Sunday, December 25, 2011


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Dir. David Fincher, 2011)

Despite the fact that the opening title sequence, a montage of shiny black bondage imagery synched to Karen O and Trent Reznor’s blaring cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, is as in-your-face as the director can get, this is oddly the least stylish of David Fincher’s films.

It’s clear that Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillion have set out to do a second adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel (the 1st in the “Millenium” trilogy), rather than a remake of the 2009 Swedish film, but it so often follows the storyline in the same icy manner that it feels unshakably redundant.

That is, unless you absolutely can’t stand subtitles and will only watch movies in English. Then this is the version for you.

Taking a break from Bond, Daniel Craig takes on the part that Michael Nyqvist (who can be seen currently as the villain in the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie) originally played in the Swedish THE GIRL… series, financial magazine reporter Mikael Blomkvist, who accepts an offer from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a 40 year old disappearance right after he loses a libel suit.

In order to do research on the long missing person, Plummer’s great niece Harriet (a teenager at the time of abduction), Craig is provided with a guest house on the fictional Hedeby Island in Stockholm that is inhabited by the suspicious members of the family, including an extra creepy Stellan Skarsgård. Plummer calls his relations: “The most detestable collection of people you will ever meet.” When we learn secrets of Nazi connections and sexual abuse, we know that’s no exaggeration.

Craig is being investigated himself, by the punk bad-ass hacker Lisbeth Salander played by Rooney Mara, who does a great job matching Noomi Rapace’s pointed portrayal. Mara is definitely the best thing about this one.

Craig and Mara soon start working together on the case, in procedural sequences that echo Fincher’s ZODIAC, and getting it on – in sex scenes way steamier than the original’s, so it wins on that front.

This version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has moments of sublimity, but never gels enough to have an identity of its own. Craig, who plausibly plays a character way less confident than the iconic 007, and Mara have palpable chemistry, but when it comes down to the love triangle ending, involving a wooden Robin Wright waiting in the wings, we never feel like the leads are supposed to be together anyway so the emotional impact falls flat.

I know there will be plenty of folks who will go to see this movie who haven’t seen the original Swedish one, and they will likely be more satisfied with this one than I am. I mean, it has higher production values, “name” actors, and, yes, it is in English. 

However, for folks already familiar with this material, these elements have the unfortunate effect of reducing Larsson’s scenarios into just slightly above average American thriller fare.

More later...

A Couple Of Spielbergers To Go: One With Extra Cheese, One With Extra Action


Without a doubt, Steven Spielberg is the most celebrated film maker of our times.

With JAWS, he practically invented the notion of the event blockbuster, and his movies, including the iconic Indiana Jones series and the JURASSIC PARK franchise, have grossed billions more than any other film maker could imagine.

This year, along with the usual CGI-saturated multiplex mayhem that owes a debt to the man, Spielberg was paid tribute to in Greg Mottola’s sci-fi fanboy satire PAUL (in which he had a voice only cameo), and J.J. Abram’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/E.T. homage SUPER 8 (which he co-produced).

‘Tis the season for Spielberg to step up to the plate himself, as the man has 2 movies to unleash on holiday movie-goers: the WW I epic drama WAR HORSE, and the CGI-animated THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Both are set in the first half of the 20th century, and both are, you know, for kids!

WAR HORSE evokes the golden age of Hollywood, when movies were first making the change from black and white to vivid Technicolor. A friend, Will Fonvielle, said it was “like a John Ford” film, and that nails it precisely – so much so that it looks like every other critic is making the comparison. In telling the simple story of a horse named Joey, who leaves a small farm in the English county of Devon to serve in the first World War.

Through a series of extremely well orchestrated battle scenes, Joey goes from serving the British to aiding the German army, before finding his way back to his original owner Jeremy Irvine.

Emily Watson and Peter Mullan play Irvine's parents, with Tom Hiddleston, David Thewlis, and Benedict Cumberbatch portray solidiers in the trenches, but, hey, you know it's all about the horse, as we can see in lots of Joey's close-up reaction shots.

Spielberg heavily lays on the sentiment, John Williams’ score leaves no moment unpunctuated by swelling strings, and long-time Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kamiński fills the screen with gorgeous scenery that looks like it was all shot at golden hour.

In other words, WAR HORSE is another powerfully cheesy crowd pleaser by the master of powerfully cheesy crowd pleasers.

Based on the world popular, yet not so well known in America, series of comic books by Belgian writer/artist Hergé, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is also a crowd pleaser, but one that tries way too hard. I read the Tintin books when I was a kid, and I really don’t remember them being jam packed with high octane action, yet that’s what you get in Spielberg’s first animated film as director.

Spielberg was reportedly turned onto Tintin when a critic made a comparison between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and the globe-trotting tales of Hergé’s boy hero, and therein lies the problem – even with the involvement of purist Peter Jackson (co-producer), Tintin and his world is too Indiana Jones-ified.

Tintin, voiced by Jamie Bell, and his white fox terrier Snowy (who like all animals in Spielberg movies is as smart or smarter than the humans - a trait he must’ve learned from Disney), join with the crusty boozing Captain Haddock (a hilarious but often indecipherable Andy Serkis), and the bumbling cops the Thompson Twins (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), on a wild treasure hunt involving scrolls found in model ships, which are sought by the sinister Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig).

The performance capture imagery has come a long way since THE POLAR EXPRESS, with beautifully brisk vistas flashing by as Tintin engages in chases, fights, and all kinds of frantic, fast paced fury, but it’s way too busy to be truly engaging.

The plot may be impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the books, John Williams’ score cribs too heavily from his Indiana Jones soundtrack work, and it has a way too blatant set-up for a sequel, a la the end of BACK TO THE FUTURE (which, of course, Spielberg executive produced), but a franchise is what Jackson and Spielberg have been planning for ages, so that’s a given.

That said, the fun witty spirit of the original Tintin does rear its head every now and then. If only they slowed down the onslaught of nonstop thrills enough to get a better glimpse of it.

It’s funny to note that even in an animated Spielberg feature there’s lens flare going on. Old habits die hard, huh?

Despite their ample defects, WAR HORSE and THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, are both prime popcorn pictures that don’t care about anything but entertaining tons of people.

That they will do this Christmas weekend, when many folks will be looking for a good excuse to get out of house. Spielberg’s brand of family friendly fare will surely suffice.

More later...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


(Dir. Brad Bird, 2011)

Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've heard about Tom Cruise's death defying stunt scaling the tallest building in the world (Dubai's Burj Khalifa) without a stuntman in the newest MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. It's a pretty damn impressive feat indeed, especially as it was one of several key scenes filmed with IMAX cameras.

What's more impressive to me is that not only can Cruise can keep the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise sucessfully afloat with this, the 4th in the series - GHOST PROTOCOL, he's also conquered the screen in what I believe is the strongest action movie of the year.

And Cruise does it looking like he's only aged a couple of minutes after the last one ended back in 2006.

Now, even though I'm not really an action genre guy, I re-acquainted myself with the other M:I movies (I hadn't seen the first or second one since they were released well over a decade ago, and I always put off seeing the third), and I have to admit that they are state of the art escapism. Sure, they are souped-up vanity projects on one level, but each, helmed by a different hot-shot director - in order, Brian de Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams - is slick high speed fun, and great to exercise bike to, I've found.

With Brad Bird (Pixar's THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUIE) making his live action directorial debut, and a sharp screenplay by André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum (Alias), Cruise's Ethan Hunt chooses to accept another globe-trotting adventure with a crew made up of Simon Pegg (reprising his role as tech agent Benji from M:I:III), Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner.

There's no way to not make the plot sound convoluted, but trust me it flows better than this description: We catch up with Cruise doing time in a Moscow prison. Cruise's IMF (Impossible Missions Force, duh) helps him escape, and they are given the mission to infiltrate the Kremlin (that's right) to extract top secret files.

After exiting the scene, a bomb goes off (one of the first notable IMAX moments) blowing up the Kremlin, and the IMF is implicated. In an all-too-brief cameo, the always reliably stodgy Tom Wilkinson shows up the Secretary of State of IMF to tell them they have to go underground to clear their name.

This involves faking a trade for nuclear codes between a French assassin who works for diamonds (Léa Seydoux) and Samuli Edelmann, the right-hand-man of the movie's villain (Michael Nyqvist), who want to annihilate the world's population in order to begin again.

This is where Cruise's skyscraper stunt comes in, eye-poppingly shot by ace cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) which is genuinely breath-taking. Although Cruise's Hunt is a cocky bastard most of the time, he does show some believable fright in this and other heart pounding scenes, and that enhances the intensity greatly throughout.

And then, when you think they can't top that, Bird and co. serve up a chase through a sandstorm which is just as thrilling.

Also, just when you start wondering, hey - what about, Michelle Monaghan, Cruise's wife from M:i:III? Pegg, among his many amusing one-liners, mentions in vague terms that she ended the relationship, but, of course, we just know that there's more to it that that.

Sure, the plot is routine, Nyqvist (who was the protagonist in the original Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO films) isn't a very memorable villain, and the last third, mostly set in a palace in Mumbai, too resembles something out of 007 in OCTOPUSSY, in its excuse to have our hero in a tuxedo in an exotic location, yet M:i:4 is still worth an overpriced IMAX ticket for, not only the awesome Burj Khalifa sequence and several choice action set-pieces, but for the sheer entertainment value of a high fallutin' formula done right.

Renner, who does his hot-head shtick here to perfection, is rumored as a candidate to take over the series from Cruise, but you wouldn't know it here - Cruise sure doesn't look like he's pushing 50 in one pummeling set-piece after another; it is as if he's been outfitted with new bionic body parts just so he can make 3-4 more of these.

More later...

Friday, December 16, 2011

In YOUNG ADULT, Charlize Theron Can't Go Home Again

YOUNG ADULT (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2011)

With Mavis Gary, a divorced writer of young adult fiction, Charlize Theron has her juiciest role since…well, MONSTER. It’s a doozy of a pathetic character that spends most of the movie looking like she’s gone to seed slouching as she shuffles around in sweat pants, Hello Kitty t-shirt, and a hoodie, but when she dolls herself up, a process we see in excruciating detail, she can still bring it as a head-turning beauty.

Theron only brings it in hopes of stealing back her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who is happily married with a new baby. When she hears about the newborn, Theron travels back to her small Minnesotan hometown to relive her teenage glory years, and put her misguided plan in motion.

YOUNG ADULT re-unites the duo behind 2007’s sleeper hit JUNO, director Jason Reitman and Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, but thankfully this time there’s less snark and more edge. This is largely due to Theron’s fearless portrayal of a highly unlikable embarrassingly immature woman, and the odd connection she makes to Patton Oswalt, as one of her former class-mates, who has to walk with a crutch because during his not-so-glory high school years, he was beaten severely – a victim of a mistaken hate-crime.

Oswalt is the voice of reason, telling Theron she’s crazy for trying to rekindle a long gone romance, but she, of course doesn’t listen. Once again playing a grinning dolt, Wilson is oblivious to Theron’s motives; in Elizabeth Reaser he has a good wife (who’s coincidentally on the show The Good Wife), with plenty of stability, so why would he want to get tangled up in his ex’s messy world?

So Theron crashes face down drunk on her hotel bed night after night, and we wonder if this cringe-inducing selfish nut will ever be redeemable. While we contemplate that, Reitman includes shots of the generic landscape of strip malls, chain restaurants, and cheap hotels, that are attempts at making a statement about the homogenization of America (Wilson boasts about a Chipotle opening in town as if it’s big news), but they still don’t serve as much more than backdrop to wallowing in Theron and Oswalt’s desperate existences.

It’s a standout performance for Oswalt, who tops his intensity in 2009’s BIG FAN simply by being himself – a self aware geek with a cutting remark for every occasion.

That said, there really aren’t that many satisfying laughs in YOUNG ADULT, and the predictability of the storyline is annoying, but spending time with these risky characters is appealing during this Christmas season clogged full of overblown fantasies.

Even during her most despicable moments I was still rooting for Theron, who embodies the part so completely you will actually feel sorry for her, but not to succeed at winning back Wilson, but to move on. Obviously the woman isn’t familiar with Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again”, but after this disastrous trip she should definitely take it to heart.

More later...

Friday, December 09, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS: Quaffable, But Far From Transcendent

THE DESCENDANTS (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2011)

In his consistently fine films, Alexander Payne excels in capturing his characters’ descent into desperate goofiness.

From school teacher Matthew Broderick’s scheming to have an ill-fated affair in ELECTION, to Paul Giamatti’s reacting to news that his book has being rejected by yet another publisher by swigging the spit bowl at a public wine tasting in SIDEWAYS, Payne has nailed some hilariously pathetic behavior.

Which is why I kept waiting for Payne’s latest protagonist, a well-to-do lawyer in Hawaii played by George Clooney, to lose his cool. Oddly, except for some doofish running in flip-flops, and darting behind bushes, Clooney mostly keeps it in check.

Clooney’s wife is in a coma after a boating accident, he’s responsible for handling the sale of the 25,000 acres of Kaua’I island land his family owns, and his 2 daughters (the rebellious Shailene Woodley and the foul mouthed Amara Miller) are more than a handful.

There’s also that Woodley, home from private school, tells her befuddled father that “mom was cheating on you.”

With all that I expected more of a breakdown than a simple sobbing at a creek, but Clooney shows admirable restraint, only allowing his emotions to flow at appropriate points. Even when confronting the dorky real estate agent who his wife was seeing on the side, Clooney does teeter on the edge of desperate goofiness, yet still saves face.

Clooney narrates us through the tropical world where businessmen look like beach bums, as he tolerates Woodley’s druggie boyfriend (Nick Krause, who gets way too much screen-time), and the meddling members of his family (including the gruff as ever Robert Forester, and the easy going Beau Bridges).

Like with his last 3 films, Payne has adapted a contemporary novel, this time Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 book of the same name, and changed crucial details to make it his own.

It has a lot going for it in its execution, Clooney’s performance, and the lushness of Hawaii is as strikingly shot by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael as the wine country he shot in SIDEWAYS was (no ‘70s-style split screen action though this time), but THE DESCENDANTS is not as sharp or vital as Payne’s previous work *, because of a padded story-line which makes its premise lose power over the course of its nearly 2 hour running time.

There’s also the difficulty of fully feeling sorry for or relating to Clooney’s character. Despite how much of a schlub they try to make him, he’s still George Clooney in all his charms, and it feels too pat that all he and his daughters need to do to heal their pain is to sit together on a sofa, eat ice cream, and watch MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. As comforting a notion as that may be to some people.

In Payne’s most popular film SIDEWAYS, protagonist Giamatti appraises one wine as being “quaffable, but far from transcendent.”


* My personal favorite of Payne’s films is ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) starring Jack Nicholson. Definitely see that if you haven’t already before, (or instead of) THE DESCENDANTS.

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Martin Sheen Shines in THE WAY

THE WAY (Dir. Emilio Estevez, 2010)

At The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen a few months back, comedian Jeff Ross joked: “Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez said that they would’ve been here tonight, but they had a family obligation.”

Consider Estevez's THE WAY to be that obligation.

For his fifth film as director, Estevez recruits his father Sheen to play a widowed opthamologist who decides to walks the Camino de Santiago to honor his son (played in flashbacks and apparitions by Estevez), who died while hiking the same route.

The stodgy stern Sheen is a man of few words who doesn’t share his grief or reasoning with the group of folks he befriends on the pilgrimage.

Deborah Kara Unger as a sardonic divorcée from Canada, Yorick van Wageningen as an over-eating Dutchman, and James Nesbitt as a writer working on a book about the historic walk, are Sheen’s fellow travelers.

Despite such iconic work in such classics as BADLANDS and APOCALYPSE NOW, as well as his stint as President Barlett on The West Wing, Sheen has often been neglected as an actor.

His Oscar worthy performance here should change that. Sheen’s gruff perserverance carries the film and makes you feel as if you are on the journey with him. Sheen, who can't help but bring the mighty gravitas that actually made me wish the man was the President during the George W. Bush era, proves that you can never be too old to have an adventure. You don't need any Tiger Juice either to get you going.

Although there's some existential cheesiness in the dialogue and it’s overly conventional in its construction, Estevez, who wrote the screenplay based in part on the book "Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route" by Jack Hitt, has earnestly and effectively made a moving travelogue that both pays tribute equally to an ancient tradition, and a grand old actor in his autumn years.

Fancy catching up on some of Martin Sheen's back catalogue? Rent titles including The West Wing, Catch Me if You Can and Apocalypse Now with LOVEFiLM. You can also stream movies to your computer, PS3, Xbox and even internet enabled TV!

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Friday, December 02, 2011

THE SKIN I LIVE IN: This Year's #1 Creepiest Movie

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

Congratulations to Almodóvar for making the creepiest movie of the year.

Reunited with his former leading man, Antonio Banderas, for the first time in over 2 decades, the highly acclaimed Spanish film maker has fashioned a psychosexual thriller that unnerves more than it entertains.

Banderas portrays a noted plastic surgeon who is developing a synthetic skin that can be grafted on to burnvictims. In Banderas’ pristine mansion in Toledo, which is complete with a lavish laboratory, he has a young woman (Elena Anaya) held captive that only his housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) knows about.

As it unravels what’s behind this situation, the film is as twisted as it is twisty with such disturbing details as suicide, rape, and sex reassignment surgery coming to the fore. Also in the mix is the aptly sleazy Roberto Álamo slinking around in a leopard skin suit, and Blanca Suárezas Banderas’ mentally shaky daughter.

With all those eclectic elements, you’d think you’d have a potent brew of prime Almodóvar, but not only do they not blend, they clash with one another no matter how subtly well-acted and well made the film is.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is gorgeously shot by longtime collaborator cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, so I’ll call it lusciously creepy, but extremely creepy all the same.

I really wasn’t getting what Almodóvar was going for here, and the anticlimactic ending doesn’t help his case. This is a depraved tale that makes no statement about obsession or the theft of somebody’s sexual identity or anything really.

It’s a cold unpleasant experience that never got anywhere close to getting under my skin (yes, I know, I’m not the only critic who will say something like that).

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