Archive for October, 2011

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.

Limpwings Q&A

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Limpwings

Interview by Greg Carlson

Moviemakers Eric Carlson, Marcus Mann, and Andrew Neill, who create projects together under the Two Jackets Productions banner, will be present with the cast for a free screening of their feature length debut “Limpwings” at the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 9:30pm. The public is cordially invited to attend.

HPR’s Greg Carlson interviewed the trio as they prepared for the premiere.

 

HPR: “Limpwings” is an interesting title, particularly because the movie’s point of view is filtered through a different character entirely. Where did the choice of title come from?

Marcus:  We wanted our movie’s title to be memorable, and “Limpwings” stood out to us as one phrase that viewers will take away from the film.  It can also be seen as a reference to our lead’s arrested development—his inability to take flight.

Andrew: Yeah, even though Eric and I were more hesitant towards the title at first – we thought perhaps it was too bizarre – we warmed up to it, and now we wouldn’t give it up for anything. If you Google “Limpwings” right now, the entire first page of selections are us.


HPR: How did the challenges of producing the episodic web-series “3rd West Ballard” prepare you for a feature narrative? What was the biggest difference between making a web series and short movies and the transition to a feature?

Marcus:  Writing a feature film is a lot different than writing an episodic piece.  In a web series, there are multiple episodes to develop the different facets of each character.  A writer can explore relationships and character histories in great depth over a long period of time. With a feature you only have a brief window into the characters’ lives, and as a writer one has to find a story worthy of the format.

Andrew: Our experience from making our short films and “3rd West” were the reason why we felt it was time to make a feature. It was time for us to evolve to the next level as filmmakers. We felt we knew enough about the aesthetics of film to make it look damn good – and shooting it on the RED camera definitely helped make that possible – but we also knew how to budget our time – how to schedule. “3rd West” was a monster to plan, and back then we made a lot of mistakes in under-estimating the amount of time it took to shoot. When it came time to figure out the schedule for “Limpwings,” we were ready.

 

HPR: How long did you work on “Limpwings” from start to finish? What were your biggest challenges along the way?

Marcus: We had our first official “Limpwings” meeting in April of 2009.  At that meeting, we broke some of the overall story and even a few jokes that made it into the film.  But, the ideas of stigmata and Daniel’s relationship with Hope originated around December 2008.

Eric: The biggest challenges occurred during the production.  All of our actors donated their services to this project, so we had to deal with not having access to the full cast full time.  This caused us to have to split principal photography over Summer 2009 and Summer 2010 instead of finishing the shoot in one year as originally intended.  But it was honestly worth it to work with such a fantastic and generous group of performers.


HPR: Since “Limpwings” was originated on the RED, can you talk about your production/post-production workflow a little bit? What was your shooting ratio? Were there any scenes, subplots or storylines that you had to cut for pacing and/or running time?

Eric: The RED was a great asset for the film because it allowed us to capture an image that was very close to film-quality without the high cost of film stock. The downside to that quality is that it eats up a lot of hard drive space. We shot about two terabytes of footage, which works out to a shooting ratio of 10:1, and all the footage was backed up to multiple hard drives. We faced a lot of issues with learning the RED camera, lugging it around with minimal crew, and creating an effective post-production workflow, but in the end the images we captured bring up the caliber of the film to a professional standard.

Marcus:  There were some scenes that had to be cut for pacing, which I love to see as a writer!  I built redundancies into the script because at that point it’s hard to tell what the viewers will pick up on.  When we had the film completed it became obvious that what Andrew and the cast had done had sold many of the concepts better than words could ever hope to.  We were then able to remove some sections that were no longer necessary and let the subtext in the actors’ performances serve the function of those deleted scenes.

 

HPR: While “Limpwings” bears the comic hallmarks of previous Two Jackets works, the movie’s tone suggests a real earnest effort to explore friendship and sacrifice. How deliberately did you design the balance between the jokes and the drama?

Andrew: The three of us wanted to make a film with characters who were at the same stage of life as us – that transition period from college to “the real world.” From experience, we know that it’s scary to face the rest of your life, and you have the potential to make a lot of stupid decisions along the way. For the sake of this story we wanted to tell, we needed to find the drama and humor in all of that.

Marcus: It’s all about keeping things grounded in reality.  Even in a movie where we have angels, and stigmata, and girl-on-admission-letter sex scenes, it’s important to be honest to the characters.  There are scenes where we can have our gags, and our characters can crack jokes; there are scenes where there’s dramatic irony and the characters don’t mean to be funny; but, there are also dramatic scenes where no one would realistically make a joke, and we respected that.


HPR: Can you describe your collaboration with the  actors? Obviously, none of the members of Two Jackets are women, so how did you find ways to create a respectful space for a key character who happens to be a lesbian?

Andrew: As the director, I lucked out with this cast. They made my job a breeze. Most of the time, I just told them where to stand! It helped that we had a rehearsal period during the first summer where we went over some of the scenes that really established who the characters were. By the time shooting came around, we knew we could trust each other to make the right decisions. I’m not the kind of director who annotates every twitch of the eye. Collaboration is at the heart of this medium.

Marcus: We had worked with the principal actors before in various capacities. The key again was respect and honesty. We communicated with everyone about his or her needs and spoke about the subject matter as adults.  The LGBT community is something I’ve supported my entire life, and we wanted the production to be respectful of that too, even if some of the characters aren’t.

 

HPR: Given that “Limpwings” contains the very real possibility that the use of stigmata could be construed by some as blasphemous, how did you pitch the project to clergy when you were seeking permission to shoot in church/synagogue?

Andrew:  The people at the church and synagogue were much more concerned about the content of the particular scenes to be shot at the locations, so we had them approve of the material ahead of time. However, I spoke with them about how I felt the film had a very positive religious message.


HPR: In the writing phase, how much research did Marcus do on the religious content of the movie?

Marcus:  There’s a research component to everything I write.  In this movie I explored the history of angels and stigmata pretty thoroughly as it pertained to the film.  But these are concepts and archetypes that are in the public consciousness, and that has to be respected as well.  In the end, story comes first and I was always willing to adapt portrayals in service of the narrative.

 

HPR: Following the public premiere of “Limpwings” at the Fargo Theatre, what are the next steps for getting the movie in front of audiences?

Eric: We’re sending “Limpwings” out to film festivals all over the world. To start, we’re sending it to Slamdance and South by Southwest. The film was created with the intention of being seen at festivals, so that’s what’s going to happen.

Andrew: Yeah, we’re currently sprucing up our Withoutabox account in preparation. We’ve done a lot of festival research, but now that the film is done, it’s going to be our main priority. We’re not just going to send it blindly into the fray. We’re going to take the time to find festivals where our film will be a good fit.

 

HPR: Now that the members of Two Jackets are moving into life beyond undergraduate studies, do you plan to work on another feature or other projects together?

Andrew: Absolutely. The making of this film was a huge test for the three of us in our individual roles, but even more so in our roles as collaborators. There were ups and downs, but we stuck ‘em out together. Personally, I’m glad we began this three-piece-punk-band of filmmakers as early as we did. By the time we were preparing for “Limpwings,” we had established trust between us, which was, and is, vital to the wholly collaborative process of filmmaking.

Marcus:  We’re already in the early stages of our next feature film, under the working title, “Allan Card and the Big Suck.”  We recently had a meeting that resulted in an outline much like the one we made for “Limpwings” in April 2009. I’m planning to complete a draft of the script by year’s end with the hopes of going into production next fall.

 

HPR: More information about the movie can be found online at www.limpwings.com.