Archive for March, 2011

The Company Men

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Well-meaning but narratively inert drama “The Company Men” opens with a montage of news clips and soundbites announcing the beginnings of the “global financial meltdown” precipitated by all sorts of logic defying banking products that gathered into a perfect storm of toxicity. CEOs lined their pockets while double-checking that golden parachutes had been properly packed, even as rank and file drones saw their jobs slide toward the chopping block. Veteran producer John Wells, known best for duties on “The West Wing” and “ER” despite a lengthy motion picture resume, makes his feature directorial debut to decidedly mixed results.

Cross-cutting among a trio of plotlines, “The Company Men” tracks the tumble of go-getter MBA Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), among the first to receive a pink slip at the Boston-area shipping corporation where he has toiled for more than a decade. The devoted family man initially refuses to accept the dire reality of his circumstances, but eventually swallows his pride, sells his Porsche, and straps on a tool belt to work with salty brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner). Meanwhile, executive Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) questions the ethics of eliminating entire divisions to inflate share prices and pad the portfolios of top brass.

McClary’s affair with HR hatchet woman Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello, as underutilized as all the women in the movie, including the excellent Rosemarie DeWitt) is no more or less compelling than the storyline tracing the disbelief, panic, and eventual desperation of Chris Cooper’s Phil Woodward, a lower-echelon suit who worked his way to the offices from a position on the manufacturing floor. Cooper, as usual, invests his character with reserves of subtlety and nuance, even though Wells’s screenplay sends him on an easily foreseen journey.

As thematic kin to “Up in the Air,” “The Company Men” somberly and earnestly explores the pain, frustration, and humiliation of sudden termination. Less gripping than non-fiction entries like Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” and Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” Wells’s character-focused weepie simplifies the contours of modern wage inequities, especially in the figure of Craig T. Nelson’s reptilian CEO. The film also dubiously suggests that even privileged, white, male, multi-millionaires like McClary are suffering, a position some viewers will certainly find a little difficult to swallow.

Although it has drawn a few generous and mostly undeserved comparisons to William Wyler’s 1946 WW II readjustment classic “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Company Men” floats in a lukewarm pool of generalities and banalities (“We used to build something here”) that won’t likely hold up over time. All four of the movie’s top-liners are Academy Award recipients (though Affleck and Costner did not win for acting), and the presence of cinematographer Roger Deakins also burnishes the movie with a golden glow. Had “The Company Men” been a pilot for an hour-long network drama, Wells’s rhythm and pacing – which races from efficient introductions to a leisurely, almost repetitious, hammock-like comfort zone of scenes before tooling an abrupt, truncated conclusion – would have satisfactorily set the stage for a season of episodes.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/4/11.


Monday, March 21st, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sofia Coppola continues her close examination of the liminal in “Somewhere,” a series of snapshot glimpses into the imagined life of a spoiled movie actor confronted with a dread feeling of purposelessness. Few contemporary filmmakers capture the essence of ennui like Coppola, and the often misjudged and underrated stylist faces more than her share of criticism in part because she makes it all look so easy. Some will have a hell of a time sympathizing with a multi-millionaire protagonist whose only non-existential crises revolve around Ferrari engine failure and numbing press junkets, but Coppola shrewdly finds the heart of the movie in a father-daughter relationship that transcends the jet-set glamour.

Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco operates in nearly the same Hollywood fantasy universe as Adrian Grenier’s Vincent Chase on the HBO series “Entourage.” Nursing a busted wrist following a woozy, boozy Chateau Marmont staircase tumble, Johnny passes the hours between impromptu parties at the storied hotel by watching twin pole dancers demonstrate routines in his boudoir (as usual, Coppola’s musical selections are impeccable, and a majority of the songs are incorporated diegetically). Coddled and indulged by a steady supply of sycophants, Johnny sleepwalks through a sensualist’s head-trip of compliant, sexually available nymphs.

Johnny’s hazy drift is interrupted by the appearance of his pre-teen daughter Cleo (a tremendous Elle Fanning), who refocuses the playboy’s attention and serves as a catalyst for a series of steps toward adult responsibility and something resembling emotional maturity. Coppola smoothly engineers a believable role reversal in which Cleo’s poise, composure and self-reliance symbolically eclipse the domestically helpless Johnny, perhaps most effectively in a lovely scene in which Cleo carefully prepares a homemade breakfast of eggs Benedict. Later, when Cleo breaks down at the thought of being abandoned by her mother, the audience is as startled as Johnny at this sudden, unexpected reminder of Cleo’s tender age.

Partially trapped by her surname and the privileges that come with dynastic connections to wealth and fame, Coppola will probably have to make a whole bunch of terrific movies to stanch the endless river of criticism invited by her pet themes. “Somewhere,” like “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette” before it, sticks close to an exploration of ideas rooted in some dimension of autobiography – or so the prognosticators would like to imagine. While Coppola has endured a treadmill of interviews in which she carefully negotiates the intrigue as well as the limits of “sharing” her own life (i.e. the anecdote that she once sampled every flavor of gelato with papa Francis Ford Coppola), it is too narrow to suggest that “Somewhere” is merely about the perils of money and celebrity.

For those cinephile admirers of Coppola, “Somewhere” can be as delightful as the anachronistic pink Chuck Taylor sneakers in “Marie Antoinette.” It is a movie filled with surprises and unafraid to be aridly, bitingly funny and achingly, romantically painful, even if the concluding epiphany doesn’t quite work. Coppola’s movies brim with sly moments that linger in memory long after the viewing experience. From the purposefully prolonged shot of Johnny’s latex-encased head to the perfectly imperfect performance of Cleo’s ice dance set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool,” “Somewhere” finds plenty of ways to travel almost everywhere.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/28/11.

Cedar Rapids

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following an auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure that ends the life of a hot-shot coworker, naïve manchild/insurance salesman Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) must represent his small town agency at a regional conference in metropolis Cedar Rapids. The nervous, neophyte conventioneer takes his very first airplane ride to get there, and shortly after arrival meets roomies Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Dean “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), unlikely guides for Tim’s initiation into the worldly, after hours pleasures that threaten Tim’s run at a coveted “Two Diamond” service award. En route to a predictably Capra-corn finale, director Miguel Arteta’s broad brushstrokes paint a familiar portrait of big-hearted rubes.

Whether or not Arteta laughs with or at his subjects is a matter of debate, but the principal cast members tackle their roles in earnest. The masterful Reilly, whose Deanzie constantly runs his filthy mouth without filter, relishes the opportunity to stick it to the hypocritical holy rollers running the ASMI (American Society of Mutual Insurance, but pronounced, naturally, “ass me”), knowing full well that straitlaced Ronald will patiently tolerate every outrageous insult and innuendo. Joining the fellows is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), a candid and forward ASMI veteran who quickly tempts the “pre-engaged” Tim.

Despite Deanzie’s colorful way with words and his unconcealed pain at the unraveling of his marriage, Heche’s Ostrowski-Fox emerges as the most interesting figure in the movie. Arteta handles the fallout from her “what happens in Cedar Rapids stays in Cedar Rapids” adultery more effectively than the practically identical complication that Jason Retiman takes so seriously in “Up in the Air.” Helms is hardly George Clooney, but Lippe’s post-coital meltdown allows the actor to invest in a hysterical display of humiliation that includes a confessional phone call to the older woman (Sigourney Weaver as Lippe’s former middle school science teacher and current lover) Lippe believes he has wronged.

The comedy of embarrassment built around infantilized male protagonists is more than a cottage industry, and “Cedar Rapids” joins a long list of movies that wring laughs from fish-out-of-water scenarios capitalizing on Peter Pan-like characters embarking on journeys of self-discovery. Lippe’s adventure includes making the acquaintance of prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat), whose heart of gold beats faster when introducing her new pal to the joys of crystal meth. Shawkat, like Heche, makes the most of her limited screen time and is a welcome presence in otherwise masculine territory.

“Cedar Rapids” seldom takes seriously its satirical mission to expose the hypocrisy of the ASMI’s religious piety and moral righteousness. Kurtwood Smith’s unctuous Orin Helgesson registers in several smaller scenes, including one that necessitates a nude locker room embrace. Arteta appears to relish any opportunity to showcase the pasty flab of his unclothed cast members, even if the dermal displays exist primarily to fuel uneasy gags about homosexuality. “Cedar Rapids” evolves into something as mild and unassuming as its central figure, and though Tim Lippe is a little long in the tooth to be the subject of a traditional bildungsroman, Helms inhabits him as a man who sheds his innocence without losing his good manners and essential decency.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/21/11.

Blue Valentine

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Relying on a fluid editing structure that contrasts past and present, director Derek Cianfrance’s labor of love “Blue Valentine” is a painful domestic drama anchored by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, the skillful performers playing a couple on the brink of divorce. Both stars double as executive producers, and Williams reportedly received a version of the script when she was only 21. Cianfrance intended to shoot the early relationship sequences and then wait several years to complete the material that takes place when the characters are older, but budget limitations prevented any prolonged or interrupted shooting schedule.

The minor press drama surrounding the almost NC-17 rating of the movie proves more interesting than the film itself, a metaphorically bloody dissection of the doomed relationship of Gosling’s Dean and Williams’s Cindy. While Harvey Weinstein’s personal appeal to the MPAA spared the film any cuts (the original objection centered on a short scene of discreet cunnilingus), the film’s one-sheet is the sexiest thing about “Blue Valentine.” The intercourse that materializes onscreen, especially a near coupling in a space-age themed novelty hotel room, is caustic – even humiliating – and laced with a purposeful artlessness that highlights love’s extinction.

Whenever Cianfrance cuts to the scenes of Dean and Cindy’s courtship, the audience breathes a small sigh of relief. As the “now” scenes crushingly hammer toward demolition, the “then” scenes fill in the relationship’s construction. Dean’s sensitivity places a somewhat dubious halo around Gosling that the actor struggles to shatter. Dean supports Cindy all the way, from a literal last minute change of heart over an abortion to a steadfast commitment to raise daughter Frankie as his own. He deals with Cindy’s less than supportive family and survives that tried and true movie trope: a vicious beatdown from Cindy’s awful ex.

Karina Longworth aptly and accurately pointed out that “Blue Valentine” favors Dean’s point-of-view over Cindy’s, and that the film as made demonstrates a “lack of interest in imbuing [Cianfrance’s] female character with the rich interior life and complicated morality he gives his male lead.” While Longworth wonders aloud about the possibility of misogyny, viewers will find themselves longing for any opportunity to understand Cindy as something other than burned out, exhausted, and constantly prepared to reject any and all of her husband’s attempts at reconciliation and affection. The unfortunate result casts Cindy as a cruel shrew and aligns the movie with Dean’s desperate desire to hold the marriage together and protect Frankie from growing up in a broken home.

“Blue Valentine” unapologetically embraces the gut-wrenching death throes of a once promising union through the minutiae of observed details and improvisational performances, a bold directorial decision that is certain to turn off more viewers than it attracts. Designed to showcase every inch of working class drabness, the film benefits substantially from Grizzly Bear’s atmospheric music as well as the nearly forgotten early 1970s demo “You and Me,” credited to Penny and the Quarters (an interesting story in itself). The obscurity of the song, which Cianfrance shared with Gosling but deliberately kept from Williams, symbolizes the dedication of the filmmakers to their constructed universe, even though that world teeters on the precipice of oblivion.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/7/11.