Archive for June, 2010

Knight and Day

Monday, June 28th, 2010

knightandday
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Junk food cinema desperate to channel the sparkling charm of Stanley Donen’s “Charade” and other comic spy capers, James Mangold’s “Knight and Day” spirals out of control in the first few minutes and never finds a pleasant equilibrium for its attractive stars. Working much harder than Cary Grant, Tom Cruise crafts a winking, self-conscious amalgam of his public persona and several of his relentlessly self-assured characters from Jerry Maguire to Ethan Hunt. Cameron Diaz, who worked with Cruise in “Vanilla Sky” for Cameron Crowe in 2001, holds her own against her co-star’s gift for overstatement.

Cruise is Roy Miller, a government operative whose discovery of internal perfidy places his own security at risk. Tagged as a rogue agent, Miller – like the classic Hitchcockian wrong man – is on the run from good guys and bad until he can figure out a way to prove his innocence. Genre convention demands a romantic interest, and Miller cute-meets June Havens (Diaz) when he uses her as a mule prior to an airport security screening. For no good reason other than a potent mutual attraction, Roy and June embark on a series of increasingly unbelievable escapades that sweep them from Wichita to Salzburg and points in between.

The MacGuffin in “Knight and Day” is a tiny, perpetual energy battery codenamed Zephyr, but Miller’s motives, loyalties, and mental stability are equally curious. Not unlike the slippery identity games of Peter Joshua/Alexander Dyle/Adam Canfield/Brian Cruikshank in “Charade,” “Knight and Day” flirts with the possibility that Miller may be on the make (or completely bananas), but the screenplay fails to effectively develop the “is he or isn’t he” motif following a snappy diner scene in which a completely deranged Miller takes June hostage, threatening “No one follows us or I kill myself and then her.”

Cameron Diaz’s June Havens may be more competent than Katherine Heigl’s Jen Kornfeldt in the similarly themed “Killers,” but she’s hardly an argument for Hollywood’s ability to effectively represent capable women. Despite her status as the character through which the audience experiences the action, Havens is often on the receiving end of her partner’s creepy, unhinged behavior. Roy drugs June more than once, kidnaps her to his private tropical getaway, undresses her without her consent, and orders her around the way a trainer speaks to a puppy. In return, June makes cow-eyes at Roy whenever she is not shrieking, hyperventilating or hysterically discharging an automatic weapon.

In Diaz’s defense, June learns the tricks of the espionage trade quickly, and by the end of the movie, her natural abilities allow her to approach the skill level of the hyper-trained Roy. Both Diaz and Cruise, framed frequently in almost unsettling close-up, flash their blinding pearly whites often enough to remind viewers why they collect ridiculous paychecks. Separately and together the pair unveil comic dexterity – Cruise freaks out explosively and Diaz is especially good in a woozy scene following her character’s encounter with truth serum. Had “Knight and Day” presented a more coherent story, it might have transcended its fate as warmed over “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief.” Instead, neither June nor the viewer knows what to believe.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/28/10.

Toy Story 3

Monday, June 21st, 2010

toystory3
Movie review by Greg Carlson

A deeply satisfying if imperfect conclusion (at least for now) to Pixar’s flagship franchise, “Toy Story 3” stands to make a fortune at the box office and win plenty of new converts to the beloved series. Boasting all the hallmarks of the company’s revered capacity for dazzling technical invention and nuts-and-bolts storytelling, “Toy Story 3” deftly balances the familiar and the novel, culminating in a tour de force display of emotions that range from sorrow to joy. Like its predecessors, “Toy Story 3” touches on the heartache that comes with the very essence of life’s transitory stages, and shares a profound understanding of what it means to love and be loved.

Following the terrific animated short “Day & Night,” “Toy Story 3” begins with an eye-popping runaway train fantasy that reestablishes cherished cowpoke Woody’s loyalty, pluck, and courage. Turns out Woody will need every ounce of those traits, as longtime owner Andy packs for college and intends to banish most of his old playthings to the attic. A misunderstanding brings what is left of the group – Bo Peep, Wheezy, Etch and others have been written out – to Sunnyside Daycare, a seemingly blissful promised land where toys won’t ever have to worry about their owners growing up. Woody, of course, insists that the friends must return home, whether Andy still wants them or not.

Like virtually any sequel, “Toy Story 3” introduces new characters, and one in particular is a humdinger. Ned Beatty’s Lotso, a plush, strawberry-scented bear with a mint julep drawl, rules Sunnyside with an air of privileged courtliness and capacity for mendaciousness that echoes Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy Pollitt. Lotso, whose origin story is shared in flashback, runs Sunnyside like a penal colony, and the combination of his Old South manners and the forced chain-gang servitude of Andy’s toys allows for a diabolical parallel to antebellum history.

“Toy Story 3” is not without flaws. Cowgirl Jessie’s slightly diminished importance might remind some that the second film in the series is still the richest and most heartfelt. The Ken/Barbie subplot, with its crude waffling on Ken’s closeted sexuality, shifts too much attention away from the core gang, especially when the movie grinds to a halt for a superfluous montage set to Chic’s “Le Freak.” The mighty Buzz Lightyear, whose “Spanish mode” transforms the astronaut into a Latin lover, lacks some of his previous authority. Kyle Buchanan has already pointed out that the mechanics of the plot eerily resemble “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a parallel that should fuel a handful of film studies conference papers.

Of course, the tale of the “Toy Story” movies belongs first and last to Woody, and by the time the final scenes unfold, adult viewers, especially those with grown children, will be wiping away tears. The magnificence of the series rests largely with its refusal to ignore darkness and pain, and large themes, especially our fear of rejection and abandonment, guide the subtext of the trilogy toward surprisingly existential considerations – made all the more extraordinary by appearing in the seemingly disposable visages of the wood, plastic, and cloth toys that have come to mean so much to us.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/21/10.

The A-Team

Monday, June 14th, 2010

ateam
Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “The A-Team,” director Joe Carnahan keeps most of the promises suggested by the title of his 1998 debut “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane.” Cacophonous, shrill, stupid, and ugly, Carnahan’s retooling of the wildly popular NBC series that ran from 1983 to 1987 embraces the cartoonish hallmarks of its source material with a huge bear hug. Seemingly made exclusively for young teenage boys, “The A-Team” rockets from one mindless action sequence to the next, rarely stopping to catch its breath. Character is an afterthought at best; we should, after all, be able to identify the title quartet by the simplified mannerisms that distinguish them from one another.

The key personality traits of the original four cast members are replicated in earnest. Liam Neeson’s Hannibal Smith is the seasoned, cigar-chomping paterfamilias, channeling George Peppard every time he repeats signature catchphrase “I love it when a plan comes together.” Quinton Jackson is serviceable as B.A. Baracus, the swing-first-ask-questions-later heavy so memorably originated by Mr. T. Bradley Cooper takes over Dirk Benedict’s Templeton “Faceman” Peck, the sexually irresistible con artist. Finally, the essence of Dwight Schultz’s ridiculous nut job Murdock, the multilingual pilot extraordinaire, is captured by a twitchy Sharlto Copley.

The other performers are as bland and forgettable as any of the straw men (and rarely women) who populated the TV series in supporting roles. Patrick Wilson’s slimy CIA operative Lynch provides the hissability alongside the equally venomous “Black Forest” security contractor Pike (Brian Bloom, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Jessica Biel stumbles around with little to do besides spar and flirt with old flame Face. Needless to say, she neither sees nor speaks to another woman for the duration of the movie. Gerald McRaney, as far from the quality dialogue of “Deadwood” as possible, turns up as General Morrison, a crafty pal of Hannibal’s who may be hiding a secret or two.

What passes for plot is loosely cribbed from the series, and whenever the mood arises, other callbacks to the show are trotted out – not that anyone born after 1980 would have much direct recollection of any of them. Murdock escaping from a mental institution, B.A.’s vaguely condescending fear of flying, the group’s drive to prove their innocence, the farfetched mechanical marvels hastily slapped together from spare parts – all of these things and more are meant to either fuel nostalgia or simply paint by numbers in between shots of massive explosions.

Since this installment is in many respects a slightly repurposed origin story that follows an inane caper revolving around stolen United States treasury printing plates, one key element from the old show that goes missing is the set-up in which a desperate underdog facing impossible odds hires the A-Team. The quaint magnanimity of the 1980s version returns (the gang would never violate their ethical and patriotic codes) and for the most part, so does the sterilized version of combat in which very few deaths are graphically depicted. The new “A-Team” is unlikely to capture the zeitgeist – don’t count on “Rampage” Jackson dressing up as Santa Claus at the White House next Christmas – but it does pity the fool who expects anything other than choreographed detonations at ear-splitting volume.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/14/10.

Splice

Monday, June 7th, 2010

splice
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice” splices together horror and science fiction with satisfying results, although real gore-hounds might be put off by the deliberate pacing and the significant amount of relationship melodrama that eats up far more screen time than the gruesome and queasy special effects masterminded by Robert Munroe, Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero. Featuring top-shelf talent Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley (named affectionately for Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester of “Bride of Frankenstein”) as a pair of modern day mad scientists, “Splice” pays tribute to several touchstones, from the body dread of David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” to the parental anxiety of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”

Released under the Dark Castle Entertainment banner, “Splice” instantly embraces its B-picture pedigree, and Natali strikes a comfortable balance between earnestness and mockery. Arguably, the movie’s greatest strength is its relentless commitment to not take itself too seriously, and Natali and his actors fully commit to the impossibility, peculiarity, and insanity of the tale. Stealing kisses in between DNA sequencing attempts, Brody and Polley dress like rock stars and decorate their apartment with pop art canvases and designer Nathan Jurevicius vinyl toys. Brody’s Clive adorns his lab coat with punk-invoking military patches and cockily wears a checkered suit to a meeting with corporate investors. In the ultimate geek fantasy, Clive and Elsa even appear together on the cover of “Wired.”

The film’s scene-stealing main attraction, however, is Clive and Elsa’s “baby” Dren (“nerd” backwards in the clumsiest of the script’s asides), the genetically engineered monster whose journey from incubation to full sexual maturity is documented in impressive detail. A blend of performance, prosthetics, and computer generated imagery, Dren quickly evolves from something resembling a kangaroo rat/tadpole/human cross to an otherworldly beauty hypnotically blending actor Delphine Chaneac’s alien allure with some of the most fearsome attributes of William Blake’s Great Red Dragon paintings. Despite, or perhaps because of the layers of metamorphosed oddity, Chaneac is thoroughly engaging and sympathetic, recalling on several occasions Karloff’s mostly wordless longing and anguish as Frankenstein’s nameless creature.

Clive and Elsa react to their perverse progeny with an alarming number of staggeringly poor parenting decisions. Initially, Clive’s jealousy and nervousness threaten to explode into total panic, and brushes with near infanticide strain his relationship with Elsa to the breaking point. In a smart piece of writing, Clive and Elsa reverse roles as Dren assumes the awkwardness and confusion of adolescence. The previously nurturing and protective Elsa, suffering from the post-traumatic stress of her own hellish childhood, resents Dren’s growing independence while Clive falls under the spell of the mutant’s one-of-a-kind charms. Dren, naturally, suffers in spectacular fashion.

The escalation of the film’s parody of family psychodrama points to a predictable physical showdown, and several critics have bemoaned what might be perceived as a perfunctory climax. While genre devotees will anticipate many details of the final action and denouement, “Splice” is no less satisfying for insisting on the old-fashioned morality that is a paramount value of humans-playing-God stories. “Splice” is ultimately a traditional cautionary tale that does double duty as a warning against the Pandora’s Box consequences of rapid, ethically dubious technological advancement and as a delirious illustration of the worst nightmares of any mother or father.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/7/10.