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Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) Review

4 06 2012

Copyright 1972 Universal Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors.  I absolutely adore his style, wittiness and straightforwardness in his prose, and like many others, the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” was my introduction to him.  With the novel being held to such high regard for me personally, I was a bit nervous going into this film.  However, though slow to begin, the movie was actually quite well done.

Directed by George Roy Hill, this film sat nicely between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and his phenomenally huge success with The Sting the following year.  Michael Sacks stars as the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who becomes, famously, unstuck in time.  Like the novel, the narrative of Billy’s life jumps back and forth through his timeline with heavy emphasis on his time in Germany during World War II.  Vonnegut, himself a POW during World War II in Dresden when it was bombed, tells his autobiographical tale of the feelings he encountered and the time there vicariously through the fictitious Pilgrim.  Through Pilgrim’s turmoil during the war, his average subsequent life and, ultimately bizarre encounters in the world of Tralfamadore, we see the portrait of a man who was forever changed by the moments he experienced during the brief part of his life he lived as a soldier.

Sacks, who went on to be a top executive in the financial sector with such companies as Morgan Stanley after leaving his acting career in the mid 1980s, does a reputable job in the lead role.  His nuances playing the older Pilgrim were quite well timed in contrast to the young Pilgrim, this being especially impressive considering that Sacks was only 24-years-old at the time of filming.  George Roy Hill as a director has never wooed me to any speakable degree, but he is a solid director, and for that I laud his talents more than someone who tries to thrill you with each and every shot like Terrence Malick.  A director’s job is to select the shots and direct the actors to performances that best suit the story; Roy Hill seems to pass this test with flying colors in each and every one of the films of his I have seen.  Some of the best magic is that which tricks, but doesn’t overwhelm the eye.  The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek was very pleasant.  Tinged with the grittiness of early 1970s experiments in faster film stock, the naturalness and softness of the light were provocative of this era, one of my favorites in the evolution of the motion picture.

If you loved the book, you will like the movie.  As far as adaptations go, it’s probably one of the better ones.  If you’ve never read the book and plan on never doing so, then well, shame on you, but you’ll probably like the movie too.

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The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) Review

23 05 2012

Copyright 1989 Allarts Cook

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Probably the most universally known of director Peter Greenaway’s films, I happily sat through my second viewing of this picture last night.  Furthermore, I had the pleasure of introducing my girlfriend to a second helping of Greenaway’s bizarre film aesthetic following her original dose with A Zed and Two Noughts several months ago.

An ensemble cast of Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and Alan Howard complete the title characters in order, respectively.  Richard Borst (Bohringer) is the head cook of a restaurant that is co-owned with villainous thief, Albert (Gambon).  About 95% of the story takes place in and around this restaurant over the course (no pun intended) of one week.  Albert, along with his clan of baddies and misfits (including a young Tim Roth), dines and disturbs the restaurant on an almost nightly basis.  His wife, Georgina (Mirren), is brought along reluctantly and bears the brunt of his cruel jokes and boisterous rants.  Michael (Howard) is a regular patron and a book aficionado who has a refined palette and sits at a table just several away from Albert’s raucous party.  He and Georgiana eventually spark a sexual relationship that is fostered and kept secret by Richard and the wait staff.  As their relationship blossoms outside the sexual realm, the dangers of Albert finding out grow until climatic results occur.

Greenaway’s usual motifs are in full force here: nakedness, metaphoric use of color, rotting animals, stylistic camera movements, heavy reliance on and pictorial representation of famous painters; in short, you can’t mistake for a minute that you are watching a Greenaway film.  I say this, however, not as a sign of distaste for his work but as a applause to his artistic style.  Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that the man understands and brings the most out of each and every shot.  The final scene of this film, which I won’t spoil for those of you who have not yet seen it, is what I consider pure cinema.  It is perfect, the acting, the direction, the cinematography by Vierny, the sublime score by the wonderful Michael Nyman, production design, everything.  Give me an auteur who can bring the elements of that scene to an entire motion picture and you have a brilliant masterpiece.

Though I have not seen every Greenaway film, this still stands as my favorite thus far.  It is, in my opinion, probably the most accessible to the general public in regards to content and script, but it still has that special element that make it a Greenaway picture.





Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father (2008)

11 04 2012

Copyright 2008 MSNBC Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie wanted to watch this one on Netflix Instant Watch.  I read the description, and was not at all interested; however, once she started playing it, I found myself straying from the iPad to the television screen within a couple minutes.

Without giving too much of the story away, this film chronicles the journey of documentary filmmaker Kurt Kuenne in compiling video footage of his childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was the victim of a suspicious murder.  Bagby’s assailant was thought to be his estranged girlfriend at the time, Dr. Shirley Turner, 12 years his senior.  After the murder, it was found that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, Zachary, whose name is where the title derives.  Through interviews with family, friends, colleagues, extended family and others, this film tries to piece together the pieces of Bagby’s life for his young son, as well as analyze the crimes of Shirley Turner.

Kuenne borrows heavily from the style of Errol Morris in his presentation of the facts in this film, and it works wonderfully.  I have always felt the Morris style exudes a sort of narrative progression to real life events that keeps the viewer not only informed, but also entertained and engaged in the subject matter.  There are surprises along the way, and the case becomes more and more involved as the film progresses.  Furthermore, being that the filmmaker was a childhood friend of the victim, this movie carries a very personal and heartfelt vision throughout.  Rather than being just a wallflower to the events, as many documentaries are, Kuenne uncovers elements about a man that was like a brother to him, which makes the filmmaker himself an engaged participant in the story.

This is a beautifully done work that advocates a powerful message.  I will warn that it is almost impossible to watch this film without eliciting a strong emotional reaction.  Even the least emotional of people will likely have a hard time keeping dry eyes through this movie.





A Dangerous Method (2011) Review

2 04 2012

Copyright 2011 Recorded Pictures Company

★ ★ ★

David Cronenberg’s films are, for most people at least, a love it or hate it situation.  Surprisingly, my girlfriend really enjoyed this film despite the fact that she generally abhors anything by Cronenberg; I, on the other hand, am either genuinely engaged or somewhat intrigued by his work.  This film, for me, I found somewhat interesting, and in a first, Maddie enjoyed a Cronenberg film more than I.

Based on a true story, this film analyzes the relationship that develops between famed psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient-turned-mistress Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).  Furthermore, the film depicts the initial respect and collaboration between Jung and other famed early 20th century psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (an almost unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen), as well as their eventual falling out.  Throughout the film, many elements of psycho analysis and sexual psychology are interpreted and pondered through the dialog between the primary characters.

This is a smart film, and has a smart script.  The psychological analysis throughout the narrative is interesting, but on the whole, leaves something to be desired in regards to entertainment value.  Fassbender and Mortensen give good performances playing their respective iconic figures, and Knightley, who I am rarely impressed with, let history take precedent and didn’t impress me.  She did well throughout the film holding her Russian accent, but overall, I found her performance wooden and lifeless.  As for being a Cronenberg film, this felt possibly one of the more “normal” of the lot.  The narrative was relatively straight forward and the direction was fairly standard, a sharp contrast to the usual bizarreness of a large body of his work.

If you like psychology and like a “based on a true story” movie, then I could see one finding this film quite enjoyable.  For me, though I am interested in psychology to a degree, the entertainment value was only slightly better than average, which outweighed the intriguing subject matter.





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.





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.








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