Archive for November, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Monday, November 30th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Like each one of Wes Anderson’s features, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” comfortably floats in the space between the familiar and the not quite real, the grown-up and the childlike.  Loosely adapted from the 1970 book by Roald Dahl, the movie concerns the survival of the title character and his family and friends, but the great joy of the film lies mostly in the gorgeous execution of its handmade, meticulously crafted animation.  The miniature world inhabited by Mr. Fox is as artfully arranged as any of Anderson’s previous sets and equally as complete.  Repeated viewings will reveal a nearly endless supply of dazzling details, from the tiny oil painting of posing badgers to the “unaccompanied minor” tag pinned to a young traveler’s clothing.

The plot, a straightforward series of challenges between Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and a trio of awful farmers who aim to put an end to his thievery, alternates between the action chase and the kinds of scenes Anderson lovers expect: perfectly observed moments of pain and joy, where characters question their motives and jealousies aloud.  The style, like Shakespearean soliloquies with arid, arch, contemporary brevity replacing iambic pentameter, works like a charm in the mouths of the woodland cast.  One can almost hear Hamlet’s contemplative yearning when Clooney’s middle-aged larcenist muses on his nature, “Why a fox?”

Anderson’s drive to shoot the movie using stop-motion pays off tremendous dividends.  Despite joining a long tradition marked by the indelible imprint of past masters, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is wholly its own.  In other words, the technique may not be original, but the end result is sui generis: it’s not Willis O’Brien on “King Kong,” not Tadahito Mochinaga’s work for Rankin/Bass, not Harryhausen or Starewicz, neither Nick Park nor Henry Selick.  The fastidious Anderson outdoes himself with the level of minutiae in the production design, working with Nelson Lowry to achieve spectacular autumnal landscapes and richly textured interiors.

Like the conversations held between characters in his other ensembles, the exchanges in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” run the gamut from shocking self-disclosure to sly prevarication.  The director has always had a gift for externalizing self-doubt – particularly among the intellectually gifted – and Jason Schwartzman’s Ash is the very embodiment of wounded inadequacy.  Ash’s competition with talented cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) recalls similar dysfunctional rivalries in “The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but the younger age of these characters infuses their relationship with real tenderness.  A late night scene in Ash’s bedroom in which the kits address sleeping arrangements is among the movie’s most sublime treats.

Because “Fantastic Mr. Fox” was directed by Wes Anderson, the film will be scrutinized and analyzed by all sorts of bloggers and academics who will comb through the text for traces of submerged meaning.  Charges of racism, for example, have already been leveled at the movie, although Laura Bans appears to be on less solid ground than Jonah Weiner, who wrote about Anderson’s “unbearable whiteness” for “Slate” in 2007.  A more credible complaint is the movie’s dearth of important female characters.  Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep), like Etheline Tenenbaum, is the glue that keeps her family from disarray, a wise maternal presence whose calm contrasts with her husband’s wilder nature.  Most of the speaking roles, however, belong to males.  It’s a minor complaint, but it would be nice to see a more equitable distribution in the future.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/30/09.

An Education

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “An Education,” Danish director and Dogme 95 contributor Lone Scherfig abandons the constricting limitations of the movement’s so-called “Vow of Chastity” for a traditional and straightforward treatment of the bildungsroman.  Featuring a confident central performance by the beguiling Carey Mulligan, the movie has little new to say about a bright young girl caught between the allure of a charming older suitor and the possibilities afforded by a first-class education, but it still merits consideration.  Nick Hornby’s efficient adaptation of journalist Lynn Barber’s “Granta” essay (later a memoir) snaps with plenty of intelligence and wit, even if some of the thornier quandaries of the story are unaddressed.

Mulligan plays Jenny, a superbly talented 16-year-old aspiring to Oxford who accepts a ride in David’s (Peter Sarsgaard) handsome maroon Bristol one rainy afternoon.  With broad strokes that echo many sentiments expressed in the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” David seduces both Jenny and her parents – though not necessarily in that order.  Despite being more than twice Jenny’s age, David speaks with a silver tongue; he may be too good to be true, but Jenny quickly concludes that her life is more intriguing with David in it.  Even when she glimpses the darker aspects of his modus operandi, he preys on the very combination of Jenny’s precocious intellect and her naïve openness by telling her bluntly about some of the unsavory things he does to make a living.

Given the film’s early 1960s setting and the cautious, by-the-book attitude of Jenny’s father – warmly played by the endlessly compelling Alfred Molina – some viewers will no doubt find puzzling the movie’s liberal posture regarding teen sexuality, as well as the breezy acceptance of David by Jenny’s parents.  The film takes pains to raise the notion that Jenny’s father views marriage as a legitimate alternative to the difficulties of paying for college, but the ease with which Jenny manages to secure permission for weekend getaways might cause some parents’ hearts to skip a few beats.

Almost more troubling is Jenny’s unwillingness to scrutinize David more closely once cracks begin to show in his not so carefully cultivated persona.  Scherfig might well have intended the movie’s point of view to be so thoroughly filtered through Jenny’s subjective experience – Mulligan is hardly ever offscreen – that viewers see everything her way, but the character is far too smart not to pose tougher questions to David before the doomed moment of her undesired epiphany, which stands as one of the movie’s most self-conscious and least effective scenes.

Scherfig appears to sense some of the pitfalls of the coming of age story, and despite the inevitable revelations and recriminations (protagonist self-directed and otherwise) demanded by the genre, “An Education” remains true to the expanding outlook of its heroine.  Naysayers will deride several of the characterizations as broad and even cartoonish, but Olivia Williams, as Jenny’s wise teacher, quells much of that avenue of criticism.  The movie’s somewhat incongruous, late-stage moralizing and tidy wrapping up of loose ends belongs to another film, but Mulligan’s summery presence elevates “An Education” beyond the strictly conventional.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/23/09.

More Than a Game

Monday, November 16th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

An inspirational documentary covering the remarkable maturation process of a group of Akron, Ohio basketball players including NBA superstar LeBron James, “More Than a Game” makes up in heart what it lacks in depth.  Sure to invite comparisons to Steve James’ 1994 “Hoop Dreams,” “More Than a Game” focuses more attention on high stakes seasons and national rankings than it does questioning the surreal transformation of James from talented high school athlete of deficient financial means to household name/corporate brand/multi-millionaire.  Viewers seeking a penetrating examination of the ethics of contemporary sports culture won’t find it among the many images that reinforce a mostly wholesome and largely sanitized Horatio Alger-like telling of the American Dream.

Filmmaker and Akron native Kristopher Belman was only a young film student at Loyola Marymount when he proposed a smaller project on the close-knit team of ballplayers who began working together before junior high.  Through the inclusion of plenty of fuzzy home video footage, audiences experience the prowess of the protagonists from elementary school to the end of their senior year.  One of the movie’s uncanny delights is watching the little boys grow up, and the movie’s multi-year span affords the spellbinding pleasure of seeing literal physical transformation before our eyes.

To Belman’s credit, “More Than a Game” spends at least some quality time with each member of the squad, even if LeBron is the main attraction.  An unselfish player with dazzling passing skills, James extends his magnanimity to the other members of the Akron Fab Four (later Fab Five with the addition of moody outsider Romeo Travis).  Coach Dru Joyce II and his son Dru Joyce III emerge as key figures, and the film accentuates the diminutive younger Joyce’s tenacity on the court as well as the elder Joyce’s struggle to be an effective coach and father to his driven offspring.

Critical viewers will long for a closer, off-the-court examination of the players and their backgrounds.  James, who by necessity became a seasoned and cautious interview subject when he was still a teenager, talks about growing up without a father and sometimes having to stay with a coach instead of his mother Gloria, who was only 16 when LeBron was born, but the film offers no substantive information beyond James’ initial mention.  Belman, who is white, elects to bypass any discussion of race, a theme that might have enlarged and toughened the portrait.  We learn that the teammates elected not to attend a predominantly African American school in favor of the private, more affluent St. Vincent-St. Mary, but no additional examination of the related politics is entertained.

Belman also does not address James’ unsuccessful petition to enter the NBA draft following his junior year and the impact that decision had on his friends and teammates.  By the time James appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” he and the other Fighting Irish starters had already developed plenty of cocky swagger, but Belman’s only acknowledgment of the dangers of hubris comes courtesy of the section recounting the team’s state title loss to tougher Division II high school Roger Bacon in 2002.  Of course, with James listed as one of the movie’s executive producers, one shouldn’t expect the story to stray too far from confirmatory acclamation.  Despite the deliberate omissions, “More Than a Game” is required viewing for any basketball fanatic.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/16/09.

A Serious Man

Monday, November 9th, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

During the closing credit roll of “A Serious Man,” the Coens insist that “no Jews were harmed” in the making of their bleak and brilliant film.  This piercing reminder of Joel and Ethan’s particular worldview also points to the filmmakers’ finely tuned ability to deftly integrate the deadly serious and the ridiculously comic.  Few auteurs can match the siblings’ willingness to explore tragedy and personal failure with unrelenting laughter, and while many have posited that “A Serious Man” is their most “personal” film, it is simply one more in a chain of intimate and distinctive treasures stamped with unmistakable originality.   

Michael Stuhlbarg, expertly cast, plays nerdy academic Larry Gopnik, a cautious and careful man whose life unravels with alarming speed just ahead of his doubtful bid for tenure.  In short order, Larry is besieged by a manipulative student insistent on a passing grade, learns that his wife wants a divorce in order to marry a smug acquaintance, copes with his lazy brother’s protracted habitation on the living room couch, and fights lustful urges for the seductive nude sunbather who lives next-door while fearing the anti-Semitic encroachment of another neighbor.  Meanwhile, Larry’s son Danny spends more time getting high, listening to Jefferson Airplane, and squabbling with his older sister than studying for his Bar Mitzvah. 

Along with the major obstacles in Larry’s life, the Coens introduce several minor annoyances, ranging from auto accidents to pestering phone calls from the Columbia Record Club.  One of the movie’s funniest blow-outs observes Gopnik’s mounting exasperation at being sent the featured album selection “Santana, Abraxas.”  He repeatedly spits the title as if it were a curse, and one can picture Joel and Ethan fighting back tears of laughter behind the camera.  Of course, the film’s 1967 setting makes “Abraxas,” which was not released until 1970, an anachronistic choice, but Larry’s emphatic rejection – he does not want “Abraxas,” he did not order “Abraxas,” and he will not listen to “Abraxas” – parallels his spiritual deafness and demonstrates the dizzying skill with which the Coens layer their parable. 

Like their best work, which has now grown to a sizable collection of titles, “A Serious Man” capitalizes on the deadpan talents of a top-notch ensemble equipped to speak absurd Coen Brothers dialogue in earnest.  The excellent Richard Kind slithers through his role as freeloading Uncle Arthur.  Arthur constantly locks himself in the bathroom to drain the pus from a particularly stubborn sebaceous cyst, but his facility for complex mathematics has led to the design of the Mentaculus, a complex, mystical numerology that Arthur uses not to understand the workings of the universe but rather to cheat at card games. 

Arthur’s Mentaculus serves perfectly as a metaphor for the metaphysical considerations the Coens explore with vigor.  An ability to know the divine is impossible given the human impulses toward acquiring tangible, earthly rewards.  As Larry’s troubles multiply, he seeks counsel from rabbinical authorities, and each of the visits vibrates with superbly calibrated comic timing.  In one of the meetings, Larry is told a fanciful story about a mysterious inscription on the teeth of a goy, and is chided by the rabbi for wondering aloud what happened to the gentile.  “Who cares?” comes the response, adding another quintessential Coen moment to their wondrous archive. 

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

This Is It

Monday, November 2nd, 2009


Movie review by Greg Carlson

For Michael Jackson believers, especially those who held tickets for one of the 50 planned O2 arena live dates, “This Is It” will stir up strong feelings of ecstasy and heartache.  Because the footage used to compile the movie was not intended for public presentation beyond the possibility of some extra DVD content, “This Is It” simultaneously hints at the dazzling spectacle being rehearsed and thrills with its unguarded, rough-around-the-edges status as a work in progress.  Far from ghoulish exploitation, “This Is It” refocuses attention on Michael Jackson as a ferociously talented performer in his element.

Directed by Kenny Ortega, Jackson’s principal creative partner in the conception of the stage show that was scheduled to debut on July 13, 2009, “This Is It” blends aspects of the traditional concert film with several familiar tropes of the backstage musical.  The opening of the movie introduces many of Jackson’s grateful backup dancers, but before any individual personalities might be established in the style of “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” Ortega focuses intently and unwaveringly on the solo superstar, at one point reminding the members of the ensemble that they are there to function as an extension of MJ.

Ortega smartly resists the urge to truncate songs, offering full-length versions of most tracks even if they must be stitched together from several different video takes.  It is impossible to know whether the sequencing of the tunes in the movie follows the proposed concert program, but “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” makes for a blistering opener.  The classic fourth single from “Thriller” – which never had a music video – sets the tone for “This Is It,” taking viewers through a meticulously crafted arrangement that honors the song’s integrity without merely duplicating the recorded album version.

This pattern continues on most of the subsequent numbers, drawing heavily from “Thriller” and “Bad.”  The “Dangerous” and “Invincible” albums are also well represented, but curiously, the brilliant “Off the Wall” is thoroughly neglected.  Standout sequences include an elaborate 3D overhaul of “Thriller” with zombies crawling out of what appears to be a Napoleonic necropolis, a sultry “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and a stirring “Human Nature.”  Along with “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal” receives substantial pre-production attention, merging Jackson into film noir scenes with Hollywood legends like Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart.

Not all the production numbers sustain the spine-tingling magnificence of Jackson’s undisputed benchmarks.  A syrupy “Earth Song” is light years from “Billie Jean” in both intellectual acumen and musical quality, and the accompanying imagery of a cherubic moppet caught in a burned out nightmare of ecological decimation numbs viewers with its cloying, scolding prophecy.  Jackson’s socially minded work was never accused of subtlety, but alongside “Earth Song,” “Man in the Mirror” is a model of sophisticated restraint.  The musical performances throughout the documentary are frequently interrupted by glimpses of Jackson critiquing and calibrating the tiniest of details, and these pauses offer a stark turnaround from popular images of Jackson as a weak, addled, spaced-out weirdo.  Far from the incomprehensible, out-of-touch naïf seen in the media for years, Jackson commands the stage in “This Is It” like he was born on it.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/2/09.