Archive for May, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

Monday, May 28th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

It’s not surprising that the support group Friends of Chernobyl Centers, U.S. has raised awareness by criticizing the cheap horror movie “Chernobyl Diaries,” a tired genre exercise with action so routine one imagines its producers reluctant to see it open anywhere near “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie that exposes and exploits the kinds of clichés on parade in “Chernobyl.” Ironically, the majority of moviegoers would not likely have heard of Friends of Chernobyl Centers had it not been for the suspect taste and callous insensitivity of the filmmakers, who set the film among the ruins of ghost town Pripyat (played in the movie by locations in Serbia), from which more than 400,000 people fled following the 1986 catastrophe.

In a statement posted on the Friends of Chernobyl Centers website, the “horror is not mutants running around, the real horror is the effect that Chernobyl continues to have on the lives of millions who have been devastated physically, emotionally and economically. People are still dealing with the aftermath on a daily basis 26 years later.” While the motion picture industry commonly tramples on respect and decorum if a buck is to be made, co-writer and producer Oren Peli has claimed that the group Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl has written him a letter of support and admiration. If only the movie were as engaging as the free publicity surrounding it.

Peli, whose “Paranormal Activity” capitalized on the no-budget tradition of “The Blair Witch Project” in conjuring scares from the suggestion of raw footage incorporated into the drama, enlists director Bradley Parker to conform to the “Old Dark House” template in which several people are trapped in an isolated location and picked off until only one remains. The most promising elements of the story involve the ways in which contaminated animals have changed and adapted to their environment (picture a razor-toothed variation on Blinky from “The Simpsons”), but the filmmakers only use this angle for a handful of lazy shock/jump scares and a half-hearted subplot about roving wolves.

“Chernobyl Diaries” requires a tremendous suspension of one’s disbelief to accept the “extreme tourism” premise that sends a group of leisure travelers into a radioactive ground zero. Despite repeated assurances by their ridiculously incompetent guide that the short exposure time will be perfectly safe – often coupled with the comical clicks of a handheld Geiger counter – one of the movie’s threats materializes from the helplessness of being lost and unable to contact help. Needless to say, although the movie makes sure to do so, cell phones don’t work inside Pripyat.

Andy Webster pointed out in “The New York Times” that good horror films, like “Night of the Living Dead,” can offer viewers rich metaphors through which political and/or social ideas can share the same space as the monsters that terrify us. “Chernobyl Diaries” boasts no such agenda. The young victims are nearly indistinguishable from one another, and other than some tepid sibling rivalry and the gruesomely thwarted promise of a marriage proposal, Parker can’t be bothered to develop and individuate the cast members. Even “final girl” Amanda (Devin Kelley) is presented with few opportunities to apply intelligence, critical thinking, and problem solving skills to stave off impending death. Mostly, she just gets chased.

The Dictator

Monday, May 21st, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Less successful than “Borat” and “Bruno,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” trades the ambush mockumentary for the more predictable terrain of fully-scripted narrative. Opening with a dedication to Kim Jong-il, Baron Cohen and director/regular collaborator Larry Charles establish Admiral General Hafez Aladeen, the ruler of the fictional North African Republic of Wadiya, as a composite of narcissistic strongmen like Muammar Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein (rather brilliantly, an early item in “The Hollywood Reporter” stated that “The Dictator” was inspired by Saddam’s novel “Zabibah and the King”). Aladeen’s boorish behavior is matched by his penchant for garish military costumes, and Baron Cohen embraces the considerable challenge of infusing his awful protagonist with glimmers of humanity.

Even though “The Dictator” eliminates the stylistic technique in which unsuspecting victims fall prey to Baron Cohen’s antics, the performer retains the core concept of a fish-out-of-water foreigner whose customs conflict with conventional expectations of polite behavior. Aladeen is, among other unsavory things, a spoiled manchild who uses his wealth and power to buy sexual favors from American celebrities. Ensconced in the sprawl of his opulent quarters, the despot hones his anti-Semitism by gleefully playing a first-person shooter videogame that recreates the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. If you don’t think that idea is funny, you probably won’t like the extended gag sequence with the decapitated head.

Baron Cohen continues to exploit taboo with an impressive level of confidence for an artist grappling with social and political ideas that share the same space with copious gags revolving around ignorant racism, gruesome torture, pedophilia, sexual assault, and masturbation, to name a few. And while the most indelicate and explicit details of these coarse jokes cannot be located in masterful features like Charles Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup,” spiritual commonalities are shared by the tremendous Osterlich victory speech delivered by Chaplin’s Jewish barber (disguised as Adenoid Hynkel) and Aladeen’s climactic celebration of the joys of autocracy in which the hypocritical attitudes of the contemporary American political landscape are smartly exposed.

Anna Faris, whose tremendous comic timing is rarely put to good use in a movie worthy of her skill, plays Zoey, a progressive activist who works at a food co-op when she is not attending street demonstrations. Inexplicably, Zoey falls for the abusive Aladeen, whose constant put-downs and insults are either a brutal display of wrongheaded misogyny or a series of pointed barbs at an easily stereotyped segment of feminism (critics Andrew O’Hehir and A.O. Scott apparently disagree on the matter). In either case, Baron Cohen and Charles underutilize Faris, who steals all her scenes and lights up the kind of dialogue that would derail a lesser talent.

Aladeen’s Islamism is only implicitly woven into the fabric of “The Dictator,” and while the lack of specificity might initially suggest a willfully apolitical position, closer examination suggests that Baron Cohen merely continues to do what he has done for close to fifteen years: skewer the jingoistic, the greedy and powerful, and the homophobic and racist by assuming the persona of a character who espouses fealty to those kinds of failings. Not everyone will play along – the conundrum of inhabiting an ignoramus is that a certain segment of the audience won’t recognize the irony and the dissimulation.

Dark Shadows

Monday, May 14th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The eighth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, “Dark Shadows” ranks much closer in corporatized sheen to “Alice in Wonderland” than the exuberant labor of love “Ed Wood.” With its massive budget and gorgeous production design directly at odds with the legendary thrift and grind of the 1,225 episodes of Dan Curtis’s 1966-1971 daytime soap opera, “Dark Shadows” operates more like a parody or burlesque than a reverent homage. Burton, who has been accused more than once in recent years of straying from the intensity and conviction of his most personal projects to deliver lukewarm adaptations of established properties, is running on Gothic autopilot.

Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins didn’t appear until a year into the original run of “Dark Shadows,” but the popularity of the character defines the series for its devoted cult of fans – most of whom are over the age of forty. Depp’s take on the vampire is regal, foppish, and tuned perfectly to the actor’s gift for comfortable femininity. The actor’s choice to surgically remove any trace of heterosexual libido neuters an acrobatic sex romp between Barnabas and his rival, but it does add a twisted deviance to an eyebrow-raising scene in which Helena Bonham Carter’s boozy psychiatrist fellates the nosferatu partially out of professional curiosity.

The jokes derived from Barnabas’s reactions to a strange new world run the gamut from shameless product placement (an entire set-up and payoff built around the iconic Golden Arches of McDonald’s) to dated gender misidentification one-liners aimed at Alice Cooper, who doesn’t look a day over sixty even though he is playing himself at age twenty-four. Depp’s cool detachment never strays too far from a diligent mock seriousness that sells quips about the quality deficit of “Scooby-Doo” (“This is a stupid play.”) and the magic of television (“Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”). As ever, Depp is game, but he cannot overcome the movie’s fundamental lack of interest in the moral consequences of Barnabas’s curse; the vampire’s multiple murders are treated as incidental.

Aside from Depp’s comic timing, “Dark Shadows” has little to recommend it. Windy expository voiceover narration that drains away the wonder and sense of discovery, a gallery of sketchy personalities identifiable by single traits, flashback digressions, and a convoluted “eternal love” triangle thread that ignores the attraction Barnabas should feel toward Bella Heathcote’s Victoria Winters conspire to bog down the grating central conflict in which spurned witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) simultaneously plots to win the affections of Barnabas and destroy the Collins family business. The climax, a screechy showdown with police officers, firefighters, angry townspeople, flames, blood, a werewolf, a ghost, and an attempted suicide is even messier than it sounds.

Getting to that tornado of an ending should be half the fun, but screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith – the “why didn’t I think of that?” scribe who pocketed a sizable fortune from his bestselling public domain remixes “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” – toggles clumsily between the “Rip Van Winkle” gags of two-century old Barnabas reacting to the modern wonders of 1972 and a pile of half-baked subplots competing for time (the “Dark Shadows” one-sheet poses nine figures, and technically, Heathcote plays two characters). The more-is-more bloat utterly fails to coagulate and viewers will be hard pressed to remember many specifics by the time the credits finish rolling.

Damsels in Distress

Monday, May 7th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Whit Stillman’s feature debut “Metropolitan,” which received an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay, is an object of love and desire for a cultish collection of cinephiles who came of age in the early 1990s. Many of those fans, having waited fourteen years (the date of “The Last Days of Disco”) for new Stillman, may be slightly let down by “Damsels in Distress,” a comedy so willfully detached from dreary reality its attitude, manner, and appearance resemble a nostalgia-burnished relic from the New Frontier. Like Stillman’s previous work, “Damsels” explores the milieu of the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” tagging along behind a trio of coeds and their new recruit as the young women embark on a Sisyphean quest to systematically improve the caliber of decorum and etiquette practiced by their unwashed, uncouth male classmates.

In his essay on “Metropolitan” for the Criterion Collection, Luc Sante wrote that the “dialogue is ostentatiously written; every character wields subordinate clauses and uses words like however and nevertheless. The combination of stilted speeches and deft behavioral acting sometimes seems peculiar, but it is also peculiarly apposite. Like Austen, Stillman wears his irony lightly and deploys it affectionately.” While the stilted speeches and behavioral acting continues to express Stillman’s inimitable voice in “Damsels in Distress,” the relevance, pertinence, aptness, and affection have gone missing along with the Austen-esque light ironic touch. Instead, “Damsels” is Stillman at his broadest.

Critic Andrew O’Hehir praises “Damsels” for being “deliberately and purposefully irrelevant,” but where “Metropolitan” emotionally invested in a protagonist whose anxieties reflected self-doubts recognizable to all, “Damsels” presents a group of privileged young people whose earnestness obscures any alternative agenda Stillman might hope to develop. Stillman, as ever, can be delightfully funny, and Greta Gerwig and the other performers are game. At issue is whether the viewer is meant to laugh with or at these characters, whose shallow observations are as convincing as Gerwig’s goal to launch a widespread dance craze.

With Stillman, archness and pretense are traditionally viewed as assets, but “Damsels” could use the savage and critical intelligence of Stillman regular Chris Eigeman, sadly missing from the cast. Thankfully, Taylor Nichols merits a fleeting cameo appearance as a professor, but “Damsels” eschews the kind of acid-tongued observer who explodes the vacuum created by the moronic fellows identified by such gags as lifelong failure to learn the names of colors. Frankly, “Revenge of the Nerds” more successfully lampooned the depleted inanity of Greek life on college campuses. At his fictional Seven Oaks, Stillman travels some of the same pathways as the Alpha Betas of Adams, jabbing and poking at how frat boys demonstrate enthusiasm for parodies of Olympic contests matched only by their dubious resistance to hygiene.

It would be hazardous to imagine that Stillman wholly detests the well-meaning but naïve and ineffectual young women questing to make the world a better place through tap dance therapy and shifts at the campus suicide prevention center, but much of the movie depends on the artificial barrier erected to prevent glimpses of recognizable, uncalculated expressions of genuine feelings. That aggravating approach to character makes one wonder how much respect the filmmaker has for his audience.