Thursday, October 28, 2010

A movie review: Celda 211 (2010) aka Cell 211

Cell 211 (2009)
aka "Celda 211" - Spain (original title)

Director - Daniel Monzon
113 min; Unrated
Alberto Ammann - Juan Oliver
Luis Tosar - Malamadre

You simply cannot know how you will react to traumatic circumstances until you are thrust into the middle of the storm. If you are Juan Oliver in the film Cell 211 you quickly discover that surviving at all costs is both a skill and an instinctive response. I'm not sure how realistic this film is in the quest to portray dilapidated prison conditions which house Spain's worst offenders, but I sure hope I never have to find out. Besides, the film does not come across as a political message about the lives of prisoners in Spain, it is more or less a simple story of survival for one man trapped in a nightmare who has to make unthinkable choices at every turn. Perhaps there is more significance to those in Spain or the surrounding area, but as an American viewer I appreciated the film as an entertaining and intriguing story all by itself.

One day before he is to start his new job as a prison guard at a Zamora prison, Juan Oliver kisses his pregnant young wife and goes to take a tour of the facilities. He is given the tour by 2 of his soon to be co-workers and he learns briefly about the conditions of the DSS prisoners - those who are marked for special surveillance and spend almost all of their time in solitary confinement taking regular beatings from officers. A split second later everything changes for Oliver. A freak accident leaves him injured just as a riot breaks out in the prison. Left with a choice to help him or save themselves the two guards bolt leaving Oliver stranded and wounded in the empty cell 211. When he awakens he is foggy but must quickly determine how to survive. Passing himself off cleverly as a new inmate, Oliver must gain the trust of everyone or be killed on the spot.

Though staying on the good side of everyone in the riot is important, it is really only the opinion of the riot leader, Malamadre, that matters. A brutal killer with nothing to lose, he is well versed in the prison system and the art of negotiation. He knows that a riot is the only way to get better conditions in any form from the prison or the government, but usually once the riot is over the demands which were met are quickly dismissed. This time he has a better plan that includes the hostage taking of 3 political prisoners of great importance.

The film contains some cliche moments and some caricatured characters, but overall the interplay between Oliver and Malamadre is superb. One is a regular guy, decent, the other a complex murderer, and it is up to Oliver to make sure their relationship stays civil. Along the way Oliver must make personal sacrifices which border on the unthinkable, and in the end he must struggle greatly with a turn that he could have never foreseen.

The film is shot in a grainy texture that I admire for the subject matter, and though you have to suspend disbelief for some of the plot, the overall theme is carried well throughout and sometimes portrayed with brutal and striking violence. Psychologically this is a strong film that will leave you thinking as the credits roll. The film won 8 Goya awards, which is equivalent to a film sweeping the Oscars. I'm not sure it deserves all that, but it is definitely a worthy film of your time.

**** out of 5

Monday, October 18, 2010

A brief movie review: Red (2010)

Red (2010)

Director - Robert Schwentke
111 min; PG-13

Bruce Willis - Frank Moses
Mary-Louise Parker - Sarah Ross
Morgan Freeman - Joe Matheson
John Malkovich - Marvin Boggs
Hellen Mirren - Victoria

Everything about the movie Red is, well, below average, but everything sort of falls into place to create an ok movie with ok action and ok comedy. I paid to see it without any expectations and I'll suggest you wait for it to come out on some sort of new sci-fi technologically superior device to the beta/vhs/cd/blu-ray or Netflix. If, however, you decide to plop down some cash, I don't think you'll be too too sorry afterwards. It has some laughs and the cast alone makes it watchable. Malkovich is usually good in anything he does and he provides some of the better scenes (with the material he has.) Think of the entire film as a way for the movie makers to put some former big names together and have a bit of fun. It works and it doesn't work just about equally. If you are completely unfamiliar with the plot just know that Bruce Willis is a retired black ops sort of guy (Retired; Extremely Dangerous) being hunted down by his own government, so naturally he rounds up the ol' gang and a random love interest to try and survive.

** and 1/2 out of 5

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A movie review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

Note: If you are completely unfamiliar with this story then this review will contain spoilers to you

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Director - Mark Romanek
103 Min; R
Carey Mulligan - Kathy
Andrew Garfield - Tommy
Keira Knightley - Ruth

Kazuo Ishiguro penned the novel Never Let Me Go on which the new film by Mark Romanek is based. For those who have read it (I have not but have added it to my want list) the film will play with some slight differences but an overall similar theme of sadness. Director Romanek is responsible for another dark piece of which I am a fan, the 2002 film One Hour Photo. In both cases I probably feel about the same, that each film is ultimately lacking something yet I am inclined to remember each one for the good and not for the bad.

In Never Let Me Go, we are introduced to the British school Hailsham which houses a number of school children. They attend class, play sports and paint artwork. All would seem perfectly normal except that these children, while living what would seem to be a typical existence, are anything but typical. Raised from a time before birth to fulfill one purpose, all of these children will someday donate their organs to members of society who require them, and after they have donated enough, they will expire. The euphemisms are easy to figure out - these children are raised for the sole purpose to eventually die upon donating perfectly healthy organs, typically it appears in their late 20s or early 30s. Until they reach that age they live secluded lives with glimpses of the outside world. They experience emotions and even sex but because of the way they are raised, it appears they do not question much their existence.

The acting is superb and it is once again Carey Mulligan who leads the way. As the narrator and one of the central figures, she plays Kathy, a girl at Hailsham who grows up very inquisitive and very much in love with Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who is, like so many among us, torn away by another woman, her best friend Ruth (Keira Knightley.) The movie spends too much time, in my opinion, setting up these early years, specifically the childhood years, in which none of these actors take part since the roles are for children. By the time we get these three in their late teens and onward half the movie feels over. I would have preferred a much briefer set up and more of these three interacting as young adults.

From a movie-making perspective I thought a lot of the pacing and much of the score was out of sorts. For one, there was simply too much time with not much happening in the middle of the film, though everything felt like it should be there, it was not presented very well. I also took issue with certain scenes and an unrelenting pulse-pounding score when it just felt very out of place. With that out of the way, however, I found the film to be beautiful in many ways, especially if you appreciate films with character build up and sad themes that make we, as humans, think about our own existence. Yes it feels like an 'artsy' film at times but Mulligan does well to keep everything on track. She is a true gem of an actress.

In the greater scheme of things this film is about what it is to be human. This is not a sci fi film like The Island and it takes things much much further than, say, My Sister's Keeper. The greatest flaw, for me, is simply the lack of desperation on these young children's part once they do discover the truth. Perhaps it is explained in the book, but for the life of me I can not understand why they do not attempt to break free when given the opportunity. Perhaps it is a case of brainwashing from the time they were born to believe their higher purpose is to donate and then complete, but as the film progresses and these three characters really seem to become emotionally involved, it just feels like they have overlooked the basic fight or flight response.

**** out of 5

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A movie review: The Social Network (2010)

Director - David Fincher
120 min; PG-13
Jesse Eisenberg - Mark Zuckerberg
Andrew Garfield - Eduardo Saverin
Justin Timberlake - Sean Parker
Armie Hammer - Cameron Winklevoss
Josh Pence - Tyler Winklevoss

Like it or not, participate in it or not, we are all living in the world of Facebook. In just 7 years a program started in a Harvard dorm room by a genius programming student has morphed into a 25 billion dollar company and the clear cut favorite as the giant of 'social networking' that can now boast over 500 million members - 'friends'. How it came to be, well that is the subject of David Fincher's film The Social Network which tackles the 'too crazy to be true' story of young Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his founding of Facebook, though others have always laid claim that Mark stole the idea from them in a blatant way. This film does a wonderful job of weaving the story of 2 major lawsuits involving Zuckerberg and the back story to why they came about. Andrew Garfield is wonderful as Mark's only real friend, Eduardo, who fronts some of the money and is the chief financial officer of the start up site. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are two Olympic rowers who claim they had their idea stolen. Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) had already founded The music revolution of Napster and been sued out of everything by the time he met Mark and became involved in raising funds. And in the middle of it all sat Mark Zuckerberg, an anti-social behavior type who also secretly longed to belong to some of the most prominent groups.

The film is not billed as a truly true story, rather it takes many liberties with fictionalized notions of what may have happened. Much of the court proceedings were available to the filmmakers, but with the decline of Zuckerbger to be interviewed or to talk to anyone involved it was only the recollections of those around him that could be used to piece together the events that took place. So speaking of real life I cannot do, but speaking of the film I can say it is a wonderful success. Eisenberg portrays a brilliant programmer who sees the big picture but also seemingly has no care for the money he could be making nor for the basic moral compass that leads many people to stick up for their friends, not fire them.

In a nutshell the story is shown to us as a major multi-million dollar lawsuit against Zuckerberg for his supposed theft of the basic idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins who had approached him to help them construct a website called The Harvard Connection. While seemingly doing his work for them Mark was actually spending his time creating TheFacebook, a social site for college students based on many of the exact parameters set out by the Winklevoss twins as the basics for their site. Along with his friend Eduardo (who put up the start up funds for Facebook) Mark was able to very rapidly grow the website, even while being threatened with cease and desist letters. As the lightning like speed of growth continued a new face entered the scene - Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Parker was a young prodigy himself having created the infamous Napster which is credited as leading to much of the downfall of the music industry. He saw his chance to cash in and soon he was a 7% owner of the company - Mark held 51%, Andrew 33%, another partner 7% and now new investors were starting to get their share of the pie.

The eventual lawsuits would lead to multi-million dollar settlements and Mark Zuckerberg is still the owner of Facebook. He has an estimated value of $25 billion dollars, yet his interest in money has never been strong. This film takes a look at an unreal true story of friendship and betrayal in a way which leads us to understand we will never know the full truth, but one thing we do understand is that when big money is involved, the meaning of friendship changes.

***** out of 5

A movie review: Let Me In (2010)

Let Me In (2010)

Director - Matt Reeves
115 Min; R
Owen - Kodi Smith-Mcphee
Abby - Chloe Moretz
The Father - Richard Jenkins

Let Me In is a rare re-make of a film that is barely 2 years old. We are used to a remake coming out after a generation has passed and the movie industry feels that a new audience will embrace a film that is faithful to the original but with differences. The most recent example would be the new Karate Kid movie, in which a child of a different race in a different setting is trained by a master of a different profession, yet the premise of the movie is still the same as the original Karate Kid we all now. The main difference with this remake is that the original, Låt den rätte komma in (2008) aka "Let the Right One In", is a Swedish film which was shown in the United States with subtitles. The film was a critical success but not so much of a box office boom in the US. Someone realized that the wonderful original (my review is listed in full at the end of this piece) warranted a wider audience. It is unfortunate that so many pass on movies with subtitles but it is no doubt a fact that many do. And so, just a few years after the original, we have an American remake.

Unlike some other remakes you may be familiar with, this film attempts to stay very close to the tone, theme and setting of the original. Instead of a cold and snowy Swedish setting we have a cold and snowy setting in Los Alamos, NM. The names of the main characters have changed but the premise of a young teenage boy leading a bullied and unloved life is still the main focus. When a seemingly young girl, Abby, and her 'father' move into his apartment complex Owen, a shy and sad boy, attempts to befriend her. She tells him that she cannot be his friend. That is kind of strange. And thus the movie unfolds with the reasons for that statement. As with the original this film introduces us to what the world would be like for a vampire living in our world, trying to survive without bringing attention to itself. Abby looks like a little girl, but she is not a she and she 'has been twelve for a very long time.'

There are definite differences from the original but the director did a very good job of capturing the overall sadness and despair, and Richard Jenkins as 'The Father' puts a nice spin on the role of a protector who is nearing the end of his ability or want to perform his duties to Abby. The symbiotic relationship between a vulnerable young boy looking for some type of love and a young looking vampire girl who needs help procuring life-sustaining blood is actually quite beautiful. The original does a better job at conveying all of this, but the remake receives a full passing grade from me (though I simply cannot say enough that you should see the original first.)

**** out of 5

Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
aka "Let the Right One In"

Director - Tomas Alfredson
Oskar - Kåre Hedebrant
Eli - Lina Leandersson

Let me say that this film is wonderful. It is dark and brooding and self-reflective, but not in a pompous way. Nor is it characteristic of what you might expect from a film with a plot centering on the lives of two children, each experiencing the torments of adolescence, though from, relatively speaking, views which are worlds and worlds apart.

It is a fairly common theme in movies to take the coming-of-age emotions of love and isolation and wanting and feelings of inadequacy and being needed, and to cram them into a box of 90 minutes and spit out the other side a formulaic tale of boy meets girl and goes to the dance. What director Tomas Alfredson has done is to take all those emotions and squeeze every bit of realism out of Oskar and Eli, a 12 year old boy and girl respectively played by Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, and make we the viewers feel genuine sympathy for their situations. Each suffers as children often do who are in difficult home-life situations, and each struggles to find their self-identity. What they find in friendship is a comfort to one another they have never known.Were I to stop writing at this point I’m not sure if you would want to see the film or not, but I guess I have left out an important plot component: Eli is a vampire. She tells Oskar she has been “About 12 years old for a very long time” and, judging by the lack of pigmentation and deep, dark circles surrounding her haunting eyes, we have no reason not to believe what she says. Oskar, bullied at school and a member of a family that does not really care for him, is able to see past this admitted flaw and the two begin a symbiotic relationship built on the trust that each has angst the other can and cannot understand.

I loved the storyline for this film. I was enamored by the sweeping scenes of snow-covered grounds and icy ponds and dark, dripping blood from time to time. Two more qualified actors would have been hard to find to portray such dense subject matter for the age group, and though it takes a leap of faith to believe in the topic, it does not take any such leap to believe in the acting abilities of these children.

The entire base of the film is rooted in mystical realism that I find fascinating, and I am surprised and a bit saddened that the film has not received more of a response in the USA. I believe an American re-make is in the works and I cringe at the thought of such a beautifully told tale (in subtitles if that matters to you) might be butchered. See this film and enjoy it as the piece of art for which it will most certainly be remembered.

***** out of 5