Sunday, April 24, 2011

2 Brief 2011 Movie Reviews: Water For Elephants and The Conspirator

Water For Elephants (2011)
Director - Francis Lawrence
PG-13; 122 Min
Reece Witherspoon - Marlena
Robert Pattinson - Jacob
Christoph Waltz - August

In 1931 America the depression and prohibition were in full force.  For some the way to stay employed was to travel the country by rail with the circus, and in the case of this film that circus was the struggling Benzini Brothers, direct but not very formiddable competetors of the great Ringling Brothers. There is a back story which frames the film in the same style of Titanic, but you can cast that aside and just enjoy the film for its story-telling and well acted performances.

I've never watched a Robert Pattinson film (I know who he is and what he has done and he was in a Harry Potter film so I guess I have seen him once) and I thought he did a pretty good job holding his own as the young vagabond Jacob finding his way in this circus against seasoned lead Witherspoon as Marlena, the lead attraction of the Benzini Brothers circus.  Marlena also happens to be the wife of August, the owner and operator of the circus and played wonderfully by Christopher Waltz in a very nice follow up to his mesmerizing performance in Inglourious Basterds.) All three actors work well together and Waltz really shows us how amazing he is at switching personalities on call, creating a somewhat likable figure at times who clearly isn't someone we would ever want to cross.

The film takes us along a ride as the circus struggles to make any money.  There is romantic tension between the three leads which ultimately drives the movie.  After Marlena is forced to find a new star act when her horse is injured, August brings in his new idea he is sure will save them all, a majestic elephant named Rosie.  Needing to learn the act quickly Marlena begins to train with Jacob as the defacto trainer due to his years of veterinarian studies.  The film leads up to a climactic ending and I was surprisingly very satisfied with the entire movie, shot with wonderful scope and told in a very moving manner.

**** out of 5

The Conspirator (2011)
Director - Robert Redford
PG-13; 122 Min
James McAvoy - Frederick Aiken
Robin Wright - Mary Surratt
Kevin Kline - Edwin Stanton
Tom Wilkinson - Reverdy Johnson
Evan Rachel Wood - Anna Surratt

Director Robert Redford once again gives us a film with all kinds of political implications which we probably find ourselves relating to current events, but which we don't necessarily like the way it is being told to us.  In the case of the Conspirator, we are asked to view the trial of a woman accused of conspiring to kill President Lincoln in what is clearly a kangaroo court setting, though the ultimate questions concerning guilt are never clear.

In 1865 near the end of the civil war, John Wilkes Booth and several co-conspirators met frequently at a boarding house run by Mary Surratt and inhabited by her son John and daughter Anna.  After the fateful night of the assassination the military higher ups feel it is in the nation's best interest to hold a speedy trial and resolution for the co-conspirators, as Booth perished in a barn fire when cornered.  Frederick Aiken, a young and unproven lawyer, is handed the task to defend Mary Surratt, though he believes from the outset that she is guilty just like everyone else. 

The film mainly takes place in the court room as we see several breaches of Constitutional law take place.  What saves the movie from becoming a bit too high minded is that we are never really aware of the guilt or non-guilt of Mary.  It is well known that her son is most likely guilty, but he has fled and without him to hang the government and the military are willing to put Mary on trial for the same crimes, whether she did it or not.  The film is interesting enough with the subject manner but I had trouble ever really relating to James McAvoy.  I was never really drawn into his character enough to care all the time.  As a fan of history in general the film was a success and I think people will enjoy it if they understand they are going to see a film with no explosions and a lot of dialogue.

*** and 1/2 out of 5

Friday, April 22, 2011

The American President #9: William Henry Harrison

Please feel free to add anything you want about William Henry Harrison!

-One-term President (Whig): March 4, 1841 - April 4, 1841 (Dies in office of pneumonia after just one month)
-Vice President: John Tyler
-Election of 1840: Electoral vote (Harrison 234; Van Buren 60); Popular vote (Harrison 1,274,624; Van Buren 1,127,781)

-Born Feb. 9, 1773 at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia
-Died April 4, 1841 in Washington D.C.

-Nickname: Old Tippecanoe - from his stand which resulted in the burning of Prophetstown

-Profession: Soldier; Military officer; Father of 10 children

-Harrison was the first President to die in office, served the shortest term (31 days), was oldest ever elected at age 68 until Reagan at age 69, and gave the longest inaugural address (1 hour and 40 minutes in freezing cold rain; 8,445 words)

-He became an American hero with his voctory at the Battle of the Thames on oct. 5, 1813, when, as General, he led 3,500 Americans against 700 British and 1,000 Indians led by Tecumseh.

-'The Curse' is attributed to Shawnee chief Tecumseh who is said to have put a curse on Harrison - with his death in office every President after him elected every 23 years would also die in office (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Roosevelt, Kennedy - Ronald Reagan is credited with breaking the curse, though he came very close to being killed by John Hinckley, Jr)

-Not much else to go into... I mean, he dies after a month in office.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Movie Review: Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011)
Director - Joe Wright
PG-13; 111 Min
Saoirse Ronan - Hanna
Eric Bana - Erik
Cate Blanchett - Marissa

The simple title of the film Hanna aptly refers to the young teen who remains on screen for almost all of the 111 minute film.  Saoirse Ronan (you know her from Atonement and The Lovely Bones) is chillingly convincing as a girl raised by her father (Eric Bana) as far away from civilization as possible, somewhere near the Arctic Circle.  Having no other human interaction and definitely no TV, Hanna is taught to fend for herself, to hunt, to build, to fight, to think her way through anything.  She spends all of her time doing these things and learning everything she can from the books in their meager cabin.  She is pushed very hard by her father for a purpose we eventually discover, but are not quite sure of as the film begins.  Hanna is mentally and physically tough in ways teenagers just aren't, which works well in her world of snow and seclusion, but not necessarily so well when she eventually find herself in the real world.

I'm not a huge fan of being spoon fed plot details and I would actually be willing to claim that I have a sick need for finding films that make me think about what is happening, and what I like about much of this film is that it does unfold with a cloak of mystery.  Even if you guess a few of the details throughout you are not being hit over the head with what is happening.  Unfortunately there are about 3 staggering issues that come up which are never fully explained and I find no way of ever really getting a good answer as to how or why they happened, but I won't spoil this review with any of those - you'll most likely find them on your own.

The action in this film feels very appropriate, with very well shot chase scenes and some pretty intense violence at times, but then the director does something wonderful and he pulls back and takes a look at the human side of Hanna and lets her explore her new world.  After she seemingly completes a mission which sends her out of her only known frigid existence, Hanna stumbles upon a traveling family whom she, as best she can, befriends.  There are some interesting dynamics at work in these scenes when you take into account what we know about Hanna and the rest of the world and I found much of the shots during this part of the film to be done with great thoughtfulness.

As is the case with most action movies the last third of the film is filled a bit too much with some sequences I could have done without, and though I certainly won't give away any actual details of the ending, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that it let me down in a way I really wish it hadn't.  Otherwise this was a wonderful film for this time of the year with a nice cast which includes Cate Blanchett as an agent who is heavily mixed up in the reasons behind Erik and Hanna being who they are and she plays her role as a cold and calculating woman with a single minded approach, almost too emotionless.

**** out of 5

Thursday, April 7, 2011

2 Brief 2011 Movie Reviews: The Adjustment Bureau; Kill the Irishman

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Director - George Nolfi
PG-13; 106 min
Matt Damon  - David Norris
Emily Blunt  - Elise
Anthony Mackie - Harry
Terence Stamp - Thompson

Do humans have free will, or are we all just puppets with pre-destined fates? This is the over-arching question and premise of The Adjustment Bureau, a film I am happy to say I found very well made with a story that flowed well and, as long as you can shrug off a few hard-to-believe-the-characters-would-actually-do-that moments, a film that posits some interesting scenarios but never pushes things on us which would make it too preachy or over-bearing.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have wonderful chemistry in a film where you absolutely must believe in the chemistry for anything to work, and a supporting cast of characters including Anthony Mackie and Terence Stamp who hold sci-fi/spiritual powers as they live and move among people, checking their architectural maps of our lives to give a nudge here and there to make sure we stay on the correct paths.  I thought lots of things were just right in this film, including the pitch, the cast, and the running time, making this one of the rare films I had very little interest in seeing but am very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

**** out of 5

Kill the Irishman (2011)
Director - Jonathan Hensleigh
R; 106 min
Ray Stevenson - Danny Greene
Vincent D'Onofrio  - John Nardi
Val Kilmer - Joe Manditski
Christopher Walken - Shondor Birns

With a gritty look and feel, Kill the Irishman brings us back to a time when Cleveland was in a mafia war surrounded by unions, and in the middle of it all was Danny Greene.  As is often the case in the crime world, a lower level thug can sometimes raise through the ranks to obtain power and prestige through sheer will, charisma, and some broken skulls.  Ray Stevenson does a good job for most of the film keeping us interested in the story of Danny Greene, though he does have a small habit of taking us in the direction of a made-for-tv-movie feel at times, which is really my main critique of the film, of course that is probably just as much to blame on some of the writing for certain scenes which just felt out of place.  A really nice supporting cast helps bring this story to life as we witness a film based on true events in Cleveland, OH in the 1970s that saw some thirty+ car bombings in one summer alone and is the basis for the eventual downfall of the heads of all the major crime families in New York.  It is nearly impossible to watch a film like this and not make some comparisons to the great and beloved mob movies we all know and I suppose I am having trouble grading this one because it never reaches any level of specialness for me, but overall it is well done and a great way to spend a few hours.

*** and 1/2 out of 5