Monday, February 27, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow

Ten year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a child genius living in Manhattan. The narrative of the film centers on Oskar and the loss of his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks) who was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. While going through his father's personal effects, Oskar finds a key in a small envelope labeled "Black." To keep the memory of his father alive, Oskar sets out on a journey throughout the entire metropolis of New York.  He compiles a list from the phone-book of everyone with the name of "Black"and searches the people out to see if his key fits a lock they may or may not have. Along the way, Oskar meets a mute neighbor of his who communicates to him only through written notes and a "yes" or "no" that is tattooed on his left and right hands. The mute (Max von Sydow) turns out to be his grandfather. While all this is going on, Oskar becomes increasingly estranged from his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock.) The plot of the mysterious key gets lost in the middle of the story, then reappears towards the end.

A more fitting title to this movie would be "Extremely Annoying and Incredibly Obnoxious" because that is exactly how I would describe the protagonist, Oskar. He becomes increasingly obnoxious as the storyline plays out. Oskar's rapid fire questions to everyone he encounters and dialect that is way beyond the normal dialect of a ten year old child was enough to put me off from the get go. Through no fault of Sandra-Bullock's acting ability, the character of Oskar's mother was all over the place. First, she is disconnected from her child, then she is involved, then disconnected (and gone for that matter), then she re-appears at the end as if she was there all along. Although Max von Sydow is a veteran actor, and a powerful one at that, his character was all but useless in this film. He gave a fine performance, but The plot would have been just the same regardless if the mute "grandpa" was in film or not. Tom Hanks has limited screen time, but his character is ever present through the entire film. One cannot help but love everything that he does in any movie that he is in.

I will say that there were a few moments in the film that did tug at one's heartstrings. However, it wasn't the plot or the storyline that triggered those emotions in me; It was remembering the events of 9/11. Who could ever forget that horrible day?  I have mixed feelings on the film maker's use of 9/11 for that matter.  The grief felt by Oskar had more to do with the loss of his father, and not actually the tragic way he was killed at ground zero. Thomas could have died any number of ways and the rest of the plot could have remained just the same.  Did using 9/11 help the plot? I would say that it gave it the extra emotional element that made the audience feel that much sadder for the protagonist. On the other hand, one could argue that the writers exploited the most tragic event on American soil to further the effects of their fictional film. I guess the same could be said for Pearl Harbor...I'm talking about the Ben Affleck version of Pearl Harbor (2001)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beginners (2010)

Written and Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mealnie Laurent

Beginners is a tale about personal relationships and new beginnings. The narrative is seen and told through the eyes of Oliver Fields (McGregor.) The storyline jumps time back and forth between the present (actually 2003) and Oliver's childhood. Oliver's mother and father were married for 38 years; they were both very unhappy in their marriage. When Oliver's mother passes away, his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet and lives the rest of life the way he always wanted an openly gay man.  Hal then passes away and Oliver is left to deal with taking care of all of his father's affairs and adopts his father's dog, a Jack Russel named Arthur. The dog's thoughts are shown on screen through subtitles. The dog seems to be tho only one in the film who is holding it together, actually. Oliver is a lonely soul who is afraid to trust anyone, for what I am guessing is a fear of abandonment. He does finally meet and begins a relationship with a French Actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent.)

This film deals with human emotions and relationships, but the narrative is excruciatingly slow. The character of Oliver's mother could have been expanded on more; why did she stay in an unhappy marriage, knowing her husband was a homosexual?  Why did Hal stay in the marriage knowing the same thing? Oliver's parents stayed together well into his adulthood, so staying married for the sake for their son was out a possible reason. However, I did like this film because it deals with real life issues, and it lets us know that it is never too late for a new beginning in life. I also like the narration through Oliver when describing different time periods in his and his parent's lives. I enjoyed seeing how the characters of Hal and Oliver evolved as the openly gay father and his son form a bond that they never had before. McGregor and Plummer gave good performances, but in my opinion, McGregor was the stronger of the two. However, Oscar buzz is swarming all around Plummer on this one. My guess is he is going to bring home the statue.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

84th Annual Academy Awards Predictions

Ah...the Oscars! My "Superbowl night" to all you sports fans out there. Keep in mind that the Oscar winner has more to do with politics than it has to do with actual talent. Sometimes the winner of the award for a chosen category is much deserved; but more often than not, it's more about who "played the game" with the powers that be at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although I think that George Clooney should be getting the award for Best Actor for his role in The Descendants, there was more buzz for Jean Dujardin for his role in The Artist. Meryl Streep is Hollywood Royalty, and she nailed her role in The Iron Lady, but the film was quite frankly, a bore. Viola Davis stole the screen with her heartwarming performance in The Help, and I feel she is deserving of her title. Speaking of The Artist; it was a great film, and I truly enjoyed it, but I don't think it was better than Moneyball or The Descendants. Moneyball will lose in all it's nominated categories for that matter, for reasons I have already stated at the start of this post. I have to give proper credit to Octavia Spencer; she was a main part of the glue that held The Help she is much deserving of her award for best supporting actress. Nick Nolte should be getting the award for best supporting actor for his work in Warrior, but the film has all been forgotten about in the mainstream. Tree of Life was a brilliant masterpiece, and a true work of art...but it will bomb in all of it's nominated categories because it is considered "too artsy." I did not care for War Horse, but I can't argue with the excellent cinematography in this film. It must be noted however, that even if an actor or director or producer does not win an award for their nomination, the mere nomination is recognition enough in the world of film.

With all that being said, here are my predictions for the winners:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Viola Davis (The Help)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Best Picture: "The Artist" produced by Thomas Langmann

Best Director: Michael Hazanavicius (The Artist)

Best Adapted Screenplay: "The Descendants" Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash

Best Original Screenplay: "The Artist"  Written by Michel Hazanavicius

Best Cinematography:  "War Horse"  Janusz Kaminski

The Red Carpet Event starts at 4pm (pacific time) on ABC networks, with the greatest host in Oscar history, Billy Crystal.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon

Curtis (Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Chastain) live in a modest house on the outskirts of an Ohio town with their hearing impaired daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart.) Curtis has a good job working in construction which affords his family to live well. To their friends and other outsiders, it seems that all is well in Curtis's life. But to the viewer, we know something is amiss in his world. From the very start of the film, Curtis is having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic storms on the horizon, and people and animals out to harm him and his family. His dreams begin to bleed over into his waking life, and he takes measures to protect the family that he loves. Curtis also has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia, which his mother is afflicted with. Curtis feels that he is beginning to lose his mind, but he presses on by building out an old tornado shelter in his backyard which would allow his family to survive in a post apocalyptic world. Soon, everything he holds dear to him comes into jeopardy as his life starts to unravel because of his assumed paranoia. But is it really paranoia? Or is Curtis really seeing something that everyone else is not?

The question left up to the viewer is whether or not Curtis is in fact going insane. Director Jeff Nichols does a beautiful job of making Curtis's dreams and reality flow together so the audience doesn't know if he is in fact dreaming or not, the ending scene really emphasizes this fact. Most big-budget blockbuster films today rely on CGI to get them through, with minimal reliance on the acting capabilities of the cast. The exact opposite can be said about this film. Though CGI special effects were used, they are not what made the film great. Michael Shannon is a force to be reckoned with his acting abilities. With over forty five roles under his belt in the last ten years, he continues to shine as an actor who is capable of expressing believable emotions in any character which he submerses himself into. Fresh of her recent success of award winning films like Tree of Life (2011) and The Help (2011), Jessica Chastain has proven that she too is a fine actor. She really engages the audience in her role as the caring and understanding wife who is trying to hold her family together. 

The thing I enjoyed the most about this film is that is another example of how a little-known director can produce a film with powerful actors on a small budget...and get the Academy voters to take notice of his work.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011)

Written and Directed by: Morgan Spurlock

Have you ever noticed a character in a movie drinking a Pepsi? Do you notice that the "Pepsi" is being held in a way that the audience is noticing that the actor is in fact drinking that Pepsi product? Do you think that the actor is just drinking said Pepsi because he or she loves that particular soft drink? Ok, maybe I'm beating up a little bit on Pepsi here, (hopefully no one from the Pepsi Corporation is reading this) but the point I'm trying to make is that the brand of soft drink that a character in a movie is drinking, the shoes that they are wearing, or the hamburger they are eating is not by's called product placement.

 Film maker Morgan Spurlock exposes the world of advertising in Hollywood in his latest documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Spurlock comes up with a clever idea of directing a film about branding and product placement in films, and has the film itself solely funded by branding and product placement through advertisers. Spurlock has many doors slammed in his face when trying to find sponsors for his film. Most "Big Name" brands want nothing to do with his film. However, he finally does find financial backing for the film, and he does in fact "plug" his sponsors, just as you would see in any other film.

The most interesting aspect of the film is when Spurlock is interviewing director Peter Berg. Berg explains in no uncertain terms how corporate sponsors have the most power in film making. Berg details how an ad executive will show up on the set of a film, to make sure that their brand is being advertised. Through contractual obligations, the ad agencies will order changes the script of his films because of product placement, and there is nothing that he as the director can do about it.  Berg makes the final comment that he  works for GE (General Electric), and they are a business. The bottom line of any business is to make money, and "they don't give a flying fuck about art."

Just as he did in Supersize Me (2004), Spurlock exposes us to something we already knew was there..but didn't realize to what extent. This eye-opening film exposes the true nature of not only what ad sponsors in film is all about, but what the world we live in is all about: making money! But do advertising agencies think that the general population is so dumb that we can't think for ourselves? Sure, advertising has it's place in our world, but the over-saturation in every single thing we see and do has gotten so bad that we don't even know we are being duped into a commercial. The one place where most people to go to escape is the movie theater; now even that simple escape is being turned into the moviegoer being duped into one big commercial.  Film is supposed to be an expression of art- not a plug for Burger King.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

J.Edgar (2011)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts.

As director of the FBI for forty eight years, J. Edgar Hoover was the most feared man in the United States Government.  Living by the motto of "information is power," he had the goods on everyone: who was sleeping with who, or who was harboring a dark secret. He kept confidential files on anyone in a position of power- even the eight presidents whom which he served under. He was an extreme moralist who surrounded him self with people who lived by his code of ethics, or they were fired. He lived with his mother until her death, and never married.  What few people knew was that Hoover himself was the one who was harboring a dark secret his entire life; Clint Eastwood's latest biopic, J. Edgar focuses on that very issue.

The narrative is told through Hoover (DiCaprio) in his later years, and a series flashback scenes of his life and career in public office. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black focuses the story on personal relationships in Hoover's life, mainly the repressed gay relationship that Hoover had with his assistant director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer.) However, unlike Black's screenplay, Milk (2008) this film does not portray scenes of gay sex. In the one scene where you think it's going to happen, it doesn't.  The film instead portrays the two men repressing their homosexual feelings (not unheard of in the mid 20th Century) and settling for a lifelong companionship. There were two other close relationships in Hoover's life; his mother, Anna Marie (Judi Dench), and his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Watts.) The film shows how his overbearing mother most likely shaped Hoover into the man he was, and how he never had an intimate relationship with another woman. The one woman whom Hoover attempted to show interest in turned out instead to be one of his closest confidants, Helen Gandy. Helen ended up being the one person whom he entrusted all of his confidential information and evidence with.  The rest of the narrative portrays Hoover as a man obsessed with glory, and who twisted the truth in his actual work in apprehending criminals, but got results nonetheless. The most famous incident that gets the most screen time is the "Lindbergh Baby" case in 1932 which changed the way the FBI operated from that point on.

Through make-up and sheer acting ability, Leonardo DiCaprio is stellar in his portrayal of the head "G-Man."  Without a lot of pomp and circumstance, Clint Eastwood does an excellent job of showing who J. Edgar Hoover really was: a repressed gay man who was also a powerful man. There is no question after watching this film that Hoover was a man who got things done- even if he did not do them himself, and regardless of his sexuality.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Septien (2011)

Directed by: Michael Tully
Starring: Michael Tully, Robert Longstreet, Onur Tukel, Brian Kotzur, Rachel Korine

The plot of this film is about the Rawlings Brothers: Ezra (Longstreet), Amos (Tukel), and Cornelieus (Tully.) Cornelius has returned home after an eighteen year absence. The reason that the audience knows he has been gone that long is because in the very beginning of the film, there is a scene where Ezra asks Cornelius "Do you mind telling us where you have been for the last eighteen years?"...almost as nonchalantly as you would ask someone where they were the night before. What we don't really know is the reason as to why he left in the first place. Living on their (deceased) parent's farm in what appears to be somewhere in the rural south, the brothers all have serious demons in their closets. Ezra is a drag queen who thinks he is mom to his brothers, Amos likes to paint disturbing pictures, and Cornelius likes to hustle people in sporting contests, then blow the money on booze and drugs. Strange fact is that he has what appears to be a natural talent at any sport he plays; be it football, soccer, or tennis.  Cornelius is the one who is harboring something very dark in his past. An ex-football coach who is now a plumber named "The Red Rooster" is tied into Cornelius's past. The "Red Rooster" part of the narrative plays out in the end when a preacher shows up at their farm and performs some sort of exorcism, revealing the reason why Cornelius left eighteen years ago. 

Indie Filmmaker Michael Tully in his own words describes his latest film, Septien as a "wholly entertaining art film, and a late-night made for television movie from the 80's, combined with Southern Gothic Horror." I will say one thing- this film is most definitely art, and certainly entertaining...if that's your thing. This kind of film would most likely be found in an underground movie-house somewhere deep in Gotham. Fortunately for Michael Tully, the film's right were sold exclusively to IFC (Independent film channel.) So at least his film is getting some pretty good air time to people who may not have sought it out to begin with. As a true lover of Indie and "strange" art films, I really enjoyed this twisted flick...I'm sure though, that it's not every one's cup of tea.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Project Nim (2011)

What happens when a chimp is taken from captivity and then raised by humans? Can a chimp be taught to live like a human? Can a chimp learn to speak and communicate like a human through sign language? The bigger question is: what happens when a chimp is raised by humans, taught to live like and communicate like them, and then put back into captivity to live with other chimps?  Film maker James Marsh, also known for the Oscar-winning Man on Wire (2008) explores those issues in his latest documentary film, Project Nim.   The film is centered around a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (a dig at famous linguist Noam Chomsky) who was born in captivity in Oklahoma in 1973. A few days after being born, Nim is given to Herbert Terrace, A Columbia research professor. Terrace then gives Nim to a student of his, Stephanie LaFarge.  As a science experiment under the direction of Terrace, Nim goes to live with Stephanie and her family, and they treat him as one of their own.   Nim is then bounced from one "foster" family after another, all under the direct supervision of Herbert Terrace. During the five years he is under Professor Terrace's supervision, Nim is taught to live and act like a human, and is taught to communicate through sign language. You can see clearly through archived footage that Nim thinks of himself as a human during his early years of life. Some of the "archived" footage is re-enacted for production sake, but that's another topic of discussion altogether...I'll let that one go.

Then...the inevitable happens. After five years, it is determined that Nim can no longer live amongst humans. He has already bitten one of his handlers, pretty severely (what did they expect from a wild animal?)  Nim is taken back to the Oklahoma refuge where he was born to live amongst the rest of the chimps in captivity. From this point in the story, Nim is bounced between living in captivity,being subjected to cruel and unusual medical research, and finally back into captivity again to live out the remainder of his life.
What's really bothersome about this film is that no one had any culpability in the things that happened to Nim in his life. No one, including and especially Professor Terrace really seemed to grasp the concept of the cruelty that Nim was subjected to. Stephanie LaFarge even admits that she had absolutely no clue what she was getting involved in when she took Nim into her home. The only person who really seemed to care and was genuinely concerned for the primate was a handler at the Oklahoma Refuge, by the name of Bob. He was the only one in Nim's life that wanted nothing from him, other than to be his friend and see that he was treated humanely.

I am sure that this film will ignite a fire under the heels of the folks over at  PETA, if it hasn't already. The film documents the cruel and inhumane things that were done to Nim, starting from birth when he was taken from his mother. When Nim was then taught to live like a human, he was basically stripped of all his natural wild instincts of living amongst other chimps. He was subjected to cruelty once more when he had to learn how to live back in captivity. The question of whether Nim actually learned to "communicate" or not through sign language is irrelevant in my book. However, from what is shown in the film, Nim does clearly learn how to communicate through signing. After attacking one of his handlers, Nim signs "I'm sorry." Was that a reaction that he was taught after negative behavior? or was he truly communicating that he felt sorry?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Iron Lady (2012)

Director: Phyllidia Lloyd
Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman

The Iron Lady is a look back on the former British Prime Minister's life.  This biopic starts out in present tense, and shows a frail and aged Thatcher displaying clear signs of Dementia. She appears confused, often thinking that her son still lives close by and her husband, Dennis (Jim Broadbent) is still alive. She is having hallucinations of her husband, even holding conversations with him. She watches current events on television and makes statements to the maid that they need to react to those she is still in office and her maid is another member of Parliament.  A scene that really sums up Thatcher's current health/state of mind is when her daughter, Carol (Olivia Colman) has to remind her that she is "No longer the Prime Minister, her son lives in South Africa, and Dad is dead." Thatcher seems confused at her daughter's statement, and quickly changes the conversation. The narrative of the rest of the film is a bounce between present time and her past. Her life story comes though a series of flashbacks; detailing her early life, marriage, children, and then on to political office.

Director Phyllidia Lloyd does a good job of painting a portrait of the former Prime Minister's early life; giving the audience an understanding of who she was, and how her early life lead to her being a conservative in her political life. But once the story goes in to her political life, the narrative starts to become rather bland and rushed through. A lot of important events that took place during Thatcher's time in office were skimmed over, especially the conflicts she had with the Irish Republican Army, and the INLA. There is a scene when a hotel that Thatcher and her husband were staying at was bombed, but then it just sort of fizzles out. In real life, five people were killed including a member of the British Parliament.  In real life, Thatcher was a strong ally to Ronald Regan and played a big part in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that event was just skimmed over as well. The only event that the film paid any real attention to was the War in the Falkland Islands. 

Her years as Leader of the Opposition, as well as her years as Secretary of State for Education and Science were barley even covered, focusing instead on taking the story straight to her years as Prime Minister. I suppose that was ok, since the story is about "The Iron Lady" and I think that is what the director wanted to focus on.

If someone is going to do a biopic on someone's  life, then the question has to be... why? The director really needs to catch my attention and explain to me why this person's life was or is so important. The writer needs to tell the story under the assumption that no one has ever heard of this person prior to the story being told.  The Iron Lady painted a picture of a woman who was both revered and hated by her public, but was really vague as to the reasons why. This film never really went into great detail on any area of her life. The film also failed to show how her years in political office took a toll on her and her family in real life.

One thing that no one can argue against is Meryl Streep. She is THE greatest actor of her generation.  If Hollywood had a Royal Family- she would be the Queen, without a doubt. Her ability to sink into a role and actually become that person whom she is portraying is second to none. I'm not just talking about her ability to change her accent either. As I was watching this film, I could barely even see Streep- I was watching Margret Thatcher...not someone who was trying to act like her.

The Iron Lady is just "Ok" in my opinion; not superb, but not a total failure. Meryl Streep was the main reason why I wanted to see this film in the first place. Without her, who's to say if the film would have been worth watching or not.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Footloose (2011)

Directed by: Craig Brewer
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Kenny Wormald. Julianne Hough, Miles Teller

Re-made from the original 1984 version, Footloose finds Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) moving in with relatives to Bomont, Georgia from the big city (Boston this time instead of Chicago) after his mother dies (his mother was very much alive in the original.) Ren is a big-city kid with an attitude. He's a misfit stuck in a small bible-belt town where public dancing by teenagers has been abolished after five teens were killed in a car accident on their way home from a dance. Ren makes both friends and enemies amongst his peers. He befriends a popular redneck kid named Willard (Miles Teller) and falls in love with the bad girl/preacher's daughter Ariel (Juliane Hough.) He starts a petition to get the no dancing laws abolished so the school can have their senior dance.  He battles with school authorities, the town council , and most of all The Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid.) I hate to give it away...but it's really no secret what happens next. Ren is victorious in getting the school dance, the bad guys get their butts kicked in a fight, and all the teens dance and frolic at the dance in the end.

While the plot remains relatively intact, it fails on every other level. The entire film looks like a bad episode of Glee, starting with the opening scene of a choreographed song and dance routine to the re-made tune of "Footloose."  With a mix of hip-hop and country music, the score is nothing but a re-made soundtrack of the original. I will begrudgingly admit that both Wormald and Hough in their respective roles can in fact dance, but neither one of them can act their way out of a paper bag. Their scenes together are painful to watch. What's even more painful to watch is the scene where Ren pulls into the vacant warehouse and does his "I'm pissed and gotta blow off steam by dancing routine."  In the original version, Kevin Bacon pulls off this scene with his energetic dancing, filled in with an up-beat score and flash-back sequences of all the things bothering him. In this version, Wormald starts yelling and screaming, and then does some sort of urban dance/gymnastic bit that just did not fit. The scene looked painful for Wormald himself to do, let alone somebody else watching it. It was clear he had no idea of where to go with the character in this particular scene. The only props I will give is to Dennis Quaid; he is one of the finest actors in the business, and he is the only one in the entire cast capable of making a convincing argument in his portrayal of The Reverend Shaw Moore. The role of Vi Moore (Andie MacDowell) basically just disappears. I don't mean that MacDowell disappeared into her character of the Preacher's Wife, I mean she completely disappears in the film. Her character is utterly useless in this version, only carrying about two dozen or so lines of dialogue. MacDowell looked and acted like a robot throughout all of her scenes who was just going through the motions, and wishing she was anywhere but on the set of this film.

Re-making films is nothing new in Hollywood. Sometimes a great director can come along and take a classic film, update it, and make it even better than the original. Case in point is the 1962 classic film Cape Fear. Martin Scorsese remade that film in 1991 and did a brilliant job of twisting the roles a little bit; making the character of Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) a person with dark skeletons in his closet, and not so wholesome like the Gregory Peck version of the role in 1962. Another example is the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty. Re-made in 1962 and then again in 1984 (The Bounty), the re-makes of this film broguht something different to the screen, each time making it better.

The 2011 version of Footloose is definitely NOT an example of taking a classic film and making it better. Director Craig Brewer massacred this film. I'm surprised too- coming from a director who made great films like Hustle & Flow (2005) and Black Snake Moan (2006.)  However, after what he did to Footloose I am sure that Herbert Ross (director of the 1984 version) is probably rolling in his grave...even though the film was dedicated to him in the end credits.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright

Mikael Bloomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a disgraced investigative journalist who has just been hired by an elderly millionaire, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the dissaperance of his niece over 40 years ago. The family of the missing girl lives on an island, and remains isolated from the rest of the community. With ties to the Nazi party, the entire family (including Henrik) are all suspect. Blomkvist hires a 23 year old ward of the state and technical genius, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to aid him in the investigation. Lisbeth has had more than her share of hard times in her life, starting at the age of 12 when she tied to murder her father (a plot that will play out in the rest of the series.) She has a court appointed guardian (Yorick van-Wageningen) who abuses her...another plot that will play out as the series continues. She isolates her self from any close relationships aside from one or two distant people who are hackers like herself.  Just in case you didn't read the books, or see the original "Girl" series, The Girl with the Dragon Tatttoo is the first installment of a three part series based on the novels written by Stieg Larsson.

When I first heard that there was going to be a U.S. version of the 2009 Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I will be the first to admit that I was more than just a little bit skeptical. I was sure that there was no way David Fincher was going to be able to pull this off. Well, I'm man enough to admit when I am wrong...with some reservations.  Both Noomi Rapace (from the original series) and Rooney Mara do a good job of portraying the haunted, dark character of Lisbeth Salander. However,  if I had to choose who was better, I would have to say that Rapace did a better job of making her character more believable. Mara seems to be a little uncomfortable and not as confident in her character of Lisbeth. On the same note, in the 2009 version, Michael Nyqvist seemed out of place in his role as Bloomqvist, where Daniel Craig is more fitting to his character; bringing his "James-Bond" appeal to the stage.  I'll also note that the Swedish language in the original version sets a better tone for a plot that actually takes place in Sweden. Having the dialogue in English (with Swedish Accents) takes away from the authenticity of the whole thing.

If you've never seen the original film, you will not notice the difference between the two. The U.S. version is just fine in its own right.  Director David Fincher sticks to the plot of the original, bringing the same suspenseful scenes tied in with his brand of fluid camera movement.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Artist

Directed by: Michael Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell

The Artist takes place in an era when at night at the movie theater is a big event.  Everyone dresses formally to come and watch the big screen with an actual live orchestra playing the score to the film being shown. Movies are ran by studios, and the stars of the studios can command the world's attention. A low-level studio actor can work their way to the top if they are lucky enough. 

George Valentin (Dujardin) is a silent film icon. He is revered by his audiences, and is the star of Tinseltown. A woman named Peppy Miller (Bejo) who is enamored by Valentin, is trying to make her break onto the big screen. Valentin takes her under his wing, and gives her tips on the business...even giving her a trademark that will make her stand out from the rest.  As Hollywood makes the switch from silent film to "talkies," Valentin has become extinct, and is let go by studio head Al Zimmer (Goodman.) He tries to make a go of producing his own silent film, but fails miserably. After the crash of the stock market in 1929, Valentin finds himself broke; his wife has left him and he is now living in squalor.  The only people left in his life are his faithful butler, Clifton (Cromwell) and his beloved Jack-Russel Terrier, Uggy.  Meanwhile, Peppy Miller has worked her way up from studio actor to being a Marquee Star in the new era of talking motion pictures. Over the next several years, we watch as George Valentine goes from riches to rags, and Peppy Miller goes from rags to riches. Without spoiling the rest of the plot, the end of the film gives way to another era of cinema with the big-band/dancing-musical films of pre-World War II.

This film is a must see for any film buff...or for those wanting a better understanding of how film started in this country. Silent films relied heavily on over-acting with casual black and white captions to get the dialogue across. Actions truly spoke louder than words in this era of cinema, and it gives you a better appreciation of films that are made today.  With a striking resemblance to Gene Kelly (who wasn't a silent film star), Jean Dujardin carries out his role with the likeness of a Douglas Fairbanks.  Director Michael Hazanavicius does an excellent job of putting together a casting ensemble who truly make their characters believable in their silent roles. The entire mise-en-scene of the film works poetically in making this film look like it was shot in the 1920s.

The Artist is a tribute to silent film that is a silent film itself, only breaking the "no sound" rule twice during the entire 100 minutes.

Monday, February 6, 2012

In Time (2011)

Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Cillian Murphy, Amanda Seyfried

They say that time is money. In this sci-fi thriller, time is your lifeblood. Time is used as currency in this futuristic world to pay for everything from a cup of coffee to a house.  Humans have a flourescent digital clock on their arm that counts the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds of their lives. Time can be uploaded or downloaded from each others clock by touching arms or a "time piece."  The more time you have, the richer you are...and the longer you will live. People are programmed to stop aging at age 25, but engineered to live only one year after that. If one has the means, they can buy or steal time to add years to their clock...and their lives. Will Salas (Timberlake) comes from the ghettos of this fictional world.  He is falsely accused of murdering a man who gave him a century of time as a gift. The plot then introduces Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of the richest man alive, Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser.) Philippe is essentially immortal as he has an untold amount of time on his clock. He is like the Warren Buffet of this world, and owns most of the time on the planet. Will uses Sylvia at first for ransom to get himself out of the situation he is in, but the plot takes another twist from there. The pair basically become like two Robin Hoods stealing time (which her father owns) and doling it out to the poor, as they are pursued by the "Timekeeper" (Murphy.)

Even though the story takes place in the future, the sets take on a more modern-day look. The cars used in this movie look more like customized muscle cars than something futuristic. The location is obviously Los Angles as there are quite a few scenes that take place on the L.A. River. The narrative of the story flows well, but is rather dull. Timberlake continues to succeed as a real actor with on screen charisma. After solid performances in Alpha Dog (2006) and The Social Network (2010), it's a little disappointing to see him in a role that doesn't bring out the best of his abilities.

The Sunset Limited (2011)

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones

If you're wondering why you never saw The Sunset Limited in the theater, it's because it was never there. This 90 minute film produced and directed by by Tommy Lee Jones originally aired last year on HBO and went to DVD thereafter. The screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy, who is known for writing powerful dramas such as No Country For Old Men (2007.)

The film consists of only two characters; an ex-con named Black (Jackson) and a professor named White (Jones.) After Black rescues White from a suicide attempt, the pair finds themselves in Black's New York-Ghetto Apartment, where the entire story takes place. The dialogue is then a debate between a "believer" and  a "non-believer" about life and death, but mainly about faith in God and the afterlife. After several attempts to leave, and the pleading from Black to hear him out, White stays to hear what Black has to say. Perhaps he feels a sense of obligation to the man who just saved his life, or maybe is is truly interested in what he has to say. Without spoiling it, the ending is far from what you would think.

The narrative leads the viewer to ask themselves many questions- number one being how they actually got to the apartment in the first place. This film would make an excellent stage play, and has all the makings of one; a simple set, minimal props, and lots of dialogue with only two characters. Jones, in the Golden Years of his life is a powerhouse when it comes to getting his dialogue across with conviction. Jackson, with his deep-authoritative voice and off-color style of humor, delivers with excellence in his role as Black.

Weather you are a believer or not is immaterial, this is a good film on just the acting alone. But then again, I would expect nothing less from a anything made by Tommy Lee Jones.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Way (2010)

Written and directed by: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Yorick Van Wageningen, Deborah Unger, James Nesbitt

The Way is a film about personal discovery. Very early in the film, Thomas Avery (Sheen), an upper-class ophthalmologist from California gets a call from French Authorities informing him that his free-wheeling son, Daniel (Estevez) was killed while walking along the Camino de Santiago.  In case you have never heard of the Camino de Santiago, it's an Ancient pilgrimage trail that runs from France through Spain to The Cathedral of Santiago de Compestela. It is believed that the remains of the Apostle St. James are buried at this site.  Tom travels to France to bring his deceased son home, and instead decides to take the pilgramage in honor of his son. Tom spreads his son's cremated remains along the way. While on his personal journey, Tom encounters three other travelers taking the same journey. There is Joost (Van Wageningen), a free-spirited Dutchman from Amsterdam, Sarah (Unger), a bitter chain-smoking Canadian, and Jack, a self-absorbed writer suffering from writer's block. By happenstance, the group travels together; each bringing their own dynamic to the story.

While the film has a mild religious undertone (Martin Sheen is a devout catholic by the way), it is not a religious film. The film is more of an inspirational story about personal discovery, no matter what one believes in spiritually. The on-location sets along the actual Camino de Santiago provide breath-taking scenery, and add to the authenticity of the film. The 80s lite-radio themed score can be a bit melodramatic, but it is easily overlooked. There are also a few scenes in the story that could have been more developed into the narrative. For instance, in one scene Tom loses his backpack in a river, but the scene just sort of dies out. However, the overall aspect of the film is still good in my opinion.  As Estevez approaches the mid-century point in his life, I believe he is finding his niche as a writer, producer and director. 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Directed by: Thomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy

Set in 1970s cold-war era,  the thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the search for a mole within the British Intelligence Service, MI6.  After a bungled operation in Budapest, Agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced to retire from his post as second in command of the agency. When a low level British Operative by the name of Ricky Tarr (Hardy) surfaces with information about a woman he met in Istanbul, Smiley is brought out of retirement to help find the mole who is working as a double agent for the Soviets. Everyone in the British Intellegence Agency soon becomes suspect as the characters are introduced one by one.  There are many Iconic British actors in the film; "Tinker" is Percy Alleline (Jones), "Tailor" is Bill Haydon (Firth), "Soldier" is Roy Bland (Hinds.)  "Spy" is the one believed to be the double agent. The agency is run by a man who goes only by the name of "Control" (Hurt.)

While I liked the sets and the acting of the entire cast, the narrative of this film was confusing and very hard to follow. It probably helps to know that the screenplay for this film is based on a 1974 novel series written by French Novelist John Le Carre. The book was made into a 1979 BBC mini-series featuring Alec Guinness. I have not read the book or seen the original BBC series, but I am sure that both go into greater detail in explaining the entire story. The 127 minutes in this film was not enough to give the audience much to go on, and did nothing for me personally as the viewer.

Like Crazy (2011)

Directed by: Drake Doremus
Starring: Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlie Bewley

Anna (Jones) and Jacob (Yelchin) meet while seniors in college and fall deeply in love. The couple is faced with a dilemma after graduation because Anna is a London foreign exchange student and has to return home. They begin a long-distance romance that soon becomes even harder when Anna is not allowed back into the United States after over-staying her student visa. Jacob is entrenched in a furniture design business that he's now developed in Los Angeles, while Anna is stuck in the UK.  Over a several year period the lovers have an on-again off-again relationship. Jacob travels back and forth to London to keep their love alive.  During their times apart though, they both have relationships with other people; her with Simon (Bewley), he with Samantha (Lawrence.) In the end, they have to decide if their romance is worth trying to make a life together.

Writer/Director Drake Doremus in his 6th project behind the camera, gave the cast only a basic outline of what was to happen in each scene, and the actors improvised most of their dialogue. Jones and Yelchin do an excellent job of carrying out their work with flowing screen chemistry. A chair that Jacob designs and builds for Anna is a signature of the entire film. It is sturdy, yet fragile at the same time. Jacob also inscribes "Like Crazy" on the bottom of the chair...a signature of his love for Anna.

I liked this film for two reasons: raw unscripted acting, and a director who makes a film that leaves the viewer questioning how it really ends...does their love survive all that it has been through?

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Separation (2011)

Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sarina Farhadi, Sareh Bayat

Nader (Maadi) and Simin (Hatami) are a middle class couple faced with a difficult decision. After waiting for months they are granted permit to leave the country. Simin wants to move from Iran so they can raise their 11 year old daughter, Termeh (Farhadi) in a safe place. Nader refuses to leave because of his ailing father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.  Out of options, Simin files for a divorce. In a country where women have little or no custodial rights in a divorce, she won't move away without her daughter. With his wife moved out of the house, Nader hires a caretaker named Razieh (Bayat) to help care for his ill father. Nader suspects Razieh of abusing his father, and also accuses her of being a thief; violence then erupts between the two. The narrative then twists and turns through issues of morality, religion, gender, and socio/economic classes.

This film is an eye-opener into how the way things work in the Iranian legal system. The film shows that in Iran one can accuse another of a crime, sign a complaint with the court, then have that person prosecuted by a judge. No lawyer, no jury or trail...just one person's word against another, with the judge being the only one to decide the outcome. However, if one has the means, the accusing party can be paid-off  to make the whole case go away. This film also brings to light how religion plays a big part in how things are decided and played out in modern day Iran.

Powerful performances by the entire cast make this film a top Oscar contender for best foreign language film this year.

Water For Elephants (2011)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Hal Holbrook, Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz

The story is told as a flashback by an old man named Jacob (Holbrook) who is trying to get a job with a circus, present day.  The plot takes place back during the depression in 1931 when as a young man (Pattinson) Jacob loses both of his parents in a car accident. He drops out of Cornell University's veterinary school and wanders aimlessley in search of a job and a new life. He hops aboard a train that just so happens to be a circus train. The circus owner, August (Waltz) is prepared to throw him off the train untill he learns that young Jacob has a talent for veterinary medicine. Jacob immediately becomes infatuated with the star of the show, Marlena (Witherspoon) who also happens to be August's wife. Marlena soon has mutual feelings for Jacob. In an era when times are tough, and jobs are few, the circus is in trouble of being shut down after losing it's main attraction, a horse. August purhcases an aged elephant named Rosie in hopes of reviving the circus. With Jacob training Rosie, and Marlena riding her, the circus succeeds in bringing the crowds.

The narrative then begins to unfold a tale of forbidden romance between Jacob and Marlena, and the tyrannical ways of the circus owner, August. Much like his role of a merciless Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Waltz uses the same characteristics of a leader with an iron fist. His radiant charm hides his true cold hearted ways. He knows more of what's going on between his wife and Jacob than what he leads to believe. When he finally does let Jacob and Marlena know that he has discovered their romance, the scene is eerily reminiscent to the opening scene in Inglourious Basterds when Col. Hans Landa lets the farmer know that he knows that he's harboring Jewish refugees. I won't spoil it for you, but the fate of the circus and its owner takes a turn after the romance of Jacob and Marlena comes to light.

This PG-13 film is good, wholesome family entertainment. In an era of CGI and pre-fabricated special effects, it's nice to see a film come along that gets back to basics; a good story, made with real people on real sets. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The other "F" Word (2011)

What happens when a punk rocker from the 1980s becomes a father and a family man in the new millennium? Director Andrea Blaugrund explores that very issue. This documentary film interviews a wide variety of punk rockers like Flea, from The Red Hot Chil Peppers, Fat Mike from NOFX, Lars Fredericksen, from Rancid, Art Alexakis from Everclear, even world-famous pro skater, Tony Hawk, among a host of others. The majority of the film however, focuses on punk rock veteran Jim Lindberg, of Pennywise. Married for 21 years, Jim struggles with maintaining his punk image of "anti-authority," while trying to be a husband and father to his three beautiful young daughters. The grueling tour schedule begins to take a toll on Jim, and he decides to make a change.

The film also explores how none of the punk rockers interviewed really got into the music scene to become rich and famous, instead got into it as a way to rebel against authority and "the system." They are all for the most part, far from rich today, and appear to more of a "working class" brand of musician, struggling to make ends meet and raising a family. Lindberg summed it pretty well when he stated that out of necessity, he HAD to make money to support his family. He made money the only way he knew how, and that was with his music. In turn, he found himself becoming a part of "the system" he rebelled against in his youth.

I identified with this film because I am a product of the 1980s myself. I was a huge fan of a lot of the punk rockers interviewed in this short (100 minute) documentary film. It's very interesting to see that these guys are all  human like the rest of us; greying and balding, rapidly approaching or in some cases past the point of middle age.  Most of these punk rockers were raised in broken homes or with absent fathers, and the film shows how they are trying their best to see that their children are raised with love and affection, unlike they were.  Perhaps raising good kids is a better way to change the world instead of rebelling against it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bellflower (2011)

Written and Directed by Evan Glodell
Starring: Evan Glodell, Tyler Dawson, Jessie Wiseman

Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Dawson) are two slacker buddies living in Southern California. They are unemployed, and  have no one else in their lives but each other. They fill their days trying to build a flamethrower and a souped-up hot rod that belches fire. They believe that some form of an imaginary gang by the name of "Mother Medusa" will form up, which they will lead.  Both are obsessed with post-apocalyptic life similar to their favorite film, Mad Max (1979.) They think that if they can build the car and flame thrower, they can travel like wild banshees and live free in a post-apocalyptic world. Woodrow then meets a girl named Hilly (Jessie Wiseman), they have some good times, fall in love, then she breaks his heart. The story then turns into a twisted tale of revenge.  Woodrow and Aiden spiral out of control, each on a path of self-destruction. Or was the whole thing just a dream? 

A film like this shows what an independent filmmaker can do with a $17,000 budget, and then turn that into a six figure profit. The cinematography is gritty and raw, but adds to the dark element to the film. The original score fits perfectly into a film like this as well. Though the narrative bounces back and forth, and seems a little confusing at times, it's actually an enjoyable film to watch. While the acting abilities of the cast aren't the greatest, and the plot is "way out there," it doesn't really matter. I liked it for the sheer fact that this film isn't what you would "normally" go to see at the theater. The story isn't all "neat and pretty" and you probably wouldn't go and show it to your kids. But, it's art and it's entertaining to consenting audiences.  If Glodell can take $17,000 and turn that into a profit, what would he do if he had a blockbuster budget? The possibilities for this young director are endless...