Archive for 2009

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.

Jennifer’s Body

Monday, September 28th, 2009

jennifersbody

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

informant

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.

9

Monday, September 14th, 2009

ninemovie

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.

Extract

Monday, September 7th, 2009

extract

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.

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.