Archive for October, 2009

Amelia

Monday, October 26th, 2009

amelia

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Reviewers should have a grand time coming up with all manner of clever aviation metaphors as they trash “Amelia,” a handsome but empty biopic of iconic pilot Amelia Earhart.  One might say that Mira Nair’s film fails to take flight, that the script by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan crashes shortly after takeoff, and the dull experience of suffering through the feature will cause potential audiences to vanish without a trace.  Nair, whose hit-or-miss career as a filmmaker contains a substantial number of clunkers along with bright spots like breakthrough “Salaam Bombay!” and critical high point “Monsoon Wedding,” never gets a grip on her subject.  The result is the very nadir of the fictionalized biography: a superficial highlight reel that fails to connect us to an extraordinary life.

“Amelia” stars two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank as Earhart, and the casting is only one indicator among many that the filmmakers had set their sights on Oscar recognition.  Swank certainly embraces the challenge with fierce determination, but the off-putting accent – which never even flirts with credibility – and the thudding repetition of the scenes, do the performer no favors.  Neither does the glib voiceover narration, in which Earhart describes her passion to be airborne as if practicing to write greeting cards.

Earhart’s personal relationships with the various men in her life dominate the drama and siphon attention from her drive to empower women as pilots.  Nair flirts with the idea that Earhart’s fame was the result of calculating self-promotion, but the script resolutely paints the aviatrix as a sun-kissed saint disdainful of the product endorsements she made to help finance her expensive avocation.  Richard Gere, as Earhart’s publisher and husband George Putnam, plays the realist to Earhart’s idealist.  She reminds him that she just “wants to be free” so many times that “Amelia” might have inspired a drinking game were it not so crushingly insipid.

Alongside Gere, Ewan McGregor appears as commercial aviation pioneer Gene Vidal, who purportedly entered into an affair with Earhart.  McGregor’s character exists to service the dramatic structure as the third side of a romantic triangle, but save for one prolonged kiss in an elevator, the movie offers no hint that Earhart felt passion for anything but flying.  Christopher Eccleston, as Earhart’s navigator Fred Noonan, is reduced to an alcoholic liability, giving Earhart one more opportunity to convince Putnam that she can “handle it” when her husband fears the worst.  Supporting women fare even worse: Cherry Jones plays Eleanor Roosevelt in a fleeting cameo and Mia Wasikowska barely registers as rival pilot Elinor Smith.

Even though “Amelia” zips through many of Earhart’s notable accomplishments in advance of her ill-fated around-the-world attempt, Nair handles the disappearance with piety.  The decades-long public fascination with Earhart has much to do with the unsolved status of her almost certain death.  Unwilling to entertain any of the durable conspiracy theories many of us heard about as children (including legends that Earhart spied for FDR and/or was executed by the Japanese after surviving a crash landing), Nair stages the final moments of Earhart’s life with stoicism and reverence.  With the exception of these final scenes, however, the application of so much careful obeisance melts dynamic history into tiresome lecture.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/26/09.

Q & A with Patrick Coyle

Monday, October 19th, 2009

intotemptation

Interview by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Patrick Coyle’s Minneapolis-based “Into Temptation” will open at the Fargo Theatre on Friday, October 23, 2009.  The 7pm screening on Friday evening will include a special appearance by Coyle, along with critic and writer James Lileks.

HPR: You mentioned that a significant inspiration for “Into Temptation” came from your own family.  Your father considered going to seminary and you wondered what kind of priest he might have been.  How much of your dad ended up in the character of John Buerlein?

Patrick Coyle: My dad informed the creation of the character of Fr. John during the writing phase.  Jeremy Sisto then put his own spin on the character after picking my brain about growing up Catholic.  He also did a lot of his own personal research.  Although not Catholic, he began attending Sunday mass every week and struck up a fast friendship with Fr. Monaghan, 40 years his senior, the longtime pastor of Incarnation Church in South Minneapolis where we shot most of our church scenes.

They sat together at lunch everyday, off in a corner by themselves, talking, laughing, arguing…  I stayed away because whatever it was they were discussing, it was working on camera.  Sometimes the best thing you can do as a director is nothing.

 

HPR: John Buerlein (Jeremy Sisto) and Ralph O’Brien (Brian Baumgartner) take unexpected approaches to their vocation as Catholic priests.  Both men can be funny, brutally frank, and even caustic.  How have your Catholic friends responded to your spin on the contemporary clergy?

PC: The response has been overwhelmingly positive and has caught me completely by surprise.  My Catholic friends, the practicing and the disaffected, have embraced the film for its authenticity.  Much of what has been said cinematically about Catholicism lately has been pretty sensational and negative.  Many tell me they haven’t seen a film about Catholicism that resonates truthfully like “Into Temptation.”

Most gratifying, though, is the response I am getting from Catholic priests, who tell me they love that I have shown priests in a human way, capable of good and bad, like all of us.  My favorite e-mail was from a former priest who told me the film made him really miss what he loved most about the profession: working with others.

 

HPR: Buerlein’s search for Linda takes him to the heart of the sex industry.  How did you balance the sensational aspects of the story – peep shows, porn shops – with the priest’s spiritual commitments and vows?

PC: Going back to the question about my dad, I was most drawn to his ability to talk in the exact same, forthright way to everyone: a CEO or a homeless person.  Fr. John is the same way.  His mission to help a troubled woman who crosses his path, although a little obsessive, takes him to some bad, dangerous, uncomfortable places.  He handles it by treating everyone he encounters with dignity, and they respond to him in kind.  His non-judging tone was what was most important to me.  I think it quietly dominates the tone of the film, which is what I intended.

 

HPR: “Into Temptation” is your second feature as writer/director and the second to be made in the Twin Cities.  Would it be easier to make your movies somewhere else?  What draws you to production in Minnesota?

PC: I made both of my films on tiny budgets.  When you do not have a lot of money to throw at problems you need to be creative and think on your feet.  I can do that best in Minneapolis, where I am very connected and I know the city intimately, all its secrets.  I have lived here 22 years.

Choosing locations becomes very important on a small budget.  I was able to get nearly everything I wanted.  Also, great actors and crew live here and I was able to get the best of the best.  I have made a living as an actor and a writer in the Midwest and I am proud of that as I do not want to raise my little family in L.A., a place I love to visit.

 

HPR: How much local casting took place?

PC: Except for my leads, Jeremy Sisto, Kristin Chenoweth, and Brian Baumgartner, all of it.

 

HPR: Minneapolis emerges as a real character in the movie.  Which of the locations and landmarks were “must use” places for you?

PC: Not trying to shock, but getting Sex World, a garish, lurid, perfectly art-directed adult bookstore and video arcade in a bad corner of downtown Minneapolis was a coup.  I was told they never allow filmmakers in there so I asked my talented, first-time location manager to get me a place as close to it as she could find and we’d have to make do.

She came back and said “I got you Sex World, don’t ask how.”  That being said, I never wanted to spend ten hours in the joint, but you do what you have to do on a guerilla indie shoot.  Also, Minneapolis’s stunning Stone Arch Bridge.  I had to have that as well.

 

HPR: You play a small but significant role in the movie, and have worked as an actor for years.  How does your understanding of performance inform the way you direct actors?

PC: I love actors.  Without good actors a filmmaker is nothing.  But over the years I have come to understand that some need a friend, some need a parent, some need a shrink, and some just need you to get out of the way and stay out.  So I think the psychological wisdom I have gained over the years has served me more than anything.  As for the very unsympathetic character I played, my wife made me do it to keep my SAG insurance alive.

 

HPR: As an independent filmmaker, can you talk a little bit about the challenges of putting together a feature without the support of a major studio?

PC: You need to be a little crazy and it is not for everybody.   It’s a three to five year commitment, at least.  The chances of your film seeing the light of distribution are about 1 in 500.  One person has to be the passionate force that will see the film through pre-production, the shoot, post-production, then into the hardest phase of all, marketing and distribution, and that person has to be you.  You cannot take no for an answer because you will get it early and often.

You will want to quit and you can’t because others have backed you financially and you need to take that trust they have placed in you very seriously.  It is not just about you.  You have to be willing to wear a dozen different hats; I drove the grip truck on my first film and parked it in my alley every night.  It is decidedly not glamorous.  On the other hand, you have complete control and your vision actually has a shot of making it to the screen.  If you succeed, this makes it all worthwhile.

 

HPR: “Detective Fiction” was shot on 35mm and “Into Temptation” originated on the digital Red Camera system.  As a director, what kind of adjustments did you make to deal with a different technology?  Did you prefer one format over the other?

PC: I have a bias for film and wanted to shoot “Into Temptation” on film in the worst way.  Money drove our decision to use the Red Camera, the best alternative out there, or at least that is how my DP pitched it to me.  Both of us have a fear of under-covering a film and that possibility existed if we used film.

The Red proved to be really versatile and suited David Doyle’s voyeuristic style of cinematography beautifully.  The Red is a new, emerging system and workflow issues arose often.  We did more troubleshooting than I would have liked, but I would recommend the Red.  The proof is in the pudding and I am very proud of the way my film looks.

 

HPR: The DVD release for “Into Temptation” is coming up.  What else is on tap for the film?

PC: First Look Studios has a deal with Warner Brothers so video on demand will be extensive.  It continues to roll out theatrically which makes me happy.  I love the way it plays on the big screen.  And we have a foreign sales company making deals around the world.  It will also land on cable some day but I am not sure when or where.

 

HPR: You can learn more about “Into Temptation” at www.intotemptationthemovie.com

Where the Wild Things Are

Monday, October 19th, 2009

wherethewildthingsare

Movie review by Greg Carlson

So potent is the alchemy of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 “Where the Wild Things Are” that writers, critics, and bloggers have recently generated the equivalent of several monographs addressing its potentialities of meaning: J. Hoberman notes John Cech’s “Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak,” Jack Shafer visits Sendak’s longstanding animosity directed against Bruno Bettelheim, and Dana Stevens mentions a Bill Moyers interview – one of several places where Sendak revealed that the inspiration for the design of his hallmark creatures bubbled up from indigestible memories of his grotesque relatives demanding food, attention, and kisses.

Spike Jonze’s lavishly budgeted adaptation contributes another chapter to the media history of the Wild Things, joining Gene Deitch’s 1973 animated short and Oliver Knussen’s 1980s opera.  Following an intimate and keenly observed opening section that introduces the painful isolation of Max (Max Records), the wolf-suited child sets sail for the titular domain.  Upon arrival, he encounters the Wild Things, is quickly appointed king, and sets about declaring the start of the wild rumpus, which involves more tree smashing than the book.  Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, and Max morphs from mischief-maker to harried parent, navigating the strange grievances of his subjects and intervening in their squabbles.

Jonze and his collaborators commendably respect the essence of Sendak’s original, even as they enlarge to feature-length running time a work that takes about seven minutes to read.  Do not, however, expect an exact replica.  In “Heads On and We Shoot: The Making of Where the Wild Things Are,” a beautiful companion book to the movie that offers pleasures distinct from the film watching experience, Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers share the anecdote that Sendak was adamantly opposed to the film’s omission of the bedroom-to-forest transformation scene.  Sendak’s objection proves correct, and despite Jonze’s self-defense, many aficionados will sorely miss the treasured sequence.

Additionally, something is lost in the act of assigning names to the unnamable Wild Things, who remained mystically anonymous in the original text.  Sendak’s application of the names of relations for the Knussen opera (Moishe, Tzippy, Bernard, Bruno, and Emile) are jettisoned in favor of new monikers Carol, KW, Judith, Ira, Alexander, and Douglas.  The human-sounding appellations ground the creatures in the kind of realism identified by Jonze as a crucial component of his version of the Wild Things.  Identification through naming can also impart unanticipated consequences related to classification, assimilation, and limitation, narrowing possibilities by ruling out all the things that Things are not.

Sendak, credited as one of the film’s producers, has been publicly supportive of Jonze’s vision, and the director’s melancholy – some have said depressing – construction of Max’s imaginative odyssey is strikingly bold and clearly personal.  Perhaps the Wild Things, voiced by performers including James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Paul Dano, say too much, too often.  Considering, however, that so many other directors might have made a garish, instantly dated hash of the source material – “ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) and “The Cat in the Hat” (2003) jump immediately to mind – “Where the Wild Things Are” exists in a unique class.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/19/09.

It Might Get Loud

Monday, October 12th, 2009

itmightgetloud

Movie review by Greg Carlson

As beautiful and exciting as the music made by its trio of subjects, “It Might Get Loud” is a warmly engaging documentary that will please and delight longtime fans of Led Zeppelin, U2, and the White Stripes.  The movie will also most certainly create new admirers.  Conceived by producer Thomas Tull, “It Might Get Loud” manages a fresh take on the rock movie, focusing attention on the intimate relationship between musician and instrument instead of the sometimes caustic connection between obsessive fan and egomaniacal, self-indulgent superstar.  What unfolds is a character-driven portrait of the working methods, inspirations, and personal histories of Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White.

Elegantly assembled by director Davis Guggenheim, “It Might Get Loud” alternates between individual vignettes and a Los Angeles soundstage meeting dubbed the “Summit” – an unscripted guitar clinic/conversation that progresses from tentative and guarded conference to full blown jam session.  In some of the most thrilling scenes in the movie, the guitarists take turns teaching signature riffs.  The Edge rings out “I Will Follow,” White takes apart “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and Page blows the minds of his younger counterparts with the monstrous grind of “Whole Lotta Love” as Edge and White break into broad smiles.

Outside the “Summit” and the visits to each player’s home turf, Guggenheim and his collaborators dish up a wealth of archival material.  Short animated segments illustrate anecdotes including a tale about White’s cluttered bedroom and a visual expression of the Edge’s fascination with return echo that, as he describes it, “fill[s] in notes that I’m not playing, like two guitar players rather than one.”  Mindful of the age and generational differences among the artists, Guggenheim contrasts their attitudes and styles, most noticeably how the Edge’s multilayered special effects wizardry departs from White’s insistence on self-imposed primitivism (even though the film makes clear that all three of its participants embrace invention and experimentation).

The strong personalities of Page, Edge, and White complement the movie’s focus on the power of song; at various points the men identify tracks of deep personal impact in their artistic journeys.  The startlingly confidential snapshots – Page launching into impromptu air-guitar to Link Wray’s glorious “Rumble,” Edge’s epiphany at the raw intensity of do-it-yourself bands like the Ramones, the Clash, and the Buzzcocks, and White’s revelatory bewilderment at the Flat Duo Jets’ interpretation of “Froggie Went a Courtin’” and Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face” – have an oddly moving way of reminding viewers that all masters were once beginners.

In the final scenes, Page, Edge, and White morph into a howling Cerberus as they tear through “In My Time of Dying.”  Then, following a brief coda that salutes the value of fortune and timing, they get together on the Band’s “The Weight,” the kind of sturdy ballad beloved by listeners and practitioners alike.  One imagines that while all appreciated the results of the “Summit,” relative youngster White left feeling good about standing shoulder to shoulder with a veteran sonic innovator and an elder statesman who carries living legend status.  With those kinds of influences close at hand, I can’t wait to hear the next White Stripes record.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/12/09.

Zombieland

Monday, October 5th, 2009

zombieland

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Note: The following review discusses the identity of an actor who makes an unexpected appearance in “Zombieland.”  Do not read the article if you plan to attend the movie and would like to preserve the surprise.

Neophyte feature director Ruben Fleischer delivers one of the most breathless and entertaining movies of the year in “Zombieland,” a video game-like road trip through a gruesomely funny carnival of rainbow colored, post-apocalyptic mayhem and survivalism.  Blasting through some genre conventions while honoring sacrosanct linchpins, Fleischer’s approach most closely parallels Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s witty “Shaun of the Dead,” the gold standard of zombie comedy.  The self-consciously stylish “Zombieland” is fueled by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s nimble script, hewing closer to the lighthearted quips of the “Evil Dead” series than the gallows humor of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” sequels.

The action of “Zombieland” picks up with society already in chaotic freefall.  A devilishly creative credit sequence set to Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” presents a gallery of dread in gorgeously silky slow motion, introducing the basic rules that have facilitated IBS-suffering protagonist Columbus’ (Jesse Eisenberg) vitality in a world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls.  The wry criteria, which continue to pop up on the screen throughout the duration of the movie, include obvious fundamentals like “check the backseat” and “beware of bathrooms,” as well as sound advice on the value of seatbelts and the necessity of the double tap when verifying a zombie’s incapacitation.

Columbus joins forces with seasoned zombie killer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and shortly thereafter the men cross paths with tricky sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who are headed toward a supposedly zombie-free amusement park.  The mismatched quartet bicker like the Griswolds en route to Walley World, and the filmmakers simultaneously mock and embrace the transformation of the ragtag crew into a functioning family unit.  Harrelson’s mugging, scene-stealing performance challenges the other actors, but Eisenberg, Stone and Breslin manage to hold their own.  The movie stumbles a little when resorting to a predictable girls-in-peril complication in the plotting, but most of the action is smartly engineered.

One of the most memorable sequences in “Zombieland” detours the foursome to the opulent mansion of Bill Murray, playing a droll version of himself in a clinic of self-parody on par with John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich.”  Murray, who has disguised himself as a rotting corpse to blend in with the creatures that would otherwise devour him, gamely hosts the desperate interlopers.   The actor gracefully accepts the fawning praise of his star-struck guests, and participates in the recreation of a scene from “Ghostbusters.”  Like a similar take-off in “Be Kind Rewind,” the “sweded” bit of Ivan Reitman’s comic colossus reminds viewers of the collective fun of going to the movies.

Additionally, the funfair setting for the movie’s climactic showdown, in which zombies are inventively dispatched with the help of repurposed rides and games, echoes the guilt-free saturnalia that is a crucial byproduct of zombie cinema: the opportunity for audiences to cheer the vicarious physical pleasures of seeing woeful meat puppets slaughtered in large numbers.  Far from being antisocial, viewer gratification in witnessing the misfortunes of the screen undead allows the concurrent recognition and denial of one’s own death.  “Zombieland” can certainly be enjoyed without the need of a psychoanalytic reading, but it is rich enough to accommodate multiple interpretations.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/5/09.