Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Movie Review: Salt (2010)

Salt (2010)

Director - Phillip Noyce
100 min; PG-13
Angelina Jolie – Evelyn Salt
Liev Schreiber – Ted Winter

I purposely waited 2 days to write my thoughts on the new film Salt, wanting to do my best to accurately gauge my feelings about another ‘summer movie’ of which I clearly tend to dislike. I’m glad I did wait because I was generally laughing when I left the theater, but I now realize that it has the feeling of a film that is on the verge of being better than it is, yet it holds up well enough to be exactly what it is striving to be, and if you understand what I am saying then you’ll understand what I am getting at… or something.

This isn’t a good movie, but it’s ok for a summer action film in the sense that it is over-the-top implausible. The film would not work with a male lead (Tom Cruise was reportedly offered the job) and so it is that Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt took over and made it passable. It is not difficult to watch Jolie on screen – she’s beautiful and athletic and she holds her own when she speaks. As a member of team CIA she is accused of being a double agent for Russia (These storylines still exist?) and the movie hinges on her escaping many impossible situations as she works to clear her name. Her co-worker Ted (Liev Schreiber) is flabbergasted by these events and he wants nothing else than to catch her. The twists and turns are as nuanced as a sledgehammer to the head, but they work ok for most of the film – I simply cannot write this review without mentioning how absurd the final 1/3 of the film is… summer movie or not, from the White House scene on it is just LOL-tastic.

Director Phillip Noyce has been involved in some pretty decent movies over his career and I think it is that experience that saves this film from completely crumbling: Patriot Games (1992); Clear and Present Danger (1994); The Saint (1997); The Bone Collector (1999) (You’ll notice all of these are from a 10-15 years ago and they are all infinitely better than this film – but at least he brings his experience to this project.)

Whereas Jolie took part in the ungodly awful Wanted (2008), a film which was just terrible on every level no matter how you try to describe the genre to me, she pulls off a decent secret agent role here. My major contention with the film is that is moves from a potentially exhilarating spy piece to an over-the-top, impossible, plot-hole riddled piece that can’t save itself. Pay for some candy and a large coke and maybe catch this one as a double feature some afternoon.

*** out of 5

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Movie Review: Winter's Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (2010)

Director - Debra Granik
100 Min; R
Ree - Jennifer Lawrence
Teardrop - John Hawkes
Merab - Dale Dickey

It is easy to see why Winter's Bone won both the 2010 Sundance Film Festival award for Grand Jury Prize as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award. It is not as easy to watch the film without digging a little deep within yourself to appreciate the film art in front of you. I suspect the subject matter and the way it is filmed will not sit well with a general viewing audience, so I caution anyone considering this film that they understand what they are getting into: a real world of bleak hopelessness in which a child is forced to grow up all too quickly, a family is forced to face demons, and in the end, maybe, just maybe, a small amount of hope can be squeezed from frozen stone.

Jennifer Lawrence plays 17 year old Ree, a girl who has gone through more turmoil than anyone should experience in a lifetime. Her family lives in a pretty run down home in the Ozark mountains and with her father out of the picture on bond for meth production, she is left to raise her two younger siblings and her mom, who has basically checked out of reality and is now a walking zombie. Her neighbors and seemingly inbred family are all around her world, some offering a little help, most offering nothing. With their home and property up as bond for her father to appear in court, Ree realizes that he is never going to show and they will lose everything they have (what little they have, but it is truly everything for their survival) and she sets out on a journey to discover where he is, dead or alive, and to make sure they don’t lose it all.

Plot points aside, this is a film about dialogue, acting, and hardships. John Hawkes as the down and out Teardrop who helps Ree with as little as he can is magnificent, and Dale Dickey as Merab, Ree’s relative of some sort is as tender as she is wicked, and Ree feels both emotions first hand. Jennifer Lawrence truly shines in this film as a young girl who must be completely confused and hardened by her life results, yet she is keeping it all together as best she can, teaching her brother and sister survival techniques of shooting squirrels and how to make them into stew. This isn’t a heart-warming tale, but there is some hope involved, though very little, and in the end it may just be two baby chicks in the hands of the younger children that leave you pulling for this family, for Ree.

**** and ½ out of 5

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A movie review: The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010)

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010)
aka "Flickan som lekte med elden" - Sweden (original title)
(film subtitled in English)

Director - Daniel Alfredson
129 Min; R
Michael Nyqvist – Michael Blomkvist
Noomi Rapace – Lisbeth Salander
Micke Spreitz – Ronald Niedermann
Georgi Staykov – Alexander Zalachenko

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second of a series of 3 novels by Stieg Larsson adapted into Swedish films, the first being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (My original review of that excellent film can be found here: http://randomthoughtsbymatt.blogspot.com/2010/07/movie-review-girl-with-dragon-tattoo.html ). Both Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist reprise their roles as the emotionally scarred yet tender Lisbeth Salander and the fact-finding journalist of the popular Millenium papers.

I wish I could say there was more to compare with the first two films, but unfortunately the cast is about all I can find.

Not since Caddyshack II (1988) came along and ruined the legacy of one of the all-time greatest films have I felt so disappointed in a follow up. Having not read the novels I cannot possibly review this film with any frame of reference regarding the validity of the content, but as for the actual filmed content, well, let’s just say I quickly made a list of things that I would much rather do over the course of 129 minutes than watch the steaming pile of *$%& which occupied the screen:

1. I would rather go to the dentist. The time it takes to get ready, drive there, wait, have my teeth cleaned, settle up and drive home would take roughly the same amount of time it took to watch this film, but at the end of the dentist appointment I would have a nice feeling of satisfaction that something positive had been accomplished.

2. I would rather do my taxes and re-check them for errors.

3. I can’t say I would prefer to have a colonoscopy, but the incredibly empty feeling in my gut after viewing the film would probably be on par with that procedure.

And so I write this review with a very heavy heart, for the first film is one of my favorites of the year, but it can only feel somewhat tainted by this travesty of a follow-up. Whereas violence and sexuality are used with vigor and purpose in the Dragon Tattoo, they are completely misguided and haphazardly placed throughout Fire. Whereas the suspenseful build up of the first film kept you guessing and playing along the entire time, this film spoon feeds you back ground information and then, without being intentional I’m sure, completely loses interest in what it is telling you and leaves you to guess how such a wonderful premise could turn so drab. Whereas in part one Lisbeth and Michael spend quality time feeding off each other as partners seeking to solve a crime, here they barely share the screen as Michael seeks to track down the real killers in a murder of which Lisbeth has been implicated, leaving each to create a new chemistry with those around them that never works.

The appearance of Micke Spreitz as Niedermann would have probably intrigued original James Bond enthusiasts, but to be perfectly fair he is simply the spitting image and character of what you would expect if the albino monk from The Da Vinci Code (2006) mated with Renard, the man who feels no pain from The World Is Not Enough (1999). A large, strong, albino haired man who can’t feel pain and hardly speaks. Yup – that’s what this movie needed to give it a kick! The script becomes absurd with about 45 minutes to go, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, when the credits rolled I literally threw my hands up and huffed. A few people near me let out a chuckle. Could this really be the follow up film? Really? I can only hope I was having some sort of an Inception (2010) moment and eventually I’ll drive off a cliff and wake up and possibly not fully remember what I saw.

Do yourself a favor and see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and then forget the second movie was ever made.

* and a half out of 5

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Movie Review: Inception (2010)

Inception (2010)

Director - Christopher Nolan
148 Min; PG-13

Leonardo DiCaprio – Cobb
Ellen Page – Ariadne
Marion Cotillard - Mal
Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Arthur
Ken Watanabe – Saito
Tom Hardy – Eames
Dileep Rao – Yusuf
Cillian Murphy – Robert Fischer Jr.
Tom Berenger – Browning
Michael Caine – Miles

(Note: no major spoilers in this review)

Inception is a magnificent film without any help from my adjectives or accolades, but I will say that what, for me, ultimately makes it a great film, is the hands-down best ensemble casting job for an action/drama in a long time. I am reminded of how I felt about the great heist movies of my generation, the first being Heat (1995) and the second, though some will disagree, is Ronin (1998), both very good movies made even better by the cast of characters who each fulfilled their rolls perfectly. In this film, a mind-bending exploration of the mind and, more specifically, the dreaming and subconscious mind, the entire cast comes together to fulfill rolls which are required but never feel forced, and in the end you cannot help yourself from thinking that not a moment of this film was wasted by character actors just hanging around for no reason.

Christopher Nolan is famous for a flurry of films which were critically acclaimed or, at the very least, cultishly revered. Starting with Memento (2000) Nolan proved he is capable of making a layered film that will have you second guessing yourself at every turn while simply enjoying the mind-f**k you are experiencing. The tale of a man with short-term memory loss told backwards who struggles every moment of his life to understand his identity is said to be the film that Nolan was working on when he began his basis for Inception, a 10-year love affair as it were. In 2002 Insomnia was released and though I do not recall it receiving much publicity, I thought it was a brilliant film that focused on mind games and deception, two qualities woven throughout Inception. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were Nolan’s foray into the superhero genre and both films were widely received as instant classics. The Prestige, sandwiched between the previous two films, has been hotly debated but there is no doubt in my mind that it was a well thought out and executed film.

It is with all this experience that Nolan has delivered to us the perfect Summer movie, one which is full of action and suspense, but not of the mind-numbing variety. You should be prepared to put on your thinking caps when you enter the theater (and I highly suggest you pay the extra $5 for the IMAX experience) and be well-prepared for two and a half hours of thought-provoking suspense. I never even once thought about the time, and the fairly packed theater around me was as quiet as a mouse throughout, in deep respect and thought for the film in front of them, and only when the credits rolled did a collective gasp of relief let go as people immediately began discussing the film. Some had no idea what they had seen (these are the people who only want explosions and no plot), while some began to debate (incorrectly) about some of the dream sequences and the consequences (people who enjoyed the film but didn’t put in the effort required to really GET the concepts), but the vast majority seemed to enjoy very much what they had been a part of, which, if you have to nail it down to a simple thought, would be “That…..Was…..Awesome!”

The basic premise of a man infiltrating the dreams of people for pay, for various reasons, is actually, to my memory, an extremely unique concept. I love this film for its originality and that with every layer added you never feel that you are being spoon fed answers nor do you feel you are being asked too much to figure things out on your own. Leonardo DiCaprio as the infiltrator and Ellen Page as the ‘architect’ of the dreams work perfectly together, never forced and never dull. Marion Cotillard is woven throughout the film as a back story and deeply important role for which DiCaprio must answer or be lost forever. She is the perfect mix of beauty and bitch. The rest of the cast mentioned in the credits is perfect, each playing the part of a willing or unwilling participant in this dream experiment.

It must have taken a hundred re-writes to get everything correct in this film and even now as I rehash scenes in my head I cannot find a single fault with the film. From the bookended opening and closing I was completely immersed in this world of rolling cities and anti-gravitational scenes which pull on the not-really-physical bodies of those in interwoven dreams, and I simply cannot give this film enough praise as an instant classic that, if you are willing to give your full attention span, you will be greatly rewarded.

***** out of 5

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The American President #6: John Quincy Adams

Please feel free to add anything you want about John Quincy Adams

-6th President of the USA; One term (March 4, 1825-March 4, 1829); Vice-President John C. Calhoun

-Born July 11, 1767 in Braintree (now Quincy), MA; Died Feb 23, 1848 in Washington D.C.

-Election of 1824: Electoral vote split 99 Jackson; 84 Adams; 37 Clay; 4 Crawford; Popular vote split 153; Jackson; 109k Adams; 47k Clay; 46k Crawford
- Due to lack of a majority the House of Representatives declared Adams the winner, even though Jackson won both the Electoral and Popular votes

- Religion: Unitarian
- Profession – Lawyer
- Higher Education: Harvard 1787

- The first family dynasty of the office of Presidency, John Quincy Adams was the son of the second President, John Adams

- At an early age he accompanied his father to France where he became fluent in the language and learned a great deal. Upon his return to the US he enrolled and finished 2nd in his class at Harvard, giving a speech with the aptly penned title: “The Importance and Necessity of Public Faith to the Well-being of a Nation” – a just the age of 21

- He kept a diary from the age of 12 until nearly the time of his death that remain to this day a valuable source of information on the times

- He was the only President to be elected to the House of Representatives after leaving the office of the President

- Amistad: in 1839, 49 enslaved Africans aboard the ship Amistad took over the boat and killed the captain and his mate. Upon arriving in New York it was John Quincy Adams who defended the slaves in front of the Supreme Court which ultimately declared them all to be free.

-He was a champion for a national museum and though he could not pull it off while President, during his lifetime he would witness the birth of the Smithsonian.

- He was the first President to be photographed

- Us Population in 1825: 12,866,020
- National debt in 1825: $83,788,433
- President’s salary - $25,000/year
- Number of states in 1829: 24

Final thoughts: Compared to the previous 5 Presidents there just doesn’t seem to be too much memorable about the Presidency of John Quincy Adams. It appears that his most important work came in all the years later as a member of the House of Representatives when he was able to vote on a number of incredible important issues.

A Movie Review: Predators (2010)

Predators (2010)

Director - Nimród Antal
106 min; R
Royce - Adrien Brody
Isabelle - Alice Braga
Edwin - Topher Grace
Cuchillo - Danny Trejo

I don’t have much to say about Predators that anybody who would enjoy this movie would want to hear, so I’m just going to say it is pretty awful in the grand scheme of things, but not so horrible that you should pass up a chance to walk into it after seeing a good film. Maybe you’ll be with the right kind of person and the two of you can enjoy placing bets on what order the random group of killers will be killed by the alien things. I definitely lost out when I thought the Yakuza Japanese guy was going to get it next and it turned out to be, wait, no no no, I will not give away a spoiler here! You’re just going to have to see the movie like everyone else.

Adrien Brody simply cannot pull off a tough guy role. It can’t be done. At least not here. I mean, how is it possible to watch this film without comparing everything to the infinitely better original film Predator (1987) and the completely perfectly cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch? Can’t be done. I suppose the creators of this film knew exactly what they were doing when they had the entire cast literally drop into the movie with no back story via parachutes – I mean, we never really know why things have happened the way they have, and we never really care, either.

* and a half out of 5

A Movie Review: The A-Team (2010)

The A-Team (2010)

Director - Joe Carnahan
117 Min; PG-13
Hannibal - Liam Neeson
Face - Bradley Cooper
B.A. - Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson
Murdock - Sharlto Copley
Sosa - Jessica Biel

I love it when a plan comes together. I also love it when I go to the theater and see a movie that doesn’t make me look at the time, like, 5 times. Not to say the The A-Team adaptation of the cult tv series was all bad, I mean, I laughed a few times, but this simply isn’t good enough. Like the Dukes of Hazzard, the A-Team was a tv series I grew up with, but don’t really recall any specific storylines, and the idea that there is a 2 hour story for a feature length film just doesn’t add up, unless, of course, you’re interested in physically impossible and highly coincidental explosions that defy all laws of physics.

Bradley Cooper has become the token smug bad-boy in his films and thankfully he does provide some of the best scenes in this film, but Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson as “Mr. T”??? You could seriously pick any black male off the street with a few muscles, shave his head to a Mohawk, and pay him $1,000 to do a better job at what we in the movie-watching for pleasure business like to call ‘acting.’ Sharlto Copley as Murdock is good comic relief, I suppose, but what I really wonder is how much money Liam Neeson owes to his bookie to have signed on as the leader of this gang, Hannibal, the man with the plan? I’m not trying to vault him into the upper echelon of greatest actors of his generation, but this film smells very much like a paycheck.

Of course there is a woman to look at throughout this ‘film’ - Jessica Biel, obviously playing a high ranking military official who is seemingly everywhere but doing nothing, and I’m not quite sure how we are to ever take anything coming out of her mouth as remotely serious.

This is a summer film for people who don’t care much about taking 2 hours to laugh a bit at Bradley Cooper, although I admit I did laugh out loud more than a few times at how absurd everything was, and really, just at how awfully cast the production crew was with Rampage.

* and ½ out of 5

Monday, July 5, 2010

The American President #5: James Monroe

Please feel free to add anything you want about James Monroe

- 5th President of the USA; Born April 28, 1758 (Westmoreland County, VA); Died July 4th, 1831 in NYC (3rd President to die on July 4th)
- Two-term President: March 4, 1817-Mach 4, 1825; Vice-President Daniel D. Tompkins (1817-1825)

- Religion: Episcopalian
- Higher education: College of William and Mary, 1776
- Profession: Lawyer; Senator

-Election of 1816: Electoral vote Monroe 118 to Rufus King 94; no popular vote
-Election of 1820: Electoral vote Monroe 231 to John Quincy Adams 1 (Seriously – he ran unopposed as did Washington, with one person casting a no vote simply because he did not like him); no popular vote

-James Monroe is the only person to serve as both secretary of state and secretary of war (defense) simultaneously

-As governor in Virginia, Monroe was present during the 1800 event known as ‘Gabriel’s Rebellion, a planned slave revolt. Monroe had militia at hand ready to prevent anything from happening, and the leader Gabriel was caught and hung, along with 35 others in what Monroe termed “this unpleasant event in our history.”

-Monroe would later make it publicly known that he was in favor of ending slavery via repatriation of freed slaves back to Africa.

-in 1803 Monroe was the broker of one of the most astounding land deals in history, working with Napolean in France he managed to procure the Louisiana Purchase at a mere 3 cents per acre, for all land headed West. At 15 million dollars total it was 10 million more than his original authorization, but upon learning the details of the plan he felt it was well within reason to move forward.

-It would be years later before the Spanish could be convinced to give up what is now Florida, as it had never fully been involved int eh French portion of the Purchase. Some fighting did ensue and war hero Andrew Jackson even went so far as to hang to British subjects he claimed were inciting Seminole raids. At 5 million dollars the US convinced everyone to give up the land.

--His Presidency became known as the ‘era of good feelings’ because following their defeat in 1816, the Federalist party collapsed, eliminating the rancorous partnership that had been held between the Federalists and the Republicans With the war of 1812 behind them, the country looked ahead to expansion.

-Monroe and his family moved back into the rebuilt White House (fresh from being burned during the War of 1812) and the building received its characteristic white coating.

-The Missouri Compromise was a huge deal – until then the US had been equally divided among free and slave states, but Missouri wanted to join as a slave state. In 1820 it was Speaker of the House Henry Clay who proposed that Missouri enter as a slave state and Maine as a free state. All other lands of the 36/30 N latitude would be free (this law was later overturned by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision)

-The Monroe Doctrine is what has become the ultime legacy of the 5th President. This document proclaimed to the world that that the United States’ opinion was that Europe should stop attempting to colonize the western hemisphere. This policy would shape American foreign policy from that point forward.

Random things:

-The first successful blood transfusion is performed in London
- Congress agrees to limit the number of stripes on the American flag to 13 and always add a star for new states.
- Fourth US census shows population at 9.6 million
-Census shows Great Britain at 20.8 million and France at 30.4 million
- May 11 the HMS Beagle sets sail with Charles Darwin

-Jean-Francois Champollian decodes Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone

2008: - $1 James Monroe Presidential coin released

Thoughts on his inaugural speeches:

March 14, 1817 – Monroe speaks of the fact that only 40 years have passed since the Revolution, and just 28 since the Constitution, yet so much has passed. He spends quite a bit of time speaking about personal freedoms and the end of the recent war. He speaks of how fortunate the USA is to now lay claim to every climate imaginable with such vast resources, and how it is important that the people maintain the land accordingly. And in one interesting paragraph, knowing what we know now, he states “With the Indian tribes it is our duty to cultivate friendly relations and to act with kindness and liberality in all our transactions. Equally proper is it to preserve in our efforts to extend to them the advantages of civilization.”

March 5, 1821 – Monroe speaks quite a bit about the details of what has transpired since the end of the war and acquisition of the Florida region and access to the Gulf of Mexico. He also spends a lot of time on relations with the British, French and Spain. As a follow up to the Indian tribes: The care of Indian tribes within our limits has long been an essential part of our system, but, unfortunately, it has not been executed in a manner to accomplish all the objects intended by it…” He continues on to proclaim that it will simply not work to have tribes lay claim to such vast areas of the West while the USA rapidly expands in that direction, and he hopes that reasonable efforts can be made to allow the tribes their own lands while also allowing expansion for the USA.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Movie Review: The Secret In Their Eyes (2010)

The Secret in Their Eyes (2010)
aka "El secreto de sus ojos" - Argentina (original title)

Director - Juan José Campanella
127 min; R
Spanish with English subtitles
Ricardo Darín – Benjamin Esposito
Soledad Villamil – Irene Hastings
Pablo Rago – Ricardo Morales
Javier Godino – Gomez

I’d like to start my brief review of The Secret in Their Eyes with a direct quote from Roger Ebert’s review:

"The Secret in Their Eyes" surprised many by winning the 2010 Academy Award for best foreign-language film. Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon," another considerable film, was thought to be the front-runner. The academy did a good thing when it reformed the foreign-language film voting, requiring all voters to see all five finalists. In 2009, with the Japanese winner "Departures," and again in 2010, the voters had an advantage over the rest of us. Who is to say if they were right? They voted as they felt, and in today's unhappy distribution scene, the Oscar means your chances of seeing this film are much increased. You won't regret it. This is a real movie, the kind they literally don't make very much anymore.”

(Full review here: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100421/REVIEWS/100429994/-1/rss)

I have unfortunately not seen any of the other nominees from this category, but if the other films are even half the film that this turned out to be I hope to remedy this quickly.

To put it simply, my thoughts when the credits rolled was that this is one of the best films I have ever seen. I don’t know if it is in my ‘top 100’ or my ‘favorite of the year’ or whatever, and I’m not even thinking in those terms. I am simply saying this was a magnificent piece of art that left a great, lasting impression on me.

The film is in Spanish with English subtitles and I loved the way the original language really took on its’ own character throughout, with the actors speaking freely and fluidly as only the Spanish language allows. The chemistry between the entire cast was perfect and at no point did it ever feel as though I was watching a movie, more so that I was eavesdropping on these people’s actual lives.

A quick plot summary is in order, so here we go:

Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) seeks out an old flame that was never meant to be, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil) who is now a powerful judge. He wants her opinion on a novel he intends to write about an unsolved murder case from 25 years ago that the two of them worked on, he as a lowly up and comer in the Argentine police department and she on the fast track to a more prominent life. The murdered woman is the young bride of Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) and though the corrupt police department attempt to arrest a few people on trumped up charges, Esposito has always suspected a man named Gomez (Javier Godino) was responsible for the brutal slaying. The film takes on a dual life between present day and 25 years ago, weaving a wonderful piece of fact, fantasy, regret, and absolution.

The film is stylistically beautiful in every way. There is an amazing chase scene inside a packed and wild football stadium in Argentina that will blow your mind. It doesn’t look like special effects were used, but you can’t imagine how it could be done without them. Wonderful shots by the director are incorporated that you don’t see coming, such as amazing views from crane mounted cameras high above the countryside. It is, of course, the people that make this film so wonderful, as much as the story leads itself to completion. The dialogue is witty and real, and emotions never feel contrived, but deeply personal. These are real people who have lived real lives and they speak and act like it. I’m not sure if I have ever walked out of a theater with such a wonderful appreciation for what film can do to someone on an emotional level.

***** out of 5

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Movie Review: Harry Brown (2010)

Harry Brown (2010)

Director - Daniel Barber
103 Min; R
Michael Caine – Harry Brown
Emily Mortimer – D.I Alice Frampton
David Bradley – Leonard Attwell

Michael Caine has had a very distinguished career in which the now 77 year old actor has portrayed everything from Horatio in Hamlet (1964) to Jack Carter in Get Carter (1971) to a Dirty Rotten Scoundrel (1988), a pageant-prepper in Miss Congeniality (2000) and Batman’s right hand man Alfred in the newer Batman films. But never has he been a 77 year old vigilante out for justice. Until now, that is, as Harry Brown, a man with such a simple life he should just easily ride it out for 5 more years and pass on, un-noticed, into the afterlife.

Unfortunately for the youth gangs of South London, however, Harry is not going to go gently into that good night – he’s gonna kick some ass and doesn’t care about taking names.

And that, my friends, is the essence of the British film Harry Brown, a film that grabbed me early, held my attention, then tossed me aside like an afterthought as it fell deeper and deeper into an abysmal mess of a cliché. Anybody who is familiar with Gran Torino (2008), a film in which Clint Eastwood puts on his best smile as a war vet who simply wants kids off his lawn (though he’s willing to shoot them to get them off his lawn) will know how Michael Caine feels when, soon after losing his wife, a group of terrorizing youths murder his best and only friend Leonard, and the inept cops simply have no way to pin it on anybody.

There are two main differences that make Harry Brown a better film than Gran Torino: 1) It is British. And British films are slightly better than American films at portraying old men who still have some fire in them. They are more subdued and nuanced, and personal preference for me is with an older Michael Caine. 2) The youths in this film can actually act. Gran Torino was bogged down with terrible (and I mean god-awful, unwatchable, terrible) youth actors. Here we have slightly older kids acting much more like knife-wielding, gun-toting, drug using gang members might act.

And those two points alone make the first one half of Harry Brown a 5-star film. Alas, there was a second half. And in that second half you don’t need to put on 3-D glasses to get any special effects, you simply have to toss out everything you ever knew about reality and suspend all disbelief as 77 year old Harry Brown becomes vigilante extraordinaire as he plows down uncountable lowlife youth scum using all but the kitchen sink, which he very well may have used but would not have been able to lift over his head. The film is worth a see on DVD when it comes out, I suppose, if for nothing else than to compare it to Gran Torino and decide which one you prefer.


*** out of 5

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Movie Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2010)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)
aka "Män som hatar kvinnor" (Men Who Hate Women)- Sweden (original title)

Director - Niels Arden Oplev
152 min Sweden: 180 min (extended version); R (USA)

Michael Nyqvist – Michael Blomkvist
Noomi Rapace – Lisbeth Salander
Sven-Bertil Taube – Henrik Vanger

In the bitter cold of a Swedish winter the desire of one man to solve a 40 year old mystery burns with passion. Now an old man, Henrik Vanger still yearns to know what became of Harriet, the girl he thought of as his own daughter, so many years ago when she disappeared and was presumed murdered. His extensive family all eager to get their hands on the family business and fortune had been gathered at the family compound on an island, cut off from the mainland for 24 hours due to an accident on the only bridge to the mainland, and for 40 years it has been suspected that one of them must have been the killer. Vanger wants answers and is willing to try one more avenue to obtain them.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of a series of 3 novels by Stieg Larsson adapted into Swedish films. The film is subtitled and shortened by some 20+ minutes for US release (though still long by most standards at 152 minutes), and though I did not do any research on this point, I suspect some of the cutting room floor footage would have pushed the rating from R to the box-office dreaded NC-17. The film offers no apologies in its portrayal of some brutal scenes of rape and torture but I never once felt that any scene did not belong and it basically was all pooled into 3 scenes. I look forward to finding a director’s cut soon to watch the fully unedited version of this film. The original working title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women – so keep that in mind when deciding if this film is for you.

The girl with the dragon tattoo is Lisbeth, a hard-edged, chain-smoking, young punk woman with piercings and tattoos and a giant chip on her shoulder who also happens to be a world class computer hacker, played with miraculous vigor by Noomi Rapace, in a role that is simply perfect for her on screen manor. It has been rumored that David Fincher will direct an American version of this film with Lisbeth potentially being portrayed by Carey Mulligan who is a fine actress but I am not sure who I would choose to pull off such a subversive and demanding role – I do not know enough of Mulligan to know if she can find her dark side. Daniel Craig is reportedly on board to play the central figure of this film and I think he is an almost too perfect choice. In this version of the film, however, it is Michael Nyqvist who plays the role of Michael Blomkvist, publisher/reporter of the Millenium newspaper, who is caught up in a scandal for which he claims he has been set up. A series of events brings him to Henrik Vanger who asks him to use his skills to take a look over 40 years worth of information about the disappearance of Harriet.

What really ties this story together so well is a complete inter-weaving of story, acting, directing and production, something that seemingly never comes together when you really feel it should. Both Rapace and Nyqvist nail their characters at every turn while never leaving us wondering too much about who they are and what their motivations may be – those are questions to be answered, perhaps, in the other two films. But here we are left with the story of a classic movie theme – a real who-dunnit and why thriller with all the twists and turns of any mainstream film, but with a darker portrayal of the rough edges that sometimes make a film feel too formulaic.

***** out of 5