Archive for May, 2011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Monday, May 30th, 2011

greatestmovieeversold
Movie review by Greg Carlson

The logical extension of fast food fable “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” – or more precisely, “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” – affably, jokingly, and breezily follows the moviemaker/media personality on a manufactured meta-quest to create a “documentary” about product placement entirely and transparently sponsored and funded by corporate partners. The idea is almost fiendishly attractive but the execution is vanilla; Spurlock goes out of his way to avoid, sidestep, and omit anything resembling argument, confrontation, or the impulse for critical thinking.

Instead, the moviemaker relies on his likable on-screen persona and a cascade of punch lines and gags to skim the surface of one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. Are we numb to the clutter generated by millions of “media impressions” or have the movie and culture industries become synonymous with the product-driven directive that suggests we can buy our way to happiness and fulfillment? Spurlock never grapples with these questions, opting instead to spend a significant amount of the movie’s running time chasing down meetings with the companies that don’t reject him immediately. Volkswagen, for example, says no way, and Spurlock scores one of the film’s biggest laughs at the expense of the German automaker.

When Spurlock isn’t walking and talking on camera, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” colorfully integrates the requisite amount of stock footage and film and television clips assiduously chosen for maximum giggles and guffaws. Additionally, the moviemaker enlists a parade of predominantly male talking heads to supply the sound bites, but the sheer number of academics paraded before Spurlock’s camera means that thinkers like Noam Chomsky only appear on screen for a few seconds, hardly enough time to say much of substance. Ralph Nader, tongue perhaps in cheek, accepts a pair of Merrells as self-described payola.

Contrasted with the academic scolds and critics, several Hollywood directors shrug their shoulders at the illusion of artistic autonomy and integrity when working for studios owned by massive multinationals. Quentin Tarantino, amusingly discusses being turned down by Denny’s for “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” “Rush Hour 3” director Brett Ratner, a man smart enough to know what he is selling despite the lingering aroma of rotting fish, seems unfazed by Spurlock’s softballs. Peter Berg name-checks Radiohead and Paul Thomas Anderson as exceptions to the rule while his own office clutter reminds us that one of his upcoming projects is a movie based on the board game “Battleship.”

Like Michael Moore, Spurlock is in and of himself a “brand,” another overworked point somewhat condescendingly beaten into the audience ad nauseam. Despite the movie’s dearth of penetrating insights, a visit to Sao Paulo, Brazil – a city whose elected officials initiated an almost complete prohibition on outdoor advertising – offers startling, science fiction-like visuals of a billboard-free landscape. Other moments, including integrated commercials for Spurlock’s sponsors and a time-warping visit with Jimmy Kimmel during which the talk show host quips that “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is like the “Inception” of documentaries, are on the mark if a little exhausting: it’s tough to judge and evaluate the insidiousness of marketing by making a feature-length advertisement.

Potiche

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

potiche
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Francois Ozon’s broad – miles-wide broad – “Potiche” showcases the considerable talents of the treasured Catherine Deneuve. The iconic actress, whose career stretches back to the 1950s, has appeared in more than 100 movies, and has been directed by auteurs like Roman Polanski, Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, and Lars von Trier. At the age of 67, Deneuve is as photogenic as ever, but the slight, flirtatious “Potiche” is unlikely to rank with Deneuve’s most memorable films. Pivoting on themes of empowerment and awakening while mired in stock plot devices orbiting around marital infidelities and soap opera-worthy questions of paternity, “Potiche” never explores very far beneath the surface of its cheery, colorful, stage-bound origins.

Ozon has adapted Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy’s 1980 play as a late-70s period piece to both accommodate the movie’s exaggerated sense of class divisions and to make room for the putty-like stretch of numerous farcical complications. The filmmaker, whose wide-ranging style includes several films that deal with psychologically and physically intricate considerations of sexuality (see Tim Palmer’s “Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body” for more), only flirts with some of the ideas that have juiced his better films, including “Swimming Pool” and “5×2.” “Potiche” is much closer to the director’s “8 Women,” the overburdened musical-comedy-murder-mystery featuring Deneuve alongside a veritable constellation of performers representing multiple generations of French movie royalty.

“Potiche” is also nowhere near the league of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” in spite of Ozon’s heartfelt visual homage to the Jacques Demy classic. “Potiche” was made once before in 1983 for broadcast on French television, and Ozon’s updates and additions, including the lead character’s political campaign, don’t alter its essential flakiness in the least. As a study of the personal and professional renaissance of Suzanne Pujol, a “trophy” housewife whose knack for business blossoms when she takes managerial control of the family-owned umbrella factory led by her philandering husband, “Potiche” works best as evidence (albeit slight) that decent roles occasionally exist for women past ingenue age.

In contrast to Ozon’s more serious-minded films, “Potiche” launches a volley of subplots that pad the running time without adding a soupcon of substance. Very little earnest consideration is given to whether Mrs. Pujol loves and respects her condescending husband, an omission that mitigates the potency of old flame Maurice Babin (Gerard Depardieu, as blustery and bearish as ever). Mrs. Pujol’s adult children belong in another story entirely. Daughter Joelle (Judith Godreche) is responsible for a half-baked, nonsensical betrayal of her mother that exists merely as an excuse for a parent-child reconciliation conversation. Ambiguous sexual orientation is son Laurent’s (Jeremie Renier) raison d’etre, but the content of his scenes is handled so much like an afterthought that one longs for Ozon’s usually frank treatment of homosexuality.

Most of “Potiche” is played for easy laughs, and enjoyment of the film depends largely on tolerance levels for caricature and stereotype. The period vibe is effectively accomplished via hairstyles (Godreche’s feathered Farrah Fawcett coiffure is particularly well-engineered), clothing, and pop music, and one scene gamely places Deneuve and Depardieu on a light-up disco floor. Ozon also cannot resist one musical number for good measure, and although the moment is as artificial as everything else in “Potiche,” it is pleasurable to see Deneuve, who has recorded with Serge Gainsbourg, Malcolm McLaren, and Bjork, sing “C’est beau la vie” as the movie’s curtain call.

Of Gods and Men

Monday, May 16th, 2011

ofgodsandmen
Movie review by Greg Carlson

The most memorable scene in Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men,” a symbolic “Last Supper” during which a group of doomed monks sips wine and listens to “Swan Lake” as tears well in their eyes, is representative of the polarizing qualities of the movie. The painfully earnest tableau, as protracted as the numerous depictions of quotidian existence inside the monastery, will strike some as an audacious emotional crescendo and others as a laughable explosion of bathos. Filmmaker Beauvois clearly makes no apologies for his unsubtle approach, but “Of Gods and Men” could use a lighter touch, particularly when it comes to the weighty matter of exploring questions of good and evil.

A fictionalized account loosely based on the 1996 murder of seven Trappist monks from the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, “Of Gods and Men” focuses less on the historical details of the event – and its subsequent political controversy – than it does on the devoted daily chores and ministrations of the monks. Assuming a relentlessly one-sided point of view, Beauvois focuses entirely on the stubborn and dedicated constancy of the Catholic brotherhood without providing more than a tiny sliver of identification with the violent rebels (presumably meant to represent the Armed Islamic Group). Only a brief Christmas confrontation, during which the Muslim militiamen demand supplies from the monks and are refused, suggests reluctant mutual respect and understanding between the prior and the Islamist ringleader.

The Muslims in the film are nearly without exception divided into two categories: bloodthirsty, anti-government warmongers who terrorize the friars and socially moderate, impoverished villagers who rely on the Cistercians for medical care. Beauvois includes glimpses of representatives of the Algerian government, but the movie retreats from any civic or legislative lessons regarding the failures of French colonialism. Despite offers of protection, the monks refuse any help from the armed forces on religious grounds, revealing a conundrum that exposes the precariousness of their long-term presence in a violently contested Islamic realm.

Beauvois attempts to seed some internal conflict from the question of whether the monks will leave the monastery for the sake of personal safety, and at least two scenes are assigned to deliberations in which each padre speaks on behalf of either staying of going. In a film prone to interludes of windy sermonizing, the considered arguments and subsequent votes of the brotherhood momentarily furnish the viewer with tangible, human familiarity instead of impossible saintliness. Even though we know the decision and its outcome, the palpable fear of several of the monks intensifies the drama.

Lambert Wilson, as the leader of the monks, and Michael Lonsdale, as the monastery’s ailing medic, are the only two group members privileged with detailed individuation, although the wizened Amedee, played by Jacques Herlin, looks as though he stepped out of a Renaissance painting. The remaining members of the fraternity disappointingly blend together for much of the film, and some viewers will long for greater personalization. As a tale of martyrdom, “Of Gods and Men” won’t likely change many minds, no matter how one interprets Pascal’s thought (quoted in the film by Lonsdale’s Brother Luc) that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.”

Super

Monday, May 9th, 2011

super
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Arriving roughly one year after the similarly themed “Kick-Ass,” “Super” continues the practice of aggressively self-aware mash-ups attempting to both satirize some aspects of comic book culture and wallow in the shocking violence that happens when an average citizen elects to pull on a costume and mask. “Kick-Ass” creator Mark Millar has magnanimously endorsed writer-director James Gunn’s “Super,” suggesting that the projects were developed independently and simultaneously, but the two movies share plenty of DNA. The concept of the frustrated nobody whose fortunes change (for good or bad) as the result of splitting one’s psyche into colorful crusader and secret identity deserves a great movie. “Super” is not it.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a luckless fry cook whose beautiful, recovering-addict wife (Liv Tyler) relapses and takes up with an odious drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Energized by the fictional adventures of the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion), a Christian super hero on cable TV, Frank stitches together a makeshift disguise, arms himself with a wrench, and becomes the Crimson Bolt. As news of the Bolt’s head-cracking exploits attracts some media attention and the hero’s leg attracts some lead, Frank reluctantly agrees to take on comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page) as his crime-fighting sidekick. Christened “Boltie,” Libby’s alter ego unleashes a torrent of manic, out of control rage that makes Frank’s own loony solo missions look conservative by comparison.

Page’s enthusiastic characterization is among the bright spots of “Super,” and the hyperactive zeal with which Libby doles out “justice” results in a string of bone-crushing gags sure to elicit delighted shrieks of glee from the demographic familiar with Gunn’s Troma Entertainment roots. Released without a rating from the MPAA, the content of “Super” is no more graphic than dozens of horror titles, but a significant portion of the movie’s notably small budget was certainly earmarked for gaping head wounds.

The problem with “Super” is not the explicitness of the shocking violence, but the haphazard application of tone in the commission of mayhem. Frank’s glum fatalism contrasts sharply with Libby’s insubordinate rebelliousness, and the odd coupling – especially Libby’s attraction to Frank – is only superficially explained. Gunn’s streamlined, simplified focus on Frank’s goal of the rescue of and reconciliation with his wife comes to blows with the capricious arrangement of expository flashbacks and clock-padding montages. Most of the secondary characters are tired stock staples, from Michael Rooker’s thug to Gregg Henry’s cop. Hearts will break for Andre Royo, magnificent as Bubbles on “The Wire,” but magnificently wasted here.

Gunn also teases the viewer with flickers of emotional credibility only to hastily retreat any time Frank threatens to earn our sympathy. Following an earnest scene in which Libby’s romantic overtures are gently rejected out of Frank’s loyalty and fidelity to his wife, Gunn includes a perplexing interlude of coercive sexual imposition seemingly for the payoff that allows him to create a vision in the chunks of vomit floating in a toilet. “Super” is filled with off-color moments like this one, and while the ends can be funny, the means to achieving them are clumsy and confounding.

Dogtooth

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

dogtooth
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Both perverse and perversely funny, Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Dogtooth” provides the curious viewer with a singular and all but impossible-to-forget experience. With each of its meticulously composed frames, the movie announces an ambitious technical agenda, matched shot for shot by an imaginative story often read as a kind of cautionary tale exploring the hazards of parental overprotection. The director also establishes a resolute moral distance from his subjects – accomplished in part via lengthy static takes – and Lanthimos’s refusal to judge their behavior, which includes the explicit exploration of the societal taboo of brother/sister incest, unsettlingly sanctioned and arranged by both mother and father, cements the film as a challenging and cerebral exercise.

Inside the well-appointed compound of a middle-aged businessman (Christos Stergioglou) and his wife (Michele Valley), a trio of adult children interacts with one another through the games, make-believe, and competition familiar to pre-teens. Subjected to all manner of inexplicable lessons and harsh punishments, the siblings study vocabulary tapes in which common meanings for words are replaced seemingly at whim (a “sea is a leather armchair” and a “motorway is a very strong wind”). Lanthimos deliberately erases any trace of history, background, and motive for this unorthodox upbringing, allowing the viewer to discover the contours of this strange enclave as the film unfolds.

Lanthimos rapidly makes clear that the now-grown offspring have never left the confines of their walled asylum and the unintended consequence of remaining within such a strict and shielded haven is a pressure-fueled tendency for the “kids” to act out with startling and unexpected violence. Further evidence of the family’s irregularity manifests in the visits of Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), the only character in the film identified by name. Hired by the father to satisfy the sexual urges of his son (Hristos Passalis), Christina sparks a series of changes experienced by the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia). Among the most transformative influences brought by Christina from the outside world is a series of VHS rentals of several Hollywood movies, including “Jaws,” “Rocky” and “Flashdance,” that inspires an intense, hysterical, and physical mania that threatens the father’s sovereign grip.

“Dogtooth” comments on gender in a variety of interesting ways, from the fierce and unchallenged authority of the powerful patriarch to the favoritism and entitlement enjoyed by the male child. When the brood misbehaves or disappoints, mother threatens to give birth to more family members, including a dog. Most tellingly, only the son’s carnal desires are acknowledged by the parents, while matters of sex for both female children are intentionally neglected until the young women are called to service the brother (following inspection, he chooses the older of the two). Lanthimos shrewdly assigns the emergent point of view to the senior sister, whose own sexual activity ironically accounts in part for the collapse of the carefully constructed universe.

The success of “Dogtooth” sprouts from its woozy blend of humor and horror, and like David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” the movie makes us laugh nervously at the recognition of the familiar as filtered through the distorted, the bizarre, and the grotesque. By assigning a peculiar kind of forced emotional and developmental impediment upon the “children,” Lanthimos invites us to consider the space, as well as the differences and similarities, between youth and adulthood. The childlike and often childish actions of the principal threesome mirror the familiar expectations, skewed logic and playful transactions of pre-adolescence, uncannily magnified by the physical maturity of the performers. “Dogtooth” is blackly comic but never bleak, and pays substantial rewards for appreciators of the absurd.