December 20, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With a title pulled from a line in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick continues his deep probe into humanity and faith … recurring themes in most of his films, and especially the run that began with his excellent THE TREE OF LIFE (2012). This current film is easily his most accessible over that period as it focuses on the (mostly) true story of Austrian WWII conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter.

The film opens with contrasting images: a black screen with sounds of nature fading to a bucolic Austrian Alps village versus dramatic historical clips of Hitler (I believe from Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL). The rural farming village we see is Sankt Radegund, the idyllic community where Franz Jagerstatter (played by August Diehl, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) lives off the land with his wife Franziska “Fani” (played by Valerie Pachner) and their three young daughters. It’s a family bonded by love. The family and fellow villagers go about the rigors of daily life as the war spreads. In 1940, Franz is sent to Enns Military base for training, and is then returned to his village under a farming exemption.

What follows is a first half filled with dread as Franz struggles with his own beliefs in a new world order that has no room for individual thought. He refuses to swear an oath to Hitler, despite the rest of the villagers doing so. He knows what this means, as does his wife. As Franz refuses the “Heil Hitler”, he is described as being something worse than an enemy – a traitor. He holds firmly to his principles … vague to us, yet crystal clear to him. He becomes a pariah in his own village, as even the priest urges him to relent by stating he has “a duty to the fatherland.”

Don’t they know evil when they see it?” Franz asks the question we have all been asking since Hitler came to power. When he is called to duty in 1943, Franz and Fani know the eventual outcome. Franz is asked by many, and in various ways, “What purpose does it serve?” No one can make sense of his stand. As he is imprisoned at Tegel Prison, solicitors played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Alexander Fehling both try to convince him to pledge loyalty and save his life. Franz’s response is, “I can’t do what I know is wrong.”

With the first half being filled with dread and anxiety, the second half is all about the suffering. Franz is locked away with very little access to the nature or family he holds so dear, while Fani is a village outcast, trying desperately to raise their daughters and put food in their mouths. They are each in their own prison – isolated from the life they love. From Tegel Prison in 1943, Franz writes many letters to Fani. The letters are philosophy mixed with hope and love, and provide the source of how his story was discovered many years ago.

Anyone familiar with Malick’s films know that each is a visual work of artistry. Instead of his usual cinematographer, 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, this film features the camera work of Jorg Widmer (who assisted Lubezki on THE TREE OF LIFE). The film lives up to our expectations, especially in capturing the vitality and spirit of nature through lush landscapes, mountains, trees, grasses, gardens, streams, rivers, and a waterfall. The family is one with nature, which stands in stark contrast to Franz inside the cold prison walls. Composer James Newton Howard brilliantly uses a lone violin, as well as a mixture of classical music. This was the final film for two extraordinary actors who recently passed away. Michael Nyqvist plays the Bishop who tells Franz that if God gave us free will, then we are responsible for what we do and what we don’t do. Bruno Ganz plays the head judge on the committee that decides Franz’s fate.

We could describe the film as either a tragic love story or an ode to faith and principles. Both fit, and yet both fall short. Terrence Malick is a confounding and brilliant and artistic filmmaker. After his breakthrough film DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), he took a 20 year hiatus before filming THE THIN RED LINE (his other WWII film). Recently he has proven much more productive, yet he remains a meticulous craftsman – taking three years to edit this film. His visual style is quite unique, yet he has the skill to make a messenger’s bicycle bell send chills. He was able to meet Franz’s surviving daughters (now in their 80’s) prior to filming, as they still live near this village. We are quite fortunate that this exquisite filmmaker is allowing us to tag along on his search for the meaning of life and his exploration of faith … just make sure you set aside 3 hours for the lesson.

watch the trailer:

FRANK & LOLA (2016)

December 8, 2016

frank-lola Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Shannon continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today. In this first feature from writer/director Matthew Ross, Mr. Shannon is the titular Frank, and his pained facial expressions elevate this neo-noir into a dark and intriguing exposition on male obsession and sexual jealousy.

The abrupt opening scene finds Frank and Lola (Imogen Poots) frolicking in bed after obviously just meeting for the first time that evening. We (and Lola) know we are in for something a bit different when Frank slams on the breaks and states, “Maybe we should wait until next time.” Lola is taken aback, and we are soon watching this relationship develop … while simultaneously noting the subtle signs of troubled pasts for each of them.

Frank is a talented French chef and Lola is just starting her career as a fashion designer. His dark side flashes a bit more often, but before Lola ever comes clean, we realize there is unhappiness in her past. They seem to be two tortured souls in a jinxed relationship.

Filmmaker Ross keeps us (and Frank) on our toes as the script seems to continually offer yet another deeply held secret or mysterious character. Justin Long plays Lola’s new employer, while the rarely-seen-these-days Rosanna Arquette plays Lola’s name-dropping mother. However, it’s Michael Nyqvist (so great in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as the suave Frenchman with ties to Lola’s past and present that really makes things interesting … and somehow even darker. His wife is played by the terrific French actress Emmanuelle Devos. Her screen time is limited, yet crucial.

The film was well received at Sundance, and it shares the creepiness of such films as Basic Instinct, Body Heat and Night Moves. Rarely do contemporary movies go as deep into the male psyche of obsession as this one, and the throw-back atmosphere is a perfect fit for the tone. Not many actors simmer like Michael Shannon, and the story offers him the perfect vehicle to remind us that everyone longs to be loved – even when we aren’t sure we deserve it.

watch the trailer:




April 14, 2013

disconnect1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s an impressive cast. The director, Henry Alex Rubin, gave us the excellent documentary Murderball.  Unfortunately the material here is mostly obvious and cliché-filled with no real message, other than our dependency on technology is leading us to be less “connected” to those real life people we live with. Is there anyone who doesn’t know this … other than the characters in this movie?

I’m calling this movie “Crash on the World Wide Web”. Crash was the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture. It had multiple story lines andworked extremely hard to appear very important, just like this one does. Disconnect shows us the Boyd’s – a family comprised of a workaholic lawyer dad (Jason Bateman always on the blackberry), a teenage daughter (Haley Ramm), a teenage loner son, and a mom (Hope Davis) who has no close bond with any of them. The boy (played by Jonah Bobo from Crazy Stupid Love) is cyber-bullied by two cruel boys (Colin Ford from a We Bought a disconnect3Zoo, and Aviad Bernstein).

We also meet a married couple played by Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgard. They learn they are the victims of identity theft and the source could be her online support chat room (grieving the loss of their young son) or his online gambling problem. They hire a cyber-crime expert (Frank Grillo) to help them track down the alleged perpetrator (Michael Nyqvist). This expert also happens to be the father of Colin Ford’s character – the cyber-bully from story 1.

disconnect4Finally we see an ambitious local TV reporter (Andrea Riceborough) who stumbles onto an online sex chat room featuring young stud Max Thieriot. As the trust builds between these two, we know disaster is fast approaching.

The two father-son relationships take a turn after both fathers “invade” the privacy of the boys’ online accounts. What they learn is painful and enlightening. The real point or message of the stories seem to be that technology is killing real communication and human interaction. This is the disconnect that is occurring while online connections are thriving. Did we really need a movie to tell us this?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are somehow oblivious to the inherent dangers of online communication OR if you are unaware that teenagers can be cruel and loneliness is open to all ages OR you want to see why I prefer Jason Bateman in dramatic roles rather than comedies

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have been the victim of identity theft or cyber-bullying … no need to re-live that pain

watch the trailer:



December 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. You should know that as serious as I am about movies, I am perfectly comfortable accepting the Mission Impossible franchise for what it is … a thrilling roller coaster ride of breathtaking stunts, outlandish missions, stunning visuals, bone-jarring fights, and above all else, Tom Cruise. Mr. Cruise is back in his element as Agent Ethan Hunt … equal parts sleuth, cage fighter and super hero.

This is the fourth installment of the re-boot which began in 1996. Cruise was in his  mid-30’s then, and is pushing 50 now. In remarkable physical condition, he seems to take great pride in his ability to pull off these fantastic stunts. However, he tops them all here as he hangs from the world’s tallest building – Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This is one of the most impressive action stunt sequences ever seen, with multiple camera angles that will definitely jar your senses if you are the least bit sensitive to heights. This alone is worth the price of admission.

 No need to go into much detail as the plot/mission is as preposterous as the others in the franchise. Ethan’s team is made up of computer geek and walking one-liner Simon Pegg as Benji; Paula Patton (Precious) as Jane (we must always have a pretty woman); and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) as Brandt, the world’s most dangerous “analyst”. This team is chasing after Michael Nyqvist (Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who plays Hendricks … a European loony trying to nuke the world for no apparent reason. To get to Hendricks, the team must go through a filthy rich playboy played by Amil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire) and a trained assassin played by Lea Seydoux (the shopkeeper in Midnight in Paris).

 This latest installment is directed by Brad Bird, straight from Pixar via Ratatouille and The Incredibles, both of which prepared him for this first live-action thriller. With an eye for action sequences and a feel for lapses in dialogue, Mr. Bird’s first live action outing is quite impressive. Plus, he included an endless stream of gadgets, technology, fight scenes and crazy stunts. The sandstorm and futuristic parking garage scenes are especially effective … not to mention the prototype BMW that Cruise zips through the streets of India.  My only real complaint is that the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme song never really cuts loose like it should. Still, if you liked the first three, you will like this one.

note: the rumor is that Jeremy Renner will be taking over the MI franchise when Cruise steps down.  He is also the guy to take over for Matt Damon in the Bourne series … and is Hawkeye in The Avengers.  Don’t look for Mr. Renner to get soft around the middle for awhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Mission Impossible franchise OR you enjoy stunning stunts and bone-crunching fights OR you want to see the role that Tom Cruise was seemingly born to play

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: fights, stunts, nuclear threats, and Tom Cruise do nothing for you.

watch the trailer:


November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Part 3 of the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy brings to an end this fascinating multi-dimensional mystery-thriller centered around one of the most absorbing characters ever viewed on screen, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). While I have anxiously awaited this final chapter, I must admit to a touch of emptiness in not having more to anticipate.

As with any literary adaptation, there will be devotees of the written word who say the film versions don’t do justice to the books. I have purposefully waited until seeing all three films to begin reading the books. What I will say is that from a pure film perspective, the 3 films are fascinating, thrilling and pure joy to follow.

As a stand alone, part 3 can be watched as a whole … however, I would promote the full benefit of watching the three in chronological order. The sum is much greater than any of the 3 pieces, though I will say that part one (Dragon Tattoo) is the superior film of the 3.

Part 3 begins with a flashback to the end of 2, and has Lisbeth and her scumbag father in the hospital recovering from their violent meeting. Her goon half-brother Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) is on the hunt for revenge. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and his team at Millennium are putting together a comprehensive expose’ to help in Lisbeth’s defense and to prevent her from being institutionalized.

This is where we really are introduced to the players of The Section, the secret society of Swedish Police. This group from the 60’s seems to have no boundaries and will do whatever necessary to prevent exposure of their group. Their power is on display early on.

What follows is a very complex weave of intricate plot lines that fall across many levels of Swedish society. At the epicenter is Lisbeth and her knowledge of her father’s deeds over the years. Best to keep her quiet.

As she recovers from her injuries, we see the Millennium team start putting the pieces together with the help of the police. Lisbeth’s attorney Annika, has little luck in convincing her to speak with an independent shrink to prove her competence. Instead it falls to Dr. Teleborian, who has been a source of misery for Lisbeth since childhood. How things come together is quite fun to watch.

There are so many things that make Lisbeth captivating as a character. Her lack of trust in everyone. Her struggles to communicate with others in anything more than grunts. Her outright brilliance when backed into a corner. On and on. She is no white knight, but she does have her own body armor … spikes, piercings and hairspray.

Lisbeth’s saga has been a movie-going pleasure and I am sad to see it end. Though Larsson is dead, it’s not difficult to imagine a writer picking up where he left off and come up with additional story lines. Until then, the best we get is the Americanized version with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. I trust Ms. Mara understands how high the bar was set by Noomi Rapace.

Here are links to my comments on the first two parts:



SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have seen the first two parts (like I could keep you away!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have read the books and think no movie ever does justice to the book


July 11, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the second of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, though we have a new director for parts two and three. Daniel Alfredson takes a more mainstream approach to filming and story telling and, of course, he loses the element of surprise we enjoyed in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, one of my favorite films of the year so far.

With Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist back as Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist respectively, it certainly helps to have seen the first film to fill in the character development that this one assumes. We are treated to a more intricate, complex story line in this one, but the fun research part we enjoyed in part one, comes up a bit short.

Swedish acting veteran/legend Per Oscarsson appears as Lisbeth’s first (and trusted) state assigned officer. He plays a small, but vital role and is quite interesting on screen – even at age 83! The story fills in some of the gaps on Lisbeth’s childhood and background but really leaves her a bit short on screen time despite being suspected of 3 murders.

Lisbeth’s look is somewhat softer in this one and we get full on views of her eyes, which rarely happened in part one. I believe the movie suffers a bit by making it easier to relate to her as a wronged woman. Still, the story is much better than the average thriller and the two lead characters are more interesting than most. I look forward to the final film of the trilogy … The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.


April 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. What usually sets apart a great mystery thriller from an average one is the story. In part one of the Millennium trilogy based on Stieg Larsson’s books, the story is really good, but the point of difference comes in the titular performance of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. American audiences are rarely treated to this type of raw, gritty performance from an actress. She alone makes the film worth seeing.

Please don’t get me wrong … I really like the film. A murder mystery who-dunnit that on the surface appears like an Agathy Christie story, it quickly proves to us how looks can be deceiving – both in story line and in characters. Though the story wraps up a bit too neatly, the long winding road (over a fortuitous bridge) gives us a wild ride of hints, suspects and research that is a blast for those who enjoy such things.

Michael Nyqvist stars as Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative writer who gets set up on charges of libel against a powerful businessman. While awaiting his jail time, Blomkvist is hired by an 80 year old uncle of a girl gone missing some 40 years ago. Oh yes, she is part of the Vanger family who live on a private island and who have multiple members with a history of Nazi loyalties. As Blomkvist investigates the ancient mystery, it turns out he is being followed via super-hacker Lisbeth. After a few twists, these two turn into a highly unlikely, but very interesting and effective mystery-solving couple.

Besides the performance of Rapace, what really sets this one apart is that the villains really aren’t the most interesting characters – Blomkvist and Lisbeth are. We are treated to a great deal of character development for both, and trust me when I say, Lisbeth’s story is not pleasant.

I hear this will be Americanized in the remake and that makes me sad. The source material title for this story is “Men Who Hate Women”.  While director Niels Arden Oplev pulls no punches in his version, in a remake the edgy undercurrent of sex, abuse, politics and religious racism will undoubtedly be softened and surely the lead actress will bring little of the fascination that a fearless Noomi Rapace delivers.