Archive for August, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

Monday, August 29th, 2011

ouridiotbrother

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Wholly dependent on audience desire to see a group of beautiful and skilled performers work on material unworthy of their talents, “Our Idiot Brother” is a wispy, featherweight sitcom in need of sharper characters and more defined conflicts. Paul Rudd trades his better-dressed and cleaner-cut Judd Apatow yuppies for a shaggy beard and a pair of dirty Crocs as the titular Ned, a biodynamic farmer whose total lack of guile lands him in the clink for selling pot to a uniformed police officer. Once released, Ned couch surfs through the NYC homes of his three crisis-prone sisters, each of whom is fundamentally more messed up than their brother.

Rudd has long been capable of projecting an effortless blend of warmth and sarcasm, but his Ned fully jettisons the latter to embody a worldview cloaked in a ridiculous cloud of naivete. A man who belongs to another time, Ned’s hippie persona is never fully convincing, but Rudd’s twinkling eyes and self-effacing earnestness project a likability that should by every measure be missing from such a clueless fool. Of course, the gears of the movie require Ned to hide reserves of wisdom underneath the layers of inanity, even though “Our Idiot Brother” is a long, long way from “Being There.”

Many laughs are engineered from Ned’s honesty coupled with the man’s facility for misusing or misinterpreting language. Since Ned takes people at their word, prevarications and cover stories spiral out of control once shared in a different context. Emily Mortimer’s frazzled denial of her husband’s affair, Zooey Deschanel’s bi-curious cover-up, and Elizabeth Banks’ true feelings about her neighbor are all aired “wrong place/wrong time” fashion by the dense Ned. These unwelcome epiphanies are meant to generate laughs, and they often do just that, but the frequency of their occurrences diminishes the surprise.

Peretz’s direction is as easygoing as Ned’s live-and-let-live worldview, and “Our Idiot Brother” coasts along, toggling among an array of stories that eventually give way to the sentimental reconciliation and mutual respect demanded by dysfunctional family comedies. Entirely too much time is spent fooling with an inane subplot revolving around Ned’s desire to reclaim his beloved canine pal, a Golden Retriever named Willie Nelson (the pooch’s more famous inspiration shows up on the soundtrack).

As idiot manchild, Ned is not quite in the league of Chauncey Gardiner and Forrest Gump, but “Our Idiot Brother” never pretends to aspire to the scope or scale of ideas suggested by Ashby and Zemeckis. Instead, the film’s manufactured roadblocks read like a laundry list of “white people problems,” spanning a range that includes infidelity, lying to loved ones, and unethical behavior to get ahead at work. Ned, of course, is above (or is it beneath?) all of this strain of poor choice-making, and “Our Idiot Brother” shambles toward a final act that allows goopy life lessons to be imparted to each of the once-spiteful but now-grateful sisters, including the dreaded line, delivered straight, that Ned’s “work here is done.” At least “Our Idiot Brother” doesn’t have a laugh track.

Fright Night

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

frightnight

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Tom Holland’s much loved 1985 vampire comedy “Fright Night” is respectably, though not spectacularly, remade with Colin Ferrell trying on Chris Sarandon’s considerably large fangs. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Marti Noxon retain the original’s hearty narrative foundation, updating a number of elements – some welcome, some not. Holland’s script, a terrific reinvention of monster maxims infused with a great understanding of classic horror movies, sharp self-awareness, and an erotic electricity almost entirely missing from the new model, proves tough to top.

Protagonist Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) receives a geek-chic makeover for 2011, leaving behind his friendship with childhood pal “Evil” Ed Lee (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to run with a more popular crowd. Suspended between youthful pastimes and the strong desire to be accepted, especially by seemingly out-of-his-league girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), Charley’s curt dismissal of Ed’s concern over a missing classmate comes back to haunt him. The bittersweet dynamic of the withered relationship between Charley and Ed imbues the former with a caustic edge and the latter with a pitiable air of lament.

The Las Vegas setting is one of the remake’s shrewdest alterations, giving Ferrell’s Jerry Dandrige an excuse to sleep all day following night construction shifts on the Strip (or so he would like the neighbors to believe). Rows of “for sale” signs on empty split-levels allude to the post-2008 recession, and Charley’s mother Jane (Toni Collette) is a Century 21 real estate agent whose extra yard signs come complete with handy stakes once Charley’s outrageous claims concerning Jerry’s vampirism are believed. The Sin City setting also makes room for the transformation of Charley’s savior Peter Vincent (David Tennant) from washed up actor/late night horror host into flashy Criss Angel-by-way-of-Russell Brand stage illusionist. While Roddy McDowall’s indelible Vincent can’t be bettered, Tennant holds his own, transcending the deliberately tacky outrageousness of the new model with smarts and timing. Too bad he wasn’t given a bit more to do.

Missing from the remake is Jerry’s manservant/roommate Billy Cole, and while the downsizing/streamlining of two characters into one is in keeping with Ferrell’s loner menace (described by the filmmakers as a deliberate homage to the killer shark in “Jaws”), the movie loses an intriguing homoeroticism inherent in the original friendship. The remake’s only significant same-sex connection occurs during the weirdly poignant “turning” of Ed by Jerry in a swimming pool, a scene evocative of both baptism and the loss of virginity.

The popularity of the vampire, particularly among young audiences, exploded anew with the “Twilight” series (acknowledged in “Fright Night” by longtime “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” scribe/producer Noxon in a tart aside), but the genre’s durability extends well beyond the icy chivalry of Edward Cullen. Jerry Dandrige, whose ravenous appetite for Amy in the original “Fright Night” was explained by her resemblance to a long lost love, now taunts Charley with coarse allusions to predatory wish fulfillment (Charley’s sexual hang-ups provide subtext in both versions), but beyond recognizing Amy as “ripe,” the new Jerry doesn’t distinguish her from any of his other victims. A side-by-side comparison of the dance club sequences testifies to the superiority of Holland’s vision and the importance of forging a real Charley-Jerry-Amy triangle. Despite Ferrell’s winking sultriness, the first “Fright Night” is still the real thing.

Beginners

Monday, August 15th, 2011

beginners

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Beginners,” writer-director-designer-artist Mike Mills’ huge improvement over “Thumbsucker,” sheds much of the self-consciously precious affect that bedeviled his feature narrative debut to relate a semi-autobiography about a young man coming to terms with the death of his father. Assembled as an asynchronous seesaw that totters between two principal timeframes, “Beginners” adroitly blends blossoming romance and family melodrama without disservice to either genre. By separating the protagonist’s past, represented in more recent scenes with his father and distant memories of his mother, and present, in which a relationship veers toward love and commitment, Mills finds a way to embrace the messy poles of life through eyes that smile as well as cry.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, an illustrator/graphic designer reflecting deeply on life and love in the wake of losing papa Hal (Christopher Plummer) just a few short years after the death of Oliver’s mom Georgia (Mary Page Keller), Hal’s spouse of 44 years. Before his decline, the aging Hal – who waited until his wife lost her own cancer battle – announces his homosexuality at age 75, and Mills uses the premise to advantage with a series of montages outlining the challenges, disappointments, and heartaches faced by the closeted during the second half of the twentieth century. The stylishly presented images, punctuated by Oliver’s narration (“This is what the sun looks like”) bridge past and present, providing information that invites the viewer into Oliver’s interior space.

Oliver, who is given to episodes of melancholia, joins a group of friends at a costume party and meets the enchanting Anna (Melanie Laurent), whose laryngitis relegates communication to scribbles in a notepad and a range of intimate, eye-contact dependent non-verbals. Amusingly attired as Freud, Oliver “treats” patient Anna while Mills takes the opportunity to comment coyly on the therapeutic possibilities of fresh attraction. Later, as Oliver and Anna bond, they begin to talk about their parents, and even though the film’s point of view firmly belongs to Oliver, Anna emerges as something more substantive than Nathan Rabin’s dreaded, static Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype (despite her ability to roller skate).

Mills is graced with a trio of appealing performers, and even though “Beginners” is Oliver’s story, both Hal and Anna bloom into vibrant characters in no small measure through the choices of their portrayers. Plummer, Laurent, and McGregor all find the room in Mills’ screenplay to reveal the less-attractive corners and contours of personality common to us all, and “Beginners” is richer for its prickles and barbs. At one point, Oliver says, “Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness our parents didn’t have time for.” At first, the sentiment sounds like self-pity, but Mills positions the thought so that Oliver recognizes Hal’s decades-long personal sacrifices instead.

Without the intensity of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s surrealist science fiction gamesmanship, “Beginners” addresses some of the very same emotional terrain as the masterful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Both movies are actively engaged with the dizzying fear that comes with the realization that what we have can be quickly lost, sometimes through our own foolish tendencies toward self-destruction. Both movies also recognize and explore the interlocking past, present, and future – and do so in ways that conjure up the Jungian “unus mundus” of meaningful coincidences through powerful serendipities that mark endings, beginnings, and the journey in between.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Monday, August 8th, 2011

caveofforgottendreams

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Inspired by Judith Thurman’s lovely 2008 feature in “The New Yorker,” Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” documents the astonishing artwork adorning the walls of France’s Chauvet Cave, the site of the world’s oldest known representational painted images. Discovered by a trio of speleologists in 1994, the Chauvet illustrations – a breathtaking menagerie of more than a dozen species including lion, ibex, bison, horse, owl, bear, hyena, rhino, and mammoth – shattered all previously held records concerning the earliest efforts by human cave artists. By comparison, the famous Lascaux paintings are roughly half the age of the Chauvet work, which has been carbon-dated to a pair of creation periods some 30,000 and 35,000 years ago.

As usual, Herzog makes his presence felt, indulging his considerable curiosity, narrating the movie and appearing in scenes alongside his small crew. Herzog describes in detail the restrictions imposed by the French government on the filmmaking process. Clothed in contaminant-free suits, the moviemakers were confined to a narrow metal catwalk and granted access to Chauvet for only four hours on each of six total days. In addition to Herzog, several of the cave’s principal researchers appear, including Jean Clottes, whose work on shamanic practices designed to contextualize prehistoric cave art has met with fascination and controversy.

Why did Paleolithic artists almost never draw men, women, and children? “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” does not speculate but highlights what has been dubbed “The Venus and the Sorcerer,” a picture of the lower anatomy of a human female partnered or intertwined or layered or combined with a “man-bison” figure. Painted in a place of prominence and privilege on a limestone cone in the Salle du Fond, the final and deepest of Chauvet’s chambers, the “Venus and the Sorcerer” contains one of only five female representations in the cave, and invites a series of additional questions concerning Chauvet’s use as a site of religion, spirituality, mysticism, and shamanism.

Despite Herzog’s musings on the way in which flickering firelight conjures the “proto-cinematic” illusion of animated movement when dancing across the images of the animals, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” begs for additional commentary on the wide-ranging theories of the intentions of the unknowable artists. The 90-minute running time necessitates the exclusion of any number of potentially rich components of the Chauvet story, and despite the excitement of a vicarious visit to the cave by way of Herzog’s own style of magic lantern show, the original Thurman article articulates Chauvet’s bombshells, turf wars, legal struggles, and ideological divisions more vividly and impressively than the movie (Thurman receives credit as a co-producer of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”).

Herzog has always been a world-class dreamer, and his identification with the obscure and the eccentric often carries with it an air of strange collusion between the filmmaker and his subjects. Detractors argue that Herzog’s spaced-out voiceovers in his non-fiction oeuvre interfere with, and perhaps even overshadow, the content. Supporters, however, adore his poetic digressions and earnest contemplations – often embodied in huge, rhetorical questions that invite much additional thought. Herzog’s resistance to closed-text summary sometimes flirts with the deliriously kooky, and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” concludes with a bizarre postscript reflected in the demonic eyes of mutant, albino crocodiles populating the tropical incongruity of a nuclear plant near the Chauvet Cave.

Cowboys & Aliens

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Cowboysandaliens

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” flinty amnesiac Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) joins the list of tight-lipped movie toughs eager to piece together out-of-focus memories. From Jason Bourne to the anterograde Lenny in “Memento,” the inability to recount one’s past operates like a cinematic magic bullet/tabula rasa that simultaneously liberates the protagonist from layers of weighty mental baggage and serves the plot with a built-in catalyst driving the action toward a goal of self-(re)discovery. Additionally, the gimmick invites the viewer to identify with the hero, experiencing his – or very rarely her – adventures with a parallel sensation of novelty. As mash-ups go, “Cowboys & Aliens” owes a great deal more to the six-shooter than the ray gun, an imbalance that will find some favor with open-minded fans of America’s most durable movie genre.

Lonergan, who wakes up in the brush with a strange metallic gauntlet attached to his arm and a nasty laceration under his rib cage, makes his way to Absolution – the town and the theological state of forgiveness and reconciliation – where he runs afoul of Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano, who has perfected the impudent whelp), the liquored-up son of crusty cattleman Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Before Percy and the wanted Lonergan can be extradited to the custody of a federal judge by Sheriff John Taggart (Keith Carradine), Col. Dolarhyde and an alien aircraft arrive simultaneously, forcing an uneasy alliance between the outlaw and the rancher when all kinds of hell breaks loose.

The otherworldly invaders make off with several townsfolk, roping them like spooked cows by way of cables attached to the underside of their UFOs. As a hastily organized posse (is there any other kind?) gives chase, Favreau attempts to channel John Ford, outlining several familial relationship conflicts that focus primarily on Dolarhyde’s failures as a father and his inability to acknowledge the paternal bond he shares with surrogate son Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), a tracker who lives in Percy’s ugly shadow. Additionally, the mysterious and almost impossibly beautiful Ella (Olivia Wilde) insists on sticking close to a wary Lonergan.

Situated within the framework of the contemporary western, “Cowboys & Aliens” leans heavily on a foundation of outmoded and regressive cinematic stereotypes in the treatment and coding of Native Americans. The introduction of members of the Chiricahua Apache, led by Black Knife (Raoul Trujillo) conjures the musty tradition of the mystically inclined, spiritually in-tune, nature-connected other. Defined principally by stony nobility, fierce fighting skills, and a tendency to full-throated shrieks and whoops, the Apache reluctantly join forces with Dolarhyde because their people have also been kidnapped by the creatures.

Favreau is good with actors, and had he been confident enough to include even more John Ford-inspired explorations of human nature, culture clash, and the tensions between the wild/chaotic and the settled/ordered, “Cowboys & Aliens” might have fulfilled its promised as something unique on the summer release schedule. Ford’s films consistently and patiently filtered the action through quieter scenes depicting rites of passage, ceremony, and ritual, but the action-oriented demands of the contemporary, big-budget movie appear to deny nuance in favor of thrilling spectacle.