Archive for August, 2010

The Last Exorcism

Monday, August 30th, 2010

lastexorcism
Movie review by Greg Carlson

A much better than expected genre outing, “The Last Exorcism” trades William Peter Blatty’s Jesuits for a Louisiana evangelical, but the battlefield is still the body of a young girl, and the thrills are plentiful. Every demonic possession movie made since 1973 owes a bottomless debt to “The Exorcist,” and filmmaker Daniel Stamm pays homage to William Friedkin’s modern classic with taut direction and pacing. “The Last Exorcism” also boasts a sly sense of humor that tempers the increasingly grim events that unfold during the ritual of the title. Additionally, the film borrows heavily from Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan’s 1972 documentary “Marjoe.”

A nimble script by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland contextualizes the entire course of action inside a collection of documentary tapes, complete with shaky handheld videography, focus shifts, and numerous “Turn off the camera” moments. No more or less credible than “The Blair Witch Project” “Cloverfield,” and “REC” (as well as English-language remake “Quarantine”), the gimmick of creepy or unsettling found footage has developed into a stylistic cottage industry within the horror narrative. The technique can simulate realism where none exists, but “The Last Exorcism” errs in its liberal application of Nathan Barr’s standard-issue, emotion-manipulating musical score, an addition that invalidates the “authenticity” of the experience.

Because the bulk of the story hinges on a delicate balance between reason and the supernatural, the film’s ending might divide viewer opinion. One of the charms of the “The Last Exorcism” is the constant tease between earthly explanations for the horrors visited upon Nell Sweetzer and the possibility that something truly unaccountable is unfolding on her family’s rural farmstead. Stamm purposefully provides intimations of the former – the insinuation of sexual abuse among other ideas – without skimping on the latter. Performer Ashley Bell, who plays the unfortunate Nell, may not cross the shocking threshold established by Linda Blair, but she does deliver an intensely physical and sympathetic performance.

Some critics have claimed that “The Last Exorcism” mocks religion, or that at the very least, main character Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) ridicules the rubes to whom he preaches every Sunday. This is a facile dismissal, however, as a close viewing shows a man in full acknowledgment of the debt he owes to his family’s occupational tradition. Yes, Marcus freely admits skepticism when it comes to personal belief in bodily possession by demons (and he is more than willing to accept payment for his services), but he also shows genuine compassion for Nell as victim, regardless of the source of her misery. The preacher’s own crisis of faith is also plausibly outlined, moving him away from pure “Elmer Gantry” con artistry.

“The Last Exorcism” is not a great movie, but its refreshing transposition of setting from the well-heeled, Georgetown Roman Catholicism of “The Exorcist” to the swampy revivalism of Baton Rouge and its isolated, rural surroundings holds tight from start to finish. The location photography capitalizes on the readymade eeriness of the Sweetzer clan’s property, and the mock documentary presentation embraces the low-budget aesthetic without making the enterprise feel cheap.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/30/10.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

girlwhoplayedwithfire
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Noomi Rapace returns as compelling hacker Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the mostly disappointing sequel to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The second story in the late Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” trades the missing person mystery of the first novel for a hydra-headed yarn that weaves together homicide, sex trafficking, a former Soviet secret agent, Salander’s troubled past, and a huge cast of cops and criminals in a cat-and-mouse procedural that works much better on the page than the streamlined movie adaptation. Fans of the novel might enjoy making book-to-film comparisons, and Rapace is still fun to watch, but the movie often feels perfunctory and unpolished.

While the intimacy of Henrik Vanger’s anguish over the loss of his great-niece cast a strong spell in the inaugural episode, the more outrageous adornments of “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” particularly the backstory detailing Salander’s biography, diminish much of the heroine’s allure. Of course, Larsson mapped out his principal character’s dossier long before readers discovered her magnetism, but more knowledge about Salander means less room to project our own speculations about the things that make her tick. In “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” Salander morphs from a brilliant but still credible investigator to the linchpin in an espionage-connected government conspiracy.

This James Bond-like turn of events places the already formidable Salander in the realm of an altogether different genre, and Larsson’s reliance on a beloved soap opera staple will be no surprise to those who enjoy working out plot twists and revelations. From “The Empire Strikes Back” to “Angel Heart” to “The Boondock Saints,” movies have lavished plenty of melodramatic attention on shocking disclosures of paternity, and “The Girl Who Played with Fire” addresses themes of attempted patricide as well as revenge-fueled filicide. At best, the device allows viewers to experience the vicarious thrill of much needed payback. At worst, it smacks of lazy storytelling.

While director Niels Arden Oplev infused the big screen version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” with a glossy sophistication that skittered over the most gaping plot conveniences and coincidences, Daniel Alfredson – who takes over in the director’s chair – stages the action with blunt straightforwardness more akin to hour-long episodic television drama than bigger-budgeted theatrical fare. Alfredson also grapples with the disadvantage of realizing many of the book’s most implausible details. The terrifying giant who feels no pain, a former Sapo agent who is easily suckered by a bogus prize offer, and the freakishly disfigured monster who succumbs to the “curse of the talking villain” are chief offenders.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nykvist) believes steadfastly in Salander’s innocence despite evidence connecting her to a double murder (with a third added shortly thereafter). In the novel, Larsson turns the question of Salander’s possible guilt into a suspenseful stratagem that propels the simultaneously occurring chains of action. The movie takes little interest in the same tactic, a failure that deflates much of the psychological intrigue manifested in Blomkvist’s fascination with his onetime lover. Additionally, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” ends with the kind of messy uncertainty that can only be resolved by the next chapter.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/23/10.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Monday, August 16th, 2010

scottpilgrim
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Edgar Wright capitalizes on his cult status as an expert craftsman of clever, pop culture-referencing entertainment with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” a bubblegum fantasy of young adulthood adapted from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s illustrated saga. Blending video game culture, garage rock music, and the manga-inspired style of O’Malley’s fetching drawings, Wright takes to heart and makes good on the original’s trio of back cover bookstore genre classifiers: comedy/action/romance. Wright embraces the importance of all three designations with rapturous color and knockout wit, transforming “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” into one of the year’s most welcome and inventive releases.

Michael Cera, who has already played movie incarnations of literary protagonists in “Youth in Revolt” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” makes a convincing Scott Pilgrim, the self-absorbed, often clueless, un- or under-employed Toronto-dwelling Sex Bob-omb bass player, whose innocent but questionable relationship with teenage fan Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) complicates the intense attraction Pilgrim feels toward the literal girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona, a rollerblading Amazon.ca package courier, agrees to date Scott provided he can defeat her seven evil exes, a challenge that provides Pilgrim with a metaphoric quest toward maturity, self-discovery, and perhaps a grain of responsibility.

In the books as well as the movie, the point of view is filtered so strongly through the title character that magic realism scarcely begins to describe the manner in which Scott’s headspace traverses the actual and the imagined. Wright latches on to the conceit with confidence, presenting a graphically and sonically enhanced dreamscape that effectively charts the emotional terrain of youthful experience (Scott and Ramona’s first date is gorgeously rendered). Defeatist sourpusses will gripe that Pilgrim’s ego, his paralyzing inaction – which looms large between battles with evil exes – and his outright thoughtlessness impede the pathway to likeability, but Scott is deliberately defined by his solipsism and the glow of his highly unreliable narration.

Distilling the non-negotiable portions of O’Malley’s six-volume series into a single feature film understandably necessitated sizable cuts and conflations, and the most hardcore followers will mourn the absence of Lisa Miller and Mr. Chau, the reduced importance of key supporting players (especially Kim Pine), and the remixing, re-imagining, and re-staging of several of the mortal combat confrontations. Wright wisely opts to jettison as much expository material as possible, inviting viewers to dive into the Pilgrim universe without need of explanation for the rules that govern Scott’s consciousness. As a result, the movie diminishes the book’s emphasis on subspace, an alternate dimension used as a shortcut or hiding place that can be accessed through portals like doors and shoulder bags.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” has been attacked for failing to appeal to a wide range of moviegoers, but Wright leaves plenty of room for curious viewers of any gender who don’t spend much (or any) time playing video games. Even though Ramona is Princess Peach to Scott’s Mario, Winstead guarantees that her character gives as good as she gets, resisting to some degree the most limiting features of the damsel in distress. The side-scrolling chassis upon which the plot is engineered presents Ramona as an object to be won, but both O’Malley and Wright make certain the female characters fight with the same degree of martial skill as the boys, and Ramona surpasses Scott’s brainpower and matches his sense of humor (Scott: Hey, you know Pac-Man? Ramona: I know of him). See it or risk exploding into a shower of coins.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/16/10.

The Other Guys

Monday, August 9th, 2010

otherguys
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Another kaleidoscopic, anything-goes parody/satire from goofball pals Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, “The Other Guys” is the least structured of the comic team’s collaborations, and arguably the weakest. As pencil-pushing NYC police officer Allen Gamble, Ferrell trades his finely tuned sense of outrageous indignation and bullheaded machismo for a stab at meekness, passivity, and groveling obsequiousness. Mark Wahlberg’s Terry Hoitz, a dim-bulb loose cannon, is overmatched by partner Ferrell’s antics, and it would have been nice to see a variation on Wahlberg’s sharp-tongued (and much funnier) Staff Sgt. Dignam from “The Departed” instead.

“The Other Guys” peaks early with a brilliant argument pitting lion against tuna in a logic-warping bid for metaphoric food chain dominance that would be at home on any elementary school playground. The remainder of the movie’s best lunacy follows the well-established McKay/Ferrell pattern of overgrown boys masking their insecurities with pompous displays of testosterone-fueled bids for manly respect. In one hilarious example, a whispered argument interrupts a solemn cop funeral, escalating into noiseless fisticuffs to avoid disturbing the mourners. As the film grinds on, one begins to long for more scenes like these.

The supporting cast, which includes all too brief cameo appearances by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson as a pair of high-octane super detective action heroes as well as Michael Keaton as a captain who moonlights at Bed Bath & Beyond, adheres to the absurd shenanigans typical of McKay’s features. Keaton’s character, for example, peppers his dialogue with references to TLC song titles, but denies any knowledge of the musical trio. Director McKay drops in for a fleeting moment as Dirty Mike, a derelict who organizes sex parties in Gamble’s red Prius. An underutilized Steve Coogan plays the reptilian investment banker being investigated by Gamble and Hoitz.

Predictably, “The Other Guys” hews literally to the gender specification indicated by its title, and substantial roles for women are scarce. A game Eva Mendes logs some screen time as Gamble’s incongruously gorgeous wife, but the running gag that requires Gamble to abandon his daytime deference for a loutish spray of browbeating insults and put-downs directed at his weirdly complaisant spouse is one of the movie’s most inscrutable jests. Gamble’s inexplicable appeal to beautiful women, which confounds partner Hoitz, may be amusing, but the dismissive, mild sexism is far less appealing.

Viewers who sit through the movie’s end credits will see an animated series of statistics covering everything from the history of the pyramid scheme named for Charles Ponzi to runaway CEO compensation to Wall Street bailouts and bonuses, all set to Rage Against the Machine’s venomous, propulsive cover of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Despite the inclusion of Coogan’s Bernard Madoff-esque financier as the film’s belabored central plot thread, the whole closing sequence feels like it should have been paired with a much tougher, smarter movie than “The Other Guys.” Instead, the preceding film relies too intently on delivering the automotive chaos and gunplay required of the genre being lampooned to transcend the already exploded myths of the buddy cop archetype.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/9/10.

The Kids Are All Right

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

kidsareallright
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko regularly cooks up dramatic conflict by introducing the threat of a newcomer or stranger into the daily grind of characters whose lives require some sort of jolt. In “The Kids Are All Right,” viewers can expect another of the director’s sunny Southern California soap operas. An indelicate mash-up of calculating tearjerker and broad comedy – much of it designed around an adulterous affair – Cholodenko’s third feature has been coarsely touted as a “Brokeback Mountain” for lesbians, but lacks the gravitas to match Ang Lee’s groundbreaking film.

To be fair, the only significant parallel between “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right” is the presence of well-known actors playing homosexuals, but the former film was a heartbreaking tragedy and the latter film relies on wildly improbable humor. Many viewers will not be able to resist the portrayals provided by veteran stars (and heterosexuals) Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and Cholodenko deserves praise for the effective manner in which she directs the two women. The dialogue, which Cholodenko co-wrote with Stuart Blumberg, too readily depends on liberal and literal doses of “…just sayin’,” along with goopy platitudes and an earnest inclusion of the overworked bit about hurting the ones you love. Add to all of this an unwelcome streak of casual entitlement and racism, and one can never be certain whether the central couple deserves our affection or contempt.

Mark Ruffalo plays the sperm donor whose genetic material helped produce Moore and Bening’s teenagers Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and when the children track him down, the mothers aren’t sure how to react. Ruffalo’s roguish Paul is a follow-your-dreams stud who enjoys responsibility-free sex with a gorgeous employee at his organic restaurant. A motorcycling college dropout, Paul fascinates inexperienced recent high school grad Joni, who is navigating the treacherous waters of an attraction to a close male friend. Everyone will be tested and challenged, however, when Paul starts sleeping with Moore’s Jules.

Cholodenko goes to great lengths to remind viewers that sexuality is fluid, confusing, mysterious, and inexplicable (the “Moms,” as they are called by their offspring, watch gay male porn, for example) but resorts to the unfortunate cliché that any lesbian might be willing to “hop the fence” – as Jennifer Lopez’s gay character in “Gigli” put it – for the right man. Along with the practically unmentionable “Gigli,” variations of the trope have been covered cinematically in “Chasing Amy” and “Kissing Jessica Stein,” and on series television in “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word.” An argument has been offered suggesting that the device brings gay stories to wider audiences, but at what cost?

LGBT blogs have lit up debating whether Cholodenko is moving things forward or setting them back, and one could spend hours poring over the feedback and commentary sections of “The Kids Are All Right”-related articles at the Advocate, Lesbian Dad, Autostraddle and After Ellen, where Sinclair Sexsmith’s piece is one of the most thoughtful deconstructions of the movie that has been written so far. Individuals gay, straight, bisexual, and otherwise need to see the movie before passing judgment on whether the application of the “sex with a man” premise is a legitimate Trojan Horse or merely the perpetuation of another tired stereotype.

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