Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Review

29 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Studio Canal

★ ★ ★

With the script based on a famous John le Carre novel, the director of Let the Right One In and a cast of some of the most phenomenal British actors working today, I was really looking forward to this film.  Unfortunately, though the overall feel of the film and the performances are spot on, the movie suffers from an intensely complicated and ultimately boring script.

Even after seeing this film, I’m not sure I could give a proper full synopsis.  There are flashbacks that don’t do anything to denote they are flashbacks, characters that are mentioned early on that you don’t find out who they are until way later, other characters that only appear briefly and for no real reason and long soliloquies that help show a strong performance but have no real bearing on the story.  So, for this paragraph, which I usually reserve for a synopsis of the film, I will give a very brief overview of the part of the story that I can soundly report.  George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired agent for the MI5.  The head of the division during his time, Control (John Hurt), before his departure (or death, not quite sure, maybe both) let it be known that there was a mole in the division.  In hopes of preserving the legacy of his era, Smiley is reinstated to investigate this lead with the help of agent Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and others.  In his investigation, he unravels secrets and further information to finding the culprit within the division.  Other noted actors in the film include Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Toby Jones.

First off, Oldman does give a tremendous performance as Smiley, but when hasn’t Oldman given a tremendous performance?  A chameleon-like actor who has played roles ranging from Sid Vicious to Lee Harvey Oswald to Sirius Black, Oldman is truly one of the best working actors in the industry today, and for me, it is always a pleasure to see him on screen.  Criminally, this was only the first Oscar nomination he has received in all his years as a film actor.  Though he didn’t win, it was long overdue for him to receive a nomination.  The supporting cast mentioned above also do great jobs in their roles, and I really think Tomas Alfredson did a good job with the shot selection and overall direction.  The mood, tone and look of the film in 1960s England was spot on.  Honestly, you ask yourself, how can a movie get this much right and still not be better than just a decent film?  Well, the script and story is the most important part of any film.  In the words of the late great Akira Kurosawa, “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. The script must be something that has the power to do this”.





50/50 (2011) Review

28 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Summit Entertainment

★ ★ ★

So, I’ve got this film and two others on the backlog for reviews.  Apologies, for the delays, had a lot going on over the past few days.  Possibly very good things though!  Anyway, 50/50, seems like the jury is split on this film; some reviewers call it one of the best movies of the year, others are more or less underwhelmed.  What was I, you ask?  Definitely on the side of underwhelmed.  This is by no means a bad film, but also by the same token, nowhere near one of the best films of last year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a very normal 27 year old working professional, who gets some terrible news at what should be the height of his life.  He has cancer, and only a 50/50 chance of making it through the next year alive.  Seth Rogen plays himself; wait, no his character’s name is Kyle, but in reality it’s just Seth Rogen being himself like he is in every film he appears in.  I think he’s funny, but he has about as much depth as an actor as a jar of peanut butter.  Pretty much the entirety of the film plays out largely how you could imagine being a comedy/drama about a young man getting cancer.  He has his ups, his downs and a lot of emotional tension dealing with the news and the personal troubles it creates, and for the comedy element there are funny and amusing lines exchanged between him and best friend Kyle.

This is just a decent film.  It doesn’t break any huge barriers down; it only works decently as a comedy, and it only works decently as a drama.  I wasn’t impressed with the direction, the story was only average, the acting was OK and as with most of these types of films, there was nothing of note with the production value or cinematography.  I’m glad I saw this film, it was an enjoyable way to spend the evening, but don’t expect a life changing viewing experience with this one.





Tonino Guerra (1920-2012): A Sad Loss for World Cinema

23 03 2012

Screenwriter Tonino Guerra (1920-2012)

I just received news today that Tonino Guerra passed away this past Wednesday after some months of illness.  A storyteller and screenwriter of the highest degree, Guerra’s work with directors ranging from Michelangelo Antonioni to Federico Fellini to Andrei Tarkovsky have provided the backbone and structure to a wealth of wonderful films in World Cinema.

Born in Santarcangelo di Romagna, Italy on March 16, 1920, Guerra was a survivor of an Italian concentration camp during the second World War.  It was here that he began writing, which after the war, blossomed into a successful career in film and television.  Guerra fashioned himself as a tool for the directors with which he worked, often times helping them structure and pen their own concepts and stories, rather than presenting a completed script of his own accord for production.  Working in this manner is quite different from how most screenwriters prefer to work, many wanting as little bother from the director as possible.  However, in Guerra’s method, the beautiful stories and ideas of such iconic directors as Fellini and Antonioni were able to fully come to fruition and soundly transfer from mind to celluloid image.

Among Guerra’s noted works were Antonioni’s L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, Blowup and The Red Desert; Fellini’s Amarcord (a personal favorite of mine); Theo Angelopoulos’s Landscapes in the Mist and Eternity and a Day; and Tarkovsky’s late entry Nostalgia, among many others.  Well awarded during his long and prosperous 50 year career, Guerra received three Academy Award nominations, those being for Amarcord, Blowup and Casanova 70.

I try not to write posts about every celebrity who passes, as many get more than their fair share of Rest in Peace articles in the news and blogosphere; however, for Guerra, whose work is largely in foreign cinema and possibly lesser known to many American audiences by name, I wanted to pay dues to a true icon in the motion picture industry.





The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Review

21 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

After seeing the Swedish versions of all three of the movies based on the Millennium Trilogy by late author Stieg Larsson, I was compelled to see how the same subject matter was handled in director David Fincher’s hands.  This film, based on the first book of the trilogy which carries the same title, was by far my favorite of the original Swedish films.  Honestly, I really didn’t care for The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest; to me, they were boring and lackluster in terms of story and development.  This original film, however, I quite and enjoyed, and honestly, I think I enjoyed Fincher’s adaptation here even better.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a Swedish journalist who has just lost an absorbent sum of money in a libel suit over an article that appeared in his magazine Millennium that accuses big business owner Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg) of criminal activity.  Around the same time, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of Vanger Industries, another major Swedish corporation, has hired hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to provide a detailed profile on Blomkvist.  Social outcast Salander delivers her report and returns to her personal life, which is plagued with the stroke of her guardian, which in turn, requires her to obtain a new guardian in Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen).  Bjurman, however, is a rapist and a pig, and demands sexual favors in turn for supplying Salander her own money.  Salander is luckily able to overcome this with a deservedly brutal vengeance.  As for Blomkvist, he is subsequently hired by Henrik Vanger to officially write his memoir, but in reality, investigate a nearly 40-year-old case that revolves around his niece, Harriet, who disappeared strangely from the family house all those years prior.  Eventually, Blomkvist hires Salander as his assistant and the two delve deeper and deeper into the lives of the strange Vanger family and a case that reveals new evidence at every turn.

As for why I enjoyed this film more than the original Swedish version, I’m sure production value had something to do with it, but even more so, I think it is Fincher’s style as a director.  For me, this film felt more connected and entertaining, as well as propelled at a much better pace.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the original adaptation, as I did very much so, but something about this film kept me more intrigued and left me with an even more fulfilled viewing experience.  The story seems to flow better, the editing has a wonderful pace, the direction and acting is solid, cinematography very cold and grey appropriately, and the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is hauntingly beautiful.

It is not clear as to whether the sequels will be made in an Americanized version or not.  In interviews, director David Fincher seems content with where this film concluded and doesn’t seem to feel that the sequels are necessary, though he did mention being interested in directing them if they were indeed green lit.  In my opinion, the sequels were much weaker than the original story and, like Fincher believes, they are not necessary in regards to having a solid conclusion of this first, and best, entry into the Millennium Trilogy.  If they do make the two sequels, however, I hope they can be as good as this one.  Possibly some liberties could be taken in the script to make them more entertaining than what I found the original source material.





Take Shelter (2011) Review

19 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Grove Hill Productions

★ ★ ★ ★

Jeff Nichols, a University of North Carolina School of the Arts alumnus, directed this film.  Though I don’t know Jeff, many of my friends and colleagues are graduates of this wonderful program, and its always a good feeling seeing someone from one of the local film schools succeed.

Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a blue collar working man in Ohio with wife, Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart).  He begins having strange and frightening dreams about a large storm that causes the people around him to become crazed and attack him.  Having a parent who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at around the same age, he becomes concerned that he might be losing his mind as well.  To cope, he begins seeing a counselor, but his behavior and decisions grow worse with each dream occurrence, ultimately leading him to become obsessed with expanding a storm shelter in their back yard.  Without his wife’s blessing, he takes out a loan from the local bank and begins building his shelter from the impending storm.  As the narrative progresses, his life begins to slowly unravel as his behavior becomes more and more erratic from his visions.

The film, in my opinion, expertly studies the oncoming effects of mental illness and how real the delusions and hallucinations can become, which, in turn, can cause chaos in an otherwise normal life.  The subtle direction and naturalistic cinematography, along with an eery score, give the viewer an impending sense of doom and nicely elucidate the paranoia and fear of the primary character.  Shannon, as Curtis, gives an amazingly well-conceived performance in the leading role, and Chastain plays a grounded foil to his madness.

This is independent filmmaking done right.  Even with a fraction of the budget of many of the major films this year, this film delivers an intriguing story, great performances and a high quality of production value.  I’ll be interested in seeing what’s next for Nichols as a writer/director, and will likely soon rent his debut film, Shotgun Stories.





Melancholia (2011) Review

16 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Zentropa Entertainments

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The first ten minutes of this film had me quite concerned with what exactly I was getting myself into, but the ensuing film was an immensely intriguing character study.

Defining the synopsis of this movie in detail would be, in my opinion, a rather futile process.  Let’s just say it’s a Bergman-esque family drama via Lars von Trier.  Oh yeah, and there’s a cosmic anomaly that is causing a hidden planet to come dangerously within Earth’s rotational path during the course of the story.  The relationship in question that the story focuses upon are of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who are very different and have a strained, but oddly caring relationship.  Their parents, Gaby (Charlotte Ramping) and Dexter (John Hurt), are equally odd in their own ways and possibly a good explanation for their daughter’s troubles.  Claire is somewhat more grounded than Justine in her marriage to ultra rich, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and with her son Leo (Cameron Spurr), but as the narrative progresses and the strange planet of Melacholia approaches Earth, her defenses seem to be broken down more than Justine’s.

What von Trier has created with this film is an engaging and intriguing look at the psyche of these two sisters as their lives play out during what could be the final weeks of life on Earth.  It seems almost as if the approaching planet of Melancholia triggers an even deeper emotional block for both the sisters as it’s rotation closes in on Earth’s.  Almost every aspect of this film surprised me in how well it works because, as you can tell by the description, it is a pretentious story.  However, unlike the pretentious Tree of Life, which I was completely let down and uninterested in, this film wholly succeeded in keeping my engagement throughout.  I was worried about whether or not the story would take, the direction with its shaky camera movements throughout, the odd characterizations of the primary characters; yet, in the end, almost masterfully so, I completely understood why von Trier made those decisions and it ultimately worked beautifully for the film.

I am still thinking about this film today, trying to pick out and analyze pieces of its meaning, and that is always a sign of a great movie.  It’s a shame that von Trier made that SNAFU comment earlier in the awards season this year, as I feel it took the spotlight away from what is most important – the film itself.  This, in turn, I think took some of the respect this film deserves away, and this movie deserved a lot more recognition than it got.  If you don’t mind a pretentious film and want to see one that is done right, then so far, this is the best one I’ve seen from 2011.





My Week with Marilyn (2011) Review

15 03 2012

Copyright 2011 The Weinstein Company

★ ★ ★ ★

Another new release to DVD – we are on a roll burning through 2011 movies!  This one is a nostalgic look at an iconic world figure based on the supposed true events during and around the time of filming the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl.

Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), the son of wealthy art historian Lord Clark, wants to leave his upper class aristocratic lifestyle and “join the circus” that is the movies.  In an attempt to get his foot in the door, he moves to London and relentlessly pursues employment at the offices of Laurence Olivier Productions.  Impressed with his insistence, Sir Laurence (Kenneth Branagh), the noted actor and director, offers him a position as third assistant director on his next picture which will star American screen icon, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).  Clark readily accepts, and is awe struck with his new found position.  Monroe, who has recently married playwright Arthur Miller, arrives in the United Kingdom for filming with her entourage, which includes acting coach Paula Strasburg (Zoe Wanamaker) and management David Orton (Robert Portal).  Once filming begins, the evidence of Marilyn’s many personal troubles are brought to light and her and Olivier clash regularly on set.  In an effort to calm the tension and keep an eye on the turbulent Monroe, Clark strikes a relationship that blossoms into a brief romance.  His time with the actress and experiences on set were documented in his memoir, of which the film was based.

Production-wise, the film is quite solid.  This is likely director Simon Curtis’s biggest achievement to date, being that much of his previous work was television or smaller films, and he handles the cast of experienced British and American stars quite well.  The cinematography by Ben Smithard, a new name to me, is gracefully shot and evokes the hues and tone of the era in which it recaptures during the late 1950s.  The use of hard back light and classic Hollywood lighting during the set sequences is very much true to form to the era, and it contrasts quite nicely to the mood enhanced lighting during the real life scenes of Monroe’s struggles.

For me, however, where this film truly shone was in the script by Adrian Hodges, that was intriguing and never dull, and the acting by the all-star cast.  Redmayne gave a good leading performance as Clark, but even still was over shadowed by the tremendous performances by Williams as Monroe and Branagh as Olivier.  I’ve always been a Branagh fan and he is a perfect choice to play Olivier, being that if you look at both their careers, his has very closely mirrored and taken cue from Olivier’s.  His brilliant Shakespearean work, various stints directing other genres and solid characterizations in other films like Woody Allen’s Celebrity make Branagh, in my opinion, one of the UK’s most well-rounded working actors.  For this performance, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to fellow Brit Christopher Plummer for Beginners, a film I have not yet seen.

Now, for the real shining star of the film, Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe.  Whereas, Monroe was iconically beautiful, Williams is cute in a waifish sort of way.  Upon seeing the trailer for this film, I really didn’t buy Williams as looking that much like Monroe.  However, once seeing it, her ability to re-create the voice, mannerisms and minute details of the Monroe persona sold the part so well that it was brilliant.  Williams, likewise, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, for Best Actress, but lost to Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady.  Williams, however, at just 30 years old, I’m sure has a long and fruitful career ahead of her.

In short, this was a well made and very worthwhile film.  I would highly recommend it to audiences of any demographic.





The Descendants (2011) Review

14 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

This was the final film that was a major contender in this year’s awards season that I had yet to see.  In retrospect, though an enjoyable flick, I’m not upset we missed this one in the theaters.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate attorney who lives in Oahu, Hawaii.  More importantly than his profession, however, is that he belongs to a family who has a long-line of land ownership on the Hawaiian islands, specifically on Kauai, that has been set up in a trust for years.  The large land ownership is what is left of a royal inheritance his great-great-great grandmother received in the 1860s from her lineage in the Hawaiian royal family.  With just seven years until the trust is absolved and being the primary beneficiary, Matt, along with his cousins, are planning a sale of the lands that will make all of them multimillionaires.  During this process, however, his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is put into a coma from a boating accident, which leaves Matt to also deal with raising his semi-estranged children, Alexandra(Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  Around the same time that he learns of Elizabeth’s imminent death because of her will, which states she doesn’t want to live in a persistent vegetative state, he also learns from his daughter that his wife was having an affair and planned to leave him anyway before the accident.  All of these personal events begin to reshape his perspective as he tries to cope with this newfound knowledge.

I have a love/hate relationship with Alexander Payne’s movies.  There are some that are just totally boring to me, like About Schmidt; then there are others that I absolutely adore, like Sideways.  This film fell somewhere in between.  As a whole, it was an enjoyable and interesting character study set in the beautiful Hawaiian islands, but I have to admit that there were several times I looked at the clock during this film.  As with most of Payne’s adaptations, the film did have a tight script and actually won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Payne’s second in that category.  Clooney’s performance is a high point in the film as he manages, quite successfully, to transcend his movie star persona and is very believable as every-man Matt King.  The inner turmoil of the character plays out nicely and, as an audience member, its quite easy to feel the empathy needed for his character that makes the film itself succeed.

Personally, I could have shaved 15 minutes out of the third act and been happier with it, but all-in-all, it was a solid production with a great performance by Clooney in the lead.





Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Review

12 03 2012

Copyright 1979 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie had never seen this film and it had been probably 7-10 years since my last viewing, so we decided to fire it up on Netflix Instant Watch on Saturday night to wind down the evening.

Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, an NYC art director at a Madison Avenue advertising firm, who his quickly climbing his way up the corporate ladder.  At home, he has his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), and son, Billy (Justin Henry).  After learning he has just scored a huge account with the company that could be his ticket to success, his wife announces that she is leaving him and Billy.  At first, he thinks it’s some kind of a joke, but soon realizes that Joanna is serious about deserting her family, leaving him to raise their six-year-old son.  For a man who has constantly focused on his occupation, the added responsibilities of raising Billy are a hard-learned process.  However, as time passes, he and Billy grow quite close and their relationship blossoms.  After nearly a year and a half away, Joanna decides to return to New York from California, and wants to take custody of Billy.  Having now built a life with his son, Ted refuses to had over custody and the issue ends up in court, where many settlements are given to the woman out of gender stereotype alone.

This is a very solid film.  By synopsis, it might sound simple, but it is the sum of the parts that make this film such an enjoyable and wonderful experience.  The unobtrusive direction and tight script by Robert Benton, amazing performances by Hoffman, Streep and 8-year-old newcomer Henry, and naturalistic cinematography by Nestor Almendros, all intertwine beautifully in creating this touching movie.  Henry became, and still is, the youngest nominee for an Academy Award in the competitive categories for his Best Supporting Actor nod, though he didn’t win.  Among other nominations, the film did win Best Picture, Best Actor for Hoffman, Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, and Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Robert Benton.

There is nothing grandiose about this picture; it is simply a small film with the basic elements of telling a story visually.  However, it succeeds on such a level that I think nearly any audience member would enjoy Kramer vs. Kramer and find it immensely entertaining.  It goes to show how important a good story and solid characters are in motion picture production and makes me long for more simple, yet concrete stories like this one to come back to the forefront of American cinema.





The Rum Diary (2011)

5 03 2012

Copyright 2011 GK Films

★ ★ ★ 1/2

This film had an interesting spin for me.  When I first heard about it, it became one of my most anticipated movies of the year because of the source material (the book of the same name by legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) and the writer/director Bruce Robinson (director of Withnail and I and his first feature film in nearly 20 years).  However, once the film was released, the critics didn’t necessarily pan it out right, but the reviews were admittedly lackluster.  So, because of this, I put off seeing this movie and, rather than having too high expectations as originally was the case, I lowered my expectations greatly and went into the film planning on being completely let down.  After viewing, I can see how some people wouldn’t enjoy the movie, but for me, it still hit a chord in much the same way Withnail and I did for me.  Honestly, I had a hard time deciding whether this should be rated a three and a half star or four star film, I guess for me it’s somewhere in the middle.

Johnny Depp plays aspiring novelist and American freelance journalist Paul Kemp, a character who himself is an alter ego of author Hunter S. Thompson.  On assignment, he starts a job at the San Juan Star in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s writing horoscopes and other pointless articles for tourists under the discretion of editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), during a turbulent time in the country’s history, where island natives and the touristy expatriates from America are at bitter ends.  Kemp takes up eventual residence with the paper photographer, Sala (Michael Rispoli), and the two carry out many nights of drunken amusement, along with complete alcoholic Moberg (Giovanni Ribisi),  while in the day concerned with the changing culture on the island.  In addition, during his time on the island, Kemp becomes reluctantly involved with a plan to foster a military bombing island into a hotel/resort attraction with the insistence of self-proclaimed PR guru Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), whose girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), becomes an infatuation during his tenure.

What struck me about this film was two things: 1) the camaraderie of being in constant limbo in a Catch-22 situation where alcohol and drugs seems your only escape to “normalcy” and 2) the analysis of Puerto Rico during this turbulent time in the country’s history.  I related and found interest in the first bullet point in much the same way I did in watching Withnail and I, in that, I have had a period of my life that felt very much like that.  A period of constant intoxication in need of normalcy, while striving to find a creative voice in the chaos that is our world.  To me, I think every young artist has this period and, I won’t hesitate to say, I would likely still be in this period had I been able to continue to pursue the dreams of my youth.  Not that I have given up on my goals, but I have had to suck it up and get a “real” job and become a bit more of a cog in society, as opposed to the meandering drink laden writer/filmmaker/musician that is more in character with my genetic makeup.  The second point is what really encompasses the story of this film; without it, the whole movie would just be one long binge, and that doesn’t work as a story.  However, I can see how some would find the essence of Puerto Rico at this time to not really be of interest; yet, for me, it kept my attention throughout.

I’ve not read the novel, so I can’t compare the book to the movie.  Speaking on the film’s merits alone, however, I think this presents an accurate vision of what life for a personality such as Kemp’s was and would react in this particular setting and time period.  Though it’s not for everyone, it worked for me.








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