Archive for September, 2009

Jennifer’s Body

Monday, September 28th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody will assuredly not be making a second trip to the stage of the Kodak Theatre for “Jennifer’s Body,” a phony rehash of too many better movies to count (“Carrie,” “The Exorcist,” and “Heathers” are among the obvious influences). Snotty, snide, and contemptuous of both its characters and the audience likely to see it, “Jennifer’s Body” isn’t funny enough to be a comedy and certainly isn’t scary enough to be a horror film. The movie relentlessly emphasizes starlet-of-the-moment Megan Fox’s good looks, but the comely performer – whose acting chops remain in serious question – plays an insatiable succubus with little heart and not a trace of soul.

Some defenders have raised the possibility that Fox was cast precisely because Jennifer needs to be gorgeous on the outside and hollow on the inside, but Cody refuses to make any distinction between the pre-demonic Jennifer and the cruel monster she becomes. The story’s point of view belongs to Jennifer’s doormat of a best pal, the transparently monikered Needy (Amanda Seyfried). Despite the claim that “sandbox love never dies,” Needy seems too earnest and genuine to accept the torrent of callous, pitiless sadism that Jennifer dishes out to everyone in her path. The suggestion that Needy harbors a serious crush on Jennifer is underdeveloped, turning a late stage make-out session between the girls into little more than tease and titillation.

While it is easy to share Cody’s disdain for rock poseurs who prey on female fans, “Jennifer’s Body” adds little to the discussion of women in the horror genre, especially where revenge fantasies intersect with cultural anxieties over sexuality. To the filmmakers’ credit, “Jennifer’s Body” channels its point of view through a female protagonist, but Needy’s own erotic curiosity about her BFF fixes Fox’s Jennifer as the object of our gaze as well. The movie never gets tired of revealing Fox in various states of undress (it does, however, eschew nudity), and Jennifer narcissistically admires herself in a mirror’s reflection in more than one scene.

Cody’s stylized teen-speak elevated several idiotic lines from “Juno” to catchphrase status (the use of “homeskillet” should be banned from all future conversation), but at least in that movie the impossible cleverness was placed in the service of understanding a central character who used her intelligence as a shield against fear and uncertainty. In “Jennifer’s Body,” the arch one-liners are poisonous: Needy and Jennifer mock-affectionately call each other nicknames like Vagisil and Monistat, mash-up terms like “freaktarded” are liberally applied, and groaners like “Move on, dot org” instantly date the film.

Cody’s dialogue is not afforded much help from Karyn Kusama’s direction, which emphasizes cheap shocks and a reliance on unconvincing CGI whenever Jennifer’s fanged maw opens to feed on her luckless victims. Only one scene, an atmospheric showdown in a neglected swimming pool, conjures some magic that transcends the drab locations meant to suggest the provincial Minnesota hamlet Devil’s Kettle, but by the time the movie gets to it, patience and interest have been sorely strained.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/28/09.

The Informant!

Monday, September 21st, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like the Coen Brothers, director Steven Soderbergh has been accused of making movies that discount, ignore, or purposefully flummox viewers in favor of the creator’s own personal amusement. “The Informant!” is not as absurdly funny as the products of Joel and Ethan’s worldview, but Soderbergh makes mincemeat of Kurt Eichenwald’s book about Mark Whitacre, a prevaricating whistleblower whose own crimes were temporarily papered over when he began spying on his employer, Archer Daniels Midland, for the FBI. With its sizable supporting cast of comics (including cameos by the Smothers Brothers) and a jokey score by Marvin Hamlisch, “The Informant!” warns viewers that they will not be seeing a “true story.”

Matt Damon plays Whitacre as a deluded fabulist who rationalizes a bizarre string of bigger and bigger fibs to avoid being caught for his own indiscretions. With a bulked-up frame, ridiculous hairpiece, and nerdy spectacles, Damon physically distances himself from his typical screen persona. The audience might at first be inclined to like Damon’s Whitacre, who eagerly embraces his opportunity to role-play as a spy for federal agents, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are quick to exploit the man’s deep flaws. As a result, Whitacre grows less and less sympathetic as the information he provides to his contacts fails to check out.

Whitacre’s foibles are punctuated by interior monologues that betray his mental state through stream of consciousness ruminations on topics ranging from designer neckties to Japanese businessmen who purchase used panties. The voiceover thoughts pop up whenever Whitacre should be focusing his attention on keeping straight his web of lies. Sounding like Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts,” the non sequitur surrealisms in Whitacre’s head add another layer of incredulity to the upside down world constructed out of the man’s fraudulent layers of deceit.

Even though “The Informant!” is set in a corporate culture populated almost entirely by men, the movie’s greatest deficiency is the lack of interest taken in Whitacre’s loyal wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey). The movie’s narrative resolutely follows a linear unraveling of Whitacre’s mountain of myths, and when the story includes Ginger, she unwaveringly stands by her mate. With the exception of a late scene that provides small insight into Ginger’s fatigue with the lengthy ordeal, we never know the extent to which she believes her husband’s stories. Lynskey, however, is a skillful actor, and manages to energize an underwritten role.

Soderbergh, who shot “The Informant!” under his usual alias Peter Andrews, frames the drab corporate settings with a wickedly cruel sense of desolation. The bad suits, ghoulish coiffures, and shiny sports cars mock Whitacre’s desperation to cast himself as the Tom Cruise version of the protagonist in John Grisham’s “The Firm,” a good guy surrounded by bad guys intent on doing him harm. This detail is one of Sodergbergh’s many reminders that feature films “based on real events” are constructed as fiction no matter how much we would like to believe otherwise. The “so there” that Soderbergh attaches to the text that opens the movie impishly insults the self-applied seriousness that accompanies so many screen adaptations touting journalistic factualism.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/21/09.


Monday, September 14th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The expanded version of Shane Acker’s 2005 computer animated short “9” bears many unwelcome traits that can accompany movies making the leap to feature length, most notably the change from silent protagonists to celebrity-voiced chatterboxes. Despite the detailed look of the film’s post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland, “9” struggles to apply the same level of creativity to its storyline as it does to what Acker calls its “stitchpunk” characters. Only the most devoted animation and science fiction fans will forgive the movie’s narrative resemblance to “The Lord of the Rings” and scripter Pamela Pettler’s appallingly feebleminded dialogue, which constantly tarnishes the imaginative capability of the film’s otherworldly landscapes.

Elijah Wood plays the title figure, a zippered cloth ragdoll with an expressive mouth and blinking diaphragm shutters in his goggle eyes. The last in a line of increasingly augmented homunculi, 9 clashes with the conservative 1 (Christopher Plummer), a wizened ecclesiast who resembles the vaguely amphibious Nute Gunray from the “Star Wars” prequels. Along with devoted sidekick 5 (John C. Reilly), 9 ventures forth to uncover the secrets of his origin and the function of a mysterious talisman. The journey is fraught with peril, and 9 is aided on his quest by the rebellious 7 (Jennifer Connelly), whose fearlessness inspires 9 as much as it terrifies 1.

The vistas and objects of “9” radiate with a peculiar familiarity even as the filmmakers struggle to set them apart from their inspirations. The clever employment of everyday objects repurposed for use by miniature agents (i.e. a single scissor blade wielded as a sword) was a staple of centuries-old folktales of the “Tom Thumb” variety long before animators like Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, and Chuck Jones delighted viewers with cartoon shorts depicting tiny heroes drinking from thimbles or shoveling soap flakes with teaspoons. This effect, which adds a great deal of color to “9,” can be traced to both vintage cartoons and more recent stop motion work, including Mark Gustafson’s 1994 “Mr. Resistor.”

“9” owes an even greater visual debt to Stephen and Timothy Quay, Fred Stuhr, and Tim Burton (one of the producers of “9”), especially in Acker’s affinity for nightmarish mechanical apparatuses with broken porcelain doll faces, sharp razors, and serpentine and arachnidan movements. The decimated landscape in which 9 and his companions struggle to survive may mirror the blighted ghost city of “WALL-E,” but the movies part company at this similarity. The ecological warning of the Pixar film is replaced with dire omens concerning artificial intelligence and technology run amok, ala “The Terminator.”

The crushing tedium of “9” manifests in the worthless banalities mouthed by its naïve, bullheaded characters and the endless cycle of chase and escape that eats up the rest of the screen minutes. Pettler, whose script for “Monster House” is substantially more refined than “9,” skips along the surface of several themes that could have addressed rich philosophical terrain. Instead of considering what it means to be alive or yearning to better understand their creator, the stitchpunks gush streams of moronic obviousness, presumably to explain the empty mythology that governs their world. “9” restages a number of scenes depicted in Acker’s Academy Award-nominated short film, but never improves upon them.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/14/09.


Monday, September 7th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Mike Judge’s incisive observations of the foibles and humiliations of the workplace, school, and home have turned several of his creations – most notably the constantly quoted “Office Space” – into grimly comic fables for smart folks who suffer the fools with whom they toil, learn, and live. Since the phenomenal popularity of nearly brain dead underachievers Beavis and Butt-Head in the early and mid-1990s, Judge has satirized stupidity in a way that appeals to people of all IQ levels. His latest feature, “Extract,” continues in that direction, but its point of view swaps unappreciated employee for harried boss/small business owner.

Jason Bateman plays Joel Reynold, a food chemistry whiz who has parlayed his facility for flavorings into a successful little factory. Despite the entrepreneur’s stability and prosperity, Joel struggles with his wife’s lack of interest in sex, and one of the movie’s running gags shows Joel racing against the daily deadline when Suzie (Kristen Wiig) knots the drawstring in her sweatpants. Joel’s carnal frustration stretches to the breaking point when comely temp Cindy (Mila Kunis) takes a position on the extract bottling line. Of course, Cindy’s sudden appearance is no coincidence, and Joel quickly finds himself neck deep in moral quicksand.

Joel’s confidante Dean (played with stoned relish by Ben Affleck), a shaggy hotel bartender, insists that pharmaceutical experimentation is the answer to any problem, and also convinces his horse-tranquilized pal to hire a dim bulb gigolo to seduce Suzie so that Joel can pursue Cindy without guilt. The farfetched plan, which would be at home in any number of stage farces or situation comedies, backfires spectacularly, and Joel finds himself paying hard cash to be cuckolded. Such breathlessly impossible complications can be effectively rendered in the movies – Ingmar Bergman makes the improbable sexual zigzags of “Smiles of a Summer Night” look easy – if the filmmaker brings a delicate touch, but Judge’s methods are lumpier and more blunt, and also fail to respect Suzie as a fully formed character.

Had “Extract” been made during the 1930s or 1940s and been directed by Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, or Ernst Lubitsch, the film’s female characters would at the very least have been rendered with greater dexterity that Judge manages for Kunis or Wiig. Kunis’ best scene is her (and the film’s) first, as she plays dumb and flirty to more easily rob a pair of enamored musical instrument store bozos. Following that clever sketch, we never learn another thing about her or why she does what she does. Judge is far more comfortable writing for men, as evidenced in the painfully funny scenes between Joel and obnoxious neighbor Nathan (the reliable David Koechner), who materializes at the least convenient times.

“Extract” lacks some of the careful pacing required of its feature length. Judge cannot seem to strike the right tone with the dinkuses, doofuses, and morons on Joel’s payroll, faltering as he shapes an attitude that seems to sympathize with them one moment and ridicule them the next. The film’s memorable workplace accident, in which an elaborate chain reaction triggered by a combination of carelessness and ineptitude results in traumatized testicles, makes for a visually amusing diversion, but “Extract” never quite transcends the mundane grind of its assembly line setting.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/7/09.