Archive for February, 2010

A Single Man

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Fashion designer Tom Ford makes his feature directorial debut with “A Single Man,” a fairly loose adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name. The film covers the events of one day in the life of literature professor George Falconer, whose grief at the death of his longtime companion has stirred suicidal thoughts. George remembers Jim (Matthew Goode) in flashbacks that interrupt his routine and derail his prepared lecture on Aldous Huxley. Even as he makes preparations to kill himself – a melodramatic detail absent in the book – George meets with a curious student, gently navigates the subtle disapproval of his hetero neighbors, turns down a Spanish hustler in front of a giant billboard for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and dances to “Green Onions” with an old friend.

Ford’s presence as director and co-writer – he adapted Isherwood’s novel with David Scearce – draws a great deal of attention to the costuming and design of the film, and sometimes the slick perfection of the film’s aesthetic threatens to overwhelm the senses. The supporting cast members seem to have been selected from the pages of “Vogue Hommes International” and the movie occasionally takes on the atmosphere of a cologne or wristwatch advertisement. Cinematographer Eduard Grau devises a muted, monochromatic palette of somber grays and blacks that periodically blossoms into vivid hues of blues and reds whenever George momentarily lets his mind wander away from dark thoughts.

As George, Colin Firth navigates the 1962 setting with quiet power. Much of the film depends on restrained introspection and self-examination, and Firth masterfully communicates the depth of George’s anguish non-verbally (fortunately, the film’s use of voiceover narration is applied sparingly). The indispensable Julianne Moore appears in one of the movie’s finest scenes as Charley, George’s perpetually inebriated confidante, and the two performers engage in a terrific pas de deux in which George holds his tongue when Charley reaches out to him in her hopelessly misplaced optimism.

Some gay viewers might take exception to several of Ford’s compromises and alterations. Keith Uhlich, writing in “Time Out New York,” complained that Ford has made George “allegorically alien,” and that “too many movies subscribe to the regressive notion that queers are unassailable victims of fate and circumstance.” Uhlich offers evidence of his argument by noting the movie’s scene in which George is not invited to Jim’s funeral. In the novel, George turns down the invitation. Of course, Firth plays the movie version of the scene beautifully, and Anthony Lane defends Ford’s amendment, alluding to period expectations that dictated social prohibitions to gay men.

Ford might not be as accomplished a filmmaker as he is a clothing designer, but “A Single Man” flirts with the intersection of loneliness and self-pity in a manner not so easily dismissed. The movie is not great, and it might not even be really good, but the airless, impeccable idealization pursued by its director appropriately matches the emotional landscapes traversed by its title character. Both Ford and George Falconer depend on outward appearances and the trappings (and traps) of style. Like George, many of us have also believed that we can overcome personal tragedy and loss, even though we discover that the reality of putting everything in its right place is not such an easy thing to do.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/22/10.

The Wolfman

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Veteran director/art director/visual effects specialist Joe Johnston makes mincemeat of “The Wolfman,” his remake of the 1941 Universal horror classic that spawned numerous imitators and thousands of nightmares for generations of children who caught Halloween broadcasts on television. Johnston’s version eliminates suspense in favor of brutal shock, which assaults the viewer in scene after scene of abrupt cuts to hapless extras eviscerated on the heath. Dull, repetitious, and gravely serious when it should be howling with midnight black humor, “The Wolfman” will appeal to only the most devoted genre fanatics seeking a lycanthropic fix.

Benicio del Toro assumes the central role of thespian Lawrence Talbot, the soon-to-be cursed prodigal son who returns to his ancestral estate to attend the funeral of his brother, the victim of a gruesome and puzzling murder. Talbot reunites with his moody, cantankerous father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) and quickly takes a fancy to the aggrieved Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), his brother’s fiancée. Before he can fully investigate the cause of his sibling’s demise, Talbot is attacked and bitten on the neck by a werewolf, and his new affliction consumes all the energy the matinee idol can muster.

It is no coincidence that Talbot has been envisioned as a stage actor interpreting Hamlet, but the obvious, edgeless screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self stops short of the deep self-reflection undertaken by the melancholy Dane. Instead, “The Wolfman” lopes along in a repetitious cycle of action sequences, expository flashbacks, and Talbot’s psycho-dramatic confrontations with Sir John and Gwen. Anyone paying attention will suspect immediately that Sir John is not exactly what he seems, and the Oedipal undertones of the story divert any intrigue that might arise from Talbot’s man/beast struggle toward a forgettable werewolf versus werewolf brawl that sets up the film’s conclusion.

Once Talbot’s monthly metamorphosis has been established, Johnston jettisons the mystery procedural in favor of the equally well-worn chase structure, as a constabulary led by Scotland Yard’s humorless Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving, neglected and misused) hunts the doomed Talbot. Following his initial confinement to a horrific insane asylum, Talbot disproves the hospital’s smug physicians by painfully busting through the leather straps that confine him. The tiered operating theatre, heavily peopled by curious doctors, calls to mind images like Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” as well as a famous scene in “King Kong,” and is the only memorable moment in an otherwise dreadful slog.

Del Toro plays his part arrow-straight, and Hopkins climbs all over the furniture, but Emily Blunt somehow capitalizes on the thankless “love interest” role. Maintaining dignity well beyond the measure offered her character in the script, Blunt proves more interesting than any of the hairy, fanged brutes whose company she keeps. A final-scene suggestion that the lupine curse has been passed to someone else follows the rules of bijou cliché, but sadly, Blunt is not the recipient of the fateful wound that makes new mutants. That’s a pity, since the prospect of Ms. Blunt as the She-Wolf of London sounds infinitely more thrilling than anything that transpires in the dreary and ponderous sludge presented by Johnston.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/15/10.

Crazy Heart

Monday, February 8th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The steadfast Jeff Bridges appears in nearly every frame of “Crazy Heart,” carrying the movie on his sturdy shoulders and infusing it with just enough depth, charm, and dignity to transcend the familiarity of its oft-told story. First time feature director Scott Cooper also wrote the screenplay adapted from Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel, and Cooper gives Bridges all the space the actor needs to work his formidable magic. In the hands of a less gifted performer, a figure as messy and wrecked as alcoholic singer-songwriter Bad Blake could swiftly sour into a puddle of bathos, but Bridges knows exactly how much line to reel out, protecting Mr. Blake with an armor of tart intelligence and self-perception underneath the booze-soaked shame and regret.

Following a brutally funny piece of exposition that explains the distance of Blake’s fall from grace, Cooper reveals one of Blake’s sorest indignities: his once bright career has been eclipsed by the protégée he formerly mentored. Surviving on a diet of whiskey and cigarettes, the 57-year-old soldiers on, steering his battered two-tone Suburban to small time gigs with even smaller pay. The cheap motels and one night stands that await Bad after last call have evidently fueled the musician’s subject matter, even though the man has not written any new material in a few years. While Bad putters around from bowling alleys to dive bars throughout the American Southwest, he maintains just enough contact with his agent to convey his endless resignation and bitterness.

During a stop in Santa Fe, Bad agrees to be interviewed by writer Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and despite the sizable gap in age, their initial flirtation turns into something more serious. “Crazy Heart” moves with an easygoing pace that masks some of the director’s desires to explore tougher, sterner complications brought on by Bad’s disease, and the tentative relationship that develops between Bad and Jean functions as the means by which Bad will eventually hit bottom. Against her better judgment, Jean lets Bad develop a bond with her four-year-old son, but an easily foreseeable near-disaster precipitated by Bad’s excessive drinking threatens to foil one of the last good things in the musician’s life.

Cooper is a more assured handler of character than plot, and the short scenes in which Colin Farrell appears as rising star Tommy Sweet, Blake’s former student and current rival, are among the film’s best. One expects Tommy to respond negatively to Bad’s barely concealed antagonism and hostility, but the younger man treats Bad with courtesy and respect. Bridges and Farrell also do their own singing, and are convincing interpreters of the perfectly crafted tunes by T Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham, and the late Stephen Bruton.

Robert Duvall’s appearance in “Crazy Heart” immediately calls to mind “Tender Mercies,” and the veteran performer, who is also listed as one of the film’s producers, provides unaccompanied vocals on a section of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.” In addition to “Tender Mercies,” “Crazy Heart” invites comparison to “The Wrestler,” particularly in the way that both films examine the strained dreams of once popular performing artists who have abused their bodies and neglected or abandoned their own children. Both Bad Blake and Randy Robinson seek comfort in the arms of younger single mothers, as well as second, third, or fourth chances in their personal and professional lives. In both films, we are reminded that the deepest beauty is often in the singer, not the song.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/8/10.

Broken Embraces

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Spanish maestro Pedro Almodovar should easily win new converts to his cult of admirers with the ravishing “Broken Embraces,” a liquid bonbon of metafiction bearing many of the filmmaker’s hallmarks, including a superb performance by occasional muse Penelope Cruz. With few exceptions, most notably Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Cruz is at the peak of her game when working for Almodovar, and “Broken Embraces” is a dream vehicle for the performer, who plays a call girl/secretary/movie actress in a fantasy wonderland of humor and drama that belongs unmistakably to the imagination of its creator.

Heavy with the melodramatic flourishes that have transformed the filmmaker’s name into an adjective, “Broken Embraces” combines the guilty pleasures of soap opera romance with the director’s longstanding veneration of Alfred Hitchcock and classic film noir. Told mainly from the point of view of blind filmmaker Mateo Blanco/Harry Caine (Lluis Homar), “Broken Embraces” jumps between its contemporary setting and a series of events that transpired some fourteen years earlier. During the course of the story the audience will discover how the director lost his eyesight as well as the reason for his dual monikers.

Chief factor in the mystery is Lena (Cruz), the devastatingly beautiful wannabe actress who falls for Mateo during the production of his movie “Girls and Suitcases,” the film-within-the-film that allows Almodovar to quote purposefully from his own “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Lena’s much older lover Ernesto (Jose Luis Gomez) is bankrolling Mateo’s project and enlists his creepy son Ernesto Jr. (Ruben Ochandiano) to make a “behind the scenes” documentary as a means of spying on Lena. Ernesto also retains a lip reader to translate the inaudible exchanges captured by his son’s camera, and one haunting image in “Broken Embraces” focuses on Ernesto’s stricken face as he jealously watches footage of Lena and Mateo while seated next to the unblinking glow of the red, green, and blue eyes of his video projector.

Many of the best scenes in “Broken Embraces” reflect on the act of looking and the desire to comprehend the meanings conveyed by visual narrative. Hitchcock and voyeurism were a match made in movie heaven, but Almodovar is just as deliberate as the Master of Suspense in exploring the ways that watchers find and take pleasure – and along with it – some amount of pain. Almodovar’s exquisitely designed productions, which pop with solid blocks of saturated rainbow hues, especially red, explode with mouthwatering compositions that complement the considerable amount of dialogue spoken by the ensemble.

In addition to Hitchcock, Almodovar pays tribute to numerous cinematic inspirations, including Orson Welles, Douglas Sirk, Michael Powell, Louis Malle, and Roberto Rossellini, inviting fellow movie lovers to notice the references and quotations. One need not be familiar with specific motion pictures to enjoy the strange, emotionally complex journeys concocted by Almodovar, but earnest cinephiles will appreciate the shower of intertextuality. “Broken Embraces” is by no means Almodovar’s best film, even though it does happen to be his most expensive and longest. Instead, it is both thematically representative of the filmmaker’s impressive body of work and introspective in a manner that is most welcome.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/1/10.