Archive for May, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Monday, May 31st, 2010

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The minor clamor over racially insensitive casting in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” will probably be one of the only memorable aspects of the film, a Jerry Bruckheimer production that attempts to do for video games loosely based on the sixth century Middle East what “Pirates of the Caribbean” did for the Disney theme park dark ride. Hollywood’s long tradition of dubious casting (Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin, and on and on) is aligned closely with the prospective bottom line, so it is hardly a surprise that a chiseled Jake Gyllenhaal would step into the title role, despite his lack of Iranian heritage.

Constructed loosely from Jordan Mechner’s 2003 iteration of his successful video game franchise, “Prince of Persia” continues the conflation of movies and software on a scale significantly larger than previous game-to-film translations including “Super Mario Bros.,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Resident Evil,” and “Doom.” As expected, the narrative replicates elements of game play, especially in the magical properties of the movie’s MacGuffin, the ornate Dagger of Time, which allows operators to rewind into the past for “do-overs.” Not surprisingly, the movie’s action orientation trumps any kind of exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of time travel, from time loop logic to other intriguing paradoxes that have been a staple of science fiction for years.

Lavish production values, abetted by unhealthy levels of computer-generated imagery, fail to mask the phony exoticism of the film’s “One Thousand and One Nights” aspirations. “Prince of Persia” is too stiff to conjure up many allusions to snappy, entertaining precedents – its scattershot cultural signifiers are vaguely reminiscent of the animated “Aladdin.” Some viewers will certainly wish they were watching other, better Islamic-themed spectacles like Douglas Fairbanks’ 1924 “The Thief of Bagdad” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” instead. This time, Alfred Molina avoids the spikes but suffers a more terrible fate: playing the grotesque, ostrich racing “small business owner” whose broad comic asides are meant as relief to Gyllenhaal’s square-jawed earnestness.

The little excitement “Prince of Persia” has to offer arrives in the old-fashioned, love/hate screwball sparring between muscular Prince Dastan (Gyllenhaal) and the resourceful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton, logging another dreary sword-and-sandal turkey on the heels of “Clash of the Titans”). The attractive performers share a comfortable chemistry, but the sexless script, demographically targeted at young boys, chastely sidesteps all but the tiniest hints of romance. Mostly, the supporting players make leaden quips in reference to Tamina’s reputation as a dazzling beauty.

Manohla Dargis has already noted that the movie is “generically insulting and relatively innocuous,” which is a fairly kind way of saying that “Prince of Persia” is too dull to get worked up about. Other than Molina, whose wisecracks are at least intended to be funny, nobody involved with the production seems to realize that “Prince of Persia” should not be taken so seriously. Ben Kingsley, whose groomed goatee, shaved head, and inky eyeliner make him a dead ringer for Anton LaVey, navigates the duration of his performance as if his evil uncle Nizam belongs in a heavy drama by Strindberg or O’Neill. One keeps waiting for Kingsley to wink at the audience, but it never happens, and “Prince of Persia” takes its place as a feature-length commercial for action figures and Lego sets.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/31/10.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Monday, May 24th, 2010

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The first installment in the “Millennium Trilogy” of movie adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s publishing juggernaut, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a satisfying mash-up that combines the film equivalent of page-turning crime procedural with a cyberpunk-inspired heroine who spends as much time hacking computers as she does gunning her motorcycle down icy Swedish highways. Title character Lisbeth Salander, played with fierce commitment by the compelling Noomi Rapace, is about as far away from Jane Marple as imaginable, but Salander’s perceptiveness, intelligence, and tenacity link her not only to Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, but a line of problem-solvers including Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Thomas Harris’ Clarice Starling.

While “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t as brilliant as “The Silence of the Lambs,” the serial killer challenges faced by the heroine are equally diabolical, and Salander makes the transition from page to screen with practically all of her hallmarks intact. Salander is a terrific character. She masks her wounds and vulnerabilities under the confrontational accoutrements of her tough personal style, which include a severe haircut, chunky leather boots, facial piercings, and some elaborately inked body art. Both Larsson and director Niels Arden Oplev wring a few wry laughs from the ways in which Salander’s investigative skill regularly forces others to reevaluate their initial misperceptions of her.

In an aerodynamically streamlined translation that slices subplots, dumps characters, and simplifies convolutions, screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg retain the potency of the relationship that develops between Salander and her partner Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the disgraced investigative journalist hired by a wealthy industrialist to unravel a decades-old cold case. Relying on the tried and true formulae of genealogically linked suspects and a variation of the locked room puzzle, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” pays homage to years of crime fiction in ways that fulfill the expectations of genre fans.

The original title of the novel and film translates to “Men Who Hate Women,” and Larsson’s novel frequently cites statistics that address sexual violence committed against women in Sweden. One of the shrewdest choices made by Larsson in the construction of his vivid world divides our attention between the step-by-step journey toward the solution of the Harriet Vanger case and the legal dilemmas faced by Salander, which trigger several of the most shocking sequences in the film. Salander unmistakably retains key characteristics of heterosexual male fantasy object, but her motivations and actions add a complexity to the typically black and white simplicity of the binary poles that separate victim from victimizer.

The challenge of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is how to grapple with the coexistence of Lisbeth Salander’s brand of feminism and the candid depictions of brutal rape, sexual deviance, and physical torture that hover near the edge of sordidness. Director Oplev handles the most salacious content without blinking, but many viewers will be mulling over the sexual violence long after the central mystery that drives the plot is forgotten. To be fair, Larsson interlocks both past and present story threads with the undercurrent of power-based defilement, but the extent of the narrative’s identification with women will be hotly debated by readers and viewers for some time.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/24/10.

Robin Hood

Monday, May 17th, 2010

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is reportedly the most expensive version of the popular outlaw tale to date, but the resulting mess places the film near the bottom of the heap – no mean feat considering Kevin Costner’s ill-advised turn as the fabled archer in 1991. With Russell Crowe in the lead, one expects a dour, introspective, and serious-minded Robin, but the actor outdoes himself with brooding, furrowed-brow intensity, leeching away anything that resembles mirth, wit, or joy. Michael Curtiz’s brilliant “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – released more than seventy years ago – retains the crown as the definitive big screen version of the bandit’s fanciful biography.

While it may be tempting to view the subtext of Brian Helgeland’s screenplay through the lens of contemporary economic hardship – a convenient reading that simultaneously allows both conservative and liberal viewers to claim Robin as their champion – the script is instead a mishmash of hero tropes scarcely distinguished from material like “Braveheart” and Scott’s 2005 “Kingdom of Heaven.” “Robin Hood” marks Scott’s fifth collaboration with Crowe. If the actor’s choice of haircut is any indication, the pair likely hoped to recapture some of the success of “Gladiator,” and “Robin Hood” contains several scenes that mirror the action of the 2000 Academy Award-winning Best Picture.

Strangely, the film’s convoluted narrative re-imagines the origin of Robin Hood, fashioning a prequel of sorts in spite of Crowe’s maturity (the Internet Movie Database notes that Crowe is the oldest performer to play Robin Hood in a major motion picture, even topping Sean Connery’s aging fighter in Richard Lester’s “Robin and Marian”). Introduced as a soldier in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), Robin Longstride has grown weary of the Third Crusade, due largely to the brutal slaughter of Muslims demanded by the power-mad English monarch. As Richard, Huston lolls around, rolling his eyes and generally playing crazy for the brief duration of his screen time. He makes an impression, mostly because he goes big when everyone around him underplays.

The other popular characters of the Robin Hood mythology nearly fade into the background. The pre-outlaw status of Robin means that the “Merry Men” have not been formally assembled, but the film renders Little John, Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle, and Friar Tuck as practically faceless extras on standby to serve Robin only when the need arises. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a non-entity, a curious change from the rumored version of the movie that might have cast Crowe in a dual role as protagonist and antagonist. The Sheriff’s malevolence is instead encompassed by Mark Strong’s Godfrey, a traitorous thug whose imposing, aristocratic bearing loosely mimics Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

A few revisions are made to the legend’s romantic angle, but they amount to little. Cate Blanchett’s Marion is strictly second fiddle to Crowe’s Robin. This Marion (for some unknown reason spelled with an “o” instead of an “a”) is a widow struggling to cultivate crops and maintain her farm, prevent theft from a roving band of war orphans, and protect her holdings from unfair taxation. Forced to accept Robin as her husband in an arrangement echoing the Martin Guerre story, Marion acquiesces to her blind father-in-law’s wishes. Scott jettisons the insouciant flirtatiousness of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, opting for a harder edged courtship. While historically normative expectations invite scrutiny whenever gender roles are revised, “Robin Hood” deserves some credit for depicting Marion’s brave entry into the final battle. It goes without saying, however, that Robin will rescue her, and not the other way around.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/17/10.

Iron Man 2

Monday, May 10th, 2010

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following the custom of superhero sequels, fans and reviewers will compare and contrast “Iron Man 2” with the inaugural installment, a moot point when the grand design is to engineer and weld the franchise into a cinematic simulacrum of the Marvel Universe that looks an awful lot like a money-printing machine warming up to deliver as many spin-offs as the summer blockbuster schedule will allow. We love to complain about that common tragedy of the cape-and-tights genre: the follow-ups lose their balance taking on the weight of more story, more villains, more characters, and more action – even when alternatives are practically impossible.

“Iron Man 2” embraces this “more is more” expectation with a vengeance, but in its defense, the running time is two minutes shorter than the first episode and the current model isn’t dependent on the delivery of an origin mythology. Instead, Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire industrialist Tony Stark is free to emphasize all the ways in which he defies the Batman template’s somber expectations of serious responsibility, searing guilt, and secret identity. Instead, Stark’s narcissism and fame are expertly communicated by Downey Jr., who cockily asserts during a televised Capitol Hill hearing that he has privatized world peace.

In one interesting scene, a drunken birthday bacchanal that Stark attends in full armor, the late DJ AM, to whom “Iron Man 2” is dedicated, drops “Another One Bites the Dust” while Stark gets sloppy. There is no Ghostface appearance, but a mixed bag of celebrity cameos, from shuddersome Bill O’Reilly to the classier Christiane Amanpour, links the movie’s fantastic alternate reality to the one in which the viewers reside, and a deliberate Stan Lee/Larry King mix-up notwithstanding, director Jon Favreau (who also returns as Stark chauffeur/bodyguard Happy Hogan) smoothly translates the candy-colored panels of the page to the computer-enhanced dream vision of Hollywood spectacle.

What a bummer that Gwyneth Paltrow’s talent is wasted playing the outdated stereotype Pepper Potts. Despite Potts’ promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, she remains a second-class citizen in her partner’s world, cleaning up his messes, nursing his wounds, scolding his bad behavior, and shrieking when placed in harm’s way. Screenwriter Justin Theroux’s snappy one-liners allow Paltrow and Downey Jr. the opportunity to banter in the tradition of William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the script is stuffed with a surprising amount of clever bons mots and double entendres, but Pepper is shackled to the sexist tradition that puts the men in the center of the action while the women passively observe from the sidelines.

At least one woman, Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie Rushman, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent never directly identified in the movie as Black Widow, is allowed to dispatch a squad of security goons, but the character is so vague, fuzzy, and unfinished that we never develop a sense of her importance to Stark. The same goes for Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who descends in the middle to explain all sorts of presumably critical information, but really seems to be there to remind ticket buyers that Captain America and Avengers movies are on the way. Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke fare slightly better, stepping into the sequel’s equivalent of Jeff Bridges’ role in the first “Iron Man.” With so many important characters returning, however, there simply is not enough time available to fully explore the new personalities. Hopefully, part three won’t be as crowded.

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

Mother

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Mother,” Bong Joon-ho’s follow up to the wild monster movie “The Host” is another genre-bending thriller that blends intellectual acuity with voyeuristic sparks. Deftly balancing suspense, fear, black-hearted comedy, and a touching poignancy, Bong confidently envelops his viewers with filmmaking gifts that echo masters like David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock. The prickly relationship of the title character to her son invites comparison to “Psycho,” and the amateur sleuthing that drives the plot mirrors “Blue Velvet.” Best of all, “Mother” stands refreshingly on its own, recalling the aforementioned works while retaining a unique style and voice.

An herbalist who practices acupuncture sans license, Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) smothers and dotes on her simpleminded adult son Do-joon (Won Bin), an idler who hangs out with a small time hoodlum, Jin-tae (Jin Gu). When Do-joon narrowly escapes serious injury in a hit-and-run car accident, he and Jin-tae track down the wealthy perpetrators on a golf course, engaging in a slapstick melee that results in a trip to the police station. Bong paints this action with broad brushstrokes, but there is nothing wasted in the tactic, as the audience gathers all kinds of information that will come in handy as soon as the narrative shifts in the direction of an altogether more sober tale.

Bong’s goofy opening act contrasts sharply with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl who was seen briefly by Do-joon on the night of her death. Once Do-joon is coerced into signing a murder confession, “Mother” begins to smolder, as Hye-ja expresses the lengths to which she will go in order to exonerate her son. She attempts to hire a lawyer, but the busy attorney she retains initially brushes her off. Determined and relentless, Hye-ja turns self-appointed bloodhound, tracking down leads and managing the case with more competence than the police detectives exhibit.

“Mother” is calculated and exacting, but Bong refuses to let the plot-heavy structure of his narrative get in the way of the rich details that bring the unusual characters to life. As Hye-ja toils to unravel the mystery, Bong meticulously rations tidbits of information about her, surprising viewers with each revelation. Like the best hard-boiled detective novels of Hammett and Chandler, Bong also pounds out a code of morality, perching the protagonist in a precarious position between salvation and sin. In one terrific scene, Hye-ja hides in a closet while someone she is investigating has sex with a young schoolgirl not unlike the murder victim. Like Hitchcock, Bong is able to convey the simultaneous rush of excitement and shame as Hye-ja, and the audience, cannot resist peeking.

No doubt some viewers will recoil at Bong’s choices in the film’s final movement, in which the director depicts all kinds of shocking intrigue designed to challenge viewer expectations and raise thought-provoking questions about the obligations of family ties. Anthony Lane has accused Bong of wrecking the equilibrium of the movie, but others will certainly contend that the filmmaker holds on to every bit of the supple plasticity that governs his view of human nature. By the time we witness the haunting final image – a curious dance both melancholy and uncanny – we will ask ourselves whether we would or could do what Hye-ja has done for her child.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/3/10.