Archive for 2010

True Grit

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Feature film newcomer Hailee Steinfeld holds the screen with veterans Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin in Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of “True Grit,” a sturdy piece of genre moviemaking quick to remind viewers of the enduring appeal of the Western film. Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel contained plenty of humor, but the Coens specialize in absurd observations honed to a razor’s edge. The filmmakers’ gift for shaping a universe from the syntactically stylized patois of its denizens has not seen this kind of workout since the invented gangland slang of “Miller’s Crossing.” Much of the dialogue is pulled directly from Portis, who imagines 1870s oral communication as the poetic “prairie Shakespeare” familiar to fans of David Milch’s brilliant “Deadwood.”

Familiar to scores of fans, “True Grit” traces the quest of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) to find the killer of her father. Enlisting the help of a salty alcoholic, and soon joining forces with a proud, mustachioed Texas Ranger, Mattie’s horseback odyssey – and her own “sand” in the face of hardship and violence – defies the expectations of the older men en route to the creation of a thoroughly engaging Bildungsroman. The Coens have noted their admiration for Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” another kid’s-eye-view tale smoldering with the gothic, and the newer film’s inclusion of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as an aural motif is one of several tributes to the 1955 thriller.

In a film predicated on the transactional, the Coens hold up their end of the bargain, remaking “True Grit” with all the grace notes of their signature brand of funny-bone fatalism (which runs parallel with the tremendously satisfying dialogue originally crafted by Portis). Entrepreneurial commerce, a familiar theme in the American Western, brightens the eyes of more than half the film’s characters, and many conversations hinge on negotiations related to buying, selling, or trading everything from room and board to bounty hunting services to corpses. Alongside Mattie’s literal righteous indignation at the already overburdened justice system’s unwillingness to apprehend her father’s murderer, the Coens take obvious pleasure in the ongoing hustles, haggles, and barters taken up by Mattie and just about everyone else.

Jeff Bridges, more versatile if less iconic than John Wayne, makes a terrific “one-eyed fat man” as he tries on the role that brought the Duke his only Oscar. As United States Deputy Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, the trigger-happy lawman who likes to “pull the cork,” Bridges gleefully mush-mouths his dialogue to the brink of incomprehensibility. Like Wayne’s Rooster, Bridges embodies a sense of joy and merriment in the execution of his often dangerous trade. Although Mr. Cogburn’s reputation as a killer contrasts with Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s live-and-let-live passivity, both characters share the quintessentially Western idealism that privileges individual freedom over the restrictions of settled society.

While the Coen version is superior to the original in many significant ways, especially in maintaining Mattie’s point-of-view, a post-denouement coda depicting the heroine twenty-five years following the action distracts from the potency of Steinfeld’s work by catapulting Mattie into adulthood. Hathaway’s version, which concludes with Mattie’s touching offer to inter Rooster in her family plot (and Rooster’s comic rejoinder that he isn’t interested in moving in any time soon) preserves the character – who would appear in a 1975 sequel and resurface in a 1978 TV movie featuring Warren Oates in the role – without mourning, fossilizing or deifying him. While the Coen edition sticks closer to Portis’s story, it’s more satisfying to imagine Rooster alive, reins in his teeth, and guns ablaze.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 12/27/10.

The Fighter

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

David O. Russell’s third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg recounts and burnishes the story of Lowell, Massachusetts junior welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward, a Rocky Balboa-like working class slugger whose family ties constantly threaten to derail his career. Hewing close to the requirements of the underdog struggle, “The Fighter” is surely Russell’s most traditional feature – seemingly miles away from the love-it-or-hate-it chaos of “I Heart Huckabees.” Closer inspection, however, reveals several of the filmmaker’s thematic strengths, most notably intellect disguised as foolishness or stupidity and the ways in which cynicism and redemption form uneasy truces.

Mark Wahlberg, whose long relationship with the project outlasted flirtations with Brad Pitt and the departure of Darren Aronofsky (who received an executive producer credit), understands Ward’s manual laborer appeal, and capitalizes on one of the boxing genre’s favorite types: the almost broken, disadvantaged dreamer capable of surprising himself with greatness. “The Fighter” even provides a two-for-one in this category, highlighting the downward spiral of Micky’s graceless, drug-addled half-brother Dicky Eklund – a one-time puncher who managed to last ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. Dicky coasts on his reputation, deluding himself and anyone who might listen with talk of a comeback, even though HBO’s “America Undercover” is featuring him in a documentary titled “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell.”

Christian Bale, recently awarded Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review for his work in “The Fighter,” plays Dicky in the kind of showy, twitchy performance that divides critics and viewers. Hollow-eyed and emaciated, Bale holds nothing back, and despite – or perhaps because of – the dire neediness of Dicky, pulls off some remarkably tricky interactions, most notably a rendition of “I Started a Joke” pregnant with the sort of false sincerity favorite sons use to bamboozle doting mothers.

Bale’s work is matched by the prowess of the frightening and fearless Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky’s mother Alice. Alice presides over a brood that also includes Micky and Dicky’s seven sisters, a group of fiercely loyal, hair-sprayed harpies. Their palpable animosity toward Micky’s new love Charlene (Amy Adams in her best role since 2005 breakthrough “Junebug”) erupts in a handful of blackly comic confrontations in which Micky is caught in the middle. Despite being stuck with the eternally thankless supportive girlfriend role, Adams kicks her Disney princess image hard in the backside.

Amidst the thunderous turns by his co-stars, Wahlberg’s understated presence quietly and confidently grounds “The Fighter” with an element of Russell’s signature irony that casts the pugilist as peacemaker. Not everyone will swallow the late unification of Micky’s opposing camps (Mickey O’Keefe, one of Ward’s real-life trainers, is better than good simply, or not so simply, playing himself), especially in light of the brutal undercurrent of sibling rivalry that perpetually backs Micky into Dicky’s “Pride of Lowell” shadow. We know from experience, not to mention from Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, that blood complicates relationships without regard for logic. On this count, “The Fighter” wins by decision.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 12/20/10.

The Tourist

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The regally named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck squanders his post-“The Lives of Others” art-house credibility with “The Tourist,” the umpteenth homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s dazzling romantic thrillers that falls far short of the Master of Suspense. Lavishly shot on location in Venice with A-listers Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, the movie promises charm, eroticism, and action but delivers absolutely none of these things. A remake of the French film “Anthony Zimmer,” “The Tourist” inserts stultifying, unintentionally hilarious low-speed boat chases, dull chastity, rooftop scrambles, and groaning plot machinery where there should be effervescent and amorous stimulation.

The opening scenes show at least a hint of metanarrative, as Jolie’s Elise Ward is studied, ogled, and gazed upon by men on the street and hidden behind the tinted glass of a surveillance van. Studied from every angle, the mysterious Elise receives a note from her lover (a presumably clever and elusive thief named Alexander Pierce) instructing her to confuse Interpol and a gang of vicious thugs by taking up with a stranger on a train. She selects, more laughably than comically, a Madison, Wisconsin community college math teacher named Frank Tupelo (Depp), sweeping him off his feet and into a gorgeously appointed grand hotel suite as the pursuers close in.

Jolie’s experimental British accent forces her character into a state of imperiousness that prevents any real heat between Elise and Frank. It doesn’t help that the clumsy screenplay fails to include the kind of smoldering double entendre present in “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief,” the two Hitchcock films (along with Stanley Donen’s own Hitchcock tribute “Charade”) that “The Tourist” aims to resemble. Instead, the sheepish Frank sleeps on the couch in his PJs, cheating the audience out of what should have been one of the movie’s certain attractions. The remainder of the film, despite a truncated wet dream and the sight of Jolie channeling Sophia Loren at an opulent ball, insists on vacuum-sealed sexlessness.

Those who plan to see the film are warned to stop reading here. An ill-conceived twist revealed at the climax of the movie represents the single-most devastating failure of “The Tourist.” The mild-mannered title character played by Depp is, in fact, the sought-after Alexander Pierce – the movie’s MacGuffin who has been hiding in plain sight courtesy of a fortune in plastic surgery. Viewers are asked to somehow believe the unbelievable. Have Elise and Frank been engaging in an elaborate role-play or is Elise, now revealed as a highly trained undercover agent, not capable of figuring out that the man she selected as a decoy is in fact the same person with whom she intimately spent the previous year?

Insulting and idiotic, the introduction of this information wholly negates every interaction between Elise and Frank that has come before. If Frank and Elise are merely toying with the agents pursuing them, why would they pretend not to know one another when they are behind closed doors? Certainly, scores of films mislead viewers in this, or similar, fashion – Alan Parker’s “Angel Heart” and Alexandre Aja’s “High Tension” are two examples. One of three credited screenwriters on “The Tourist” is Christopher McQuarrie, whose Keyser Soze in “The Usual Suspects” is a prime representation of a figure, like Alexander Pierce in “The Tourist” whose identity is disclosed as a last-minute surprise.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/13/10.

The Tillman Story

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Tillman Story,” documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev’s elegy for misunderstood NFL defensive back turned U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, manages the considerable feat of simultaneously confounding liberals and conservatives who have participated in the mythmaking and hero worship surrounding the slain soldier. Substantially better than Bar-Lev’s 2007 feature “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” benefits from a wealth of archival material, from clips of Tillman on the field for the Arizona State University Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals to the ghastly 2007 hearing in which Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of generals repeatedly claim an inability to recall whether or when they read Stanley McChrystal’s April 29, 2004 memo that warned of the likelihood of fratricide as the cause of Tillman’s death.

Tillman’s death by “friendly fire” – surely one of the most dazzling oxymoronic terms in the entire arsenal of military-speak – invited a bizarre cover-up that saw panicked leadership deliberately lying about the circumstances of April 22, 2004, when Tillman was fatally shot in the head in Afghanistan. Bar-Lev alternates between the construction of a personal portrait of Tillman and the investigation into the government’s decision to withhold information from Tillman’s family members. Neither story feels entirely complete, but the palpable and mounting sense of frustration that clouds the latter issue steers the film along its course.

In addition to the archival photos and videos, Bar-Lev interviews many of the people closest to Pat Tillman. Family members, including Tillman’s mother Mary (known as Dannie), father Pat Sr., brother Richard, and wife Marie appear on-camera. Pat’s brother Kevin, who was serving in the same unit with his brother when Pat fell, declined an opportunity to speak, but can be seen and heard delivering a harsh rebuke during a visit to Capitol Hill.

While Tillman’s incredulous, grieving mother articulately represents the voice of raw familial outrage at the events following her son’s death, retired soldier Stan Goff emerges as the most fascinating of the film’s talking heads. Vaguely channeling the seen-it-all weariness of a “Miami Blues”-era Fred Ward, Goff flays the military leadership responsible for the post-mortem snafu, choosing his words with refreshing candor and grim wit. An echo of Tillman himself, Goff demonstrates exactly how it is possible to simultaneously be a soldier, a patriot, and a skeptic and critic of the government.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” covers much of the same territory as John Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory,” the gripping bestseller published after Mary Tillman’s tribute “Boots on the Ground by Dusk.” Despite some kind of falling out between Krakauer and the Tillman family, “Where Men Win Glory” pushes harder and digs deeper than Bar-Lev’s documentary. Krakauer identifies the triggerman who almost certainly ended Tillman’s life, and makes sensible the thousands of pages of documentation that the movie must necessarily condense into feature-length running time. Both the filmmaker and the author grasp the irony, and the miscarriage of justice, that billowed from the American war machine despite Tillman’s clearly expressed wishes that he never be used as a propagandistic recruiting tool, and for this reason both texts are worth the effort.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/6/10.

Love and Other Drugs

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Loosely based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” Edward Zwick’s relationship comedy/drama “Love and Other Drugs” comes with a lengthy list of harmful side effects. Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, both as gorgeous as ever, use their substantial charms to paper over blemishes in the screenplay, which lurches from syrupy, commitment issue-oriented melodrama to faint satire criticizing the practices of pharmaceutical giants like onscreen employer Pfizer. The sexual chemistry of the lead performers and Zwick’s brisk pacing cannot fully compensate for the genre’s pro forma expectations, and the movie eagerly embraces too many of the clichés that attend the boy-meets-girl blueprint.

One minute sees a rapid-fire exchange of tables-turning banter upending gender expectations of voracious sexual appetites while the next minute wallows in socially awkward “caught in the act” masturbation slapstick. Also bobbing along is the vague impression that Zwick would like to use the 1990s period setting, built around the astronomic sales success of the so-called “Vitamin V” as it morphed from butt of late-night Bob Dole jokes on Conan to billion-dollar cash cow, as a Capra-corny “Up in the Air” parable about the tension between soulless monetary gain and human connection and romantic vulnerability.

Despite its frayed premise, the filmmakers work diligently to sidestep some of the pitfalls of healthy-person-falls-for-ailing-person tearjerkers like “Love Story,” “Dying Young,” and “A Walk to Remember.” Hathaway’s Maggie, a collage artist with an astonishing knowledge of prescription medications, is afflicted with early Parkinson’s disease, and her frank disclosures and self-deprecating wit take precedence over moments that depict the gradual degeneration of her central nervous system. Maggie’s bracing intelligence and verbal dexterity challenge Gyllenhaal’s eager-to-please Jamie, a smooth operator used to getting everything he wants.

Almost a quarter century ago, Zwick directed the adaptation of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” “About Last Night…” which starred Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, shares much in common with “Love and Other Drugs,” perhaps most obviously a sense of erotic electricity. More fuss than necessary has been made of the nudity in “Love and Other Drugs,” and Hathaway offered her thoughts on the matter during a recent edition of “Fresh Air” in conversation with Terry Gross. While Gross hinted that she was taken aback by Hathaway’s nakedness, film critic Stephanie Zacharek spent nearly half of her “Movieline” review backing up the performer and discussing the risks of being taken seriously when appearing au naturel.

True to the narrow confines of its genre, the supporting characters are presented mostly as broad stereotypes. Hank Azaria’s horny physician, Oliver Platt’s burned out company man, and Gabriel Macht’s physically aggressive foil exhibit little resemblance to actual human beings. Worst of all is Jamie’s slovenly brother Josh (Josh Gad, uncharitably described by Eric Hynes as “a poor man’s Jonah Hill”), a newly minted millionaire who crashes on his older brother’s couch as a grating reminder of the adolescent irresponsibility Jamie has begun to jettison as he falls in love with Maggie. While Josh turns up in scene after scene to yammer supportively to his sibling, Maggie – like so many of her cinematic counterparts – never interacts with a close female friend, reminding viewers that “Love and Other Drugs” is far more respectful in its treatment of Parkinson’s disease than in its depictions of women.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/29/10.

The Next Three Days

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Paul Haggis tilts at windmills in “The Next Three Days,” his remake of Fred Cavaye’s 2008 French film “Pour elle.” A wildly improbable prison break thriller that casts Russell Crowe as a “Don Quixote”-interpreting community college professor hell-bent on springing his possibly murderous wife out of the clink, “The Next Three Days” trades potentially interesting characters for grinding plot points. Somber when he should be tongue in cheek, Haggis the screenwriter manages a couple tension-relieving jokes that Haggis the director glides over in favor of a painfully meticulous procedural that leisurely transforms the mild-mannered literature teacher into a cold-blooded lawbreaker willing to risk his own life and his only child’s security in the execution of a escape plan that unfolds like one of Rube Goldberg’s complex and over-engineered machines.

Crowe’s rumpled, shambling John Brennan makes an unlikely spouse to Elizabeth Banks’s Lara Brennan, a hot-tempered diabetic whose combative personality traits plant just enough doubt for the audience to imagine that she is capable of bludgeoning her boss with a fire extinguisher. John refuses to accept the guilty verdict, however, and in what is surely the movie’s bluntest “Screenwriting 101” conversation, arranges a meeting with master escape artist Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson in a single-scene cameo appearance), who outlines a bulleted list of all the things we can expect Brennan to do in the remainder of the movie’s running time.

Haggis has never been known for thematic subtlety, and “The Next Three Days” treats parenthood with an attitude so cavalier, any father or mother in the audience is likely to wonder how Brennan finds time to read bedtime stories and make lunches when he is so busy mapping out a farfetched scheme that requires falsified medical records, sabotaged phone lines, skeleton keys, forged passports, and violent, late-night raids on meth labs. Additionally, the professor creates a mural-sized diagram of his evolving caper on a wall in his house, complete with getaway routes, photos, and scrawled permanent marker reminders of dwindling financial resources (presumably so the audience understands the man’s mounting desperation).

Several scenes between Brennan and Olivia Wilde’s subtly flirtatious single mom both provide unintentional laughs (as when Brennan explains the reason for his wife’s absence with a halting and awkward claim of her innocence) and reaffirm that the man will not be winning any father of the year awards. Wilde’s character exists as an abstract temptation forecasting an alternate, Lara-free future for John, but instead of forging a friendship, the bullheaded protagonist uses the trusting woman without her knowledge once the daring liberation of his wife is underway – thus reaffirming John’s unshakable love for his spouse.

Unfortunately, Haggis shows little interest in the character of Lara Brennan, and even though the film’s trailer shows a scene in which she (misleadingly?) confesses to her husband, the filmmaker never explores more than a sliver of the moral conundrum inherent in the possibility that John could be transforming himself into a cunning criminal mastermind on behalf a remorseless killer, and by extension, unfit mother. Instead, we are left with ponderous Cervantes parallels on the relativity of sanity and the triumph of irrationality that only really work as signifiers of genre moviemaking.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/22/10.

Never Let Me Go

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A somewhat less successful cinematic translation of Kazuo Ishiguro than “The Remains of the Day,” director Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go” duplicates some of the stateliness, formality, and quietude of James Ivory’s 1993 film. While the two Ishiguro stories share tonal similarities, the content of “Never Let Me Go” departs significantly from the author’s Booker Prize-winning novel. Blending a somber bildungsroman that relentlessly dissects innocence lost with an allegorical science-fiction premise questioning the morality of genetic cloning, “Never Let Me Go” presents significant challenges to effective adaptation. Screenwriter Alex Garland, who completed a draft of the script prior to the book’s 2005 publication, efficiently streamlines and condenses, even if the intimate interiority granting readers access to the narrator’s thoughts cannot be fully reconciled.

Following an action-framing prologue, the events described by Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan) return to childhood reminiscences of pastoral boarding school Hailsham, a noble and dignified compound populated by future “donors” and their adult “guardians” as part of a social experiment that seeks to raise the clones in a humane approximation of normalcy. As they move on from their eerie alma mater, a love triangle involving Kathy and her two closest friends, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), complicates the confusing transition to a cruelly abbreviated period of maturity.

A certain measure of the movie’s strength may be derived from the whispery manner in which Romanek alludes to the horrifying inevitability of “completion” – the post-organ harvest euphemism for death – awaiting the protagonists. Building steadily to a blunt explanation that provides arguably more clarity to the viewer than to the characters, the movie’s first section finds an exasperated teacher (Sally Hawkins, fine as ever) breaking protocol to tell the awful truth to the doomed little ones in her care. Ishiguro’s purposeful refusal to hint at even the tiniest possibility of rebellion on the part of the unfortunate vessels, particularly as they enter adulthood, echoes with tremendous sadness, and the scene in which the grown-up Kathy and Tommy confront their former caretakers with a desperate plea for a deferment is one of the year’s finest, a shattering epiphany expressed with beauty by Mulligan and Garfield.

While all three of the principal performers deliver memorable turns, Knightley’s role has been sharply pruned from the Ruth of the book, whose intimate childhood relationship with Kathy is a complex web of jealousy, confidence, closeness, and rivalry. As a result, the movie struggles to convey the weight of Ruth’s guilt as she tries to right a perceived transgression against her best friend. Because Kathy’s watchfulness diverges from Ruth’s more dominant and outgoing personality, the latter character’s diminished presence in the film quickly becomes Romanek’s largest liability, and the imbalance disrupts some of the urgency of the trio’s interconnectedness as they hurtle toward their fates.

Despite its shortcomings, “Never Let Me Go” invites viewers to consider a number of the same questions posed in Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece “Blade Runner.” What does it mean to be human? How differently do we live our lives if we know the end is coming sooner rather than later? Is it justifiable to treat something identified as non-human with less consideration even if “it” can express joy, pain, and love? Both films invite readings that encompass social and political concerns, and despite their contrasting styles, they remind the viewer that what we choose to do with the time we have is a dear commodity.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/15/10.

Waiting for “Superman”

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Only the naïve would argue that a single, feature documentary has the necessary platform and scale to effectively tackle an issue as complex and frustrating as the woefully underfunded American public education system, and Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman’” has been criticized for the narrowness of its vision, which appears to be substantially poorer than the Man of Steel’s eyesight. A grim and sobering contrast from the director’s rock guitar exploration “It Might Get Loud,” “Waiting for ‘Superman’” returns to the filmmaker’s roots as social advocate, incorporating brief clips from Guggenheim’s 2001 PBS-aired work “The First Year,” which followed five teachers through their initial school year. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” will at least superficially and temporarily attract attention to educational issues, and this represents one measure of the movie’s success.

Like Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Waiting for ‘Superman’” relies heavily on graphics-intensive statistics, here rendered through a series of animations created by Sean Donnelly and a team from Awesome + Modest. The impact of these images is much closer to the use of animation in “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” than “Waltz with Bashir,” and occasionally the result feels facile and streamlined. Along with the animated sequences, Guggenheim uses plenty of stock footage, including one memorable sequence outlining the post-World War II potency of United States public education. Talking head interviews, which include an appearance by Bill Gates, are also plentiful.

Editorial elision creates problematic “good guys versus bad guys” scenarios, embodied most dramatically in the positioning of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as a diabolical bully, protecting incompetent screw-ups behind the shield of a powerful union. Guggenheim includes horrifying, clandestinely shot footage of a derelict educator completely ignoring students, as well as the so-called “rubber room” in New York, where teachers who had been removed from classrooms and were awaiting disciplinary hearings collected full salaries while spending their days playing cards, sleeping, or reading.

The “good guys” emerge in the figures of District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (who announced her resignation on October 13, 2010) and activist, reformer and educator Geoffrey Canada, leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Rhee’s crusade to radically alter business as usual within her school system by targeting bad teachers, firing principals and administrators, and attempting to implement merit pay while dismantling aspects of the oft-maligned tenure policy is highlighted by Guggenheim as an example of the intractability of the teacher’s union as a monolithic juggernaut. Canada passionately endorses charter schools – an educational model which the film strongly positions as a potential solution to the crisis – and shares the anecdote that provides the movie’s title.

Guggenheim builds to a heartbreaking dramatic climax by cutting together scenes of several families whose children the film has been following as they wait on pins and needles to be chosen by lottery for acceptance at charter institutions. In most cases, the odds are daunting, crushing even, and the entire sequence resonates with Kryptonite-like debilitation, especially when it becomes clear that most of the endings are not going to be happy. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” has attracted outspoken opposition, including the critique of University of San Francisco adjunct education professor Rick Ayers, who argues that the movie shortsightedly endorses the privatization and corporatization of our schools. Whether or not Ayers is correct, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” should be seen and discussed.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/8/10.

Nowhere Boy

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Artist Sam Taylor-Wood, whose “Crying Men” project captured tearful shots of famous movie actors, makes her feature motion picture directorial debut with “Nowhere Boy,” a mostly straightforward biographical portrait of the young John Lennon. Many hardcore Beatles disciples might weep at the movie’s wildly speculative attitude, which focuses on the intense psychological triangle formed by Lennon (Aaron Johnson), Lennon’s birth mother Julia (Ann-Marie Duff), and Lennon’s aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Taylor-Wood burnishes the mythology of Lennon’s formative years with a relentless Oedipal tug-of-war that pulls young John between the stiff, sensible woman responsible for raising him and the wayward but far less stable free-spirit who chose to give him up. The sexual tension between John and Julia is liberally applied, occasionally to the point of distraction. The director, whose off-screen relationship with star Johnson has raised a few eyebrows as something like life imitating art, is more than two decades older than her lead performer, and if nothing else this bit of biographical reading juices the film’s otherwise moderate pulse.

“Nowhere Boy” is no worse than several other attempts to imagine events in the lives of the Beatles, and like “The Hours and Times” and “Backbeat,” a pair of films in which Lennon was played by Ian Hart, plenty of liberties are taken for the sake of narrative coherence and plot velocity. To the credit of Taylor-Wood, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, and actor Aaron Johnson, “Nowhere Boy” makes a point of showing John at his most abusive, sarcastic, and churlish. Lennon’s teenage rebelliousness emerges as one of the movie’s strong suits, and the future superstar’s capacity for cruelty will startle those expecting only peace and love.

Despite the deliberate refusal to utter the “B” word at any point in the movie, visual portents of John’s future pop up throughout, including the July 6, 1957 meeting of Lennon and McCartney following a Quarrymen show at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, sketches of a walrus in John’s notebook margin doodles, and name-checked landmarks like Strawberry Field children’s home and the Cavern Club. More intriguing is the adroitly selected soundtrack, which features prime cuts ranging from Jackie Brenston’s thrilling “Rocket 88” to Big Mama Thornton’s indispensable “Hound Dog” to an entire sequence built around Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.”

In addition to the influential records that would guide Lennon’s musical sensibilities, “Nowhere Boy” employs the classic proposition that presents musical exploration and release as a shelter from anguish, frustration, and emotional pain. Fleeting glimpses of John maturing as a musician, songwriter, and performer pale when compared to recordings of the genuine article (the only actual Lennon on the soundtrack is the appropriately placed “Mother” over the closing credits). Johnson, in addition to McCartney portrayer Thomas Brodie Sangster and others, credibly re-records material performed during John’s youth, and early composition “Hello Little Girl” features in one scene. Like many biopics, “Nowhere Boy” concludes with a montage of historical photographs, a tactic that both reminds viewers of the skills of the production and costume designers and presents the “proof” that these incredible events really transpired.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 11/1/10.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on a steady, nearly one film per year output, the term “minor Woody Allen movie” classifies a sizable number of titles in the legendary director’s canon. Although Allen currently holds the record for largest number of Academy Award nominations for screenwriting – fourteen if you are keeping track, and none of them adaptations – “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is not likely to add his fifteenth. A fine ensemble engages in Allen’s typical roundelay of marital infidelity, but the result is an average if not unpleasant excursion – more “Melinda and Melinda” than “Husbands and Wives.”

Naomi Watts plays Sally, whose crush on her natty, art gallery owner boss Greg (Antonio Banderas) is exacerbated by the lack of warmth and affection channeled her way at home by ne’er do well husband Roy (Josh Brolin), a cranky and blocked novelist who may have only had one good book in him. Roy’s own wandering eye ogles across-the-way neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto), a vision in red who sometimes undresses without first pulling the shade. While Sally and Roy hurtle toward spousal disloyalty, Sally copes with the news that her father Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has tossed aside mother Helena (Gemma Jones) for a garish, featherbrained slattern, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), young enough to be Alfie’s daughter.

While Allen’s game cast enlivens even the most mediocre dialogue, the scenes between Banderas and Watts are among the movie’s strongest exchanges, perhaps because the outcome of their employer-employee flirtation does not strictly adhere to expectations. The weakest of the threads circles around the later-life crisis of Hopkins’s wannabe playboy, whose clumsy overtures and wheezing exertions are meant to inspire laughter, but wither as tired sight gags. Allen has explored prostitution in a handful of previous films – most notably “Deconstructing Harry” and “Mighty Aphrodite” – with mixed results, but Punch’s uncouth call girl is merely a punch line, leading one to wonder if the outcome would have been any different had the part been played by original choice Nicole Kidman.

Helena’s ongoing relationship with an entrepreneurial psychic allows Allen to simultaneously ridicule the gullible mark and hold forth on the unfathomable beyond. Too many of the ideas in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” are treated superficially, however, and the movie’s passing curiosity with the occult (which includes an ambiguous séance) fails to adequately examine the consequences of Helena’s dependency on fortune telling. Allen chooses to end the film abruptly, and some viewers may not appreciate the hovering cloud of uncertainties, dictated as they are by Helena’s firm belief in the advice of her crystal-gazing therapist.

Expectedly, the title of the movie functions as both memento mori and hopeful romantic expectation. By now, Allen must have a virtual playbook outlining methods for confounding the vain, naïve, and often luckless dreamers who populate so many of his tales. Even limiting comparison to Allen work made in the last ten years, “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” falls far short of the quality of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Match Point,” even as it shuffles through the director’s once enticing but now mostly shopworn thematic terrain.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/25/10.