Archive for 2011

The Arbor

Monday, December 26th, 2011

arbor

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The family of British playwright Andrea Dunbar is the subject of Clio Barnard’s exceptional cinematic study “The Arbor,” an engrossing piece of creative nonfiction that combines the objectively reported and the imaginatively rearranged with a level of confidence and skill seldom applied to after-the-fact restaging associated with docufiction and docudrama. Dunbar, who at age fifteen wrote the play that shares its title with Barnard’s film, defied the odds of her class and status by soon seeing her work selected for production at the Royal Court Theatre. Dead at twenty-nine of a brain hemorrhage, the alcoholic Dunbar had three children by three different fathers.

Central to Barnard’s technique is the use of actors lip-synching to recordings of Dunbar’s relatives and affiliates (announced via an opening title card), which allows the director to light and frame moments in time with a kind of weird omnipotence only afforded by pre-recording a soundtrack. For example, in one stunning tableau, the memory of a long-ago fire is accompanied by a corresponding image in which flames leap in the shot’s background. The startling beauty of Ole Bratt Birkeland’s digital cinematography paints the environs of the run-down Bradford, Yorkshire streets with deliberate incongruity in comparison to the lives under discussion. Dennis Lim quoted Barnard saying that she “wanted to make a film that looked the opposite of how it sounded,” and the careful compositions operate in stark contrast to the wrenching tale being narrated.

Arguably, Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine eclipses her mother as the movie’s principal focus, and performer Manjinder Virk – like the other actors employed in Barnard’s bold experiment – must negotiate the challenge of constructing a “performance” tethered to a soundtrack that requires the memorization of every single original breath and pause. As the mixed-race daughter of a white mother and Pakistani father, Lorraine’s understanding of prejudice includes some devastating revelations about her treatment during childhood. As “The Arbor” continues, we learn more about Lorraine’s own demons with the same unblinking exactitude that has been applied by the filmmaker to Andrea Dunbar.

Given the unfathomable layers of pain, abuse, neglect, addiction, and illness that enveloped Dunbar during her short life and her grandson Harris in his even shorter one, Barnard cautiously resists what could easily have been rendered as emotionally manipulative in favor of almost ice-water-in-the-veins understatement. This doesn’t mean that “The Arbor” won’t bring you to your knees, but the matter-of-fact way in which the interview subjects talk about personal experiences that could lead to madness or despair says something about impoverishment and the presence and/or absence of hope.

Barnard’s directorial vision extends beyond the lip-synched interviews to a series of scenes from Dunbar’s debut theatrical drama arrestingly shot outdoors with neighborhood residents literally standing in as audience members. The theatrical snippets operate as perfect interstice to the lengthier first-person direct camera address content, demonstrating the frightening symmetry between Dunbar’s characters and the grim experiences that dominated her own day-to-day existence. Dunbar had always deliberately smudged the lines of self-portraiture and concretized chronicle, which Barnard understands and harnesses on screen to perfection.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Monday, December 19th, 2011

blackpower

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Comprised of vivid 16mm film footage culled from dozens of hours of material that had been lying dormant in Sveriges TV (Sweden’s Television, a national multi-channel public broadcasting station), “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” functions like a time capsule, teleporting viewers into the midst of America’s urban social chaos in the Vietnam War era. Assembled by Goran Hugo Olsson, the documentary reacquaints students of history with African American nationalism through interviews with several key figures associated with the Black Panthers. Additionally, the movie honors its title by tracking on the ravages of heroin in Harlem and other neighborhoods, the Nation of Islam, and the Attica Prison Riot, to name a few more of the movie’s broad-ranging interests.

Stokely Carmichael claims a critical role as one of the principal voices of the era, and the activist’s caustic wit emerges in several public addresses excerpted in the film. Most impressive, however, is a quieter moment when Carmichael sits down with his mother Mabel for an exchange in which the struggle against racism is illustrated with personal clarity. Carmichael is gentle but determined as he coaxes his mother to talk about her husband’s ongoing encounters with discrimination, and the scene shows Carmichael’s considerable skill as a master communicator.

Angela Davis is the other personality who emerges alongside Carmichael as the documentary’s “star.” Her 1972 interview from the Marin County Jail contains the most riveting on-camera response to questions posed about the movement’s willingness to reject Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful resistance and entertain the necessity of violence. Davis says, “When someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

In an interview with Channing Kennedy to promote the film, Olsson suggests that the language barrier of the original documentary crew contributed to the openness and generosity of subjects who might otherwise have declined to be photographed by white journalists. Whether this assertion is substantially true, the “lack of knowledge” (Olsson’s words) of the filmmakers in the various situations they covered infuses the movie with a strong sense of fundamental rhetorical explanation of positions that terrified the likes of Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and other representatives of the white establishment.

“The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” makes serious its commitment to vintage visual design, withholding any images of the contemporary commentators whose voices provide thought and perspective on the archival documentation that unfolds. Musicians Erykah Badu, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Talib Kweli are joined by poets, scholars, and activists, and while their thoughts make important links between today and the four-decade-old content, the long-neglected interviews – from the famous and the anonymous alike – feel every bit as fresh. Olsson has stated that only two images contained in the film are not from the original period, and the absence of new footage gives the movie an undiluted purity that can only be found in the commemorative – a reminder that “this happened.”

The Descendants

Monday, December 12th, 2011

descendants

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Bad movies set in Hawaii vastly outnumber good ones. Elvis, Gidget, Charlie Chan, Ma and Pa Kettle, and the Brady Bunch have used the idyllic location as a stunning backdrop. Adam Sandler went there for “50 First Dates” and returned recently for the putrid “Just Go with It.” For every “Punch-Drunk Love” (which only manages a detour), we have more examples like the pathetic 2004 version of “The Big Bounce.” “The Descendants” falls into the category of Hawaii-based stories determined to move beyond tourist views and postcard snapshots to show a dimension of the islands rarely explored on film. That aspect, however, is largely ignored in favor of a family drama mired in the midlife male milieu.

Alexander Payne’s first feature in seven years, “The Descendants” alludes to the complicated relationship between indigenous inhabitants and the interlopers who profited from Hawaii’s resources. George Clooney plays Matt King, one of the beneficiaries indicated by the title, a mixed-blood attorney smart enough to recognize that he and his extended family are still “haole,” no matter how many generations have lived and died on the islands. While King is preoccupied with the impending sale of a family-trust owned parcel of unspoiled beachfront, his wife suffers a devastating injury in a boating accident, and in the course of addressing the dire situation with his daughters, discovers that his spouse was unfaithful to him.

King decides to track down his wife’s lover, and the resulting – and wildly improbable – coincidence that stitches together the two principal plot threads pulls hard on the film’s credibility. Coupled with one of the master devices of soap opera scum, the lingering coma, Payne mortars the bricks of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings with an unhurried hand that would yield better results if the dialogue wasn’t so simple. “The Descendants” shows and tells, and shows and tells again, until the viewer begins to believe that this sort of suffering is universal, and even happens to handsome millionaires who live in an earthly paradise.

George Clooney’s saintly householder lacks much of the corrosive edge that Payne has been so consistent in applying to his protagonists. From hot-potato debut “Citizen Ruth” to career best “Election” and on through the bigger commercial successes of “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” the filmmaker has eagerly presented rough characters who often resist immediate likability in favor of richer, more nuanced inner and outer lives. Clooney, whose easy charm and calm confidence place him in close proximity to classic-era idols like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and William Powell, works hard to humanize King by filling him with insecurity and self doubt, a task made tougher by unnecessary voiceover that throttles the viewer with insulting obviousness.

How are we supposed to accept Clooney’s “backup parent” as an exasperated everyman when he is privileged with so much power, wealth, and beauty? The man’s bloodline flows back to Hawaiian royalty. He has sole decision-making authority over a flock of cousins seeking his favor in the real estate deal. Somehow, Clooney the actor carries the whole endeavor on his shoulders, reassuring skeptical moviegoers that Everything Will Be OK and that “The Descendants” depicts the kind of thing that we could all experience, even when it really doesn’t.

Melancholia

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Melancholia

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Perpetual provocateur Lars von Trier shares one of his least overtly “disobedient” stories in years with “Melancholia,” a visionary end-of-the-world disaster drama laced with a puckish streak of black comedy. Unlike controversial lightning rod “Antichrist,” the majority of the bile directed to “Melancholia” came not as a result of what appears on the screen, but instead for the moviemaker’s impolitic press conference at Cannes. Von Trier’s mouth drew attention from the work, a gorgeous elegy in which the notoriously unstable auteur explores the contours of his ongoing struggle with depression by imagining a collision between Earth and a “rogue” planet that has been hidden behind the sun.

Like Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express,” “Melancholia” is cleaved carefully, calculatingly in two, and each section of the luminous speculation on astronomical finality reflects significantly upon the other. The halves are named for sisters played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, physical near-opposites whose responses to impending oblivion and catastrophe are miles from the kind of action-oriented emergency operations undertaken by so many of the participants in cinematic cataclysms. In the most simplistic terms, Gainsbourg’s Claire takes care of Dunst’s Justine until the end is nigh and their roles reversed, but that description is a disservice to the beauty of the storytelling.

Justine, named by von Trier in homage to the Marquis de Sade’s doomed heroine, suffers tortures less physically graphic than her namesake, but the filmmaker – whose skillful character appellations often operate on multiple levels – might be simultaneously offering a rejoinder to the parade of detractors who accuse him of misogyny as a matter of presupposition and continuing in earnest his tradition of anguished female leads with whom he so closely identifies. In any case, Dunst completes the richest, most assured performance of her career. The startling image of wisps of electricity dancing from her fingertips places her in closer proximity to de Sade’s protagonist than first imagined.

The dissolution of Justine’s carefully planned wedding ceremony is rendered as a farcical chain of almost inexplicable breaches of formal social etiquette. Like Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” the viewer is provided with an engraved invitation to one of civilization’s most fascinating rituals, and the mischievous director makes the most of assets like Stellan and Alexander Skarsgard, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland, and Udo Kier, whose pained wedding planner hilariously refuses to even look at the offending bride who is ruining “his” big day. For admirers, von Trier’s rehearsal-free approach to principal photography results once again in a dazzling series of exchanges. For the uninitiated, the vertiginous jump cuts and woozy, handheld shooting may provide ample torture.

J. Hoberman compared “Melancholia” to “The Tree of Life” in his earliest reports, calling both films “monumentally, even monstrously, ambitious.” He coupled the statement with an assertion that there would be many viewers likely to turn away. Once Justine’s fairytale wedding has disintegrated like unexpurgated Grimm, von Trier cranks “Melancholia” into sharp focus through the lens of an expensive telescope and its homemade, bent wire companion. Both objects report the unthinkable. As the threat of death increases, however, Justine’s comportment evolves from numbed paralysis to serenity, tranquility and peace. The glowing planet draws close, dominating the sky and our thoughts.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Marthamarcy

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Eerie and unsettling, Sean Durkin’s feature film debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene” addresses the psychological aftermath of one young woman’s experience with a violent and sexually and emotionally abusive Charles Manson-like cult/commune. A carefully studied landscape of disorientation and mental transience, the movie sidesteps the sub-genre’s tendency to construct a central relationship between “brainwashed” hostage and professional “deprogrammer,” choosing instead to explore the protagonist’s fragile, tenuous grip on mundane, day-to-day activities and her shaky reintegration into the lives of her baffled, blindly naïve family.

Elizabeth Olsen inhabits the various personae suggested by the film’s alliterative, titular monikers with hypnotic appeal, confidently resisting the temptation to base Martha’s personality on a foundation of unwitting victimhood and sacrificial tokenism. Instead, Olsen and director Durkin lace the character with an almost abrasive flintiness, and the result is a complex portrait in several ways reminiscent of Jane Campion and Kate Winslet’s Ruth Barron in “Holy Smoke.” As Martha alienates her frustrated sister and incredulous brother-in-law with irrational behavior, including crawling into their bed while they are having sex, Durkin refuses to judge her. Instead, the director moves in close to Martha’s mounting paranoia that the cultists are only an eyelash away from showing up to reclaim her.

Cutting smoothly between Martha’s time in the twisted congregation of Catskills-dwelling nonconformists and her difficult transition back to the “normalcy” offered by her sister’s comfortable lakeside vacation rental, Durkin provides only some of the tantalizing details that motivated Martha to leave her unorthodox life after roughly two years “off the grid.” Through the flashbacks we meet Patrick (John Hawkes), the quietly intense clan patriarch whose silver tongue rationalizes drug-assisted rapes of the steady procession of young women who find their way to his working farm. Patrick’s manipulation of followers, men and women alike, is glimpsed in several chilling scenes, and Durkin’s tight rationing fosters curiosity about the kinds of things Patrick does that the audience is not privileged to witness.

As if the sexual assaults were not enough, Patrick also orchestrates and/or presides over break-ins and home invasions, including one horrifying incident that presumably contributes to Martha’s decision to detach from the group. Beautifully photographed by Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot “Martha Marcy May Marlene” co-producer Antonio Campos’ terrific “Afterschool,” the movie’s frames alternate between the open and the claustrophobic, compositionally voicing Martha’s estrangement and alienation. Additionally, natural outdoor settings, including a recurrent water motif, glisten with sumptuous tactility. The contrast between Patrick’s rustic environs and the sleek minimalism of the house inhabited by Martha’s sister also contributes to the division between Martha’s past and present.

For many viewers and several critics, Durkin withholds too much information. While the deliberately oblique course of the drama imposes Martha’s confusion on the audience, the filmmaker’s unrelenting obfuscation and uncertainty is worn like a badge of honor up to and including the enigmatic final scene. Staying true to Martha’s inability to take comfort in any one identity, Durkin elides key dimensions of traditional closure, a bold tactic that will delight some moviegoers and infuriate others. The ending, like a handful of preceding scenes, drags “Martha Marcy May Marlene” right to the edge of horror, but perhaps the most haunting thing about the film is that its talented filmmaker is not afraid to identify with Martha’s attraction to life in a cult.

Tower Heist

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Towerheist

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Locked in a battle for attention with the recent off-screen Oscar telecast tempests that bedeviled uncouth director/loose-lipped homophobe Brett Ratner and star Eddie Murphy, “Tower Heist” is vain and empty-headed. A gruesome casserole of lukewarm B.S., “Tower Heist” is predicated on the notion that a cast headed by multimillionaires playing service sector victims of a Madoff-like pyramid scheme can somehow make all of the poor schmucks in the audience forget their economic woes by fantasizing about sticking it to a penthouse-dwelling fat cat. The only problem: “Tower Heist” is not particularly funny and it is certainly not well-written.

Ben Stiller’s Josh Kovacs is the dedicated majordomo of the Tower, a ritzy New York high rise populated by a parade of odious and well-heeled snobs used to being pampered and fawned over by an army of lowly doormen, maids, cooks, drivers, secretaries and other wage-slaves. Wall Street top dog Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the swindling one-percenter whose arrest signals bad news for the building staffers who trusted him with their pensions, shares an uneasy master-servant relationship with Kovacs, but the humiliated underling vows revenge. Enlisting childhood acquaintance Slide (Eddie Murphy) in a nonsensical scheme to steal Shaw’s emergency cash fund, Kovacs spends the balance of his time corralling his bumbling team of thieves.

Murphy, whose “streetwise” Slide was touted as a back-to-basics return to form for the veteran comic, or at least a break from fat suits and saccharine “family” films, cannot quite conjure the early 80s spirit of Reggie Hammond or Billy Ray Valentine, and the movie’s PG-13 rating restricts the level of profanity allowed. It is also mildly disappointing to watch Murphy – who hatched the original idea for “Tower Heist” as an all-black caper before seeing it turn into an “Ocean’s Eleven” wannabe – relegated to second banana status.

Ratner’s hollow aping of Reagan-era action comedies steers the film’s aesthetic (or lack thereof), and the central caper, in which the underprepared and uncoordinated protagonists engineer the removal of Shaw’s priceless Ferrari (purportedly once owned by Steve McQueen) during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, chews up the clock in favor of the timely satire promised by the movie’s trailer. “Tower Heist” should have capitalized on capital, but the rooftop swimming pool’s hundred-dollar bill design is as close as the movie gets to any kind of economic commentary. The definition of the class gulf between billionaire Shaw and hustler Slide needed to be razor sharp, not noodle wet.

Ratner constructs the narrative with no sense of momentum, pacing, or even plot, and while the heavily rewritten script (with un-credited contributions from Noah Baumbach for Stiller’s character) does the filmmaker no favors, the failure of “Tower Heist” belongs mostly to its brash director. The plotters, including Matthew Broderick’s schlubby, bankrupt investor, regularly lose track of their outrage at Shaw’s fiduciary malfeasance, and Shaw himself never comes into sharp focus as a true antagonist. Subplots involving Casey Affleck’s defection from the schemers and Tea Leoni’s shapeless romance with Kovacs exist as dull obstacles incapable of generating even the tiniest shred of suspense over the movie’s predictable outcome.

In Time

Monday, October 31st, 2011

intime

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Andrew Niccol’s “In Time” returns to the blend of science fiction, politics, and thrills seen in his 1997 cult debut “Gattaca,” but with considerably less punch and effectiveness. Niccol’s interest in social (in)justice as filtered through futurism, fantasy, or speculation has ranged from the critically lauded media critique of “The Truman Show,” which he wrote and produced, to the lousy, vapid, meta-narrative “Simone,” and “In Time” takes its place on his filmography somewhere between those poles. “In Time” hints at a richer, more complex examination of class, temporality, and the value of an individual’s life than the drama that unfolds.

Set in a free market dystopia where time has replaced money as the economy’s essential unit of currency, “In Time” follows the hardscrabble struggle of Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), a blue collar clock-puncher laboring to earn enough minutes to keep himself alive for another day. Luminescent, forearm-embedded countdown timers provide every citizen with urgent memento mori, but wealthy, leisure class moguls bank decades and centuries while ghettoized underclass paupers routinely drop dead when their stopwatches zero out.  Like cash before it, time can be given, taken, traded, hoarded, and stolen.

In a nod to “Logan’s Run,” Niccol appends the premise that genetic engineering switches off physical aging to maintain each person’s physicality at the age of twenty-five, a choice that banishes older actors from the movie but reaps the unintended consequence of building a universe where it often looks like kids are playing dress up (Vincent Kartheiser is supposed to be Amanda Seyfried’s father, for example). Olivia Wilde, a few years Timberlake’s junior, plays his mother. While Niccol briefly flirts with the Oedipal subtext, the film pursues a different agenda, and the “forever young” gimmick evaporates.

References to the Occupy Wall Street movement pop up in several reviews of “In Time,” with both Melissa Anderson and Stephanie Zacharek opining that the movie is “for the 99 percent.” If that assumption is correct, the proletariat surely deserves a smarter story. Niccol’s stiff emphasis on the “Bonnie and Clyde” robberies Will commits with love interest Sylvia Weis (Seyfried) drains away precious moments that would be better spent sharpening the characters. Seyfried suffers the fate of so many before her, stuck playing a kidnapping victim who instantly falls in love with her captor. Flat “timekeeper” Cillian Murphy and thuggish senior citizen “minuteman” Alex Pettyfer are also underserved by Niccol’s heavy hand.

Like “Blade Runner,” “In Time” economizes on production costs by embracing the stylish retro-futurism pioneered in the former film, using vintage cars, architecture, and fashion to construct its vision of the world to come. Author Harlan Ellison, whose often-reprinted short story “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” shares a number of basic similarities with “In Time,” attracted some minor publicity for the movie when he filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, but Ellison’s own indebtedness to Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” somewhat diminishes the claim in a genre teeming with time-focused stories and standard contrivances like the dehumanizing dangers of megacorporations and corrupt governments. Even though “In Time” isn’t hard-boiled enough to qualify as purist cyberpunk, it fulfills the genre’s preoccupation with “high tech and low life.”

Footloose

Monday, October 24th, 2011

footloose

Movie review by Greg Carlson

At first glance, Craig Brewer’s remake of the massively successful 1984 musical-drama “Footloose,” seems like an unusual choice for the director of the adult-oriented “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan.” Brewer’s public adoration for Herbert Ross’ coming of age quasi-fable includes an anecdote that the teenager recorded and memorized the entire audio track of the film when he figured out how to connect his VCR to his boombox, and the slavish act of reconstruction on display is certainly a testament to the moviemaker’s reverence for the film that catapulted Kevin Bacon to stardom following a string of mostly disappointing features.

Very little in the new edition substantively improves on the old model, although the smartest change sees Ren McCormack’s move to Bomont necessitated by his mother’s death. Original screenwriter Dean Pitchford receives co-script credit with Brewer, and a significant amount of dialogue is recycled verbatim. This less-is-more approach, which doesn’t extend to the intensified displays of choreography packed into the update, arguably retains the suspension-of-disbelief earnestness revolving around a public dance ban and the irrepressible youth who quote from the Bible in an effort to change the law. No matter how corny, teen movies can be fertile ground for expressions of generational clash, and the game of tractor chicken, less successfully rewritten as figure-eight school bus roulette, invokes the primacy of “Rebel without a Cause.”

Brewer announces his fidelity to the source material when Ren uncovers a dusty vinyl copy of Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health” and instantly pulls up “Bang Your Head (Metal Health)” on his iPod, even though Brewer banishes most other traces of contemporary digital life. From Ren’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle to Ariel’s red cowboy boots, nostalgia dominates the design of the 2011 “Footloose.” Kenny Wormald’s Ren and Julianne Hough’s Ariel may be able to out-hoof Bacon and Singer, but neither one can do as much dramatic damage. Hough’s apple-cheeked preacher’s daughter never hints at the reserves of wild-child hellraising attained by the often overlooked Singer.

The new “Footloose” uses fewer of the original’s signature tracks than the 1998 stage version that debuted on Broadway to mixed reviews, but familiar hallmarks include the “teaching Willard to dance” montage accompanied by Deniece Williams’ number one “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” as well as the “Dancing in the Sheets” drive-in sequence, transformed and sampled into a sweaty, bouncing, racially-mixed grind by David Banner called “Dance the Night Away.” Set in Georgia, Brewer’s Southern roots open the door for African American influences to be more robustly implemented, but unfortunately, only a few roles have been reassigned to actors of color.

Aside from the musical tweaks, Brewer also ditches the book-burning scene, which functioned as a turning point in the humanization of John Lithgow’s grieving father. Viewers in 1984 were provided with several opportunities to recognize that the strict clergyman was, at heart, a reasonable man. The remake doesn’t ignore this angle entirely, but Dennis Quaid’s Shaw Moore ends up with less screen time than his predecessor. It’s fun to imagine what Bacon might have done in the part of the reverend, but alas, neither he nor Lori Singer makes a cameo appearance.

The Thing

Monday, October 17th, 2011

thing2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Thing” purports to be a prequel to John Carpenter’s fantastic reimagining of the legendary 1951 Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby sci-fi classic “The Thing from Another World,” but recycles enough content – including, rather confusingly, the title – to behave in several ways as a remake or imitation of the 1982 version. The feature directorial debut of Dutch moviemaker Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., “The Thing” returns to the bleak, snowswept landscape of an Antarctic research station where an international group led by a contingent of Norwegians stumbles upon a terrifying extraterrestrial able to mimic the human form.

“The Thing” is a mélange of familiar genre signifiers, splicing together elements of “The Old Dark House” formula in which the killer is hidden in plain sight among a collection of unfortunates trapped in an all but impossible to escape location, the final girl concept, the body horror so expertly accomplished in Carpenter’s vision, and plenty of scenes in which the grotesque abnormality stalks corridors in search of prey. Sad, then, that the movie favors shock over suspense and falls so short in pacing, intellectual curiosity, and ability to sustain any excitement – a far cry from what Anne Billson described when she identified Carpenter’s movie as “not just one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but as something of a Gesamt Kunstwerk of the genre.”

In the new film’s most welcome decision, the story’s protagonist is an American paleontologist named Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose intelligence, leadership, observational abilities and grace under pressure reflect favorably on her life expectancy when the others begin to panic. The casting of Winstead in the central role sets the table for van Heijningen to crib relentlessly from the Ellen Ripley playbook, and the director even composes one shot as direct homage to the iconic image of H.R. Giger’s ooze-dripping killer in uncomfortably close proximity to Sigourney Weaver’s dismayed visage.

With the exception of Winstead, a pilot played by Joel Edgerton, and Ulrich Thomsen’s bossy leader, almost all of the remaining characters are nearly indistinguishable from one another, and the lack of personality diminishes audience interest as the creature inevitably reduces the population. In the new version, the alien cannot replicate inorganic matter, a device that only superficially alters the tension of the blood test sequence from 1982. As for the incarnations of the Thing itself, the movie sticks close to the template established by Rob Bottin’s original, legendary special effects work, from the twisted fusion of conjoined faces to the creep of feminized, Dore-esque arachnid locomotion.

Winstead wields a flamethrower with considerably less swagger than Kurt Russell’s R.J. “Mac” MacReady, and despite the performer’s valiant efforts to breathe as much life as possible into an underwritten and very sober role, “The Thing” lacks a great deal of the preoccupation with human nature and motive so easily recognized in both of the earlier incarnations of John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 “Astounding Stories” novella “Who Goes There?” The durable story, with its themes of paranoia, imposters, surrogacy and parasitism, still has more than enough fans and admirers to draw the curious into the cinema for this latest telling – disappointing though it may be.

The Ides of March

Monday, October 10th, 2011

idesofmarch

Movie review by Greg Carlson

George Clooney explores his interest in the messy, complex, and bruising competition of American political theatre in “The Ides of March,” a somber reiteration of the ancient rhymes encapsulated in the movie’s tagline: “Ambition seduces. Power corrupts.” One of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals, director Clooney casts himself as Mike Morris, a sitting Pennsylvania governor and contender for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in a tightly contested Ohio primary. Despite his infectious idealism, accompanied by Shepard Fairey-styled iconography and polished public speaking skills, Morris is doomed to disappoint junior campaign manager Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a young staffer whose hero worship will be tested to its limits.

As Myers, Ryan Gosling continues his successful operation to devour plum roles, and the compelling actor, already Oscar-nominated for his performance in “Half Nelson” in 2006, is surrounded here by several Academy Award winners whose ranks he will someday likely join. As dictated by the genre, Myers initially embodies an unsustainable, trusting earnestness that will be supplanted by jaded, cynical, and cutthroat maneuvering, and one of the strengths of “The Ides of March” lies in the pleasure of watching Gosling’s character lose his religion right before your eyes. Gosling receives gifts of support from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood.

Adapted by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon from Willimon’s 2008 play “Farragut North,” “The Ides of March” will no doubt be carefully parsed for any possible resemblance to current campaigns and figures, as well as the upcoming presidential race, but the drama most effectively addresses the universally recognizable strain of secrets and lies on one’s moral equilibrium. Reinforcing the old axiom/oxymoron concerning honest politicians, “The Ides of March” echoes its original stage incarnation especially in terms of the sheer amount of scenes in which a powerful man engages a less powerful man in pregnant and portentous dialogue.

Citing Preston Sturges’ “The Great McGinty,” Anthony Lane implies that historically speaking, comedy beats drama when it comes to the presentation of “convincing political conduct.” “The Ides of March” is short on any humor that lies outside of withering insults and sarcastic retorts, but in a rare flash of levity, Clooney does make time for a wry sex scene in which Myers cannot shift his attention away from Governor Morris on TV to pay attention to the flesh and blood partner in his arms. Any expression of Myers’ carnal desire for his boss, however, is downplayed in favor of the more traditional, straight, power-imbalanced, intern sex scandal.

In his fourth feature as director, Clooney continues to show a flair for rhythm and respect for his cast. “The Ides of March” benefits from Phedon Papamichael’s lovely cinematography and Stephen Mirrione’s editing, but Clooney appears to recognize the limits of the familiar tale being told, and smartly refocuses viewer attention on the micro, interpersonal level. While a few of Governor Morris’ beliefs are illuminated – his bold secularism is among the more intriguing admissions and is the kind of thing that could only exist in a fantasized, alternate reality America – most of the ideas are shrouded in fog.