Archive for October, 2010

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.


Monday, October 18th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The success of “Catfish,” a slippery curiosity described by its creators as a documentary, depends on Universal’s calculated marketing strategy, which begs critics and audience members to avoid spoilers. If you intend to see it and would like to do so without knowing its twists and turns, stop reading now. “Catfish” has been aptly described as “the other Facebook movie,” and Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s fable-like construction shares much in common with “The Social Network,” most notably an unsettling subtext that concerns the diffusion of interactive media from insiders/haves to outsiders/have-nots.

Presumably tech-savvy New York City photographer Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, whose faux-sweetness often smells like smug condescension, forges an online friendship with 8-year-old Abby, who paints copies of Nev’s photos and mails prints to his office from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nev soon falls hard for Abby’s beautiful older sister Megan, exchanging text messages and cell phone calls. As the long-distance electronic romance blossoms, Nev grows suspicious that his new friends are not who they claim to be, and the filmmakers take a road trip to get to the bottom of the mystery. Eventually, they come face to face with Angela Wesselman-Pierce, a duplicitous dreamer who tricked Nev by posing as both Abby and Megan.

The revelation that awkward housewife and diabolical prevaricator Angela Wesselman-Pierce fabricated her daughter’s artistic achievements as well as the entire persona of Nev’s crush Megan will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Amir Bar-Lev’s “My Kid Could Paint That.” Since the feeding frenzy over “Catfish” began, Wesselman-Pierce has been scarce, appearing in Jay Schadler’s fluffy “20/20” piece to corroborate the film’s content (and declare herself schizophrenic). Amy Kaufman’s “Los Angeles Times” article raises more questions about the mysterious woman, hinting that many Ishpeming, Michigan locals do not know her at all.

Kyle Buchanan, reporting from the Sundance Film Festival last January for “Movieline,” was among the first journalists to address the possibility that the Schulman brothers and Joost were presenting a story that didn’t add up. Buchanan zeroed in on the queasy way the Schulmans and Joost appear to exploit Wesselman-Pierce on camera. Other voices have made bolder accusations. It is entirely possible that some – or all – of Wesselman-Pierce’s actions were concocted expressly for the movie.

Many additional details seem too good to be true: a pulse-quickening, “Blair Witch”-esque visit to a decoy farmhouse in the middle of the night follows a scene in which Nev rummages through a stranger’s mail to conveniently discover the postcards he sent to Megan. The movie’s title is explained in a weirdly poetic and eloquent monologue shared by Angela’s marble-mouthed husband. If this guy is for real, a screenwriting agent should acquire his services immediately.

“Catfish” has been grouped with “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “I’m Still Here” as a stunt documentary more than willing to adjust and tweak what we might desire to identify as real into a kind of cinematic decoupage, varnishing layer upon layer of “truth” until we have no way to know – or much incentive to care – whether anything that unfolds is non-fiction. Ultimately, the question of the film’s veracity doesn’t matter, since the constantly rolling cameras remind viewers that every shot has been collected and assembled to pique enough interest to make us want to buy the ticket and take the ride.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/18/10.

Let Me In

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves respectably re-shoots Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 “Let the Right One In,” the sharp adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel about the relationship between a bullied boy and the petite vampire who moves in next door. Despite the filmmaker’s claims to the contrary, the Americanized version, re-titled “Let Me In” at the expense of the Morrissey lyric, is slavishly faithful to the style, tone, and mood of the original Swedish article – which could be good or bad depending on one’s attitude about remakes in general and “Let the Right One In” in particular.

As Owen (formerly Oskar) and Abby (formerly Eli), actors Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz effectively navigate the sometimes subtle and tender emotional terrain traversed by their youthful characters, even if they do not improve on the performances of Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. The invaluable Richard Jenkins, who plays the pathetic blood-hunter misidentified by neighbors as the vampire’s father, elicits a disproportionate amount of sympathy in his limited screen time, especially given the gruesome nature of his vocation and his implied pedophilia (scrubbed from the movie but explored in detail in the novel). One wishes Reeves had spent more time exploring the character, if only to allow the audience the pleasure of Jenkins’s company for a longer duration.

Lindqvist has diplomatically praised both cinematic incarnations of his book, which makes a great deal of sense given that he wrote the adaptation upon which the movies are based (despite Reeves’s dubious “written for the screen” credit on “Let Me In”). Newcomers to the story who missed “Let the Right One In” are advised to see Alfredson’s film prior to “Let Me In,” and will notice a few key differences between the movies. Reeves’s biggest departure and most interesting alteration from “Let the Right One In” is the re-imagining of Father’s bungled attack in the locker room as a tense, automotive urban legend. Reeves also intersperses clips from Ronald Reagan’s March 1983 “Evil Empire” speech and envisions Owen’s perpetually obscured mother as a devout evangelical.

Thirsty fans hoping that Reeves might return to Lindqvist’s sizable tome rather than the author’s condensed script for the 2008 film will be disappointed. None of the novel’s significant subplots that were cut the first time appear in the American edition. The multiple narrative points of view, the group of adults affected by vampire attacks, Oskar/Owen’s sympathetic ally Tommy, Eli/Abby’s feeding encounter with the medicated old woman, and Hakan/Father’s resurrection and morgue escape are almost entirely absent. Lindqvist was wise to eliminate most of these elements the first time around, and Reeves would have been hard pressed to improve on “Let the Right One In” by squeezing in more plot.

The early 1980s setting, the dreariness of the working class, and the sober and pervasive sense of doom and desperation in Owen and Abby’s world contrast sharply with the glossy depiction of the Cullen clan’s wealth in the “Twilight” series and the hyper-sexualized vampire/human couplings of “True Blood.” Abby’s missing genitalia and gender ambiguity, more explicitly addressed in “Let the Right One In” than in “Let Me In,” as well as her struggle to understand Owen’s urges to go steady, position Lindqvist’s tale as a romantic bildungsroman that uses vampirism as a lens through which to examine adolescent confusion. In this capacity, “Let the Right One In” and “Let Me In” share intriguing variations within the surging vampire genre.

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

The Social Network

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Movie review by Greg Carlson

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin print the legend in “The Social Network,” a sleek and confident imagining of the creation of Facebook. Agile enough to withstand nearly as many readings as there are Facebook users, the film pivots around a cautionary tale of a bright entrepreneur who wagers his soul gambling for fortune and recognition. In addition to his meteoric rise to the top of a media empire, Mark Zuckerberg’s single-mindedness and mercurial persona parallel Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane, and “The Social Network” swiftly transforms into something greater than another revenge of the nerds celebration to be cheered by the Net Generation.

Protests decrying the movie’s lack of accuracy – mostly from grumpy technology writers unhappy with the absence of computing detail and Facebook insiders shouting down the raging egos and emphasis on Dionysian socializing over the drudgery and hard work of endless coding sessions – will fail to be heard over the buzz of audience excitement. Like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” once upon a time, “The Social Network” represents history according to the movies, and as many of the essays in the Mark C. Carnes-edited volume “Past Imperfect” point out, fact-based truth can never be fully reconciled with dramatized fiction.

Sorkin’s dialogue is heir to the lightning exchanges and dueling witticisms of Preston Sturges, and “The Social Network” opens with a killer scene in which future billionaire Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) pours out buckets of insecurity to exasperated soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) over mugs of beer at the Thirsty Scholar Pub. Erica returns Mark’s insensitive insults with interest, and the dazzling duet – which reportedly required nearly one hundred takes to complete – establishes Zuckerberg’s mania for bluntness and his overwhelming desire to belong to something exclusive. Even though she only appears in a few scenes, Erica becomes emblematic of the young woman in the white dress described by Mr. Bernstein in “Citizen Kane.” She may even be Zuckerberg’s “Rosebud.”

Fincher also adopts a “Citizen Kane”-like jigsaw structure to divide the action between legal proceedings in two different lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg and the flashbacks to events described in testimony. Without any significant chronologic disorientation, Fincher and his terrific editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall mirror the sense of speed with which Facebook’s popularity exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, mapping out several dichotomies that define the film’s thematic agenda. Of these, the central struggle between unfettered artistic invention and the capitalistic urge to monetize manifests in the friendship between Zuckerberg and his business-focused, Jedediah Leland-esque best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

The most troubling single dimension of “The Social Network” is not the veracity of its claims of documentary honesty but the unfortunate way in which it portrays women. With the exception of Mara’s Erica, the majority of the female characters in the movie apparently exist to provide sexual favors to the male Facebook team once their efforts make them famous (and often with the added abuse of racial stereotype). Yes, Rashida Jones’s lawyer is briefly featured, but her appearance is the exception to a rule that literally shows attractive co-eds being bussed in to entertain Harvard men at a party. Surely Sorkin and Fincher are capable of exploring a point of view that includes female voices, even if the Facebook story is predominantly visualized through male eyes.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/4/10.