinion. Her oddball interviewer/documentarian guise is nowhere near as elaborate as Baron Cohen’s Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, but Yi’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get faux earnestness plays to a different muse than Baron Cohen’s biting satire. Yi states at the outset that she does not think herself capable of love, and that strange and suspect claim becomes the engine that drives the rest of the feature. To its detriment, “Paper Heart” opts for geographical breadth over philosophical depth, despite an intention to explore one of humankind’s fundamental questions.

Baron Cohen’s wild, disruptive figures contrast with the personality of their creator, but Yi is playing a “character” named Charlyne Yi, and the conceit inspires a similar game which makes you wonder just how much Charlyne Yi is like “Charlyne Yi.” In one scene, Yi is shown performing onstage, and she fools with observers in a Michel Gondry-like illusion, getting the audience to wonder whether her hair is a wig – which she then removes to reveal an identical coiffure underneath. The gag functions as a working metaphor for the whole of “Paper Heart”: it’s a rabbit hole in which logic is a balloon meant to be pricked with the pin of the performer’s trickery.

Michael Cera, who is considerably better known than Yi, plays, as you would expect, a character named Michael Cera, and his droll self-consciousness matches the adorable geek he played on television’s “Arrested Development” and later in movies like “Juno,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Cera quips his way through a series of scenes in which he and Yi fall for each other, but the movie’s alliance with slackerdom robs the fictional storyline’s predictable flirtation-relationship-breakup-reconciliation trajectory of anything that might distinguish it from dozens of other girl-meets-boy yarns.

Somewhat surprisingly, the best parts of “Paper Heart” are the unscripted interviews that Yi conducts with a cross section of average folks (and a few of her famous acquaintances) across the United States. She visits a biker bar, a Vegas wedding chapel, a divorce court, a playground, and several other spots, listening to humorous, clever, and almost heartbreaking tales revolving around the movie’s thematic quest to understand romantic love. These interactions are often accompanied by reenactments in Yi’s handmade puppet theatres, which typify a folksy, do-it-yourself aesthetic that helps to maintain an ironic distance between filmmaker and audience. Unfortunately, the puppet theatre’s cutesy vibe, while in keeping with the facile values of “Paper Heart,” merely reinforces the sense of alienation.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/31/09.

Inglourious Basterds

Monday, August 24th, 2009

inglouriousbasterds

Movie review by Greg Carlson

What many Quentin Tarantino fans had hoped would be the director’s dazzling genre deconstruction/reconstruction of Spaghetti Westerns and WW 2 action flicks unfolds as a sloppy, long-winded, and sometimes dull disappointment. Tarantino’s audacious stylistic flourishes continue to be applied with a virtuoso’s touch, but the purposefully misspelled “Inglourious Basterds” exchanges spectacle for an endless river of dialogue that prevents the film from ever fully taking cinematic flight. The film features plenty of breathtaking images and dozens of Tarantino’s intertextual tributes to favorite films obscure and famous, but the director’s narcissistic ardor for his own words paralyzes the two and a half hour marathon with bottomless scenes of talking, talking, and more talking.

Presented as episodic chapters that occasionally work better as individuated short films, the five sections of “Inglourious Basterds” contribute to an intertwined movie premiere bomb/arson plot that pits a bloodthirsty squad of Jewish trigger-men and a vengeful cinephile against no less than the top command of the German war machine, including der Fuhrer himself. Lt. Aldo Raine, played to the rafters by Brad Pitt, leads the cutthroat Basterds, but unlike major inspiration “The Dirty Dozen,” Tarantino seldom shows the whole group functioning together. With very few exceptions, the Basterds’ bloodiest exploits are also left up to the imagination.

In keeping with a tradition of velvety evil movie Nazis, Tarantino lavishes attention on Standartenfuhrer Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, a sophisticated detective whose bearing and screen time nearly make him the film’s ghoulish protagonist (QT admitted in a recent interview with Ella Taylor that he wanted to manipulate the audience into investing in the character’s successes to “see what he’ll do”). As inhabited by Austrian performer Christoph Waltz, Landa is one of the movie’s great pleasures, breathing new life into one of moviedom’s dustiest tropes. Both Waltz and Pitt are funny, but Tarantino’s application of humor is mostly queasy and indelicate, light years from the overshadowing genius of Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” – a film made during WW 2 that still sparkles with relevance six decades later.

At least two conflicting schools of thought inspire conversation about the movie’s political projections (to suggest an agenda would give the filmmaker too much credit). The first argues that the movie’s over-the-top Jewish revenge fantasy – which baseball bat-wielding Bear Jew portrayer Eli Roth has dubbed “Kosher Porn” – gleefully rewrites Third Reich history with a wink and a nudge. The second, more troublesome reading trades the reductio ad ridiculum of the first with the unsettling idea that Raine’s team of brutal thugs are no better than the Nazis they bludgeon and scalp. Their inhumane atrocities paint the Basterds as a 1940s version of al-Qaeda executioners or CIA torturers, unshackled from any moral consequence.

“Inglourious Basterds” is certainly at its finest when Tarantino’s penchant for self-reflexivity turns the act of watching into a game of “I Spy” for hardcore movie fanatics. A key British military operative played by Michael Fassbender is a movie critic and authority on German Expressionism in his civilian life. Highly flammable nitrate film prints are used as weapons. A well-known academic criticism of “King Kong” provides a clever jest that doubles as social commentary. Characters argue the merits of “The White Hell of Pitz Palu” and “The Kid.” Indulging his foot fetish and passion for theatrical liebestod, Tarantino even works in nods to the pre-cinematic mythologies of “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet.” All these heady allusions guarantee long-term dissection of “Inglourious Basterds,” even if the movie does not live up to Tarantino’s auteurist reputation as a filmmaker’s filmmaker.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/24/08.

District 9

Monday, August 17th, 2009

district9

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“District 9,” a zany sci-fi social commentary blended with bugs-on-the-run brio, arose from the ashes of the failed “Halo” movie that was to have been shepherded by Peter Jackson as producer and visual effects specialist Neill Blomkamp in the director’s chair.  Jackson purportedly offered Blomkamp roughly 30 million bucks to come up with something in the wake of the “Halo” implosion, and Blomkamp responded with an expansion of his short movie “Alive in Joburg.”  Set mostly in a hellish shantytown in Johannesburg, South Africa, “District 9” imagines a world in which stranded aliens are treated with the same kind of contempt that ruling classes have shown toward the marginalized in numerous historical examples.  While the film’s setting makes apartheid the most obvious parallel, Blomkamp applies his brush liberally enough to suggest hints of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and ethnically motivated conflicts from the Middle East to Eastern Europe.

Mid-level field operative Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) works for the ominous Multi-National United, a Halliburton-like contractor retained by the South African government to relocate the alien encampment of the title to a new location outside the city limits.  While Copley’s unfamiliar face is refreshing, the character he plays is a buffoonish dolt whose empty-headed pronouncements make him an ideal candidate for employment at Wernham Hogg paper merchants.  Virtually everything of narrative importance pivots around Wikus, and his fawning, deferential obsequiousness (his father-in-law, who promoted him, comically denies charges of nepotism) initially renders him difficult to like.

“District 9” rockets by so quickly that many of the movie’s hemorrhaging plot gaps won’t bother the grinning customers.  A second viewing might erase some doubts, but Blomkamp and co-screenwriter Terri Tatchell fudge too often to earn a free pass.  One wonders why the brutalized prawns don’t turn their superior firepower against their human oppressors.  For that matter, it makes very little sense that the shady MNU corporation for which Wikus works would seek to eradicate their only link to the technology they so desperately want to control.  Why don’t the humans force an enslaved, terrorized prawn to operate the alien weaponry?

Tonally, Blomkamp attempts to balance black comedy with a superficial soulfulness that aligns viewer sympathy with the beleaguered extra terrestrials.  Disappointingly, only one alien creature (who sports the wryly evocative salvation-oriented name Christopher Johnson) is presented as a thoroughly developed character in his/its own right, and any explanations that the remaining horde of prawns are simply too docile, scared or stupid to stand up for themselves merely reinforces the stereotyping used by dominant groups to justify cruelty against the weak “other.”

Action junkies will relish the movie’s final sections, when Blomkamp shifts all the energy to a video game-style bullet festival.  Recalling the most violent gut punches of “RoboCop.” “Starship Troopers,” and “Aliens,” “District 9” gleefully jacks up a body count worthy of any first person shooter, as scores of expendable human mercenaries are ripped apart in showers of exploding gobs of flesh, limbs, and brains.  The visceral thrill ride diminishes much of the impact made by the intriguing political and social questions posed in the film’s first third and also allows the filmmaker to largely ignore – at least onscreen – the segregationist issues raised at the movie’s outset.

(500) Days of Summer

Monday, August 10th, 2009

fivehundred days of summer

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” is, alas, a conventional, male-centric romance masquerading as an appealing hipster fantasy. Were it not for the chemistry of attractive lead performers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, the movie would have a difficult time sustaining its self-conscious cool throughout the jumble of its fragmented chronology. While marginally better than the bigger budgeted fare that “(500) Days of Summer” closely resembles, the movie would require a total overhaul to be considered a legitimate alternative to glossier “boy loses girl” features.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, an unrealistic romantic weaned on the achingly morose poetry of the Smiths and Joy Division – he sports not one, but two tee shirts idolizing the latter, including, in case we might otherwise miss it, the edition emblazoned with “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Tom clings to the thought that there is a perfect soul mate he is destined to find, and one day he spies the stunning Summer (Deschanel), a new hire at the boutique greeting card company where he works. The two “meet cute” in an elevator: overhearing music from Tom’s headphones, Summer warbles a few lines of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” instantly capturing the young man’s heart.

As Summer, Deschanel thanklessly embodies another variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Coined by critic Nathan Rabin, the MPDG describes a class of quirky, impossibly beautiful free spirits designed to, in Rabin’s words, “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Ultimately, the MPDG is a second-class cinematic citizen, a muse without her own agency who exists to serve the male protagonist on his quest for self-fulfillment. Deschanel’s Summer, who doesn’t believe in the old-fashioned romantic notion of “the one,” becomes a mere object to be won and lost by Tom.

In addition to its failure to operate outside of a strictly masculine point of view, “(500) Days of Summer” offers up a laundry list of clichés: unnecessary stentorian voiceover narration (wildly popular since “The Royal Tenenbaums”), a wise-beyond-her-years younger sibling who dispenses grown-up relationship advice (in full flower following “Bottle Rocket”), and Tom’s wacky comic-relief pals who grind the movie to a halt in every scene in which they appear (Summer, apparently, does not have any friends of her own). Add to that a post-coital musical number complete with animated bluebird, a tribute to the French New Wave, a couple trips to IKEA, and Belle and Sebastian, “The Graduate,” and J.D. Salinger references, and you have a recipe for smarty-pants vogue overload.

“(500) Days of Summer” wears its heart on its sleeve, and desperately wants to be loved by all the trendy kids.  The movie also shields itself in irony, allowing the dismissive and condescending among us to buy in to the blunt obviousness that love hurts (although the most jaded will still turn up their noses at the inclusion of Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind”).  The movie gets to have its cake and eat it, in the late-arriving form of Minka Kelly, whose character’s groan-inducing name is introduced with a fourth-wall breaking wink.  Turns out experience, and Summer, were pretty good teachers, even if it’s all a little too cute.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/10/09.

The Hurt Locker

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

hurtlocker

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran Hollywood action filmmaker/adrenaline engineer Kathryn Bigelow offers her finest movie to date in “The Hurt Locker,” a brutal and intense tour of duty with a team of American soldiers charged with the ugly, dangerous task of defusing improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Bigelow, whose credits include several films with sturdy cult followings, including the often-overlooked vampire Western “Near Dark” (1987), the bank robber/surfer hit “Point Break” (1991) and the influential cyberpunk mindbender “Strange Days” (1995), continues to demonstrate her facility with stunningly staged, emotionally charged material, but “The Hurt Locker” boasts a level of gritty realism missing from most of the filmmaker’s large scale features.

Mark Boal’s screenplay, structured straightforwardly around seven specific set pieces, adroitly balances the pulse-quickening, heart-racing suspense inherent in the bomb squad’s job description with keenly observed, subtly illustrated hints that help explain why a person would pursue one of the most stressful specialties in the military. At the heart of the story is Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner in a breakout performance. Renner, a dependable actor often cast in supporting roles, is marvelous and commanding as James, a deeply troubled professional for whom the daily risk of his life is nothing short of a calling.

James finds a perfect foil in meticulous professional Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, also excellent), a point man who provides James with cover whenever a bomb call requires the team’s attention. Mackie and Renner invest their characters with a blend of admiration and disgust for one another that speaks to the complexity of a dynamic based upon critical trust and communication. When James recklessly tosses aside his headphones or strips off his hulking Kevlar blast protection suit, Sanborn seethes with dumbfounded frustration and helplessness that contrast sharply with the military’s masculine codes.

For all of its sweaty anxiety, “The Hurt Locker” modifies many of the expectations of combat thrillers. Sustained tension replaces full-throttle depictions of small arms melees, and Bigelow works wonders with the rhythm and pacing of each of the sequences in which James and company find themselves in harm’s way. Even a long distance face-off in which snipers pin down a small group of American soldiers and fire-eating UK contractors is a miniature marvel of spatial dynamics and carefully timed shots. In the sequence, Bigelow suggests the excruciating passage of time without sacrificing any of the nauseating fear that keeps the soldiers on a razor’s edge. Like many of the movie’s scenarios, the desert gunfight has a way of sticking with you long after the film has ended.

“The Hurt Locker” bests nearly all other Iraq war movies in its examination of the psychological effects of armed combat — without resorting to many of the oversimplified explanations movies tend to offer.  Instead, several tricky questions are raised that transcend the good-versus-evil dialectic that governs so much of American popular culture.  Is James addicted to his impossibly treacherous work?  Is he mentally ill?  What does it take to be an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician when the job is so thoroughly perilous?  ”The Hurt Locker” never gives any definitive answers, and it shouldn’t.  To do so would mute its considerable impact.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/3/09.