Archive for May, 2013

The Sapphires

Monday, May 27th, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Very loosely based on the story of a singing group of Aboriginal women who performed for soldiers during the Vietnam War, “The Sapphires” depends on the charm and wit of Chris O’Dowd and the catchy soul tunes made famous by Linda Lyndell, the Staple Singers, the Four Tops, and others to overcome the film’s marshmallow structure and simplistic historical reductionism. Director Wayne Blair paints the characters in extremely broad strokes, falling back on the use of single, repeated traits to differentiate among the principal players, but the exuberance of the music and the heartwarming uplift will win over many.

Originally produced as a stage play written by Tony Briggs, whose mother was one of the women who inspired the drama, “The Sapphires” introduces Australian sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman, who played younger sis Cynthia onstage) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) as a duo keen on performing country music in backwater talent competitions. Soon, youngest sibling Julie (Jessica Mauboy) emerges – to the dismay of bossy Gail – as the most talented vocalist in the family. As a single mother who for unknown reasons keeps secret the identity of her little boy’s father in a storyline that goes nowhere, Julie should have been constructed with greater care and detail, especially in the rendering of her decision to temporarily leave her child.

O’Dowd’s boozy promoter Dave Lovelace is initially painted as a potentially untrustworthy opportunist who sees in the Cummeragunja Songbirds a chance to pursue both R&B passions and financial gain. To the film’s credit, we are spared at least one classic ne’er do well cliché when Dave doesn’t squander the group’s earnings during a drunken card game. Instead, the narrative uses Dave’s borderline substance abuse as a conflict trigger in his budding romance with Gail. Both the color of O’Dowd’s skin and his unlikely nationality are mined for jokes, but the character’s affinity for Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett is as earnest as the same kind of ardor displayed by the working class Dubliners in Alan Parker’s infectious 1991 adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments.”

Capitalizing on the parallels between the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the discrimination faced by indigenous Australians through the institutionalized removal of Aboriginal children from their families, “The Sapphires” addresses racism and the horror of legally sanctioned kidnapping in one of its arcs. The story of the fourth Sapphire, Kay (Shari Sebbens), deals with the young woman’s identity as a mixed-race victim of the removal policy. Viewers will be reminded of Phillip Noyce’s 2002 movie adaptation of “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” the best-known feature to cover the Stolen Generations.

The pain caused by the childhood theft and forced adoption of Kay fuels Gail’s feelings of anger, guilt, and resentment, and the subplot is one of the movie’s most emotionally satisfying components. The relationship dynamics between the two women might have served as the basis for a fully-fledged movie on its own. As it stands, “The Sapphires” spends more time on the eye-opening adventures that accompany a theater of war, and in spite of the film’s modest budget, the limited location photography in and around Ho Chi Minh City evokes the period detail of the Vietnam War.


Monday, May 20th, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows his arresting and much admired “Take Shelter” with “Mud,” a Southern Gothic-tinted, Arkansas bildungsroman indebted to hallmark novels including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Mud” is nowhere near as good as those titles, but the movie’s unhurried pace and detailed identification with its young protagonist balance the busy contrivances that mar the climax. Photographed in Nichols’ home state, “Mud” tells the story of fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a houseboat dwelling kid dependent on the river for the precarious livelihood of his family. Dealing with the impending separation of his parents and the pangs of first love, Ellis turns his attention to a mysterious fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) when he discovers the outlaw living in a derelict boat stuck high in the branches of a tree.

Nichols believably pinpoints the intersection of hope and desperation in the charismatic McConaughey, who is perfectly cast and ideally realized as the hungry lawbreaker whose silver tongue and smooth confidence seduce Ellis and Ellis’ close friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) into aid and abetment. Mud tells the boys about Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman whose purported victimization at the hands of a brutish lover brought about a miscarriage and the subsequent murder of the man by Mud. Despite being hunted by the dead man’s family and the local authorities, Mud is certain he can restore the boat and make his escape.

Like many coming of age narratives, “Mud” develops a theme addressing the question of what it takes to be a man, and the movie has no shortage of fathers, father figures, and males of various ages working out the codes of honor that are preoccupations of masculinity. Nichols locks on to paternal regulations with gusto, even casting go-to grizzlies Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker in parallel roles. When it comes to the outnumbered women, Nichols is less certain of himself, and Juniper in particular is frustratingly opaque. Mud’s proximity to Juniper puts him in grave danger, but Ellis – whose own romantic pursuit of the hard-to-read May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) – can only see things in terms of his incomplete teenage notions of chivalry.

Even if the film’s female characters are underserved and, as noted by Kimberly Jones, exist only in their relation to men, “Mud” understands the possibility that the gullibility and earnestness of youth can lead to situations in which kids are used by grown-ups. Nichols’ conclusion is ambivalent on the extent to which Mud has taken advantage of Ellis and Neckbone, even though that question is at one point directly raised. The ambiguity of some child-adult relationships can make one’s heart ache as innocence gives way to experience, and Nichols captures the feeling.

The wild, violent conclusion of the movie will feel out of step for some of the viewers who appreciate the finely observed repetition of Ellis’ smallish, hardscrabble day-to-day. The economics of small town De Witt, Eudora, and the surrounding communities are not nearly as dire and catastrophic as Hushpuppy’s environs in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but both movies touch on the possibility that their young heroes and heroines are flirting with the epiphany that the world is much bigger than previously imagined.

The Great Gatsby

Monday, May 13th, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” receives its fourth theatrical feature adaptation (for whatever reason, the forgotten 2005 “G” is not included on that list) along with the Baz Luhrmann treatment, an expectedly anachronistic bricolage that marginally improves on the somnolence of the 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton. Mostly faithful in major plot detail and too faithful in the relentless use of “old sport” as Gatsby’s favorite term of endearment, Luhrmann’s edition spares no expense in conjuring up a simulacrum of Jazz Age extravagance and conspicuous consumption. The movie’s brio fails to develop into a “spectacular spectacular,” however, and like Gatsby’s doomed quest, no amount of money can buy the viewer’s love.

The 1998 Greenhaven Press compilation “Readings on The Great Gatsby” addresses Gatsby’s nature by presenting a quintet of essays arguing that the man is variously a classic romantic, a sinister gangster, a profoundly comic character, a pathological narcissist, and a fairytale hero for the middle class. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t get at each of these positions equally, but his portrayal effectively encapsulates Gatsby’s neediness and desperation for love and approval that never arrive. Of course, it is Nick and not Daisy who comes closest to validating Gatsby’s desire (“You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”), but Luhrmann doesn’t press the homoeroticism of the Jay-Nick bromance, extra-textually stimulated by DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire’s foundational membership in the coarsely named Pussy Posse.

Daisy Fay Buchanan, the shallow and capricious committer of vehicular homicide, is arguably the Gatsby character most resistant to cinematic translation. Mia Farrow’s disastrous interpretation left much to be desired, and Carey Mulligan strains to make the most of her very scarce opportunities to instill complexity in a young woman so idealized by her onetime suitor she cannot possibly live up to Gatsby’s expectations. The romance of “The Great Gatsby” has always struck me as a terrible, rotten mirage, and its fundamental emptiness and fraudulence – a key part of Fitzgerald’s tragedy – presents a major adaptation obstacle.

Those who accept the novel as sacred canon will despise Luhrmann’s big alterations, most glaringly manifested in a poorly conceived and wretchedly executed framing device that places Nick Carraway in a sanatorium as he “writes” the story of Gatsby as a kind of purgation of his alcoholic and melancholic demons. The gimmick gives Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce an excuse to slather on what feels like pages and pages of extraneous voiceover narration presumably included to honor Fitzgerald’s poetic cadences. In case we miss the point, Luhrmann superimposes the text of key passages and quotations directly onscreen.

Considering Shawn Carter’s producing credit and soundtrack presence, it obviously occurred to Luhrmann that Jay-Z’s Marcy Projects to Madison Square Garden trajectory mirrors the Horatio Alger-esque, self-made journey of Gatsby. In her “New York Times” column, Maureen Dowd quoted Leon Wieseltier, who “thinks it’s time for a black Gatsby.” Luhrmann retains Fitzgerald’s references to race, including the moment when Nick and Jay are passed on the Queensboro Bridge by a limousine “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl.” The scene in the film is underscored by Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” and serves as a reminder of the gulf between the wealthy white Roaring Twenties aristocracy and the artists and innovators of the Harlem Renaissance.


Monday, May 6th, 2013

Trance film still

Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals key plot information. Read only if you have seen “Trance.”

The recently released “Oblivion” made the error of using Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” as an artificial stand-in for desired psychological depth that failed to materialize. In Danny Boyle’s “Trance,” a similar tactic is employed via Francisco Goya’s 1798 “Witches in the Air,” but in this case the painting is a major MacGuffin at the center of an auction house art heist gone wrong. Boyle pays homage to and explodes the contours of classic film noir, although one’s enjoyment of the movie will depend on the extent to which disbelief can be suspended in the service of a plot that explores lost and found memory.

James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel form the highly unreliable triangle of participants in the criminal roundelay. McAvoy’s Simon is the inside man who suffers an unexpected blow to the head that leaves crook Franck (Cassel) no choice but to retain the services of hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson), who will assist Simon in remembering the location of the Goya. In his biography of Ava Gardner, Lee Server wrote that amnesia is “noir’s version of the common cold.” Joe Ahearne – who wrote and directed the TV movie upon which “Trance” is based – and John Hodge take the device to heart in their script, setting out to both construct a typically fatalistic noir and explore the abstract, faulty, and untrustworthy workings of the brain.

With its dependence on double and triple-crosses, “Trance” honors a number of twisty noir hallmarks, including “Detour,” “D.O.A.,” and as Tom Wardak has pointed out, “High Wall” and “Spellbound,” a pair of psychiatry noirs that Wardak notes, “flipped the gendered stereotypes of male psychotherapist and female hysteric… to explore the emasculation that returning soldiers now felt in a peaceful, domesticated, female-driven arena.” The emasculation of “Trance” is mostly visual and in keeping with motion picture rating double standards, as both McAvoy and Cassel are photographed in careful compositions to obscure their genitalia while Dawson’s nudity is situated as a key plot point doubling as an art history lesson about the presence and absence of pubic hair.

Even though Lamb is grossly outnumbered by the male thugs and thieves with whom she capably holds her own, “Trance” has a few tricks up its sleeve regarding gender. While it is easy to read Lamb initially as a femme fatale responsible for the downfall of Simon, Boyle’s slippery shifts in allegiance and the revelation of Simon as a possessive abuser suggest that the “real” protagonist of “Trance” is Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Boyle seems to be less interested in character than in structure, and despite Dawson’s considerable efforts, Lamb suffers in the tradeoff.

The resolute amorality of the movie’s characters burdens anything that might pass for a rooting interest, and in this respect “Trance” is less successful than Boyle’s directorial debut “Shallow Grave.” Regular collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle works his usual magic behind the camera, fracturing, fragmenting, and mirroring motifs into a hallucinatory kaleidoscope that includes a bizarre close-up of what remains of Cassel’s head after a point blank gunshot. Next to Dawson’s glabrousness, it’s the movie’s most discussed image. The photographic pyrotechnics complement the contrivances bound to the film’s big shock, a disclosure made all the wilder for its dependence on Simon’s acomoclitism as memory trigger. “Trance” may not be for every taste, but it’s a razor in more ways than one.