Archive for July, 2012

Norwegian Wood

Monday, July 30th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A lushly photographed and finely acted adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel, Anh Hung Tran’s “Norwegian Wood” labors to balance its central poles exploring sexuality and death. Embracing the most melodramatic aspects of a story tracing the late teens and early twenties of Tokyo student Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), Tran’s measured, elegiac contemplation combines the instincts of Douglas Sirk and Robert Bresson without quite capturing the former’s keen interest in and understanding of women and the latter’s ability to reveal the contours of the human soul. Grim, determined, and austere, “Norwegian Wood” succeeds in illustrating the numbing grief experienced by the living following a loved one’s suicide without attempting a clinical or logical explanation of that unthinkable circumstance.

Following a prologue that ends with the carbon monoxide poisoning death of Toru’s close friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora), Toru connects with Kizuki’s closest companion and childhood sweetheart Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), celebrating her birthday with an intense evening culminating in the loss of Naoko’s virginity. Tran captures the thanatotic and erotic nexus of Toru and Naoko’s shared guilt, painting a moment that instinctively blends the characters’ carnal hunger for one another with their mutual impulse to be close to the memory of Kizuki. Sex does not, however, heal the gaping emotional wounds of Naoko, whose feelings of responsibility for Kizuki’s suicide lead her to a nervous breakdown and an extended stay in a mental health sanitarium.

With a sense of obligation to the memory of Kizuki, Toru promises to wait for Naoko during her exile from everyday life, but the long separation and the interest of the free-spirited and candid Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) complicate the pledge. Tran fails to adequately express Toru’s conundrum by favoring the ethereal and angelic Naoko over the sprightly and vivacious Midori, and the disparity is one of the movie’s most frustrating imbalances. Toru’s resolute silence doesn’t help, but the viewer is often frustrated by Toru’s unwillingness to open up, making it difficult to believe that a person as stimulating and expansive as Midori would put up with Toru’s moody brooding.

Tran envisions the late 1960s setting with a deliberate resistance to foreground placement of the political movements embraced by scores of young people seeking measurable social change. In one scene, Toru is carried along on a wave of street demonstrators, but the protest does not register for him; he remains self-absorbed and lost in the thoughts of his romantic crisis even as he becomes enveloped in the din. Tran introduces other markers of the era, most notably the inclusion of a trio of fantastic cuts by Can associated with Toru’s part time job in a record store, but the production and costume design evoke a timelessness that allows the film to exist independently of period.

In spite of the leisurely running time of the film, Tran’s screenplay makes substantial alterations and omissions from the novel, especially concerning the characters of Midori and Naoko’s roommate Reiko. Even so, the movie adaptation has several compelling factors that strongly recommend a viewing, including the vivid score by Johnny Greenwood and the sensational photography by Mark Lee Ping Bin, both of which surprise and impress in scene after scene. In one tour de force sequence, an elaborate back-and-forth tracking shot follows Toru and Naoko as they pace through tall, windswept grass during one of Naoko’s rare verbal confessions. If Tran does one thing exceptionally well, it is in the construction of a metaphor likening Naoko’s fragility and inner turmoil with the natural elements and the changing seasons.

Safety Not Guaranteed

Monday, July 23rd, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Written as a gag by John Silveira for Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997, a short classified advertisement read, “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322, Oakview, CA 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” The intriguing invitation, Tweet-like in its brevity, bounced around on television and the Internet before Silveira signed a contract allowing the idea to be made into a feature film. The resulting movie capitalizes effectively on the premise, and writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow, aided significantly by their principal cast, construct a mostly appealing blend of science fiction and romantic comedy.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” begins with the familiar conundrum of bright, under-employed twenty-something Darius (Aubrey Plaza) drifting into an undefined future. As an intern at Seattle Magazine, Darius volunteers to accompany fellow underling Arnau (Karan Soni) and coarse, chauvinistic writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) to track down the time travel classified author for a feature story. Staking out the small post office while Jeff seeks out the company of a long-ago girlfriend, Darius eventually makes the acquaintance of Kenneth (Mark Duplass), perfectly serious about his offer and cautiously optimistic that Darius might qualify as a worthy time travel companion. The viewer assumes that the skeptical Darius won’t buy into Kenneth’s plan, but the more time they spend together, the more Darius opens up to her new friend.

Plaza, whose blistering sarcasm, well-timed eye rolling, and trenchant retorts arc and crackle in a way that brings to mind Barbara Stanwyck, is a welcome big screen presence, but Darius often feels underwritten – reacting to the questionable behavior of the men in her orbit rather than being allowed to make the decisions and take the actions that drive the movie. Even with its wild concept, which eventually culminates in a gutsy conclusion that will delight some and disappoint others, “Safety Not Guaranteed” meanders with a leisurely self-assurance in its characters, but Connolly and Trevorrow withhold a great deal of personal information about them in favor of mildly comic training montages and the well-worn romantic comedy device in which Darius’ original reason for befriending Kenneth is positioned as a lie of omission destined to be a shocking revelation.

Conceptually, time travel brings with it a universe of possible story pathways. From “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” to “Back to the Future” and the hundreds of short stories, novels, TV episodes, comic books, and films in between and beyond, the notion of being able to see the future or interact with – and maybe even change – the past surpasses most logical concerns over paradoxes that would arise from the employment of a time machine. Kenneth’s desire to travel to an earlier year in order to prevent something from happening depends on the possibility that history can be altered, but the filmmakers make it clear that their interest is not in refuting the Novikov self-consistency principle but rather in exploring time travel as an elastic metaphor for taking chances, for dealing with disappointments, for coping with loss, for moving forward, and for making the most of the time we have.


Monday, July 16th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A period comedy riffing on the highly fictionalized origins of the vibrator, “Hysteria” musters a few chuckles at the outrageousness of its subject matter without ever being outrageous itself. Sidestepping any and all opportunity to thoughtfully investigate the gender inequalities of the Victorian age, Tanya Wexler’s movie instead focuses on a lukewarm, screwball-style romance between proto-feminist social crusader Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a young doctor in the employ of Charlotte’s father. Fuzzy, feeble, and flighty, “Hysteria” unfolds like a hastily produced episode of a mediocre television series, providing just enough amusement to prevent one from dozing off.

The matter-of-fact methodology employed by physicians to treat women with symptoms ranging from faintness to insomnia included pelvic massage, and “Hysteria” imagines the examination room of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) as a comfortable parlor. With a velvet curtain-framed divider providing the necessary level of modesty for the ladies seeking relief, Dalrymple’s practice explodes once word of Granville’s dexterity spreads. In between appointments, Granville sheepishly initiates a courtship with Dalrymple’s demure, beloved daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), even though he cannot seem to keep away from the poverty-stricken settlement house where sister Charlotte volunteers.

The title of the movie obviously refers to the dismayingly common diagnosis applied to women for hundreds of years, but provides little indication that the content will be so chaste. “Granville’s Hammer,” the real-life moniker of the device, is a more evocative name, but would have required a far stronger film. The patients who visit Dalrymple’s office for treatment are grouped together in ridiculous montage sequences that support rather than critique the medical establishment’s infantilizing and condescending attitudes about feminine fragility, and even though one satisfied customer belts an aria in the throes of ecstasy, none of the women emerge as interesting characters.

The notion that male doctors were unable to recognize – or more likely, unwilling to admit – the sexual dimension of one of the most common treatments for hysteria represents another totally missed opportunity for Wexler, and a bummer for anyone expecting more from the capable Pryce. Prevailing attitudes let practitioners off the hook by affirming that female sexual pleasure derived from vaginal intercourse and not external stimulation. Granville’s early success helping patients achieve therapeutic paroxysms quickly gives way to the muscle cramping and pain associated with repetitive strain injuries, setting up the simplified solution courtesy of inventor Edmund St. John-Smythe’s (an underused Rupert Everett) modified electromechanical feather duster.

A movie about the vibrator deserves – pun completely intended – a more stimulating climax than the moth-eaten courtroom testimony chestnut that hinges on Mortimer’s expert opinion in the matter of Charlotte’s mental health. Institutionalization and a forced hysterectomy are only one rap of the gavel away! A friend pointed out that Charlotte could have been committed to an asylum by her father, but that would have negated the suspense-free moment at which our hero delivers his crucial speech. Instead of genuine interest in the exploration of sexual fulfillment, “Hysteria” rushes toward the commonplace conclusion strongly implying that any young woman – even independent firebrands who rebel against the patriarchy – will swoon at a marriage proposal.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Monday, July 9th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Alighting only a decade after Sam Raimi’s big budget feature and a mere five years since the awful conclusion of the trilogy (if you want to call it that), director Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” simply refuses to be described by critics without some measure of comparison to the 2002 version. Of course, various media incarnations of Marvel’s marquee hero have been retelling Peter Parker’s origin mythology since the character took off in 1962, and like DC’s juggernaut Batman, one assumes we will have fresh incarnations as long as ticket buyers are willing to line up.

Music video whiz Webb, whose debut feature “(500) Days of Summer” immediately marked him as an unorthodox choice to take the reins of a massive franchise film when the decision was first announced, effectively handles most of the human elements and adequately dispatches the complex special effects, although to my eye, Rhys Ifans in full-blown Lizard mode is ridiculously oversized – three or four feet taller and more than one hundred pounds heavier than he appeared in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #6 in 1963. Ifans, like Dylan Baker before him, is a great choice to play the yearning, Jekyll/Hyde-like Dr. Curtis Connors, but the role is predictably malnourished and utterly humorless and could have used a lot more of Ifans’ wit.

Beyond the uninspired plot machinery that grinds toward the staple entire-city-in-peril climax, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is far from ideal, and for truehearted fanboys and fangirls, there was no need to meddle with a backstory linking Peter’s parents to whatever shocking revelations await us in the sequels. Less charitable critics have denounced the reboot as a desperate legal requirement allowing Sony Pictures to keep the movie rights from reverting to Marvel, but the outcome – superior to Raimi’s vision in some places and subordinate in others – suggests that enough care was taken to distinguish the new material (lame Stan Lee cameo notwithstanding).

Among the most inventive applications of the point-counterpoint debate mulling the merits of Tobey Maguire versus Andrew Garfield in the title role was laid out by Linda Holmes for NPR. Playing with the finer distinctions between the nerd and the geek, Holmes argues that Webb’s film improves on Raimi’s work by providing Peter with a set of conditions allowing him to operate outside the boundaries and expectations of the future Spider-Man as a bullied nebbish. Holmes astutely points out that Garfield’s Peter Parker chooses to isolate himself from the cliques and peer groups that dominate life in high school.

Holmes goes on to pinpoint another key argument in favor of Webb’s edition: Garfield and Emma Stone share a genuine chemistry with one another and Stone’s Gwen Stacy is not obliged to follow the Lois Lane trope in which so much tension in the developing romantic relationship between the protagonists revolves around her ignorance of Spidey’s secret identity. Holmes claims that the omission of “mistaken identity misdirection” makes Gwen “substantially more conscious as a character,” and this is certainly true up to a point. While Stone’s performance is warm and earnest, the script never satisfactorily determines what to do with Gwen during the climax (spoiler: she has to stand around waiting for an antidote to synthesize). One admires the effort to avoid making her the more typical damsel in distress, but given the de rigueur battle showdown between the super hero and the super villain, I for one would have loved to see Gwen do something totally unexpected.

Magic Mike

Monday, July 2nd, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

While Steven Soderbergh continues to postpone his self-proclaimed “retirement” to the surprise of absolutely nobody who goes to the movies, “Magic Mike” marks another curious title in the director’s eclectic filmography. Also known as the male stripper movie loosely inspired by star Channing Tatum’s own experiences, “Magic Mike” echoes any number of thematic concerns Soderbergh expressed in “The Girlfriend Experience” in 2009. Tatum’s ambitious, entrepreneurial Mike is at one point denied a loan at the bank despite the thick stacks of bills he flashes from his briefcase, but Soderbergh is less concerned with making a statement about current economic hardship than he is with sketching the oft-told version of the American Dream in which a little talent and a lot of ambition results in a happy ending.

The throwback Warner Bros. logo opening the film indicates Soderbergh’s desired vintage, hedonist vibe, in which the all-male revue at Tampa’s Xquisite keeps the party going long after the spotlights cool. As club owner Dallas, Matthew McConaughey douses his employees with the same amount of snake oil he splashes on his female clientele. The actor puts his drawl into overdrive, and Dallas is the closest McConaughey has come to reprising the sleazy cadences that defined his breakout performance as Mike Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused” almost twenty years ago.

Alongside articles on the success of “Magic Mike” with gay men, any number of web-based reports suggests that females in the audiences far outnumber males. In spite of the allure of decadence, debauchery, and hard bodies on display, the film sticks with the MPAA rating system’s conventional expectation prohibiting significant male full-frontal nudity in R designated releases. It might be a stretch to claim that “Magic Mike” is wholesome, but one of the movie’s underlying themes is the familiar conceit that eroticized dancing for money is something done as a means to an end and not an end in itself (see “Flashdance” for a classic example).

As a filmmaker, Soderbergh has demonstrated a level of competency and consistency aligning him more with studio workhorses of Hollywood’s golden age than with the stylistically identifiable auteur directors who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Like the legendary Michael Curtiz, Soderbergh can deliver the goods in multiple genres and with varying budgets – and he often does so at the rate of more than one movie per year. Strong with performers, plot, and pace, Soderbergh is also well-known for his hands-on technical expertise, photographing his own work under the pseudonym Peter Andrews and often editing as Mary Ann Bernard.

Even dramas about dancing are required to deliver the choreographed goods, and Soderbergh stages the routines with confidence and zeal. The various numbers, built around familiar fantasies, include what may be the summum bonum of male erotic dancing: the stripper/cop confusion trope, recently featured and parodied to perfection in the “Pier Pressure” episode of “Arrested Development.” Tatum’s moves may not exactly rival Gene Kelly’s footwork, but the actor’s athleticism, charisma, and sense of humor all combine to provide him with his strongest vehicle to date.