THE PAINTED BIRD (2020)

July 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel “The Painted Bird” has one of the strangest and most controversial histories of any book. Initially celebrated as an extraordinary piece on the Holocaust era, the novel was banned in Poland, and author Kosinski was accused of falsifying claims of it being an autobiographical work. Later he was accused of plagiarism for this book and his 1970 book “Being There” (adapted into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers). This story of a young Jewish boy, abandoned by his parents and traveling the Eastern Europe countryside during WWII, is now accepted as a blend of fiction and his friend (director) Roman Polanski’s experiences. Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul has turned the book into a stunning viewing experience.

First time actor Petr Kotlar is extraordinary as the unnamed (until the end) Jewish boy on a journey that might be entitled Dante’s Circle of Abuse or Homer’s Odyssey of Misery. This is a young boy in need of kindness from strangers, but unable to find much. The film opens with the boy running through the woods carrying what appears to be his pet ferret. He’s being chased by a group of sadistic Anti-Semite bullies. It’s a chase that doesn’t end well. We learn the boy is living with his “Auntie” Marta (Nina Sunevic) on her rundown farm, and we intuit that his parents thought he would be safer here than with them. When the woman dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the boy accidentally burns the house down, kicking off his walk across the countryside. Almost inexplicably, this is the most upbeat segment of the film.

Director Marhoul divides the film into 9 chapters, each named after the person the boy meets and lives with temporarily. I’ll recap the following eight chapters with a focus on not giving away too much … just know that this film is unrelenting in its brutality and bleakness. After Marta’s death, the boy stumbles into a village where he is considered cursed and labeled a vampire. The witch doctor Olga (Ala Sakalova) enslaves him until he escapes down river, where he is rescued by a mill worker. The head miller (Udo Kier) is a frightening man who takes exception with his worker (not the boy) gazing lustfully at his wife. Kier’s eyes manage to burn right through the black and white film, and soon he turns exceedingly violent towards his wife and the worker, leaving us with an unforgettable visual.

The boy then finds himself at the home of Lekhi (Lech Dyblik) who captures wild birds and regularly hooks up with Ludmila (Jitka Cvancorova), a wild woman who lives in the forest. The boy witnesses two horrific deaths, but not before the sequence which gives the film its title and ensures we understand what happens to outcasts – those who are different. At about the one hour mark, the boy finds an injured horse and walks it into the local village. It’s at this point where we hear him speak (kind of) for the first time. A violent Russian invasion of the village results in the Cossacks offering the bound and gagged Jewish boy to the German soldiers as a “gift”. Stellan Skarsgard is the veteran soldier who draws the assignment of taking the boy into the woods to shoot him.

When the soldier sends him on his way, a sickly Catholic Priest (Harvey Keitel) takes the boy under his wing and trains him to be an altar boy. All is fine until a parishioner (Julian Sands) with despicable intentions agrees to take the boy in and provide for him. This segment has what may be the most cringe-inducing death scene in the film, after which we find the boy trudging through snow and falling through ice, and crawling towards a cabin where Labrina (Julia Valentova) and a sickly old man live. The boy faces more abuse as he’s incapable of pleasing Labrina, which leads to situations he’s much too young to understand. Traumatized, the boy’s personality takes a turn.

In his next village, an attack by Germans puts the boy in contact with Russian sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper), who leaves him with the real life advice of, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Having only recently lost his innocence, the advice hits home for the boy. He ends up in an orphanage where a surprise occurs that causes the boy to lash out in anger … at least until he observes something that makes him understand the world has been cruel to others, not just him.

Normally, I wouldn’t recap or outline the segments of a movie in this manner, but it’s crucial to understand what you are about to watch. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic of human cruelty and survival instinct. Young Petr Kotlar spends much of the movie taking and witnessing abuse while his face is near emotionless (save for a couple of extremes). Joy is elusive, if not non-existent. The film shows us not all Holocaust horrors occurred in death camps. The atrocities of war and the cruelty of humans result in a film that is beyond bleak at times, but also makes a clear point about how differently people treat those not “like” us, regardless who the “us” is. This point is as evident today as it was during WWII.

Director Marhoul excels in showing, rather than telling … there is almost no ‘telling’ throughout the film. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutney makes expert use of the 35mm black & white film to provide images that are stark and brutal like the world the boy sees. The Production Design from Jan Vlasak puts us right in the muck, while the Sound from Jakub Cech is crucial to every scene.

The film is a joint project of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as Poland refused to participate. It had quite the festival run last year, including some high profile walk-outs during the Venice Film Festival. It’s one of the rare movies that every cinephile is thankful to have seen, yet as human beings, we would likely never want to watch again. Murder, abuse, suicide, torture, bestiality, rape, violence, cruelty, slaughter, pedophilia, incest, war atrocities … these aren’t topics we typically seek out, and they thankfully aren’t topics that all show up in a single movie very often! There are a few moments of compassion if you watch closely, but mostly it’s a reminder of the cruelty of humans when the structure of society collapses, and hope is hard to come by. As Edwin Starr sang in his number one hit in 1970, “War, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

Available on VOD from IFC Films on July 17, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2019)

April 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. When watching, discussing or reviewing a movie from filmmaker Terry Gilliam, it’s often best to relax one’s expectations for a linear story line, and maybe even the hope for a coherent one. He’s the creative force behind such diverse and divisive films as THE FISHER KING (1991), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), BRAZIL (1985), TIME BANDITS (1981), and of course, comedy classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). We’ve seen his movies described as crazy, confusing, and messy – and also brilliant, unique, and creative. Mr. Gilliam himself would likely agree with all of those descriptions, while adding a few colorful terms of his own.

Despite the oddball career he’s had, none of his movies have had the topsy-turvy, on-again/off-again path to production as THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Gilliam’s first attempts at getting the movie made date back to 1989 (yes, 30 years ago), and the first round of financing was secured in 1998 with Johnny Depp in a lead role. By 2002, there was a fascinating documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA, which chronicled the reasons the film failed to get made and would never be finished. Mr. Gilliam has proven, 17 years later, that he should never be counted out.

Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, and the two have previously collaborated on TIDELAND (2005) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). As you might guess, it’s not a typical screenplay or story, and one certainly need not be an expert on the original Cervantes book or character to find value (or not) in this tale.

“I am Don Quixote de la Mancha.” There is something distinctly prideful about the proclamation, but it’s also used somewhat ironically at least once in this film. Adam Driver plays hotshot and cynical filmmaker Toby, and things change abruptly for him when he returns to the Spanish town where he shot his student film ten years prior. In that film, he had cast locals, including the town cobbler as Don Quixote. A bootleg DVD of the film drags Toby into the fallout that has occurred over the past decade.

Jonathan Pryce co-stars as Javier, the former cobbler who now lives his life believing he is actually Don Quixote. He then sees Toby, and “recognizes” (mistakes) him as Sancho Panza, his trusty and loyal sidekick. This kicks off a series of adventures/misadventures that is a blend of fantasy, reality and imagination. Paths are crossed with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), Angelica (Joana Ribeira), and the head of the studio (Stellan Skarsgard). At times, it’s a movie within a movie, and a key is the name of the town: Suenos means dreams. Dreamlike or surreal is the best description for many of the best sequences.

Mr. Gilliam dedicates the film to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both cast in early versions and both now deceased. Somehow the film is simultaneously smart and goofy; thought-provoking and confusing. It’s definitely not for everyone – more for those who enjoy digging in to philosophical meanings, and less for those who prefer to kick back and be entertained. There is a lot here about how we see ourselves, how our dreams impact us, and of course, the lost art of chivalry. Above all, we admire the outlook: “This is a marvelous day for an adventure. I feel it in my bones.”

watch the trailer:


MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 10 years since director Phyllida Lloyd presented the crowd-pleasing MAMMA MIA! movie. It was a box office hit (over $600 million worldwide) and was, for a few years, the highest grossing musical of all-time. Most importantly, it was extremely entertaining and a joyous cinematic romp for viewers. This year’s sequel is directed by Ol Parker (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and husband to actress Thandie Newton), and though the melancholy is slathered on a bit too thick, it also fulfills its number one priority – entertaining the fans.

The story begins with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) putting the final touches on the house-turned-hotel in preparation for the upcoming Grand Opening. It’s named Hotel Bella Donna in honor of Sophie’s mother (Meryl Streep). What looks to be a straight-forward story surprises us with a flashback to Donna’s 1979 graduation, which features not only the first song-and-dance number “When I Kissed the Teacher”, but also the first of two ABBA cameos … Bjorn Ulvaeus as a professor. The young Donna is played brilliantly by Lily James, and she effortlessly captures the free-spiritedness that led to the conundrum of the first movie – 3 possible dads for Sophie.

Those 3 dads return not only as Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), and Colin Firth (Harry), but also as Jeremy Irvine (young Sam), Josh Dylan (young Bill), and Hugh Skinner (young Harry). In fact, most of the run time is dedicated to the backstory of these characters and how they first met as youngsters. Each has a segment (and song) with young Harry featured in “Waterloo” accompanied by Benny Andersson (ABBA cameo #2) on piano. Young Bill is the charming sailor who saves the day for Donna, while young Sam assists her with saving a storm-shaken horse (kind of humorous since Mr. Irvine starred in WAR HORSE).

Also back are Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie’s true love, who can’t decide between romance and career, and Donna’s life-long friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who are also part of the flashback as Jessica Keenan Wynn (excellent as young Tanya) and Alexa Davies (as young Rosie). New to the cast are Celia Imrie in the graduation number, Andy Garcia as the hotel manager, and drawing the biggest applause of all … Cher as Sophie’s grandmother (and as my viewing partner commented, an early peek at what Lady Gaga will look like as a grandma)! It’s best if you experience Cher for yourself, and it should be noted that this is her first big screen appearance since BURLESQUE in 2010.

Of course, the songs are key and many of the ABBA numbers from the first movie are featured again this time. In particular, “Dancing Queen” is a nautical standout, and “Fernando” is a show-stopper. While it may not be quite as raucous as the first, it’s a treat watching Lily James, and there is a wonderful blending of “old” and “new” in the finale. The only real question remaining is, did the casting director do the math before casting Cher (age 72) as Meryl Streep’s (age 69) mother?

*As a special treat, there is a “most interesting” cameo near the end of the film

watch the trailer:


IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2016)

August 25, 2016

In order of disappearance Greetings again from the darkness. “The Count” versus “Papa” should not be mistaken for a new cartoon featuring Sesame Street battling The Smurfs. This Norwegian film from director Hans Petter Moland and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson is oddly entertaining, often funny and plenty violent.

Stellan Skarsgard stars as Nils Dickman, a quiet, keep-to-himself snow plow operator who is being recognized as his town’s Citizen of the Year. We see Nils clearing what appears to be the same roads over and over with a snow blower that looks like some type of NASA moon vehicle … the mundane life having a rhythm that seems to deliver a kind of peace. Nils’ untroubled world is rocked when his son is murdered under suspicious circumstances. It kicks off his mission for revenge … and in the process, this snow plow operator accidently initiates a mob war between the Norwegians and the Serbs. This might have you wondering where the humor comes in. It could be compared to a Charles Bronson movie – if Bronson was an otherwise meek fellow who was laser-focused on revenge for his son’s murder (actually, that sounds like the synopsis of quite a few Bronson movies).

The film is divided into chapters named after the dead bodies … and it’s a rapidly changing scoreboard. I counted 14 chapters and 24 victims, but I’ll admit it’s quite possible I missed one or two. The always interesting Bruno Ganz plays Papa, the cold-blooded leader of the Serbian mob who rarely needs to speak. Pal Sverre Hagen plays “The Count” … the first vegan movie gangster I can recall, and certainly a memorable character who at times seems like a poser, while at other times proves he is ruthless.

The three main characters all have sons who play a major role in both the story and their motivation, and there is a certain symmetry in the ending as two ride off into the proverbial sunset (though the sun evidently rarely shines in this town). And even if you didn’t enjoy the subtle humor (both situational and dialogue-driven), you are likely to find a least a chuckle in one of the main character’s final words for his ex-wife.

Coen Brothers influence permeates the frosty air – maybe I didn’t mention that it’s snowy and beyond cold in every scene. The snow is a character here and the real characters fall into one extreme or the other … subdued on the surface or eccentric and desperate for attention. These conflicts bring humor to situations that would otherwise offer nothing but gloom. It’s an unconventional and stylish film and one that will probably find a loyal and appreciative audience.

watch the trailer:

 

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS (2014)

October 8, 2014

hector Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t you feel sorry for the smart, rich doctor with the beautiful and successful wife, luxury apartment and appointment book full of patients?  What about when he loudly humiliates one of those patients for expressing her feelings? We are supposed to want Hector to be happy. But do we? Personally, I didn’t give a rip about Hector.

Based on the novel by Francois Lelord, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Hector, a psychiatrist bored with the every day rituals he has set up for himself. A rare two minutes of soul-searching leads Hector to pause his life and embark on a mission to discover the true meaning of happiness. See, Hector believes he can no longer help his patients until he helps himself. My take is that Hector can’t help his patients because he isn’t even trying … he is a narcissist and a jerk who can’t appreciate the moments that make life grand. My disgust towards people like Hector made his journey much less entertaining and enlightening than if the character were someone I cared for.

If all that weren’t bad enough, the first person Hector meets on his trip is an obnoxious business man (Stellan Skarsgard) whose key feature is that he is much richer than Hector. The two grown men tour Shanghai and the night is capped with the gift of a prostitute with a heart. This is no spoiler because Hector is the only one who doesn’t know she is a prostitute. After this, he hangs out with Tibetan monks and sets up their Skype (so he can use it).

Along the way, Hector’s OCD traits cause him to maintain a journal filled with self-help one-liners and funny drawings of his sights. His spontaneous travel itinerary and endless budget take him next to “Africa” – quotations for the generic and clichéd approach the film provides. When Hector is imprisoned by rebels, there was glimmer of hope for the movie, but soon enough, a previous favor for a drug lord (Jean Reno) pays dividends.

Somehow the movie has less insight than the similarly themed EAT PRAY LOVE, and certainly less creativity than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hector’s approach even blatantly borrows from the “Tintin” stories, and makes no apology for doing so. The only moment with any emotional depth comes when Toni Collette lashes out with armchair psychology and tells Hector exactly what he is. In all fairness, the movie is directed by Peter Chelsom, who also directed Hannah Montana: The Movie, so perhaps any expectations were too high.

Despite all of the short-comings, I will always pay admission if a movie includes a 3 minute monologue from the great Christopher Plummer, an especially welcome sight here. Simon Pegg, though an incredibly gifted comic actor, is over the top miscast here. His persona is distracting to the point that we never once believe he could be a psychiatrist or that Rosamund Pike would find him appealing. But the single biggest obstacle is that an audience finds it difficult to root for a narcissistic protagonist who believes that there must be some magic potion for happiness … maybe sweet potato stew.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always root for the spoiled, rich guy to win in his battle against a mid-life crisis

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your local cinema has a rule against throwing items at the screen during especially annoying parts

watch the trailer:

 


THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

November 12, 2013

thor3 Greetings again from the darkness. While this is the second Thor movie, we feel a bit more familiar with the Norse God thanks to The Avengers. It’s not surprising that Chris Hemsworth can hold his own with the character given his looks and physicality, but this time he gets a run for his money thanks to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. (not my favorite part of the first one).

The film’s official villain is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who rules the Dark Elves and is trying to re-capture the all-powerful Aether, a substance of infinite energy. But the whole battle for the 9 realms is really just a sideline to Thor vs Loki, and Thor’s touch of humanity and eye for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Most of the key characters are back: Anthony Hopkins as Odin (even more over the top this time), Rene Russo (Thor’s mom), Ray thor2Stevenson as Volstagg, Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Kat Dennings (Darcy), and Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig).

This sequel is kind of interesting to analyze. It’s certainly bigger than the original … the special effects are huge and much improved. Light comic moments abound, but luckily the snark from Kat Dennings is minimal. Chris O’Dowd shows up for a couple of pretty funny, but slightly out of place scenes. There are a couple of cameos including an off-beat appearance by one of the The Avengers. Rene Russo even gets her own sword fight! Though it matters not to me, I assume there are many who would choose a Skarsgard other than Stellan to run around Stonehenge sans clothes. So while it has all of that going for it, the story often fails at engaging the audience.

thor4 This one is directed by Alan Taylor, who is quite a successful TV director, and there was clearly some upfront concern over the script as Joss Whedon was brought in for scene doctoring. I believe what we learn is that the fish out of water story works when Thor is on Earth, but it loses impact when Jane Foster visits Asgard. Still, Tom Hiddleston is such fun to watch as Loki, that none of that really matters.

It’s a superhero movie that will entertain the fans and provide plenty of ammunition for the critics looking to bash. If you see it in the theatre, you should know to stay for BOTH post-movie scenes. A rare Benecio Del Toro sighting makes it worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of the Marvel comics and the corresponding films … and know that there are many more to come!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are rational human being unwilling to spend time on the superhero fantasy world.  Just know that there are many more to come!

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are interested in the Benecio Del Toro character, then continue reading.  If you prefer to be surprised, then please stop reading now.

Del Toro plays The Collector in the final scene.  Expect an expanded role for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Collector is millions of years old and is a pre-Cognitive (he sees the future).  He collects items and beings of real power.  At the end of Thor: The Dark World, he takes possession of Aether and states “One down, five to go“. There are six gems of color in this universe and possession brings ultimate power.  Expect more to come in future Marvel films.


THE AVENGERS (2012)

May 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The concern coming in was that this would be like an All-Star game, which as any sports fan will tell you, is typically a massive letdown. Assembling so many super heroes and colorful characters into one movie: Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Loki … would probably lead to either mass confusion, a 4 hour movie, or short straws for a couple of characters. Somehow director/co-writer Joss Whedon has avoided the pitfalls and delivered a huge action film that is loads of fun for everyone, including the fanboys.

Whedon does a remarkable job of giving each character their fair share of screen time, and somehow manages to make the interaction between the characters the best part of the movie. There is some terrific dialogue and the number of quick-witted exchanges are too numerous to recount. While this would be expected from Robert Downey, Jr‘s Iron Man, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor and especially Mark Ruffalo‘s Dr Banner/Hulk. I found Ruffalo’s take on the role very interesting since he is the third actor to tackle this in the past nine years (Eric Bana 2003 and Edward Norton 2008). The movie contains quite a few laugh outloud moments, which is pretty impressive in a filled theatre.

 If you are going to combine six super heroes in a movie, you need a bad guy. A villain. Actually, a super villain. Tom Hiddleston as Loki (The God of Mischief from Asgard, and Thor’s brother) is up to the task. For me, he was a weak link in Thor, but here is a full-fledged, powerful evil mastermind looking to gain power by stealing the global power of Tesseract (Cosmic Cube), commanding an alien army, and ruling earth. Hiddleston is clearly having fun and it shows. For the movie to work at all, his plan and power must stand up to the impressive line up of good guys he is fighting. That is certainly the case.

 Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow has come a long way from her brief work in Iron Man2, and we really get to know more about Natasha the Russian spy … although her accent fades in and out. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye seems a bit out of place, but Renner is so cool, we don’t really care. Chris Evans as Captain America does a wonderful job of taking control of the band of misfits and displays the leadership expected of a super-soldier. We even get a good dose of Agent Coulson (Phil to his friends) and Clark Gregg‘s deadpan deliver is a great addition. Samuel L Jackson (as Nick Fury) will be adding hundreds of millions more to his current record of being the highest-grossing actor of all-time.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts. Since last we saw her, she has evidently been shopping for short shorts and helping design the new Stark Tower. Natalie Portman makes a creative cameo, reprising her awful role in Thor. Stellan Skarsgard is back as a believable scientist. Powers Boothe appears as a member of the Council that Fury reports to. The great Harry Dean Stanton(at 85 yrs of age) has a comical scene as a security guard who stumbles onto Hulk’s mess. And of course, Stan Lee makes his well-deserved cameo appearance – a tradition in the Marvel movies.

Much of the credit for this must go to Joss Whedon. He may finally be out of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” shadow, as this movie is quite an accomplishment. Entertaining and funny for the masses, yet detailed enough for the comic book fan boys. I was thinking how much fun this would be for a 10-12 year old, and how my mind might have exploded if something like this existed in my childhood. Even comparing this to the Christoper Reeve Superman movies will help you realize just how far super heroes movies have come.  There are some holes in the story and a couple of things will have you scratching your head if you think too hard … but this one’s not about thinking.  Just sit back and enjoy!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see the most Academy Award nominees ever assembled for a super hero movie OR you just want to have fun watching a big old summertime blockbuster with comedy, action and colorful characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already decided you’ll hate it … otherwise, you might actually like it

watch the trailer:


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

December 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The character of Lisbeth Salander absolutely fascinates me. That’s true whether we are discussing Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy novels, the Swedish film versions, or this latest film version from director David Fincher (The Social Network) and a screenplay from Steve Zaillian. It’s also true whether Lisbeth is played on screen by Noomi Rapace (Swedish films) or Rooney Mara. She is a brilliant character hiding in plain sight from a world that has fiercely mistreated her, and now misjudges and underestimates her. She is the oddest heroine I can recall … and I can’t get enough of her.

 Let’s start with the source material. Stieg Larsson’s books are far from perfect, but addictive just the same. The first book (on which this film is based) is, at its core, a traditional who-dunnit presented in a manner that is claustrophobic, paranoid and eerie. Moving on to this particular film, we find the director and screenplay holding the basic tone of the book and original films, while making a few changes … some minor, others more substantial. These changes may irk those fervent fans who are quite loyal to the books, but Fincher surely wanted to offer more than a simple re-telling of the story.

 Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hired to solve the 40 year old mystery of the disappearance/murder of Harriet Vanger, niece to Swedish millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). To research, Blomkvist must dig into the Vanger’s rotten family tree of Nazis, anti-Semites, sexual predators, anti-social fanatics, and a few just plain loony birds. You can imagine how excited this rich and once powerful family is to have someone uncovering long buried secrets. Circumstances allow for Lisbeth to assist Blomkvist in researching this.

 Unlike many mysteries where assembling the clues is the most fun, the real heart of this story is the odd, somewhat uncomfortable developing relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth. This latest version allows this to develop relatively smoothly, but it nonetheless rattles our senses. We see the subtle changes in Lisbeth as she slowly opens up to the idea of a real friendship based on trust. Fear not mystery fans, the Vanger clan still provides more than enough juice to keep any film sleuth happy.

COMPARISON: It’s truly impossible to avoid comparisons between the two movie versions and the respective casts. It’s quite obvious Mr. Fincher was working with a substantially greater budget than Niels Arden Opler had for the first Swedish film. While they are both enthralling, I actually lean a bit towards the rawer original. That takes nothing away from this latest version. Same with Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara. Ms. Mara is excellent in her performance and I was fully satisfied, though Ms. Rapace brought a rougher edge to the role … one that made it even tougher to crack that shell. The biggest difference in the casts is Daniel Craig against Michael Nyqvist. Mr. Craig is just a bit too cool for the role, while Nyqvist captured the insecurity and vulnerability that Larsson wrote about. To have two such strong film versions of the same story released so close together speaks to the strength of Fincher and Larsson.

 All of that is nit-picking. Both film versions are thrilling and sterling entertainment, and clearly the Fincher version will bring the story to a much wider audience. He even brought back Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to deliver another note-perfect score. I would encourage those that are interested to check out the Swedish version, as well as the Larsson books. Maybe you will join me in my fascination with this creature known as Lisbeth Salander.

note: this is an extremely harsh, dark film.  It includes brutal sex crimes, Nazism, animal cruelty and quite a few unlikeable, unsavory folks.  Heck, even the Swedish winter is jarring!

note 2: get there in time for the opening scene and credits. Reznor and Karen O (from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s) deliver a searing remake of Led Zeppelin’s classic “The Immigrant Song” … over some mesmerizing visuals.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Larsson books and/or the original Swedish films OR you want to see one of the most original characters on film OR you are just looking for another reason to hate rich people

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are looking for upbeat, light-hearted holiday entertainment OR you avoid movies featuring any, much less all, of the subjects in my note above

watch the trailer:


MELANCHOLIA

November 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who walks into this film having not seen the trailer or being unfamiliar with the previous works of writer/director Lars von Trier has my sincere sympathy. He is a unique and ambitious filmmaker with a touch of expressionism, abstractness and a unique visual style. His movies are seen by a small audience and appreciated by even fewer. And on top of that, he may be the least politically correct celeb working today.

The film begins with a most unusual prologue backed by an ominous Wagner composition and numerous visuals that play like slow moving paintings come to life. Clearly, the end of the world is at hand. After that, we get two parts: Part 1 Justine, and Part 2 Claire. Justine (Kristen Dunst) is first seen in her wedding gown heading towards the reception with her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard). Normally, this is one of the happiest times of anyone’s life, but here something is just not quite right. Once inside, we begin to understand. Justine’s family and friends are all a bit off-center, and she is the worst of all.

 I won’t go into the details because what really matters is that Melancholia, a large blue planet, is headed directly towards earth. Kiefer Sutherland plays Justine’s rich brother-in-law and he assures everyone that the “pass by” will be a special moment and no need to fear a collision. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) believes her husband and tries to comfort her sister Justine.

The supporting cast is outstanding and includes not only Alexander Skarsgard as the groom, but also his father Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s over-bearing employer; Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s beyond bitter mother; John Hurt as the take-no-responsibilty father; Jesper Christensen as the faithful caretaker; and creepy Udo Kier as the wedding planner. It’s quite a cast and the only real point of their existence seems to be having Justine and the viewer question if this existence is better than no existence … which could happen in 5 days.

 This year has provided quite a metaphysical buffet at the theater. We have had The Tree of Life, Another Earth, Take Shelter and now this entry from von Trier. This group will have you questioning many things in life, and beyond. The other similarity between the three is the artistic craftsmanship with which each is made. Clearly two famous paintings play a key role for von Trier, and his final shot is done with such a deft touch that only guys like Tony Scott and Michael Bay will feel let down.

I certainly can’t recommend this one to all. It is somewhat slow moving and filled with symbolism and characters bordering on depression. It is beautiful to look at, but tough to watch. My guess is you already know if this is one for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy risky, creative filmmaking designed to initiate thought in the viewer … even if that thought might be questioning how one would handle pending doom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to movies to be uplifting and funny – a way to take your mind off the heavy stuff

watch the trailer: