Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Director - Tomas Alfredson
127 Min; R
George Smiley - Gary Oldman
Control - John Hurt
Jim Prideaux - Mark Strong
Percy Alleline - Toby Jones
Bill Haydon - Colin Firth

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at the end of 2011 and I’m glad that I waited to write my thoughts, because this film, like a fine wine, takes time to mature.  Upon leaving the theater I had a nagging feeling that something was askew, a piece of the puzzle was missing, and it left me with a sadly empty feeling.  I loved this film in almost every way, yet what was it that left me questioning what I wanted to say about it?  The answer, it turns out, is simply time – time to reflect and ponder, to dissect and admire.  I admire director Tomas Alfredson for his portrayal of MI6, the British intelligence agency, and the cast of characters who all fall under suspicion to being a devastating mole for the Russians.  I’ve been looking forward to this film ever since I found out Alfredson would be directing, his Låt Den Rätte Komma In (Let The Right One In) (2008) was such a fabulous portrayal of a dark and desolate landscape with vampires living among us that I was sure he would nail the tone of a spy thriller.  He did not disappoint.

I don’t think a detailed summary of the plot is necessary to understand the beauty of this film, but a basic understanding would probably help.  Take the wonderful cast of Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman, throw in some amazing camera work in scenic city settings, and finish it off with muted tones and a fun and intriguing score and you have the makings of a great thriller.  Absent from this film are Hollywood-style fireball car crashes and eye-rolling dialogue, so rest assured this is a thinking person’s excursion into the realm of cinema.  Of course, even a thinking person is going to miss something the first go around, because the one flaw I thought I found in my initial viewing was a coherent way of keeping all the people and sub plots in some form of manageable and linear plotline, a telling of the story that left me a bit perplexed at times, but not in a frustrated way, just in a wish-I-knew-exactly-who-that-person-was kind of way, ok?

When a mission in Budapest goes wrong, Control (John Hurt) is forced out of his high ranking position in MI6.  In a last gesture before he is ousted, he proclaims that Smiley will be leaving with him.  Smiley is his number 1 man, played in pitch-perfect tone by the wonderful Gary Oldman.  In a great scene we only see the back of Oldman’s head, with a slight nod, as Control announces this, leaving us to wonder if he knew this was going to happen, or if he even cared.  Smiley’s been at the spy game a long time.  He is a man who is always on his game, right down to the detail of leaving a simple device on his door to know if someone has entered while he is away.  And so it is that a year or so passes before the story really begins.  Brought back in an unofficial role, Smiley is asked to investigate the people he worked so closely with over the years, the unnerving realization that a recently deceased Control was working on uncovering a mole within The Circus, the MI6 elite, who has been working for the Russians.

I truly loved the push in and pull back methods of camerawork, used sparingly but so effectively, creating an uneasy feeling for the viewer whilst providing beautiful scenery and a slightly unsettling sense.  Information is revealed to us in small doses, through flashback at times, and the film assumes we will be able to keep up.  It isn’t always easy, but it makes for a compelling drama that will keep you thinking throughout.  If anything can sum up the performance of Oldman it is a simple scene in the back of a movie automobile, a pesky insect flying about inside while one man fails to swat it away.  Smiley observes, he stalks, and he opens the window at the right moment, the insect flying away, and the back of Smiley’s head, to us, moves slightly emoting a calm, cool and collective character who’s been there, done that.

**** and ½ out of 5

A Movie Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Director – David Fincher
158 Min; R
Mikael Blomkvist - Daniel Craig
Lisbeth Salander - Rooney Mara

My favorite moment in David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the trippy opening sequence set to a memorable rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, a guttural outpouring of the lyrics “A-ah-ahh-ah, ah-ah-ahh-ah/We come from the land of the ice and snow/from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow” as images of the title character move and sway and transform into various shapes and colors. This is the perfect opening for the film and very much reminds me of a vintage James Bond film, though I’m not trying to draw any comparisons. The entire first few minutes set the mood and tone in a mesmerizing way, as if to punish us into submission before the actual film begins.

It has been nearly 2 years since I first saw Neils Arden Opley’s vision of this film –Swedish and subtitled in English – and I feel compelled to admit that because it is nearly impossible for me to view or think about Fincher’s version without comparing the two pieces of work. My initial reaction to Opley’s film was a wonderful 5/5 rating, perhaps not a technically perfect film, but largely entertaining and carried so well by the two main characters (Michael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, played by Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.) With Fincher we find a much more technical and beautiful film with wonderful muted colors and a haunting score by award winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have worked so well in previous Fincher films, but we just don’t get the overall ‘it’ factor which moves it from a solid film to a great film. What we get, in fact, is a faithful adaptation (with a few head-scratching changes) shot beautifully and told in a coherent way, but ultimately lacking in an overwhelming way.

If you are unfamiliar with the story it goes like this: 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. His yearly reminder of a framed, pressed flower from the killer haunts the patriarch into near madness.

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. Rooney Mara takes on the dark role and carries herself well, but she never really reaches the level of hardened hatred I found so appealing by Rapace. In fact, Mara’s Salander ultimately feels like a watered down version of what she should be. Daniel Craig 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. Craig is simply a the messenger in this role, a known actor with good charm who is there to speak the lines from the novel and move his body from point A to point B to fulfill the plotlines. From the moment he was cast I was saying that it wasn’t the right fit, that he was just too secure in himself, too self assured, to easily self sufficient. What made Nyqvist so great was his absolute human qualities contrasted with those of Salander. With Craig it just felt like he could almost never find himself in any danger. The guy is just too perfect.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of a series of 3 novels by Stieg Larsson adapted into Swedish films just a few years ago. 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 film depicts several scenes of brutal sexual assault, but somehow in Opley’s version these scenes feel very needed and very real. With Fincher, the same scenes almost feel contrived and placed for shock value, though I do concede my appreciation for the original version of this film may be clouding my judgment.

I loved the wintry landscapes and hi def snowflakes, the sense of dread and despair in each shot, but I found fault with the length of the film and, especially, the final 20 minutes. Yes the story builds to a climax and then a come down, but in Fincher’s version it felt as if everything after the climax was on a downhill slide proportionate to an avalanche in slow motion – a lot of clean up with no suspense.

**** out of 5

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games (2012)
Director - Gary Ross
PG-13; 142 Min
Jennifer Lawrence - Katniss Everdeen
Josh Hutcherson - Peeta Mellark
Stanley Tucci - Caesar Flickerman
Wes Bentley - Seneca Crane
Elizabeth Banks - Effie Trinket
Woody Harrelson - Haymitch Abernathy
Lenny Kravitz - Cinna
Donald Sutherland - President Snow

"Primrose Everdeen" the heavily made-up long lost twin of Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland speaks into the microphone after drawing a name out of all things, a giant fishbowl, and so begins the journey of the yearly event in a world once lost that has found itself again, and now must both pay tribute and sacrifice to its history - The Hunger Games.

It will be quite difficult not to give out any spoilers for this review of the Hunger Games, because in order to say some of the things I want to say I need to reference some specifics, but I swear I'll simply lay it out there without letting anybody know that Darth Vader is actually the father of Luke and Leia Skywalker and that Kevin Spacey is Kaiser Soze the whole time (there, now you don't have to pretend to tell people you saw the Usual Suspects if you never did, but if you never have I don't know what you are waiting for, but your like way late to the party, so stop complaining to me about it.)

I'll cut to the chase very quickly with major plot details so I can discuss other matters.  The civilization depicted in the movie is made up of 12 zones, with each successive outlying zone a little less desirable than the last.  If you were born in zone1, well, good for you chap.  Zone 12 you say? May want to brush up on your coal mining skills.  You get the drill (yeah, I went there.) Each year for 74 years running the rulers from the Capitol select 1 boy and 1 girl of a certain young age group from each zone to compete in a reality tv show to the death, as a way to honor and sacrifice for civilization's past misdeeds, in this case, a civil war.  The premise of the games is to have 24 children dropped in the middle of nowhere (albeit a controlled environment) and left to their own devices (and supplies made available from time to time) to outwit, outlast and outplay each other. - I couldn't help myself.  Making oneself desirable in the game to sponsors is key to attaining gifts that could help save your life.  Also key is killing the other kids. Win the game and forever be hailed a hero by your district and the entire civilization.  Lose the game and you're dead, so no accolades.  In this instance Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, something no one has ever done from district 12.  She is in all likelihood going to die to save her sister, and she does so knowing full well the consequences.

Suzanne Collins wrote the books that inspired this and the sure to be sequels and apparently has a huge following now, not unlike the Twilight series or, from what I'm told, the Harry Potter series.  I have not read the books nor had I heard of them so I went into this viewing knowing only what I've seen in trailers and read about - basically I knew everything except how they would actually shoot the film.  Minor spoiler alert - teen girls love it! I paid the extra few bucks and saw this at an Imax experience, which I do think is worth it every once in a while.  I'm not sold that this movie won't play just as well on a regular screen, but if you only go to one or two blockbusters why not make it a huge screen with great sound?

There are a lot of roles to follow in this film and surprisingly that was never much of a problem, in general, as you got just enough of the government and entertainment type people to understand the basics.  Where it did suffer was the lack of character depth for the participants (tributes) since I'm sure they were all fleshed out well in the books, but here for sake of time the filmmakers really had to sparse things down to a few obvious bad guys and girls and a few good ones.  Oh well.  At least we get a lot of Jennifer Lawrence.  I can't say enough good things about her and have been fascinated with where her career may go after the incredible performance she gave in Winter's Bone (I know, not all of you saw it...your bad.)  Again, here, she commands every scene she is in and holds this film together.  I know we've been marketed to for a while here, but I find it difficult to imagine a better casting job for the strong and emotionally distant Katniss.  Lawrence is pretty at times, rugged at others, and all the while a force that is moved forward with her piercing eyes and direct approach.  I hope she is able to seek out and find some well written roles in the future.

The film spends the first hour setting things up as we watch the tributes paraded with pomp and circumstance in the Capitol and on television.  They are trained in fighting and mentored to prepare for what they are about to face.  In the case of Katniss and her district 12 male tribute companion Peeta, they have a former winner from district 12, Haymitch, to guide them.  Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson

I was both pleasantly surprised and equally shocked at the levels of violence shown in this film with a PG-13 rating.  Now my eyes are not virginal and my moral code and ethics could use some major touch ups, but for a film aimed at tweens and teens and puppy dog tails there was quite a bit of spear to gut, bricks to the head, and neck breaking.  Do I want to even begin to comment on what that means in a larger sense to society? Hell no.

I enjoyed this film.  I liked it.  I did. But I also found a lot of things wrong with it and obviously I'm going to mention those issues, now, actually.

We need more back story.  We get absolutely no decent context as to why the Hunger Games happen each year or why Donald Sutherland's god like ruling of this civilization is the way it is... and yes, I know we are told about the civil war etc. We don't get enough information about why zone 1 people are the crazy Hollywood types in love with themselves and the entertainment of these deaths, nor do we get any feel for any of the other zones except the despair of district 12.  I would have loved to have seen some sort of video footage of when Haymarsh played his game, how he won, and what happened afterwards, just something to tie together the before, the game, and the after.  I also detest that the filmmakers had to acquiesce and spend too much time on the developing love story of the main characters.  I can't compare to the books so I have no idea, but man did it feel forced and hokey to watch Katniss let her guard down when she clearly understand the ramifications of her situation and the need to be on guard at all times to survive.  Which brings me to my biggest fault with the film, perhaps, and that is with the sponsors and the immense time and energy spent relating to the tributes how important it is to win over the crowd and the sponsors to survive.  You know how often the sponsors are on screen? You know how much we learn about them, who they are, why they care or don't care about the tributes? You know how many life saving parachuted items we witness in the games?  I won't give it all away, just know I was greatly disappointed with that entire aspect of the movie and felt it brought it down a level.  The most glaring mistake the film makes is not depicting any hunger in the hunger games.  Seriously, WTF? They make a point of saying that tributes should expect to die of all types of causes and diseases and they will have to fend for food and shelter etc... At no point do any of the actors look any different than if they just came from a hot shower and bed in breakfast.  I don't need them to emaciate away like Christian Bale, but at least give us some sense that these kids are struggling to survive after days in the wilderness.

Can we talk about the shaky cam for a second? It's over people.  It served a purpose and I actually haven't minded it for a lot of action films of recent years, but let's be honest with each other - we need to stop the use of the shaky cam for every single action sequence, or for that matter, every single crowd shot, aerial shot of birds, people running, cars driving, etc etc etc... Let's just agree to let shaky cam go and get back to nice wide shots and close ups that complement each other.  Thanks.

The premise of the books and the movie is steeped in a long line of stories and films with similar ideas.  You'll recall The Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, The Lottery, and perhaps most of all but most likely the least seen by an American audience, Battle Royale, in which a class of children is selected randomly to kill each other off until there is one winner (Collins claims to have had no knowledge of it before she began, and maybe that's true... maybe it is... sure, let's go with that.)  Battle Royale is much more graphic in its depiction of killings but it also manages to make us care a bit more about some of the students trying to survive.  I bring all this up only because there are so many obvious  plays from other films that you can't miss them - doesn't make this film bad because of it, it just happens to be stamped all over it.

And here we are at the end of my review, which fittingly has my disapproval of much of the ending of the film, from the last 20 minutes or so.  I can't and I won't spoil it for you, but for a film that does a pretty decent job of creating a realistic battlefield environment with kids killing other kids to survive, why in the F&%* did they have to go and add in such horrible CGI and awful story telling right at the climax of the entire film?  You'll know what I mean when I say that much of the ending will not leave a good taste in your mouth (a berry pun you'll understand when you see the film.)

*** out of 5

Monday, March 12, 2012

Random thoughts indeed...

Before I begin a random stream of thought, I'd like to ask any of you reading this if you have any suggestions or requests for movie related discussions? It is a dead zone right now and I am open to anything - requests? 

So here it is, March madness time of the year, and I have seen just 3 movies with a 2012 release date: (The Grey, Safehouse, and The Woman in Black.) I also saw A Dangerous Method about Freud and Jung - nothing special for me to write about.

Pretty typical of January and February for there not to be much I want to see, although both The Grey and Safehouse were great surprises to find early in the year.  I have spent the better part of several months watching the complete Sopranos series from start to finish and only have about 8 episodes left, so once that is done I will be getting a lot more Netflix and hopefully will find some hidden gems to post about.  I've already got a long line up with a diverse selection ready to come.

Looking ahead I am not too excited about upcoming theater releases.  I'm actually beginning to hate anything with CGI in it... I used to just not like it, or at the very least, tolerate it, but now I see a trailer with CGI in it and I instantly think to myself, "I'm never going to pay to see that".  I'm just not a fanboy or geekboy with those types of movies.  I want something gripping with great acting and a solid plot.  One of the best movies I have seen in a long time was from 2011 and if you love great acting you really need to see it - Take Shelter with Michael Shannon.  Just an amazing film.

On my computer I have 2011's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - an excellent film that I want to re-watch, and A Separation, winner of Best Foreign Oscar this year which is supposed to be outstanding.  I am going to try and get to it soon.  I am also going to start watching the tv series The Wire - I have the first season on my computer and have been told it is great, though I've never seen an episode.