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Every Little Step

everylittlestep

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Every Little Step,” a documentary chronicling the grueling audition process for the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line,” achieves some of its lofty goals while leaving just as many stories of the venerable musical frustratingly unexplored. Directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern are clearly more interested in the macrocosmic, shaping their movie around the ineffable desire that sees so many hopefuls compete for so few jobs. The movie conveys the strange unity that binds together the affectionately-monikered “gypsies” who bleed, perspire, and weep as they face nearly insurmountable odds to find work in their chosen profession. For anyone interested in the workings of Broadway theatre, “Every Little Step” should not be missed.

“Every Little Step” squeezes in a great deal of drama during its 96-minute running time, including previously unheard material from the original 1974 audiotape sessions that evolved into the workshops that would eventually bring “A Chorus Line” to a whopping run of 6137 performances. Alternating between brief sketches of the show’s origins (though mostly ignoring some key contributors like Ed Kleban and James Kirkwood) and the rounds of monologues and dance combinations at the revival auditions, the documentary engages the same “And Then There Were None” strategy put to good use in Jeffrey Blitz’s “Spellbound.”

Given the popularity of talent shows like “American Idol,” the elimination format of “Every Little Step” is a built-in intrigue generator that keeps most viewers engaged as the casting process moves ever closer to the final decisions. “A Chorus Line,” with its inward-directed gaze, is the perfect meta-musical test case for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the parameters of its creation. At various times, the movie begins to reflect and refract images like a hall of mirrors (such as the scenes in which Baayork Lee, the original Connie Wong, helps to cast an actor playing an actor in a part based largely on Lee’s own life).

“Every Little Step” contains several gripping scenes, most notably a section of Jason Tam’s stunning audition for the role of Paul. Tam’s heartfelt line readings reduce the grizzled decision makers to tears, and the sequence leaves one yearning for more detail about the actor. Unfortunately, this is a common deficiency of “Every Little Step,” as the moviemakers never fully connect with any of the people trying out for roles. Instead, the interviews contain a multitude of show business chestnuts that ironically shield the performers from revealing anything specific about their own journeys to the stage.

Viewers of “Every Little Step” will not see any content addressing the controversies aroused by choreographer/director Michael Bennett during and after the original production of “A Chorus Line.” Bennett is deified by every talking head in the movie, particularly Donna McKechnie, whose closeness – and onetime marriage to Bennett – affords her a special authority. Surely the documentary would have been more involving had it opened up to a comprehensive accounting of the history of “A Chorus Line,” but given the fact that Bennett estate executor John Breglio is one of the film’s executive producers, “Every Little Step” predictably remains a respectful tribute.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/22/09.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

takingofpelham

Movie review by Greg Carlson

It should go without saying that the freshly released Tony Scott remake of the 1974 Joseph Sargent version of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is utterly unnecessary. Most remakes, reinterpretations, and re-imaginings are. Blasting off with a thumping remix of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” the new “Pelham” honors the original hijack/caper movie at least as far as painting a portrait of life in and around the NYC subway system. While the original movie’s tough, gritty New York attained a cult following (with members including the Beastie Boys and Quentin Tarantino), Scott’s version of the city emphasizes a post-Giuliani metropolis understandably concerned with the safety of its metro transit customers and inevitably oriented toward the possibility of terrorism.

Despite his unsavory, headache-inducing predilection for swooping camera movements and jumpy, hyperactive editing, Tony Scott manages to inadvertently get a few things right in his retelling. The supporting cast members, including John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, and Michael Rispoli, often transcend the boilerplate dialogue offered to their characters. Denzel Washington’s self-effacing transit official provides the star with another opportunity to skillfully project grace under pressure (even if one misses the grumpiness of Walter Matthau). And despite considerable gaps in logic, the pacing is confidently speedy.

Robert Shaw’s cagey Mr. Blue is replaced by a jittery, twitchy John Travolta seemingly fashioned after a Tom of Finland leatherman illustration. Travolta’s aptly named Ryder is an anarchic bundle of nerves whose seductive aural courtship of Denzel Washington’s Walter Garber infuses the film with a homoerotic subtext that closely parallels the “Top Gun” speech delivered by Tarantino in “Sleep with Me.” Scott’s hyper-masculine world – which predictably has little use for women – does make time for plenty of sadism and suggestions of prison rape.

Many of the director’s worst tendencies manifest prominently throughout the movie. Vehicular mayhem occurs much more than necessary. Characters repeatedly point out painfully obvious information that the audience has just seen. The product placement is as shameless as the musical score is manipulative. In addition, all the modernizing updates fail to enhance the narrative, especially the villain’s intense interest in online stock market updates and an undernourished subplot in which a hostage maintains an open video chat with his girlfriend (open question to screenwriter Brian Helgeland: why does the girlfriend have to be depicted as stupid and emotionally needy?).

Finally, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” stumbles down the stretch, cutting between a silly runaway train straight out of D.W. Griffith and a good guy/bad guy standoff with only one possible outcome. While the 1974 version depended on a nearly farfetched detail to sew up the story, it worked within the particular world that had been created and kept faith with the film’s dark humor. Scott’s universe, on the other hand, is much less clever and much more predictable. Where the 1974 version showed considerable smarts, the 2009 attempt swaps in action. The difference between the two movies (purposefully ignoring the made-for-television version of 1998) is simple: one leaves the latest version feeling like one of the subway car hostages, relieved to be free of the ordeal.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/15/09.

Sugar

sugar

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to their excellent “Half Nelson” is called “Sugar,” and like their previous feature, the movie is a sharp-eyed examination of character and human nature that digs much deeper than the minor league baseball premise would suggest. Following the blossoming but shaky prospects of hopeful Dominican Republic pitcher Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), the movie travels from the D.R. to the United States, with stops in Arizona, Iowa, and finally the Bronx, where the story’s stirring conclusion is set.

“Half Nelson” flirted with the dangers inherent in movies about teachers and students, but transcended the clichés of the genre by focusing on the most telling details in the lives of its central characters. “Sugar” wisely adopts the same template, even though the movie’s many baseball scenes are handled with a strong sense of no-nonsense realism. Ultimately, “Sugar” functions effectively as a meditation on the ways in which the American Dream can fail those from poor countries who make their way to the United States. The film is even more effective as a slice of life that examines one individual seduced by a system in which the odds of winning are nearly as daunting and farfetched as the Powerball.

Boden and Fleck, who share writing and directorial credit on the movie, make the most of a modest budget and “Sugar” capitalizes on each of its sharply defined locations. Sugar’s sojourn in Bridgetown, Iowa, where he boards with an elderly couple, registers deeply, and the directors mostly avoid turning the rural baseball fans into Midwestern farm caricatures. In Iowa, Sugar’s inability to speak English isolates him just as much as his ethnicity, and the moviemakers construct several vivid vignettes – ranging from the comic motif that shows the non-English speaking ballplayers repeatedly ordering French toast at the diner to the wordless display of racism that erupts on the dance floor of a crowded bar – that bring Sugar’s experiences to life.

Because the movie is filtered through Sugar’s point of view, the audience does not get to know many of the supporting characters beyond the surface interactions they share with the protagonist. One minor subplot, involving Sugar’s attraction to his Iowa host family’s granddaughter, might have turned into a major detour in the story, but Boden and Fleck maintain a level of restraint that will leave many viewers hoping for something more. The final section of the movie, in which Sugar forges a friendship with a fellow Spanish speaker, offers no earth-shattering epiphany, but the very last shots of the film have a way of staying with you long after the film ends.

“Sugar” might be described by some as a sorrowful movie, but unlike traditional sports films, the highest peaks and the lowest valleys are left alone so that the moviemakers can plot a tale of the middle ground that applies to scores of wannabes from all kinds of places, including the United States, who dream of major league glory but settle for some professional playing time instead. A substantial portion of Sugar’s modest paycheck is always wired home to his mother in the Dominican Republic, and the young man’s loneliness is described so palpably that casual baseball fans might think twice next time they see the almost anonymous names stitched on the backs of minor league jerseys.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/8/09.

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Up

up

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Nowhere near as good as several earlier Pixar efforts, “Up” still manages to engineer breathtaking technical moviemaking, personal flourishes, and (less attractively) a nose for commercial prospects in its archetypal story of loss, hope, and renewal. Like immediate predecessor “WALL-E,” the movie’s first third is easily its strongest, and the “anything goes” aspects of its South America-set center section trade a share of logic for unbridled action that will please the younger members of the audience. The movie can be as uplifting as its title, but it also manages to jerk some tears along the way.

Crotchety, mailbox-shaped Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is an elderly widower who takes his entire house to the skies just as he is about to be carted off to a retirement home. Propelled by hundreds of colorful, helium-filled balloons, Carl’s rather unusual gesture is complicated by Russell (Jordan Nagai), an accidental stowaway. It’s a foregone conclusion that the two unlikely traveling companions will learn a lot from one another, but directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have a talent for purely visual storytelling, and they mostly keep the sentimentality in check. The prologue that shows the course of Carl’s life prior to the principal action of the movie is rendered with the same kind of powerful emotional impact communicated by the “When She Loved Me” sequence in “Toy Story 2.”

Like every Pixar movie, “Up” salutes numerous examples of classic cinema with differing degrees of success. “Citizen Kane,” “King Kong,” “Star Wars,” and the 1925 version of “The Lost World” are among the references, some of which are subtle while others are played for obvious laughs. Despite existing in a world of magical realism, the movie worms its way around the conceit of cute talking animals by concocting a literal device that bestows speech to an army of dogs. Most of the silly stuff, such as canine-piloted biplanes, is merely a distraction from the finer elements of the story, which explore Carl’s grief.

The most charming things about “Up” include Pixar’s meticulous attention to story detail and nuance. Much of the character design, from Carl’s stony squint to the iridescently plumed Kevin’s squawk to canine Dug’s unconditional affection, telegraphs reserves of inner life. Even better than the running “Squirrel!” gag is the manner of Dug’s earnest simplemindedness. His sincere “I have just met you and I love you” is an accurate a distillation of every friendly puppy’s demeanor, and young and young at heart will love him right back. Precocious Junior Wilderness Explorer Russell contains more recognizably human grit and determination than meets the eye, but the same cannot be said for the movie’s odd antagonist, the Kirk Douglas-esque Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).

Considering how carefully Pixar massages the story during the preproduction process, it is somewhat odd that the villainous Muntz is the weakest of the major characters in the movie. Introduced in a clever Movietone-style newsreel at the beginning of the movie, the once great Muntz should have been rendered with the same range of complexities as Carl, but instead functions as a single-minded, deranged lunatic who attempts to let an 8-year-old plummet to his death from an airborne zeppelin. That Muntz distracts from the personal odyssey of Carl never overwhelms the movie’s smaller joys, but the antics of the swashbuckling old rogue do prevent “Up” from achieving real greatness. Despite its flaws, however, “Up” follows the dictum that even less-than-perfect Pixar is still better than most everything else in sight.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/1/09.

Terminator Salvation

terminatorsalvation

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Sequels in lumbering, decades-old franchises slavishly obey the law of diminishing returns, and “Terminator Salvation,” the fourth feature in the series launched twenty-five years ago this October by James Cameron, is no exception. Painted in the dusty, dirty hues of gun-metal gray, McG’s addition to the venerable sci-fi/action behemoth takes itself far too seriously for audiences to have much fun, and the director’s vision is abetted by the humorless performance of Christian Bale, still switched deep into growling Batman mode. Bale’s John Connor is fundamentally less interesting than the Edward Furlong or Nick Stahl versions of the character, who at least behaved like human beings with feelings and emotions. The Connor of “Terminator Salvation” is the so-called “prophesized leader of the resistance,” and he believes his own messianic hype.

The time travel aspect of the “Terminator” movies has simultaneously been one of the storyline’s geeky intrigues and one of its central liabilities. Once salty, seasoned Connor meets his awkward and much younger father Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) face to face, “Terminator Salvation” has bigger problems than the space-time continuum. And while it is hard to imagine the slight Yelchin morphing into Michael Biehn, the young actor provides much of the movie’s limited comic relief. Partnered with an adorable, resourceful mute urchin cloned from Newt in “Aliens,” Yelchin turns out to be the one actor in “Terminator Salvation” who manages the self-aware wink at the audience that gave the Schwarzenegger entries so much of their appeal.

Directorially speaking, McG propels the action forward in a workmanlike facsimile of a video game. McG’s “Charlie’s Angels” films were like gumball machines bursting with candy coated pop culture references from sources as disparate as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Flashdance” and “The Matrix,” not to mention “The Terminator” and several other Schwarzenegger movies. This time out, the swaggering filmmaker drains all the color from the screen, even though he retains several of his longstanding cinematic crushes via visual homage, most notably “The Great Escape.” McG’s nods to worthier film culture don’t really help his case, but they do offer movie buffs something to spot in between the carnage and mayhem.

Bale isn’t done any favors by being paired with Sam Worthington, who, along with a creepy, nude CG avatar of a youthful Arnold, turns out to be the movie’s real surprise. It only makes sense that Worthington’s soulful cyborg has more heart and humanity than the glowering Connor, since the robots are the very center of the Terminator universe. Needless to say, McG does not skimp on the machinery, and there are all kinds of new Skynet-spawned killers, from Transformer-esque T-1 and Harvester giants to snapping, snakelike horrors called Hydrobots. The humanoid T-600, T-700, and T-800 models wield machine guns along with their relentless drive to snuff out human life, but why some of them choose to wear grungy headbands is a mystery. Who knew that soulless, mechanical murderers developed a fashion sense when they attained sentience?

“Terminator Salvation” relies too often on the laziest action movie clichés: when faced with certain annihilation, the very thing needed to stop the marauding machine is miraculously, conveniently available. Along with recycled measures for halting Terminators, some of the signature lines of the cycle, including both “Come with me if you want to live” and the less welcome “I’ll be back,” are interjected presumably to remind audience members that they are watching another chapter in the Terminator saga. Those oft-imitated phrases, along with the teasing visage of the sitting governor of California, will remind many, however, that it is difficult to make a Terminator movie without Arnold.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/25/09.

Sin Nombre

sinnombre

Movie review by Greg Carlson

While many tales of illegal immigration made for the American movie market focus on the drama generated from crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature film “Sin Nombre” finds its footing in the arduous, perilous legs of the south to north journeys that happen long before Texas is in sight. Intertwining two initially separate stories that merge into a single narrative, “Sin Nombre” will appeal to moviegoers intrigued by its director’s visual command, observational style, and interest in details of more than one subculture. “Sin Nombre” is by no means a perfect movie, but Fukunaga displays enough confidence and assuredness to strongly recommend a viewing.

Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) agrees to jump a northbound freight train with her uncle and her widower father, who has started a new family in New Jersey and wants his daughter to accompany him back to the States. Meanwhile, in Tapachula, Chiapas in the south of Mexico, the iron grip of the Mara Salvatrucha/La Mara/MS-13 gang tightens around young member Casper (Edgar Flores) and his protégé Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), a preteen on the verge of being inducted into the ruthless organization. Fukunaga expertly negotiates the introductory segments of the film, revealing just enough information about the characters to intensify viewer interest. Especially seductive are the images of the communal structures of the MS-13 syndicate. Elaborate facial and body tattoos, special handshakes and greeting gestures, and unwavering loyalties and oaths serve as vivid symbols of a clan whose deadly lawlessness inspires a chilling fatalism in its youthful adherents.

Once the powerful exposition is out of the way, “Sin Nombre” slips a little bit. Given the numbers of small distribution and releasing companies owned or heavily subsidized by major studios and/or corporate parents, the heavily fractured American art house movement may no longer be fairly called an independent cinema. “Sin Nombre” was developed at the Sundance Institute’s labs, a pedigree that often engenders as many liabilities as assets in an emerging artist’s work. True, without the support of Sundance, a movie like “Sin Nombre” would not see a theatrical release, but many critics have expressed disappointment in the screenplay’s eagerness to smooth out rough edges that might otherwise depict Casper as less angelic and Sayra as less naïve.

Reviewer Scott Tobias recently wrote of the movie, “Then there’s the matter of the script, which is sadly endemic of the earnest, conventional, issue-oriented mediocrities produced and rewarded by Sundance nearly every year.” Tobias’ argument is most effectively applied to the last third of the movie, when events – however unexpected and often clever – rely too much on a layer of sentimentality and self-sacrifice that perhaps gives undue credit to each of the movie’s key protagonists.

Despite the flaws, however, “Sin Nombre” is filled with so many stirring railway visuals that the movie reinforces the adage that trains and cameras are a match made in filmmaking heaven. From “The General” and “Beggars of Life” to “Sullivan’s Travels” and “Days of Heaven,” not to mention several examples from Hitchcock, moviemakers have long embraced the kinetic, magnetic power of the locomotive on the big screen. Like the other films mentioned above, “Sin Nombre” appreciates the dynamism and beauty, as well as the possibilities of escape and transcendence, offered by the sight of a moving train.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/18/09.

Gomorrah

gomorrah

Movie review by Greg Carlson

The subtitle of the American market translation of Roberto Saviano’s “Gomorrah” (just “Gomorra” in Italian) reads “a personal journey into the violent international empire of Naples’ organized crime system.” The description accurately explains the young journalist’s inside view of one of the world’s most corrupt regions, which Saviano claims is host to the largest open-air drug market on the planet. While Saviano, one of the movie version’s several credited screenwriters, personalized his written account, filmmaker Matteo Garrone erases all traces of first person subjectivity, opting instead for a sobering documentary style that chronicles the squalor, poverty, and hopelessness of the neighborhoods infected by the warring gangs that define and control essentially every aspect of the local economy.

Saviano’s book strings together a chain of bruising anecdotes illustrating over and over the toll exacted by the criminal enterprise known as the Camorra, a term that probably emerged from the blending of words for “boss” and “gang” that dates to at least the 19th century and which also provides the movie with its punning title. On the page, something is lost in the English translation by Virginia Jewiss, but Saviano’s use of repetition drives home the unyielding totality of the Camorra’s reach. Garrone’s movie version, which is in many ways more austere, heightens the sense of despair, since legitimate businesses don’t even appear to exist and the concrete housing developments of Scampia resemble prison blocks more than places someone would want to call home.

Significantly scaling back the various concerns identified in the book, Garrone weaves together five stories. Skinny thug wannabes Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) irk a local mobster by stealing a small arsenal of automatic weapons, including the fearful AK-47 (Saviano devotes an entire chapter to the legendary killing machine, but its impact is only hinted at in the film). Adolescent Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a quiet grocery delivery boy, finds the temptations of joining a gang too difficult to resist.

Apprentice Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) learns the ropes of illegal toxic waste dumping from Franco (Toni Servillo). Mid-level courier Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) distributes payouts to families who have experienced death or incarceration as a result of Camorra involvement, and handing out cash proves as dangerous as collecting it. Finally, tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) makes an arrangement to teach his skills to Chinese garment makers in direct competition with the Camorra.

Garrone shuttles among the various story strands, the majority of which result, sooner or later, in outbursts of fierce violence. The director drains the romanticism of Hollywood gangster movies from “Gomorrah,” even though the young men on the screen quote the 1983 version of “Scarface” chapter and verse. Unlike the book, the police and the top level Camorra leadership are figures left unexplored, a choice that will leave some viewers wondering about the extent of corruption and negligence within the Neapolitan legal system. To have included those things would have altered the fabric of the film, and their absence serves as an additional reminder that the poor have few choices outside the Camorra’s vampiric clutches.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/11/09.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Wolverine

Movie review by Greg Carlson

On the pulpy pages of the Marvel comic books that have seen Wolverine evolve into one of the most popular characters in the medium, a thorough accounting of the irascible Canadian’s origins did not materialize until the person also known as Logan had been around for decades. Wolverine first showed up in “The Incredible Hulk” in 1974, and not too many months later he was a member of the X-Men, a relationship that developed into a lucrative partnership that reached beyond comics into TV cartoons, videogames, toys, collectible cards, tee shirts, posters, and other merchandise. In 2000, Wolverine transitioned to the big screen in Bryan Singer’s successful “X-Men” feature film, and Hugh Jackman’s interpretation pleased zealous, protective comic book fans and earned a legion of new admirers.

The latest installment of the big screen mutant saga is called “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and director Gavin Hood’s cold, businesslike style lacks everything that made Singer’s first two “X-Men” movies interesting even to non-fans. From commentary on discrimination to human rights and the notions of estrangement and otherness, Singer’s movies at least took stock of some of the themes that emerged from the comic series. None of that kind of material stands a chance in “Wolverine,” which thunders from action scene to action scene at the expense of any focus on the psyche of its title hero.

It is a given that film adaptations of superhero comics reconfigure all kinds of well established lore that has already morphed and transformed in countless retellings on the page, but “Wolverine” makes a hash of Logan’s childhood, never pausing to offer several explanations that would seem salient to a movie with the word origins in the title. Fundamentally, Wolverine is more compelling, more haunted, more tragic, and more exciting when shrouded almost completely in mystery. For many fans of a certain age, Wolverine’s “cool” factor went hand in hand with the idea that we knew little of his past. Hood’s movie does to Wolverine approximately what the “Star Wars” prequels did to Boba Fett.

Jackman captures many of the details that define Wolverine, from the submerged psychic scars to the cigar-chomping swagger. He continues to play Logan effectively, even though poor writing leaves the actor to skate by on the goodwill he developed in the three previous X-Men outings. Other personages from the comics are even less intriguing: Ryan Reynolds’ mouthy Deadpool and Taylor Kitsch’s cocky Gambit are employed foolishly and fleetingly. The development of Logan’s relationship with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) should be of central importance, given the not so surprising revelations in the last section of the movie.

Hood’s decision to avoid any intelligent risk-taking results in a lukewarm action movie brimming with all kinds of genre clichés. You get to see individuals walk calmly away from massive explosions and emerge from water in slow motion. There are also way too many overhead shots of characters clenching their fists, tilting their heads skyward and yelling “Noooooooo!” The movie’s final insult shows us how Wolverine lost his memory, a laughable reminder that this lame prequel has now caught us up to the point where, movie-wise, we met the protagonist. When Wolverine later turns his full attention to recovering his past and filling in the forgotten details of his life, couldn’t he have just asked any number of folks who were with him in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”?

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/4/09.

Obsessed

obsessed

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A worthless and surprisingly chaste rehash of “Fatal Attraction” by way of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The Temp,” and “Disclosure,” veteran television director Steve Shill’s “Obsessed” is as forgettable as its bland title. “Obsessed” trades on all kinds of uncomfortable racial and gender stereotypes without attempting to say anything enlightening or even thought-provoking on the subject at hand. Despite the talents of several top notch performers, the movie sticks to its retrograde formula, which exists strictly in the service of setting up a clawing, scratching catfight in which one, and only one, outcome is possible. Anyone who sees the movie’s trailer, which telegraphs the whole shebang including the climax, will have no good reason to sit through the entire feature.

Ali Larter plays Lisa, a conniving, completely bonkers office assistant who sets her sights on Idris Elba’s Derek before he even has a chance to step off the elevator at his Los Angeles investment banking firm. Derek is a model husband and family man, but we learn that his wife Sharon (Beyonce Knowles in an embarrassing turn) was – once upon a time – his secretary, which presumably suggests that he might be inclined to workplace flirtations. Sharon instantly senses Lisa’s slatternly intentions and demands she be fired, but before Derek can distance himself from the loony Lisa, she has manipulated him six ways to Sunday.

Unlike “Fatal Attraction,” the characters in “Obsessed” do not consummate the forbidden relationship that develops, despite the intense passes of the predatory Lisa. From a Christmas party grope in a bathroom stall to a lingerie flash in Derek’s car, Lisa throws herself at the unavailable husband and father, and he resists her each time. Ali Larter does the best she can with a cardboard character, but Lisa has no motivation beyond lust for the dazzling array of shenanigans she pulls. When Christine Lahti finally enters the frame as a weary detective trying to get the straight story, one is compelled to shout back at the screen, warning her not to waste her time.

Most suckers who see the movie will go to watch Beyonce, but fans of “The Wire” suffering serious withdrawal will attend for the chance to spend some time with Elba, whose Stringer Bell would never tolerate the nonsense afoot in “Obsessed.” Elba deftly navigates most of the movie’s pitfalls, underplaying many of the scenes in which his less seasoned co-stars crank it up all the way. Knowles is given mouthfuls of silliness meant to convey wellsprings of angry, poisonous scorn, but her character is a minor plot contrivance – practically an afterthought – until the fistfight in the final reel shifts the focus to her pugilistic prowess.

“Obsessed” is riddled with genre chestnuts, including an opening montage in which Knowles and Elba explore the attic of their new home and notice that the flimsy plaster of the ceiling below could not support a person’s weight – a guarantee that the movie’s climax will return to that very spot. Had Shill not taken the whole thing so seriously, the audience might have been able to have a good time throughout the movie’s duration, instead of the fleeting moments when something moronic elicits a derisive chuckle.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/27/09.

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