Archive for January, 2011

127 Hours

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A harrowing man-versus-nature adventure in the vein of a classic Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” story, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” imagines the ordeal of mountaineer Aron Ralston, who amputated his right arm after being trapped by a boulder while exploring some narrow rock formations near Moab, Utah in 2003. While Ralston’s survival has been extensively documented on television, most notably in Dateline NBC’s “Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon,” Boyle’s movie is as exhilarating and indefatigable as any number of the filmmaker’s previous features, from “Trainspotting” to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“127 Hours” is a precision-machined study in dialectical opposition: external reality battles internal fantasia, kinetic action collides with punishing immobility, and the threat of failure interlocks with soaring triumph. Director Boyle embraces these polar opposites with vigor, and even though the faint of heart have been warned via numerous publicity-enhancing accounts of possible lightheadedness or nausea brought on by the film’s graphic depiction of Ralston’s self-surgery, “127 Hours” transcends the grotesque through a relentlessly life affirming posture undoubtedly affected by the fact that Ralston made it out alive against overwhelming odds.

Adapted by Boyle and collaborator Simon Beaufoy from Ralston’s memoir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” “127 Hours” owes much of its visceral impact to James Franco’s performance as Ralston. Franco’s confident portrayal is certainly the best work of the young actor’s career, and he covers a huge range of emotional terrain without resorting to any significant traces of self-pity. Ralston’s initial sense of invincibility, forever erased by the 2003 experience, gives Franco a terrific platform from which to probe the character. Longtime admirers of the actor will not be surprised by Franco’s reserves of humor, manifested in a series of pitch black jokes laced with cosmic irony.

“127 Hours” is redolent of Sean Penn’s film of “Into the Wild” in the way that viewers are poised to vicariously witness the mettle-testing, life-altering, and mind-bending odysseys of principal characters from the safety of a darkened theater. Both Ralston and Christopher McCandless documented enough of their ordeals to provide the foundation for the “major” motion pictures that would eventually follow, and in the case of “127 Hours,” the presence of a small camcorder opens up a tantalizing world of possibility for Boyle, who uses it as a confessional, a time machine, and a last will and testament.

Ralston has attested to Boyle’s essential accuracy in the translation of his crucible, but it is worth noting that the film’s subject did not enjoy the secret pool frolic with hikers Megan McBride (Amber Tamblyn) and Kristi Moore (Kate Mara) prior to his accident. While the truth is less thrilling – Ralston demonstrated some basic climbing moves to his chance acquaintances before they parted ways – the swimming scene is revisited in a fascinating meditation that dares to flirt with erotic reverie despite, or possibly because of Ralston’s perch at death’s door. The enveloping presence of water, a major motif throughout the movie, provides one more example of Boyle’s deployment of contrasts, as Ralston’s own dwindling supply puts his life in jeopardy. By the end of the movie, if Boyle has been persuasive, the audience shares Aron Ralston’s thirst.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/31/11.

All Good Things

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, whose excellent 2003 documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” examined a family destroyed by sexual abuse and child pornography, fails to translate his sharp observational acuity to drama in “All Good Things,” a fictionalized account of Robert Durst, wealthy heir to a family fortune in Manhattan real estate and prime suspect in his wife’s still unsolved 1982 disappearance. Durst, renamed David Marks and played by Ryan Gosling in the movie, was also questioned in the execution-style killing of a longtime friend and eventually served time for lesser charges following the murder of a boarding house neighbor in Texas.

Durst’s proximity to three grim cases included tabloid headline-baiting details: he posed in wigs and make-up as a woman named Dorothy and openly admitted to dismembering Morris Black (called Malvern Bump and played by an underutilized Philip Baker Hall) with a hacksaw. Weirder still, Durst – a free man today, spoke favorably about Jarecki’s film in a November 24, 2010 “New York Times” article by Charles V. Bagli and Kevin Flynn, reporters who had covered the Durst case beginning in 1999.

Lurching through decades of domestic dysfunction traced all the way back to Marks witnessing his mother’s suicide, “All Good Things” oversimplifies the relationship between David and his father Sanford (Frank Langella), a ghoulish presence constantly pressuring his son to do his bidding. When David meets the winsome Katie (Kirsten Dunst) and retreats with her to Vermont to open the health food store that provides the film with its title, Sanford tightens his grip, bullying David into the family business back in NYC. Dunst’s performance as Katie is one of the few bright spots in the movie, principally because viewers can relate to her confusion and frustration as David begins to lose his temper and eventually his mind. As soon as she exits the movie, so too does the viewer’s interest.

Vague when it needs to be concrete and detached when it should show concern, “All Good Things” frustratingly holds Marks at a distance too great for Gosling to make him a thoroughly human character. Blunt pronouncements about David’s childhood trauma are repeated to explain the character’s warped and wounded social maladjustments, but the filmmaker shares only the most superficial aspects of David and Katie’s unraveling marriage. When David’s inability to cope with his demons reaches a fever pitch, so does Rob Simonsen’s bombastic score, a dreadfully obvious wreck alleviated only by the presence of some period pop, including a trio of well-placed Steely Dan cuts.

With the exception of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, seen brushing off possible evidence of the Marks/Durst family’s seedy corruption, screenwriters Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling rename all the real life models, granting a greater degree of freedom and speculation than might have been used if the original missing persons case was closed. Theories are offered for all kinds of dirty deeds, ranging from contract killing to blackmail to a decoy imposter used to establish an alibi. The result is messy guesswork that lacks all the intrigue and spooky ambiguity displayed in “Capturing the Friedmans.”

This review was also published for the High Plains Reader the week of 1/24/11.

The King’s Speech

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

While watching “The King’s Speech,” one might occasionally wonder what present monarch Queen Elizabeth II would think of Colin Firth’s portrayal of her father Albert Frederick Arthur George, better known as King George VI to the world, and Bertie to his immediate family. Dashing movie actors have a tendency to abet filmdom’s fantasy reconstruction of history, and Firth’s handsome face provides only the first clue that movies tend to do more than simply cut out all the boring bits.

Stately and dignified if not always majestic, “The King’s Speech” inverts “Pygmalion,” stripping it of George Bernard Shaw’s keenest satire in favor of a more superficial “crowned heads are people too” theme that played just as well in Stephen Frears’s “The Queen.” Focused on the eradication of Bertie’s prominent stammer, the story traces the relationship of the royal to his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, played with relish by Geoffrey Rush. Commoner Logue’s unorthodoxy and insistence on informality initially vex the stiff noble, but positive results and a requisite amount of dramatic conflict cement the unlikely friendship.

Bertie is both a hesitant patient/client/pupil and a reluctant ruler, and director Tom Hooper bounces back and forth between scenes of often humorous therapeutic techniques, including one that requires the liberal application of salty profanity, and the succession crisis initiated by brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who abdicated when his proposed marriage to American Wallis Simpson met with stern political rebuke. A few sticklers have criticized the narrative streamlining that suggests a much tighter cause-and-effect chronology for George VI’s public speaking remedy, but there is no question that dramatically, “The King’s Speech” works best during the scenes exclusive to Firth and Rush.

The two actors capitalize on the gulf of wealth and privilege that divides their characters from one another, and Rush’s barbs earn numerous laughs as he skewers pomposity and protocol without personally offending His Highness. When Logue finally does overstep, the tension created by Bertie’s cold shoulder gives the film its strongest jolt. On multiple occasions, David Seidler’s screenplay suggests that Logue’s lack of deference was a deliberate ploy to trigger a commanding response from the usually taciturn Bertie. The fantastic image of Rush casually slouched in King Edward’s Chair, the seat of coronation for all but two British sovereigns since 1308, offers the most visually arresting example.

Hooper might have done more to emphasize the transformative influence of the media as a conduit between governors and governed, and a few moments in “The King’s Speech” hint at the seismic impact of widely distributed sound and vision on the masses during the ascendancy of radio transmission and film distribution. In one suggestive scene, a newsreel of Hitler delivering a fiery oration impresses Bertie, who recognizes that his own speech skills pale by comparison. Once Hooper has set the stage for the predictably triumphant climax, the broadcast of King George’s September 3, 1939 address in the wake of declared war with Germany, most viewers will be ready to hang on every word. The curious might even make time to visit YouTube or the BBC’s online archive to hear the actual recording.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/17/11.

Country Strong

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Unintentionally hysterical, “Country Strong” is another variation on “A Star Is Born” assembled with all the skill and depth of a third-rate made-for-cable tearjerker. A textbook case of predictability, cliché, and superficiality, Shana Feste’s movie can claim only a single asset: the decent, if not spectacular, musical performances delivered by three of the four principals. Charting the “comeback” of a substance-abusing recording artist caught between her controlling manager husband, her younger lover, and her own demons and insecurities, “Country Strong” drowns in its own melodramatic self-seriousness, from locked dressing room fits to on-stage meltdowns.

As multiple Grammy-winning country music star and slow motion train wreck Kelly Canter, Gwyneth Paltrow can’t entirely shed the elitist, blue blood, power-cleanse entitlement that has served her in a string of British-accented roles including “Shakespeare in Love,” “Great Expectations,” and “Emma.” On paper, the Canter part looks juicy, and hard-luck country singers have earned Oscars for Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Reese Witherspoon, and Jeff Bridges. In each of the previous cases, however, some amount of identifiable human complexity was present; Canter remains so thoroughly opaque we have to take her word that she wants to rebuild her shattered image, since her behavior suggests otherwise.

Feste’s murky screenplay often loses track of Kelly to juggle the rivalries and recriminations of husband James (Tim McGraw, the only legitimate country music star in the bunch, in a non-singing role), rising talent Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, likable) and determined ingénue Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, pretending to lack confidence as a performer), each of whom occasionally threatens to steal the spotlight. Many scenes almost collapse under the weight of their own shameless mawkishness, from an awkwardly laughable bedroom cold shoulder to the fluffy and symbolic quail chick nicknamed Loretta Lynn that Kelly intends to nurse to health to the contrivance of Kelly’s redemptive serenade to a little boy dying of cancer. “Country Strong” embraces every stereotype in a tight bear hug.

In his own way, Beau behaves as erratically as the boozy, addled Kelly, inexplicably flip-flopping when it comes to his feelings for “country Barbie” Chiles. Initially, he treats the shallow dim-bulb with outright contempt, mocking her beauty contestant credentials and questioning her devotion to “real” country music. Later, despite a promise of fidelity to the already adulterous Kelly, Beau finds it hard to resist Chiles’s physical charms (essentially setting up a strongly hinted-at four-way romantic roundelay that, perhaps regrettably, never comes to fruition). Feste herself cannot seem to make up her mind about Chiles, alternately painting the character as a calculating Eve Harrington and as an earnest sweetheart.

“Country Strong” also has the distinct misfortune of arriving a season after “Crazy Heart,” a superior treatment of some of the very same landscape. While both Paltrow’s Kelly Canter and Jeff Bridges’s Bad Blake must atone for their failures and transgressions, only the latter character is rendered with deep reserves of nuance and detail. All four of Feste’s core characters live just outside the grasp of verisimilitude – Chiles’s stage fright freeze-ups are notably phony. Both “Crazy Heart” and “Country Strong” feature tunes meant to exemplify the challenges and regrets of the protagonists, but while “The Weary Kind” readily communicates its unique value to Blake, none of the songs in “Country Strong” share the same kind of emblematic, self-defining importance to the frustratingly unknowable Kelly.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/10/11.

Fair Game

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Hollywood mythmaking and recent political chicanery collide in Doug Liman’s fictionalized version of the Valerie Plame scandal in “Fair Game,” based on separate books by Plame and her husband, former ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe Joseph C. Wilson. Marked by Liman’s own jittery handheld photography and the inclusion of some tense, action-oriented scenes, “Fair Game” joins a growing roster of films – both fictional narrative and documentary – critical of the George W. Bush administration’s WMD-focused pretext for war in Iraq. Nowhere near as compelling as Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” “Fair Game” nevertheless manages to communicate several points of outrage and frustration from the perspective of Plame and Wilson.

Strongly played by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, Plame and Wilson pursue career trajectories that tax their personal time and seem to limit family involvement with their twin children. Well-connected members of the D.C. intelligentsia, Plame and Wilson are shown in early scenes conveying disgust as America prepares for battle with Saddam Hussein. While the movie pivots around the inevitable revelation of Plame’s identity and the stormy fallout, Liman juggles subplots including the domestic deterioration of the protagonists’ marriage, speculation about the involvement of the White House and Karl Rove in the decision to leak Plame’s name, and a family drama revolving around an Iraqi scientist and his U.S.-based sister.

Several writers have questioned the veracity of those scenes in which Plame’s contacts in Iraq appear to be directly compromised and even abandoned as a result of her being outed by Robert Novak in his July 14, 2003 “Washington Post” column titled “Mission to Niger,” but Liman endeavors to connect as many previously documented dots as possible, and thematically the film sticks close to the chain of events surrounding Plame and Wilson’s reaction to Plame’s blown cover. Fall guy/villain I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (a scene-stealing David Andrews) remains the only government official held legally responsible for disseminating classified information. Libby was convicted of perjury, making false statements to federal investigators, and obstruction of justice.

Even though it remains largely unexplored in the film, the most interesting dimension of “Fair Game” concerns the extent to which Plame’s gender was used as a means to discredit her in the media following Novak’s original “Washington Post” column. Following the bombshell, Plame maintains silence even as her husband books television appearances to defend his position, and Liman shares several of the speculations leveled against Plame during the aftermath of the leak, most intriguingly that Plame somehow simultaneously held no position of real power as a C.I.A. operative but yet could still pull the right strings to get her husband assigned to a 2002 trip to Niger to investigate the possibility of uranium sales to Iraq.

Even though Watts brings tremendous poise to a challenging role that requires secrecy, discretion, and silence, “Fair Game” is more than once thrown off balance by the contrast between the tight-lipped Valerie and Wilson’s blustery verbal pyrotechnics – well-suited to Penn’s off-screen image as a frank debater. A later scene, in which Valerie visits her father (Sam Shepard in a cameo appearance) doesn’t add much to the character’s assessment of the conflict between personal integrity and loyalty to the state, and “Fair Game” concludes with more than a hint that justice was done, even if that premise is hard to swallow.

This review was published for Southpaw Filmworks the week of 1/3/11.