Archive for July, 2013

The Silence

Monday, July 29th, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Based on a popular 2007 novel by Jan Costin Wagner, German-made “The Silence” is an ambitious, accomplished procedural significantly more restrained and purposeful than the majority of its American counterparts. Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Baran bo Odar, the film juggles a potentially precarious number of characters and interlocking storylines to explore the grim and lurid contours of an unsolved rape and murder that eerily, impossibly is recreated almost a quarter of a century later. The Swiss-born writer/director reveals a visceral command of the somber material, and while he does not quite achieve the sustained poise and profundity of Gotz Spielmann’s “Revanche,” his talent is considerable.

The most remarkable dimension of Odar’s work is the inquisitive, non-judgmental manner in which every individual personality is treated. From pedophile to police detective, “The Silence” spends significant time with each of its inhabitants, although the gambit risks occasional audience alienation when some storylines unfold in stronger and less predictable ways than others. Not every viewer will appreciate the constantly shifting point-of-view, a technique that feels more at home on an episodic series like “The Wire,” in which multiple episodes afford an opportunity to fully explore the lives and motivations of those involved in a complex case.

The film’s opening scene establishes the identities of the two men responsible for the killing of 11-year-old Pia in 1986, and that choice shifts audience focus and concern away from the who and toward the inexplicable why. Apartment caretaker Peer Sommer (Ulrich Thomsen), a patient, calculating predator, befriends lonely student Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), instinctively recognizing in the young man a kindred spirit with a similar appetite for vulnerable girls. Peer projects home movie reels of child pornography for Timo, and one afternoon they go hunting, taking advantage of a quiet, seldom traveled road and the unfathomable horror of a child being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Certainly the most thought-provoking figure in “The Silence” is Timo. Though no less guilty than Peer in the assault, Timo does not directly participate, remaining frozen in Peer’s car during the murder of Pia. When reintroduced many years later, we are surprised and taken aback to learn that Timo has become an architect, is married, and has two children. Like Peter Lorre’s unforgettable Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece “M,” Timo represents the rare cinematic monster we are not asked to forgive or understand, but whose presence as a human being makes hatred and contempt more difficult propositions.

We are left to wonder why Timo keeps for so long the awful silence referenced in the title, a conspiracy that revisits hell many years later on the people (especially Pia’s mother Elena, played by the sensational Katrin Sass) whose lives were forever changed in an instant. The time-spanning unsolved crime narrative of “The Silence” will remind many of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Memories of Murder,” the latter a direct inspiration noted by Odar. Like Joon-ho Bong’s film, “The Silence” does not provide any comfort or closure in its haunting conclusion, only an invitation to reflect on the nauseating, senseless cruelties that sometimes befall the innocent.

The Kings of Summer

Monday, July 22nd, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A safe and toothless coming-of-age story that leisurely juggles a teenage love triangle, a strained father-son relationship, and all the “how to be a man” cliches that go along with the genre territory, “The Kings of Summer” uses several of the same key components explored to more satisfying and sophisticated effect in “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Mud.” Blending the kids-run-away-from home plot (without any of the urgency or wistfulness of Wes Anderson’s terrific film) and the it’s-hard-growing-up liminality of “Mud,” first-time feature director Jordan Vogt-Roberts grossly overestimates the likability of central character Joe Toy (Nick Robinson), a selfish, unnecessarily cruel jerk.

Like “Mud,” the crisis point of “The Kings of Summer” involves a life-threatening, poisonous snakebite designed in part to reveal Joe’s mettle and signify his transition from callow childishness to maturity, but the misshapen sequence – ominously and obviously alluded to earlier in the movie – unfolds much like the convenient and pat summary of a lesson-learned television episode. The rest of the action alternates between scenes of teenage boy views of domestic drudgery and the sweet escape of hatching a plan, however unlikely, to live off the land. Joe enlists best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and tagalong weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), an ambiguous misfit who speaks almost entirely in non sequiturs, to join him in his plan to build a house hidden in the nearby woods.

Cobbled from construction site leftovers and other pilfered scraps, the cabin miraculously comes together almost overnight, courtesy of a time-compressing montage. The result, a marvelous ramshackle fort adorned with a pickup topper-roofed second story loft, a swimming pool slide connecting the upper and lower floors, and an air hockey table (no idea how that particular item was dragged through the forest) is a prime example of the sort of “perfect imperfect” engineering that only exists in the universe of movies. As the representation of a half-real, half-dreamed arcadia, the abode offers the boys respite, refuge, and most importantly, freedom from overbearing parents.

Vogt-Roberts, working from a script by Chris Galletta, struggles to calibrate the movie’s tonal balance, grinding gears from the droll, deadpan sarcasm of Nick Offerman’s grieving dad Frank Toy – easily the most entertaining aspect of the film – to the caricature of nightmarish parenthood provided by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson (who banter like cartoon stereotypes from a Saturday Night Live sketch).

Alongside the mash-up of broad comedy and straight-faced drama, the least convincing dimension of “The Kings of Summer” is derived from the sizable gaps in logic following the disappearance of the teens. Even though the police are involved and the story makes the local news, Frank remains as calm as Patrick’s folks are alarmist. The stakes are apparently so low that at one point Frank goes fishing with Patrick’s father, showing a bizarre lack of concern during the ongoing search for their boys. Weirder still, when Patrick returns, a newscast relates Patrick’s claim not to have seen his best friend, and there is no indication that the authorities or Frank press for information from the last person to see Joe. Of course, we are not supposed to scrutinize any of this, but the movie’s relaxed pace gives us little else to do.

Much Ado About Nothing

Monday, July 15th, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Considering the many cinematic adaptations of the plays of William Shakespeare, it is surprising that Joss Whedon’s film of “Much Ado About Nothing” is only the second theatrically released, English language, synchronous sound version of that popular text produced as a film (and not a filmed stage production). The previous iteration, Kenneth Branagh’s charming, funny, and fearlessly cast movie of 1993 might have deterred most others – especially Yankees – but Whedon’s effort, shot in less than two weeks during a contractually required break from the massive, nearly all-consuming post-production tasks on “The Avengers,” distinguishes itself in all sorts of ways, some effectual, some not so much.

Peopled with Whedon’s favorite actors from many of his previous projects (including “Angel,” “Dollhouse,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “The Avengers,” and “The Cabin in the Woods”), “Much Ado” was also shot in and around the director’s Santa Monica home, making efficient use of the dwelling’s many rooms and outdoor spaces for all manner of drinking and eavesdropping. Striving for, if never quite fully achieving, the kind of rapid-fire banter associated with the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, “Much Ado” will most likely be sought out by Whedon’s fans and Shakespeare-on-film completists.

Jay Hunter’s black and white photography accentuates the sharp fashions – suits and ties for the men, dresses for the women – but also reminds the viewer of several of the show’s potentially outmoded and antique social customs, most unmistakably the significance of Hero’s virginity as a prerequisite for marriage. While it certainly makes sense that the insecure, unworthy Claudio would be upset when confronted with the idea that the woman he desires has been intimate with others, a great deal of the text’s prose alludes to an expectation of chastity that proves as tough a sell in the modern setting as the idea that the well-dressed fellows have just returned from battle.

The trailer for “Much Ado” tantalizingly promised a carnival of erotic gamesmanship and lusty, masked ball flirtations, but the action is buttoned-up with the notable exceptions of a post-coital disappearing act prologue that confirms Benedick and Beatrice’s intimacy and a rendezvous between Don John and a gender-swapped Conrade that breathes some life into the antagonists’ camp. Given the large number of male roles in the play, Whedon might have re-imagined even more of the boys as girls, since outside of Beatrice and Hero, the latter gender is represented mainly by servants. Fortunately, Amy Acker’s Beatrice is this production’s most luminous and memorable character.

Curiously, Whedon retains Claudio’s racist declaration that he is prepared to marry the veiled “niece” of Leonato even if she is revealed as “an Ethiope,” and while the filmmaker’s intention is to comment on the ugly sentiment rather than condone it, the moment serves as a weird reminder of the cohort’s white, privileged homogeneity and cements Claudio as more than just a fool and a jerk, adding prejudiced bigot to his list of epithets. As noted by Camille Martinez, “Shakespeare’s dramatis personae betray a Eurocentric vision that 21st century audiences may find trouble with.” In 1993, Branagh’s inclusion of Denzel Washington as Don Pedro served as an arguably token example of so-called “colorblind” casting, but given the prince’s rank, authority, and heart, Branagh was making a deliberate statement.

David Sprunger on Much Ado About Nothing

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Amy Acker as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Interview by Greg Carlson

Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” is only the second theatrically released, English language, synchronous sound version of the text produced as a film and not a filmed version of a stage production, distinctions that have prompted excitement for fans of Shakespeare at the movies. High Plains Reader film editor Greg Carlson asked Concordia College professor David Sprunger, a scholar whose research interests include, among other things, medieval literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, to share some of his thoughts on the production.


Greg Carlson: In your opinion, how does “Much Ado About Nothing” rank among Shakespeare’s comedies?

David Sprunger: “Much Ado” deserves its reputation as the best of Shakespeare’s love comedies. It has the bickering sexual tension of “The Taming of the Shrew” but with a kinder resolution. It also has the distinction of containing far more prose than verse, so the language is more accessible than in other Shakespeare plays.


GC: In Whedon’s film, one of the things you notice immediately is that Beatrice and Benedick have already slept together as the action gets underway. How did that choice alter perceptions of their subsequent courtship in this version?

DS: The play contains several lines in which Beatrice alludes to a possible earlier relationship with Benedick, but the context of the lines leaves some question as to whether Benedick is aware of Beatrice’s perception of whatever happened in the past. The opening scene in Whedon’s film shows Benedick’s rather cowardly conclusion to the relationship. His subsequent unwillingness to acknowledge their encounter or to attempt to explain his departure makes him a less sympathetic character.


GC: Whedon is so regularly described as a filmmaker who respects women I could not help but wonder about the ways in which womanhood and femininity are treated in contemporary productions of “Much Ado.” Can you comment on the sexual politics that interested Shakespeare and whether or to what extent they are effective in the show today?

DS: Shakespeare’s love comedies are predicated on Elizabethan attitudes toward courtship and marriage as largely economic transactions with important implications for entire families. One reason why “Much Ado” probably maintains its appeal is that Beatrice seems to be largely outside of such a system. She is the ward of her uncle and no mention is made of any dowry or other financial component of her marriage.

Shakespeare also sets high value on same-sex friendships, particularly between men. Beatrice’s “kill Claudio” command calls competing loyalties into question. The rapidity with which Benedick declines Beatrice’s request shows that although he loves Beatrice, he is not yet willing to put her interests above his friendship with Claudio.


GC: The modern setting really highlights all the language revolving around Hero’s chastity and the social “value” of her virginity. Other than the convenience of plotting, why doesn’t Claudio take Hero’s word over Don John’s when her honor is called into question?

DS: It’s not that Claudio takes Don John’s word over Hero’s but that he trusts his own senses. The power of what he thinks he sees is enough to overcome all other reason.  When Hero protests her innocence, she is not arguing with Don John the Bastard but with visual evidence, with what Shakespeare calls elsewhere “ocular proof.”

In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would probably be pronounced as our modern “noting,” so there’s a suggestion that we not make “much ado” about what we see. The play is rife with misunderstandings that result from conversations overheard and events seen at a distance. The trick played on Claudio is parallel to those played on Benedick and Beatrice, but it has far darker implications. The play’s title would seem to downplay all these notings.

One way that Whedon keeps this sense of noting active through the film is in the device of an omnipresent photographer whose job is apparently to document all events of Don Pedro’s visit to Leonato’s.  She reminds us that within the film’s world, everything is open to scrutiny and nothing is really private.


GC: Were there any significant changes or omissions that really stood out to you?

DS: Every production of a Shakespeare play is an adaptation with details being dropped or rearranged. Whedon makes small changes between the text and the film, but nothing seemed particularly daunting. Leonato’s brother is dropped and we get less Dogberry than in some productions. You’ve already brought up the opening scene and subsequent flashback to Benedick and Beatrice’s prior relationship. That element was the most important to me.

The decision to cast Don John’s follower Conrade as a woman was a curious choice, but I liked it. One wonders why anyone is willingly aligned with Don John, the political loser of the war that precedes the play’s action. Conrade’s gender and relationship with John gives one such motive. Borachio, the other person in John’s party, is portrayed as younger and less military than the other male actors, which gives him a sort of intern-like appearance.


GC: How do you think Whedon’s interpretation fares next to the Branagh production of 1993?

DS: It’s hard not to watch Whedon’s film and make mental comparisons to Branagh’s. In the end, I prefer Branagh’s interpretation, which develops more leisurely and more spaciously.


GC: Who managed the best performances in this version?

DS: Amy Acker does a great job as Beatrice. She brings some physical comedy to the role. The comic center of the play is the scenes where their friends trick Benedick and Beatrice into thinking each loves the other. The duping of Beatrice was my favorite scene in the film.

Also, Nathan Fillion’s portrayal of Dogberry is the best I’ve seen on stage or screen. Call me a contrarian, but Michael Keaton’s exaggerated portrayal in Branagh’s film is a blot on that production. The way Fillion underplays the bumbling logic and malapropisms makes the character more palatable.


GC: This production has received attention for its low-budget, speedy shooting schedule, and the use of Whedon’s own residence as the location and his gang of actor friends as the cast. Do you think that homemade ambience was an asset or a liability?

DS: The low-budget elements worked for me. A friend who saw the film mentioned that it really helps to know the play before seeing the movie because the plot moves quickly and jumps about a bit.

I came away from the film thinking about the tremendous amount of alcohol displayed and consumed in the film. Perhaps this is the way the Hollywood elite live during their down time, but it seemed as if every room in the house had a bar or decanter with an inexhaustibly varied supply of glassware immediately at hand. Perhaps the intent was to signal a sort of prolonged party/carnival atmosphere but it undercut the love story for me a bit.


GC: What is the most memorable production of “Much Ado” that you have seen?

DS: Last fall I had the pleasure of seeing a production set in twentieth century India. The emphasis on family honor gained extra significance in the Indian context. I’ve been thinking about that production this week since Benedick was played by Paul Bhattacharjee, the British actor whose mysterious disappearance and subsequent death have recently been in the news.

The Lone Ranger

Monday, July 8th, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following his radio debut on Detroit’s WXYZ in early 1933, the Lone Ranger has enjoyed widespread American cultural popularity with children and adults, branded in film serials, novels, television shows, animated cartoons, comic strips, comic books, records, toys, and even a video game. From his ever-present disguise to his supply of silver bullets – a visual reminder that life is precious and the gun should only be fired when absolutely necessary – the Masked Man contributed to the American lexicon several enduring, iconic tropes of justice, honesty, and moral absolutism. Gore Verbinski’s new film retains John Reid’s square jaw and square comportment, but also slathers it with so much mugging, buffoonery, and slapstick that lighthearted irony is transformed into derisive cynicism.

One of the tenets of the Lone Ranger’s creed suggests that God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself [sic]. If one applies this notion to the Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp, and Jerry Bruckheimer interpretation of the legend, the filmmakers collected soggy, substandard kindling and poured the gasoline when it wouldn’t light. For everything that project initiator Depp does right, several things go very wrong. Aside from Tonto, Native Americans are on hand for some old-fashioned combat with the U.S. Cavalry, and Verbinski treats the slaughter as part of the “fun,” don’t-think-about-it spectacle. Women don’t have it any better. Only two females have significant speaking roles (no, they don’t talk to one another) and the majority of other women glimpsed as background extras play frontier prostitutes.

Depp’s dubious, disputed, and longstanding claim that he has some Native American heritage in his family bloodline is mentioned in Daniel D’Addario’s recent “Salon” essay, a sharply written and convincingly argued consideration of the legacy of Tonto in terms of racial and ethnic stereotyping, the false claims of “honoring” marginalized cultures, and the pervasive Hollywood practice of casting white performers in roles that could and should be inhabited by actors of color. Undoubtedly, it is not Depp’s intention to ridicule or demean American Indians no matter how loopy his character design (the plan is assuredly the very opposite), but as D’Addario notes, the actor still uses the Jay Silverheels brand of grammatically infantilizing pidgin English devoid of most definite articles, missing an opportunity to truly re-imagine Tonto in a new century.

Eighteen years ago, Johnny Depp starred in another movie featuring an unlikely partnership between a white, fledgling cowboy and a savvy First Nations “guide.” In Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” Depp appeared as the uncoordinated tenderfoot from Cleveland who learns to speak through his weapon on a foreboding journey toward death. The great Gary Farmer played Nobody, a half Blood, half Blackfoot outcast (whose tribe-less status parallels Tonto) with an impressive and adequately explained fluency and command of four languages. It may be unfair to compare a black & white indie with a Disney juggernaut (there are no “Dead Man” Lego sets, although there should have been), but if one wants to see how a non-Native filmmaker explodes the traditional stereotypes of American Indians in the movies, you have to watch the one where Depp is the white man.

Finally, when the William Tell Overture sounds and the film’s most impressive sustained action set piece gets underway – complete with some double-steam locomotive chase hjjinks and massive trestle explosion that pay direct tribute to Buster Keaton’s “The General” as reverently as Depp plays Tonto as a nod to the Great Stone Face himself – “The Lone Ranger” hints at the kind of fun we should have had during the rest of the labored, stiff, blow-by-blow. Too much of what remains calls to mind the horrors of Barry Sonnenfeld’s joyless, phony “Wild Wild West” and is as artistically nourishing as the seed Tonto insists on feeding to the desiccated crow perched on top of his head.

The Bling Ring

Monday, July 1st, 2013


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Inspired by Nancy Jo Sales’ “Vanity Fair” article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature “The Bling Ring” observes the larcenous practices of a group of young California burglars who took advantage of lax security at the homes of several celebrity victims, including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Orlando Bloom. Already dramatized in 2011 as a Lifetime movie with the same title, the story provides Coppola with another opportunity to develop several themes that recur in her films: the distance between fame and anonymity, the difficulty of attaining personal fulfillment through material possessions in the absence of self-reflection, and the transition from youth to maturity.

Opening with the infectious beat and blare of Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” to underscore a heist in progress, “The Bling Ring” uses music as perfectly as each of Coppola’s movies, thanks to the director’s own expertise and the ear of regular collaborator Brian Reitzell. Like the decadent pastel bon bons, petits fours, millinery, footwear, and couture that decorated Marie Antoinette’s chambers in Coppola’s vision of pre-revolution French court life, the designer handbags, sunglasses, mini-dresses, and jewelry pawed and pilfered by the Bling Ring signify the craving for acquisition-based affluence and serve as a reminder that collected objects are no substitute for genuine personal relationships.

This idea was more effectively explored by Coppola in “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere,” principally because key points of view in those movies belonged to the wealthy insiders confined by their privilege rather than the narcissistic wannabes of “The Bling Ring,” whose constant exposure to social media and reliance on reality television and prescription medication has instilled a longing to hoard the status symbols and taste the notoriety of those oft-photographed and over-documented beautiful people who are, for the most part, famous for being famous.

With the exception of Israel Broussard’s Marc, who is based on Nick Prugo, the inner circle of thieves is comprised of several young women, most notably Marc’s new bestie and robbery ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) and the absurdly insensitive Nicki (Emma Watson). Coppola is far more sympathetic to Marc than Sales’ description of Prugo in the expanded movie tie-in book, but it is the casting of Watson that yields a real return on investment. Watson brings with her a level of preconceived audience goodwill that offsets the indelicacy of her charmless, venal, mean girl with an addiction to clubbing and duck lip selfies. She nails the shallow, SoCal-speak, deadpanning many of the best lines, including “I want to lead a country one day for all I know,” which Sales claims Watson’s real life counterpart Alexis Neiers actually said.

Showing restraint that has confounded some critics hoping for evidence of a clearer moral position or a more cutting satire, Coppola refrains from passing judgment on the Bling Ring’s aspiring Bad Girls/Super Rich Kids, but one wonders whether the filmmaker missed an opportunity for a deeper examination of class and race by omitting any character directly based on the undocumented immigrant Diana Tamayo, one of the original members of the Bling Ring. Since the film depends in some measure on the “authenticity” of its true-to-life sources, embedded in the ready-made publicity of Coppola obtaining permission to shoot inside Paris Hilton’s Hollywood Hills house, the addition of Tamayo’s part of the saga may have added another evocative layer.