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All reviews - Movies (204) - DVDs (1)

The Amazing Spider-Man

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 4 July 2012 04:38 (A review of The Amazing Spider-Man)

A lot of superhero movies are guilty of focusing too much on the action/special effects department while neglecting the human/emotional aspects of the plot. Curiously, The Amazing Spider-Man often feels like it's guilty of the reverse. Three years ago, director Marc Webb accomplished something truly extraordinary with (500) Days of Summer, easily one of the best romantic comedies of our generation. I actually thought there was a chance that Webb would be well-suited for a Spider-Man movie, because of several touches in (500) Days of Summer that gave that movie a lively and nimble pace that would be right at home in a superhero movie, especially one in which the plot's romantic element is so pivotal. Unfortunately, while The Amazing Spider-Man does a perfectly decent job at portraying the struggles experienced by Peter Parker the human being, it doesn't fare nearly as well in its depiction of the adventures of Spider-Man the superhero. There's a lot of effective comedy (particularly during the first hour) and a few moments that manage to be emotionally affecting, but when it comes to the action sequences and to the build-up of suspense, Webb doesn't fare nearly as well. Consequently, the latest cinematic attempt to resurrect a Marvel superhero is sufficiently engaging and worth caring about (even for a running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes), despite not succeeding all that greatly at providing the meat and potatoes of a summer blockbuster.

I really wanted to avoid turning this review into some form of comparative essay... but that's proving to be a little complicated. You see, even though Hollywood has been on a spree of remakes, reboots and sequels for years now, The Amazing Spider-Man is actually the first film ever to make me feel OLD. That's because it's impossible (for me, at least) to evaluate this movie without considering Sam Raimi's version of the web-spewing hero, which came out only ten years ago and was followed by two sequels. Spider-Man (2002) was a wonderful film, probably as good as superhero origin stories can get. Now, Spider-Man 2 (2004) holds a sacred place in my movie heart. It's a ravishing, monumentally amazing superhero film, entertainment at its apex, and one of the finest juxtapositions between action and emotional conflict that I've seen in any summer film. Spider-Man 3 (2007), on the other hand, is one of the most disappointing moviegoing experiences I've ever had - it's the only film that's ever made me want to laugh and cry at the same time, and not for any good reasons - I saw the film only once, but it left me so traumatized that there's even one particular scene of the movie that I still remember vividly due to how much it made me cringe. The good news is that The Amazing Spider-Man is definitely better than Raimi's final foray into Spidey's world. But it never gets even close to matching the immensely entertaining experiences that were the 2002 and 2004 films. We care for Peter and we feel his pain when he's picked on at school. There are hints of greatness in the dialogue during the scenes between him and his love interest, even if the romantic spark doesn't always ignite as powerfully as it should. But in this day and age of Avatar and The Avengers, the action sequences and CGI effects in The Amazing Spider-Man are shockingly lackluster and unexciting. They're not bad; they're just not very interesting. The bar has been set too high in this department, because of several of the other superhero films that have been released in recent years. Rarely did I feel a heightened sense of suspense or that the stakes were severely high or that I was having an eye-popping experience during the action scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man. To make matters worse, the movie features a villain who's rather monotonous from the very second we meet him, and who doesn't really grow into much of a spectacular threat. (I would've paid to see New York City swarming with human-sized lizards and Spider-Man having to take them all on, but no such luck).

There's only one reason why, in spite of the flaws I've mentioned, The Amazing Spider-Man is still worth a passing grade: Andrew Garfield. Because of my love for Raimi's first two films, it's a little bit difficult for me to admit this, but I have no doubt it's the truth, so it's my responsibility as a reviewer to say it - Garfield is an exponentially better actor than Tobey Maguire, and embodies the role much more effectively. It's actually only after seeing Garfield's work that, in retrospect, a lot of the problems with Maguire's performance start to surface (some fairly ridiculous wide-eyed stares, a general inability to cry convincingly). Garfield portrays Peter Parker's mixed feelings and general fucked-up-ness to perfection. Peter's moments of apprehension when interacting with Gwen and his inability to figure out the right thing to say are all played extremely well. This wasn't a surprise for me - most people only know Garfield from his very good turn in The Social Network, but haven't seen his devastating, heart-stopping performance in the extraordinary British film Boy A, but I can guarantee that Webb saw him in that film and knew he had his Peter Parker immediately. Emma Stone is good as the love interest, though a bit constrained by the fact that she's playing a character who, despite having plenty of screen time, doesn't enjoy nearly as much actual character development as she deserved. (On an unrelated, superficial note, I truly think that Stone's infectious, spunky charm registers much more when she's got a red head of hair. Yes, I know the Gwen Stacy character is supposed to be blonde. But I'm just sayin'.). At the very least, if there are sequels, we can be confident in that the young actors playing the protagonists are definitely more than capable of sparking on-screen greatness. It's all a matter of making it feel like there's more at stake for their characters.

Webb clearly has no problem with mixing drama and comedy efficiently or with getting us to care for his characters. But he needs some help if he also wants to dazzle us with the wallop of jolts and thrills that superhero films are obviously supposed to bring forth to audiences. Blame it on the awesome, gargantuan spectacle that was the recently released The Avengers, but The Amazing Spider-Man simply doesn't feature the requisite amount of unabashed excitement that we look for when go to a multiplex on the 4th of July. One of the local film critics here commented on a radio show that he felt that Raimi gave us the better Spider-Man, whereas Webb has given us the better Peter Parker. That observation may not be too far from the truth, but like I said, a lot of the credit for that goes to Garfield, for giving such a courageous performance. Incidentally, I should mention that the audience who watched the film with me applauded heartily when his name came up during the credits (can't say they did the same after the traditional post-credits scene, which is one of the lamest of those I've seen in a very long time). The craze and hype over superhero movies is at an all-time high, so the fact that The Amazing Spider-Man is a decent film that doesn't live up to its titular epithet may render it disappointing to those who have really high expectations. I liked it well enough, and the possibility that it might get better in future installments, with Garfield continuing to inhabit the role so well, is enough for me to say that I'd still give a sequel a try.


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The Dictator

Posted : 11 years, 9 months ago on 19 May 2012 09:00 (A review of The Dictator)

I used to think that the main reason why I enjoyed both Borat and Bruno was mostly due to the brilliance of the sociopolitical satire that each of those films brought to the table. But now I realize that those two movies had something else (an added push, if you will): both movies delivered their sociopolitical satire through humor of the "I CANNOT believe they just did that!" variety. Borat and Bruno both made great observations about cultural and societal ignorance, but in addition to doing that, they both made my jaw drop on several occasions, and both films had at least one instance in which I found myself needing to cover my eyes. It's too bad that I can't say the same about The Dictator. I'm not sure if this is an active decision on Sacha Baron Cohen's part to make his latest film not quite as outrageous as his previous two outings, or if I've simply become desensitized over the past three years and nothing shocks me anymore. But the truth remains that, while there are isolated laughs to be had in The Dictator, they're all controlled laughs, none of which will have you bursting or howling. This isn't one of those movies in which, once a scene ends and the next one begins, people will still be laughing from what they just saw in the prior scene. The fact that the movie's humor still works more often than it doesn't would normally lead me to still recommend it, but unfortunately, I'm having a hard time forgiving some truly unnecessary (and not particularly funny) material that's been stuffed into the film's skinny 80 minutes just so it could reach feature-length time, and I'm having an even harder time forgiving the film's excruciatingly poorly-conceived romantic subplot.

As it always goes in these films, Cohen plays a character who lives in a country outside of the US, but for one reason or another, ends up traveling to America and engaging in all sorts of shenanigans as soon as he gets there. In this case, though, I'm inclined to think there may have been more humor to be found in the proceedings if our title character had stayed in the fictional country of Wadiya throughout the entire film. You see, the first act of The Dictator is easily its strongest: watching Cohen play Aladeen, a bumbling, airheaded authoritarian leader is a pure riot, and his interactions with the lower officials and other subordinates are a hoot most of the time. I couldn't stop laughing during an explanation of the changes that the tyrant made to the Wadiyan dictionary (using his own name). A plot is hatched to remove Aladeen from his leadership post by replacing him with his body double. This is where things start going downhill: the film makes several clearly desperate attempts at milking humor from the situations involving Aladeen's replacement (who's essentially braindead), but they don't work. There's a particularly bad scene in which the guy is placed in a room full of subservient females who are ready to give him whatever he wants; timing is the most important thing in comedies, and the timing in this scene couldn't be more off. It comes across as awkward and uncomfortable, but not humorous. Later on, there's a scene that has "throwaway" written all over it, as Aladeen starts removing objects from his pocket in order to weigh less - as this scene unfolded, I kept thinking "Well, they obviously have to exploit this opportunity. He has to pull something completely scandalous out of one of his pockets, and it has to be either something sexual or something horribly offensive." No such luck.

But without a doubt, the worst offender in The Dictator is the storyline involving the "romance" between Aladeen and Zoey (Anna Faris). Faris plays it with the exaggerated effervescence that she has brought to oodles of prior other comedies she's been in. But I don't think there's a single actress out there with the ability to make up for the script's annoying, screeching insistence in turning her into the stereotype of an ultraliberal New Yorker. Perhaps Zoey would've been funny as a stand-alone character in a film that aimed to satirize these people who try super hard to portray themselves as being "totally open-minded" (and there's no doubt that you could make a great modern satire about that). Unfortunately, pairing Zoey with Aladeen romantically (rather than as antagonists) has a detrimental effect on the film's tone, because Zoey simply becomes a caricature who, throughout the entire movie, conveniently adjusts her feelings towards Aladeen whenever the plot requires her to do it, regardless of how completely against her beliefs Aladeen's behavior may be. These situations should've been hilarious (or, at the very least, enjoyable due to the irony of it all), but unfortunately, that never registers. The Dictator's short running time would've benefited greatly from following Borat's skit-like, episodic approach of having the main character get into all sorts of out-of-this-world situations with the New Yorkers he met along the way, rather than wasting a colossal amount of time on the misfire that is the film's romantic thread.

I continue to appreciate the direction in which Cohen aims his satirical arrows, but I'm deeply underwhelmed by the fact that this movie's just lacking that extra pizzazz that made the audiences with whom I watched Borat and Bruno erupt in simultaneous laughter and outrage. The climactic speech makes Cohen's stance on American "democracy" completely clear (yet one can't be faulted for imagining that it'll likely go over a lot of people's heads), and I'd call it a solid conclusion to Cohen's latest satire, were it not punctuated by the resolution of the Aladeen/Zoey lovefest, which should've never been a part of the movie in the first place. Call me soulless or unromantic or sadistic, but I'd much prefer to get an update on how Borat and Luenell are doing. What I can ultimately tell you about The Dictator is that it's occasionally funny, and that I may have even given it a passing grade had it been in someone other than Cohen's hands, but we all have expectations, and knowing the type of brilliantly offensive material that we already know he's capable of, it feels like his latest effort falls a bit short of that.


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The Hunger Games

Posted : 11 years, 11 months ago on 25 March 2012 09:33 (A review of The Hunger Games)

If you think that the dehumanizing, brutally atrocious behavior that is showcased in The Hunger Games seems too far-fetched or like something that would never happen in real life or like something that "only happens in the movies," all I can say is that I envy your blissful optimism. I'm much more cynical of the spirit of the human race, and I don't consider the future depicted in this movie to be all that unlikely. Over the last few years, the mainstream public has become obsessed with watching and relishing reality shows in which human beings expose the ugliest, most foul aspects of their personalities. Audiences take a frightening amount of delight in watching this sort of thing, and The Hunger Games is an indictment of this horrifying fascination. This is a conventional movie - you won't be surprised by any of the motions it goes through, and there are a few occasions in which it takes the easy way out to avoid becoming too dark. But it's elevated in quality by its spot-on social commentary and by a searingly courageous lead performance.

The film takes place at some unspecified point in the distant future (probably not as far away as you'd think), and we're presented with a society in which an elite few are the powerful people who get to bask in all the riches, luxuries and technological advances, whereas the rest of the population has been divided into 12 districts - District 12, in particular, is a grim place that looks like a poor farm town right out of the 1930s. Two kids/teenagers (one male, one female) are selected from each of the 12 districts to take part in the titular games, which are televised for everyone's enjoyment and feature the 24 kids and teenagers being left stranded in the woods and told that they must fight each other to the death until only one of them remains and is thus named the winner of the Hunger Games. This year, the representatives from District 12 are Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). They're whisked away, but before being thrown directly into the games, they go through a mentoring process. I expected that this meant that the kids would perhaps get some sort of physical training in battle and survival skills, but of course, the makers of the show are more interested in primping these kids up to make them appealing to the public. In fact, that's of vital importance, they're told, because if they happen to be well-liked by the public, they may receive help from "sponsors" which will prove essential to their survival in the game.

All the goading that takes place to encourage Katniss and Peeta to make a good impression before the viewing public in their preliminary interviews feels not unlike what probably happens backstage in your typical American Idol-style reality show in which the contestants give performances and move forward depending on how popular they are with audiences. But once the actual games begin, the situation is more like an extreme version of the dehumanizing challenges that people are subjected to in shows like Survivor, in which people form alliances to get rid of one another and stab each other in the back frequently... except, as I'm sure you'll imagine, the word "stab" can be taken literally in this case. However, The Hunger Games actually exhibits a decent amount of restraint in terms of the amount of graphic violence it depicts. I give the movie credit for doing this, and I'll explain why. First, I disagree with the belief that the film, like so many others of its ilk, toned down the violence exclusively to achieve a PG-13 rating. I believe that The Hunger Games hesitates to show too much graphic violence because it objects to it. The film is a cautionary tale about how people's obsession with comfortably watching other human beings tear each other apart is causing us to devolve as a society, so the last thing the film would want is to become yet another window through which the mainstream public can relish that material by viewing it in all its glory. If you actually found yourself wanting to see more of the violence in this movie, then you're guilty of the same sin at which the film aims its critical arrows, and perhaps you should re-examine your moral compass. Secondly, the truth is that, in order to work effectively as a piece of cinema and to deliver the message it wants to get across, The Hunger Games had no need whatsoever to be more graphic in depicting the harrowing acts that take place here between kids and teenagers. If a 15-year-old boy maims a 10-year-old girl, I don't need to see every detail of that in order to know that it's horrible. I know it's horrible. And I hope you know it, too.

One thing that instantly caught my attention as the "games" got under way was the great potential that this film had to enter dark moral waters. I expected to see scenes in which Katniss, our heroine, would be forced to make incredibly difficult decisions for the sake of her personal survival. On more than one occasion (and with regard to more than one of the supporting characters), I said to myself, "Wow, if there can only be one survivor, then she's gonna have to turn on this person eventually, and considering what we're seeing here, it's gonna be really tough and intense for her to do that once she's faced with the need to do it." Unfortunately, the plot turns are tweaked here on several occasions so that Katniss is never forced to make any difficult moral decisions that would make people lose their sympathy for her. The film is very interested in maintaining its lead character as a totally uncorrupted soul. This has the positive effect of making us consistently root for Katniss, but it also has the negative consequence of making the film lose a fraction of moral complexity which could've made this a truly great motion picture. The film has no qualms showing all the physical and emotional adversity that Katniss experiences on an individual level, but it shies away from forcing her to engage in the kind of heart-wrenching betrayals that could've made this a deeply disturbing and devastating work of cinema.

Jennifer Lawrence's performance oozes a dizzying blend of ferocity and vulnerability. This is the first memorable performance of 2012, and despite the fact that The Hunger Games has its share of very well-known stars, there's never a doubt that this is Lawrence's movie. The 2 hours and 20 minutes that it takes to watch this film hinge entirely on our ability to root for Katniss and to believe in her resolute spirit and in everything that's at stake for her, and Lawrence doesn't lose her grip on the audience for a second. I wasn't as marveled as most people were by Lawrence's Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, and she had relatively forgettable roles last year in The Beaver and Like Crazy, but with The Hunger Games, I have no doubt about the greatness of her talent. She gets able support from the secondary cast, and it was a particular delight to see Stanley Tucci's grandiose work as the film's resident Ryan Seacrest and Elizabeth Bank's creepily cheerful work as one of the games' organizers.

The plot structure of The Hunger Games may be short on invention, but the film couldn't be more timely in terms of the direction in which its aims its criticism. The film is well aware of the fact that the public craves a cathartic ending in which one person survives, as a way to justify the fact that they just watched a bunch of pointless human-on-human mayhem just for the hell of it, and the film gladly pounces on that during the final act. Not having read the source material, I admit to being highly curious in terms of the path that the story will take next. All I can say for the time being is that, if the subsequent entries manage to be as thoroughly gripping and relevant as this film, and if Lawrence continues bringing her A game, the odds are ever in the franchise's favor. While I recognize the movie's minor shortcomings, it has been a hell of a long time since I've felt glued to my seat in a movie theater for over 2 hours.


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Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Posted : 11 years, 11 months ago on 16 March 2012 09:56 (A review of Jeff, Who Lives at Home)

In 2006, the directing duo composed of brothers Jay and Mark Duplass made something fantastic with meager resources. Their independent drama The Puffy Chair is one of my all-time favorite road trip movies and, from what I've seen so far, it's the apex of the so-called mumblecore movement. It's realistic without ever drifting into monotony or making you feel like you're just pointlessly spying on your neighbor's daily life. Two years ago, the Duplass brothers got the opportunity to do a more "mainstream" independent film - that was Cyrus (see my review [Link removed - login to see]), a mostly effective drama, which wasn't nearly as vibrant or emotionally resonant as The Puffy Chair, but it had enough moments that made it worth a recommendation. The Duplass brothers' most recent effort, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an 84-minute affair that, for 70 minutes or so, feels like it's headed in the same direction as Cyrus: a decent drama, with occasional chuckles for good measure, despite not being nearly as insightful or as heart-wrenching as The Puffy Chair. Unfortunately, Jeff, Who Lives at Home's final moments drift into horrendously saccharine territory, and to make matters worse, the way it all unfolds gives one the impression that the filmmakers didn't feel confident enough in their protagonist's flaws and virtues, and instead, felt that they had to do something really over-the-top in order to give a sense of closure and redemption to the proceedings. Watching this film, I felt like I was moderately enjoying myself and that the enjoyment was suddenly interrupted by something completely random and out-of-the-blue that was conveniently forced upon me.

Like me, Jeff (Jason Segel) is a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs (so much that he can even quickly recite the cast of all the actors who starred in the film). Unlike me, though, the movie's philosophy seems to have consumed him so much that he seems to believe that everything really does happen for a reason. He receives a call from someone who has obviously dialed the wrong number and is asking for a "Kevin," but Jeff doesn't know anyone by that name. However, he becomes convinced that the name must mean something, so anytime he comes across a sign with that name or even someone with that name, he feels compelled to see where it might lead him. Since this is the type of thing that the 30-year-old Jeff is concerned with, it looks like he hasn't had time to sit and think about the practical stuff: he spends hours upon hours in the basement and has no clue where his life is headed. His mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), just wants him to do something as simple as a house chore, but even that seems like too much. Meanwhile, Jeff's brother Pat (Ed Helms) is having problems with his marriage to Linda (Judy Greer) - their relationship seems to have lost the spark it apparently had once, and their priorities seem to be completely out of sync with one another.

The film consists mostly of situations that are by turns serious and by turns wacky involving brothers Jeff and Pat going from one place to another, discovering things about each other and about their dysfunctional relationship, as Pat also makes discoveries about what Linda does during the day. Needless to say, a lot of the discoveries don't turn out to be particularly good news for all involved. For the most part, I enjoyed the rapport between Jeff and Pat - there's plenty of honesty here, and while I doubt anyone will bust a gut, one could argue that at least there's comedy of the smile-inducing variety. While all that is happening, there's something entirely separate going on with the two guys' mother, Sharon, who is at her workplace and starts receiving instant messages from a "secret admirer." Unrelated as this plot thread may be, I appreciated how well it captured the situation of someone who's at a point in her life where she no longer feels "wanted" by anyone, yet she suddenly encounters something that makes her eyes light up - Sarandon handles it beautifully and with a lot of grace, and even when the identity of the "secret admirer" becomes totally obvious, I didn't mind. And I expect a lot of people to object to the scene involving the sprinklers, but I found it to be among the movie's nicest and most affecting moments.

In the technical department, things aren't handled quite as effectively. The Duplass brothers continue to employ the technique of frequent zoom-ins and zoom-outs at particular moments (i.e. the camera will be focused on a character and when he/she suddenly says something that the film apparently wishes to accentuate, the camera makes a rapid, haphazard zoom-in on the character), but in Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the use of the technique feels more in-your-face and aggressive. I understand the fact that the directing duo has a desire to move towards more conventional fare while still providing some of their signature style, but it comes across as much more off-putting here than it did in their prior cinematic efforts. In addition to that, the score often feels way too cute for my taste.

Aside from Ed Helms, I have nothing but positive comments in the performance department. I had predicted, based on the movie's title and trailer, that this film would simply ask Jason Segel to play a serious version of the slacker he's played so well in several comedies. That wouldn't have bothered me, but it wouldn't exactly have been boundary-pushing either. The surprising thing is, though, that Jeff, Who Lives at Home isn't so interested in focusing on Jeff's indolent lifestyle as it is in analyzing his frequently paranoid and fidgety personality. Some of Jeff's comments and responses to people's questions demonstrate not so much that Jeff still has the mind of a 15-year-old, but rather, that he's a 30-year-old who understands that certain things in life are complicated, yet he can't really assimilate them too well because he hasn't experienced them personally. Jason Segel does a remarkable job at conveying all of this and proves, as I was already expecting, that he's well-suited to step out of his comfort zone and give solid dramatic performances. As I already said, Susan Sarandon is very good, which didn't come as a surprise either. But the best performance in the film comes courtesy of Judy Greer (who I really wish had been in even more scenes), as she perfectly captures the frustration of wanting a relationship to work while fighting against the reality that the heat and passion have simply eroded. I smiled when the spunky-cute Katie Aselton (Mark Duplass' wife) showed up for a cameo as a restaurant hostess. As for Helms, I have no idea if I've simply got some form of prior prejudice developed against him, but I find him neither funny nor dramatically convincing. It may be that I'm still recovering from the painfully unfunny experience that was last year's Cedar Rapids. His work just feels too strained for me.

Without spoiling anything, what I'll say here is that the climactic sequence of Jeff, Who Lives at Home initially seemed like it was headed in a great direction. It seemed intent on bringing all the characters together and have all of them, in the small world they inhabit as a group of people, make an attempt to resolve their situations and come together as a unit. Unfortunately, the film makes a decision to have an event that's completely unrelated to the proceedings suddenly enter the plot and take precedence over the denouement. What bothers me the most is that this seems like an attempt to amp up the emotional stakes, because the filmmakers apparently didn't feel confident enough that what we had already seen and heard of Jeff's journey would be sufficient for us to think he was ready to achieve redemption and for us to get a sense of closure. It's all made tragically worse by the fact that the situation Jeff is suddenly placed into is as cliche as they come (something you've seen in a dozen movies before, and with two little girls and their daddy, for good measure), and by the fact that, once the situation concludes, it's followed by one of those syrupy montages that is so frequently employed to say "Ta-da! Everything is resolved, guys!". This particular montage is used here as a substitute for the conversations that we needed to hear between a few of these characters in order to get a true sense of closure. I do appreciate the minimalism involved in the film's very last moment, but still can't get over the sugar crash I got from the scenes that immediately preceded it. Jeff, Who Lives at Home has its heart in the right place, but its decision at the end of inserting an extrinsic situation to up the emotional stakes denotes a lack of confidence in all of the prior material that the film had to offer, and the subsequent montage denotes sheer laziness. (P.S. I would've loved to follow those two characters to New Orleans.)


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This Means War

Posted : 12 years ago on 18 February 2012 04:25 (A review of This Means War)

The severe problem with This Means War isn't the fact that it's highly predictable; it's the reason why it's highly predictable. You see, the film has a horribly narrow-minded, black-and-white view of what men and women want from each other in relationships. I saw everything coming in This Means War, not because I knew how things usually unfold in this type of movie, but worse, because its detestably sexist views on romantic dynamics made it incredibly easy to anticipate every dim-witted word and action on the characters' parts. Add to that the fact that it's got very few laughs, and that the action sequences are few and poorly put-together, and you've got a prime example of a good cast wasted on a deeply mediocre film.

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are supposed to be secret agents, except that it seems like any time they go on any mission, they make a mess out of everything and their cover gets blown. So, they're "punished" by getting assigned to boring office work. The early dialogue between both dudes helpfully clues us into the fact that FDR is a ladies' man while Tuck has a hard time meeting women. The latter seems to catch a break when he gets on an online dating site through which he meets Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), one of those good-looking, wholesome and hard-working women who are only single in the movies. Tuck and Lauren go on a first date in which I didn't see any sparks fly, but the film apparently thinks otherwise, so at that point, I'm thinking "Fine, I'll go along with it, as long as we see some solid chemistry later on." The date ends on a positive note, with Lauren saying she's heading off to "rent a movie," which immediately sparked my curiosity, because this isn't something we'd usually hear the stereotypical "single girl" in a romcom say. Of course, it's just a contrivance to have Lauren enter a video store where she happens to meet FDR, who isn't aware that this is the girl his buddy just went out with, and of course, he immediately starts working all of his charms on her. Things get complicated once the two guys realize they're both dating the same girl and they decide to keep doing it without letting her know the two guys know each other, until she makes a decision as to who she wants to be with.

If you've seen the trailer, you already know that each guy starts exploiting his access to spy technology in order to surveil Lauren and to sabotage her dates with the other guy. It's a shame, though, that if you've seen the trailer you've basically seen everything the two guys do with said technology, so you're already aware of how depressingly uncreative and unfunny it is. One guy causes the sprinklers to go off in the house while Lauren is kissing the other guy. One guy causes Lauren's paintball gun to go off and hit the other guy in the balls. One guy shoots the other guy with a dart in order to get him to fall asleep during a date. Not a single laugh, not an ounce of originality or excitement. The lack of excitement is of particular importance to you fans of action movies who saw the title and are hoping maybe there's a subplot in which the two guys, in their roles as agents, get to kick a lot of ass and engage in fun fight or shoot-out sequences - you'll be sorely disappointed. Most of the action on the film happens in the opening sequence, which is as annoying and poorly-edited an action sequence as they come. There's a totally useless subplot involving a bad guy whom the guys are supposed to be tracking down, but it never materializes into anything of interest.

Of course, seeing as the film chooses to eschew the action and focus more on the love triangle, you'd figure the romantic dynamics would offer something substantial, or at the very least, an iota of humor, but that's largely not the case in This Means War. This film is another in the long list of Hollywood romantic comedies that feature female characters with dastardly reprehensible views on love and relationships, and to make matters worse, that makes Lauren nothing but a ridiculously predictable automaton. At one point, when she feels frustrated and she feels that she needs to decide which guy to be with, she suddenly sees the light and declares that she's gonna do "what any rational woman would do" in this situation. At that point, I knew exactly what Lauren was going to say next, not because it has any ring of truth to it (which it doesn't), not even because it's predictable in the context of a romantic comedy, but because the film had already painted her as a caricature who's been designed to say and do the things that Hollywood knows its audiences want to hear women say and do in films, regardless of how reprehensible they may be. Oh, and obviously, Lauren is never held accountable (by her two suitors or by the film) for dating two guys at once. If you think Lauren sounds bad enough on her own, I haven't even talked about her obligatory sex-crazed best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler, not nearly as funny here as she is on the small screen). We've seen this "best friend" in romantic comedies before, but rarely are they as unfunny, useless and screechingly annoying as Trish.

There are plenty of movies out there that have similar flaws in terms of storytelling and character development, yet I've still ended up recommending them because the script has a decent amount of one-liners that have kept me laughing and/or engaged. But the dialogue in This Means War is incredibly flat. The moments of reprieve from said flatness are very few: there's a scene in which the banter related to Internet abbreviations (like "LMFAO") made me at least laugh (though not my ass off), and in the scene during which FDR and Lauren meet at the video store, the two have a funny exchange regarding Alfred Hitchcock's filmography. Come to think of it, these two moments of reprieve I just mentioned are courtesy of Chris Pine, who is easily much better and much more charming than the film's other two leads. Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon look as though they're in it strictly for the paychecks. Chelsea Handler does nothing other than look constipated while delivering dialogue that is either mean-spirited or sexually charged, but never humorous.

This Means War is a weak cinematic entry because it falls flat on its face as an action movie, and stumbles quite poorly as a romantic comedy. In this day and age of great special effects, I'm surprised that the makers of a film about two spies couldn't even think of more interesting and original things aside from surveillance cameras and the other cheap gags that we get here. But what really hurts the movie is that it handles the romantic aspect without any comedic bite and that the film's detestably misguided notions on relationships eventually make it depressingly predictable. Oh, and in case you're hoping to at least feel a sense of mystery or suspense as to "Who will she choose?", you should know that her choice is completely obvious from the beginning, seeing as during the first 20 minutes, there's a subplot involving one of the guys which totally telegraphs the film's resolution. And while I could certainly at least give This Means War some credit for having the girl choose the guy with whom she obviously had more chemistry, I think that'd be overstating things just a bit, considering that the romantic chemistry in this movie is beyond feeble.


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The Artist

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 21 January 2012 01:35 (A review of The Artist)

You'd be forgiven for thinking that all the advertisements for The Artist make it look exclusively like a throwback. That, of course, would be a turn-off for someone who's never seen a silent black-and-white movie or for someone who's prejudiced against films like that because they expect the experience will be monotonous. Thankfully, this cinematic offering doesn't limit itself to just reproducing something similar to what you would've seen in a 1929 film. Despite the era in which it's set, it makes its share of subtle references and notes on life in the 21st century, both inside and outside movie theaters. That it does it with so much style, with a wallop of entertainment, and with two characters with whom we can easily fall in love makes The Artist a joyous, absorbing experience at the movies.

It's 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the most renowned silent movie star in what used to be known as Hollywoodland. Audiences relish going to see films starring George, and the women all howl like schoolgirls at the opportunity of getting even close to having any contact with him. One day, George is outside being interviewed, while a crowd of swooning females is being held back by a guard. And then something happens. It's one of those small, apparently insignificant events that ends up having unexpectedly big consequences for the future of more than one person. One of those swooning girls, Peppy (Bérénice Bejo), drops her bag and moves forward to pick it up, which makes her inadvertently cross over into the area where George is standing. It's a bit of an awkward moment, but it's enough to get the photographers to start taking pictures of George and Peppy together, which then starts making the public (which was as gossip-hungry about celebrities as it is today) start wondering who "that girl" is. The next day, Peppy's visiting the studio at which George is working on a movie, and as one thing leads to another, Peppy starts working her way into the movie industry. And it turns out that she started to do so at a key moment in cinema, because "talkies" are about to start arriving in theaters. This is good news for Peppy, who starts working her way up from minor supporting roles until she becomes a veritable superstar, but bad news for George who's unwilling (and, as we'll find, mortally afraid) to make the transition to "talkies" - since he refuses to do so, his fame starts to wane and he slowly starts fading into oblivion.

But before you start getting the wrong idea, The Artist isn't the story of a girl who took advantage of some guy in order to move up in the world and then just forgot entirely about him. Peppy's not a villain in the least bit. She's a blissful, unassuming sweetheart who never really stops being the fervent fan of George that she was before she entered the movie business. She cares deeply for George. The film makes the infinitely wise decision of not letting this relationship feel too much like a romance, but rather, it's more of a touching, heartwarming friendship that inevitably gets put into jeopardy as a result of the separate paths that George and Peppy each take. One of my favorite moments in the film is one that unfolded very contrary to my expectations. George has insisted on continuing to make silent movies, and after he completes one, he announces the release date, only to shortly find out that, of course, a talkie starting Peppy will be released on the same date. It'd be reasonable to predict how this will all probably unfold: George's film will be met with a near-empty auditorium, while Peppy will be sitting at her new film's premiere, receiving all sorts of accolades from her spectators. However, what ACTUALLY happens makes us realize that The Artist is more interested in capturing the fact that, in spite of all the fame she has attained, Peppy hasn't been able to change her stripes, as she's still utterly fascinated by what George has to offer as an artist and she hasn't stopped caring for him as a human being. No matter what you do for a living, it's hard to hide what you're truly passionate about, because it's what you'll always gravitate towards.

The Artist may be a silent movie and it may be set in the 1930s, but it has a lot to say about modern times. We're living in a time in which technology is having a massive effect on the way we're able to see films, and some hail all these changes as wonderful breakthroughs, and others, like George, see it as a disheartening shift that is taking a beloved art form in an undesirable direction. What I find even more intriguing, though, is the film's sagacious commentary on the nature of celebrity and on what the general public cares about and doesn't care about. With Peppy, we notice how she starts out in minor roles (even with her name misspelled on the credits at first), and we watch as she starts moving upwards in the list of credits until she's the face on the poster of every big movie, and audiences absolutely adore her and flock to see everything she's in. On the other hand, as George's fame starts to fade away, it gets to a point that he can even walk on the street or sit in a movie theater without being recognized by anyone. People seem to have forgotten about him. We may feel discouraged by what the film ultimately tells us about what needs to happen in order for people to suddenly remember a forgotten celebrity like George - but it's the truth. A film like The Artist invites you to relish in all the joy it has to offer, but that doesn't stop it from proffering the bitter reminder that the public eats up tragedies and disasters. Isn't that part of why we love watching movies?

Since my knowledge of silent movies is extremely limited, you won't find in this review a list of all the silent black-and-white films that are probably referenced throughout The Artist. I leave that to professional critics and to film students. I review films as someone with no academic background on movies, but I do it because I like doing it, and I think at least some people may be able to draw something useful from the perspective I have to offer. If you're looking for an academic approach, you should look elsewhere. Now, I do have to say that, in my perhaps uneducated opinion, the weakest aspect of The Artist is that the way in which it presents characters' reactions towards the transition from silents to talkies is awfully simple-minded. A lot of the dialogue that is shown to us on screen in order to let us know the characters' thoughts on the situation is negligible and repetitive: "People wanna hear!" "In with the new out with the old!" Lines like that are repeated in the film more often than necessary. I'm not saying that I expected something ultra-deep from these lines - I understand that it's not easy to pack something too profound into those short statements that are presented on screen. The problem is that these simplistic comments get reiterated over and over again, sometimes to the point that you may be tempted to break the silence and yell "Okay, we get it!". It feels like The Artist could've exhibited a bit more restraint in this department. As the only example I feel I can proffer here, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film that uses the same mechanism of showing lines of dialogue, but it uses this mechanism mainly with the purpose of providing information, rather than to reiterate a character's opinions and emotions more often than necessary - after all, in silent films, one should obviously rely more on the facial expressions for that.

Bérénice Bejo gives a beautiful, luminous performance (one that I'm not so sure can be classified as "supporting"). She truly earns her character's name, but she also consistently feels like a real person whose spirit can break if she experiences a disillusionment or if harm comes in the direction of someone she cares about. I'm overjoyed that the filmmakers chose to go in this direction with this character, rather than the conventional route of making her an initially innocent character who then changes radically and becomes pretentious once she joins the "dark side" and the fame goes to her head. That's been done about a dozen times. Bejo and the filmmakers instead give us someone who retains her blissful sense of innocence, yet this is never something that makes the character or the film feel too light and/or superficial, because she also experiences anguish and frustration at all the right moments. While Bejo's performance spoke much more to me than the one given by her co-star, Jean Dujardin still gives a solid (albeit slightly overrated, in my mind) lead performance, effectively capturing all the emotional ups and downs that George goes through. Oh, and I can't close this paragraph without making note of John Goodman's delightfully gruff performance as the cigar-smoking film director.

Someone will probably write an interesting essay someday discussing The Artist and Hugo as the two 2011 films that bowed down to cinema. There are two fundamental reasons why I find The Artist to be more effective. First, Hugo waits until its second half to reveal its reverential intentions, which isn't something I'd normally have a problem with, except that I felt that, in doing so, it sidelined the film's central story. The Artist is, from beginning to end, a piece of cinema reverence, but the dynamics between George and Peppy are consistently at the heart of it, and never get eschewed. Secondly, Hugo banks too much on the "Aw shucks" factor, which feels like it permeates literally every scene, whereas The Artist, as much as it has its share of cuteness, is still interested in at least taking an indirect look at dark subjects and at imparting criticism.

Looked at superficially, The Artist looks like nothing but a joyous homage to black-and-white silent films, but the film isn't without its dark streaks, which help elevate it significantly. It provides grim commentary on stardom and on the difficulty of making an artistic transition after you've been used to a particular way of pouring your heart and soul into an art form. If the movie had limited itself to looking at George and Peppy separately, merely as a way to observe how one artist rises and the other falls, the film wouldn't have exploited its potential entirely. But since the film chooses not to dispose of Peppy's spirit as a lover of George's films and as someone who dearly wants to be George's friend and to be involved in his life, the relationship between the two characters keeps us fully engaged all the way into the dramatically turbulent climactic scenes. The fact that The Artist is an outwardly jovial film that still carries much in the way of serious undertones is demonstrated perfectly by the film's final sequence, which consists of a musical number that, wonderful and upbeat as it may be, is followed by a denouement that feels resigned more than anything else. It's a film that offers us great joy in the face of disillusionment, which may be exactly what we need today.

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A Separation

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 7 January 2012 07:56 (A review of A Separation)

The avalanche of moral, ethical, legal and emotional dilemmas that emerges during A Separation is the best late Christmas gift for any lover of great drama. This is an overwhelming, stupefyingly well-crafted motion picture that succeeds as magnificently well as it does thanks to its layered thematic complexity, its raw realism and the top-shelf work from the best ensemble cast in a 2011 film. I beg you to please ignore the terrible poster and not to get discouraged by the fact that you'll have to read subtitles. It may be a 2-hour, dialogue-driven foreign film, but those two hours go by insanely quickly, as it's impossible not to get immersed in the ocean of conundrums that this film fires at us throughout every second of its running time. The fact that the conundrums faced by these characters are largely universal in nature will make this film resonate deeply with anyone, regardless of where they're from. A Separation is a devastating, flawless piece of minimalist cinema that refuses to take the easy way out in every turn it takes. What are you supposed to do when your moral/religious compass directs you to point A, the law directs you to point B, and the urgent need to save your own skin and that of your loved ones directs you to point C?

Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is an 11-year-old girl who lives in an apartment with her parents and her grandfather, an Alzheimer's patient. Unfortunately, her father, Nader (Peyman Maadi), recently decided to apply for a divorce from Termeh's mother, Simin (Leila Hatami). The rift in the marriage came as a result of the fact that Simin wants to move somewhere where the family can have better opportunities, while Nader refuses to leave his mentally sick father in someone else's care. For reasons that won't be revealed till later, young Termeh decides to stay living with her father and grandfather, rather than move somewhere with her mother. While Nader is at work during the day, the grandfather is looked after by a female caretaker named Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who is very much in need of the money she gets from this job, but she's a little worried about the gender dynamics of it, to the point that she'd rather call Simin (who no longer lives in the apartment) to get advice on how to do certain things. When the grandfather soils himself, Razieh worries about whether or not it'd be a sin for her to clean him up herself. As tricky as that all may sound, you have no idea how complicated things are about to get. Discussing the plot further would inevitably take me into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that, one day when Nader returns from work, something happens between him and Razieh. The event may initially seem like an insignificant scuffle, but it eventually snowballs into something so catastrophic that it threatens to destroy the lives of two families. Much like a tsunami or a train's derailment, it's a disaster you can't look away from.

A lot of the films that I've seen in recent years that have tried to capture a slice of life in a Middle Eastern country have focused a lot on black-and-white issues that we're well aware of, such as bitter battles over religious differences and the status of inferiority to which women are relegated. These films have been particularly straightforward in their portrayal of villains and victims - even the most feeble-minded moviegoer can tell who's the abuser and who's the abused. But that's not the case with A Separation, a film in which, just when you think you found a character who is the most morally righteous, the one you can root for, he or she will then do something that will make you question your choice. A Separation is completely non-judgmental - it portrays ALL of its many characters as vulnerable people. They all bend the truth (and even outright lie) every once in a while. They all do things they shouldn't do. But they're all also victims of that same behavior from the other characters, and they all do what they do out of a desperate desire for survival, which makes all of this a knotty, vicious circle of moral difficulties. Of course, this makes the film enormously stimulating and thought-provoking for the audience member, because one is constantly trying to determine whose side one should be on. This is also the kind of film that will make you wish a rewind button were available in the movie theater. The scuffle between Nader and Razieh careens into so many debates over small details in terms of HOW certain things happened, that you'll wish you could revisit the event. "Wait, did she actually tell him?" "Did he really push her that hard?"

At a certain point, one may start wondering whether the titular event is as central to the plot as the title would suggest, seeing as Nader and Simin separate at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the film seems to be exclusively about the consequences of what happened between Nader and Razieh. But as the film's moral dilemmas continue unfolding and as Simin slowly starts involving herself more and more in the situation, one realizes that the "separation" refers to much more than just the couple's physical parting from each other. The divide between Nader and Simin is meant to reflect the current rift in Iran between those who wish to continue living under rigid, by-the-book conservatism and those who believe that certain adjustments are needed in order for people to attain a better quality of life. Notice the contrast between Simin's decision at the beginning of the film when she has to decide whether or not to pay extra money to the people helping to carry the piano versus Nader's decision at the gas station in regard to whether or not the employee should receive a tip. At one point early on in the film, Nader is helping Termeh with some homework, and Termeh insists that she's supposed to answer something the way her teacher told her to answer it, rather than the way the books say it should be answered, but Nader responds: "No. What's wrong is wrong, no matter who says it or where it's written." As the movie starts deepening into its central conflict, this divide between the two characters becomes crucial, as Nader relentlessly refuses to accept any culpability or pay for something he is certain he didn't cause, whereas Simin is willing to "bend things" if it'll help her family's well-being. How will the inevitable collision between these two characters' ethical compasses impact the resolution of the problem the family faces?

What makes A Separation soar in quality as a motion picture is that, in spite of the impression you may have gotten so far from my review, this isn't a droning exercise in moral philosophy, but rather, it's a film in which the dialogue and the situations continually move the film at a suspenseful pace towards its devastating conclusion. Guns and car chases can be fantastic in their own right at creating tension... but consider this simple, unscored scene in A Separation: One character testifies in front of a judge. We already know that the character isn't being entirely honest. The judge calls another character in, to see if this second character will confirm the lie. The second character does not know about the lie that was just told. Not only is this scene thoroughly nail-biting, but it's also a great point for us audience members to ask ourselves where we're at: Do we want the lie to be uncovered or not? To make matters even better, A Separation ends exactly where it needs to, not a second before or a second after. It chooses to leave one question unanswered, but it's a question that doesn't need to be answered, because the results will be grim and devastating no matter what the decision is.

As the separated couple, Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami are not only perfect foils for one another, but they flawlessly help fashion the film's two-sided moral framework, which is never black and white. Both actors seamlessly create characters who are being hit in all directions and have to balance their daughter's emotional well-being, their own physical well-being and the family's financial survival. As the young, puberty-bound Termeh, Sarina Farhadi perfectly combines youthful vulnerability with wisdom and perceptiveness: you see, she's effortless at demonstrating the severe impact that the film's conflict has on her, but on more than one instance, she emerges as the character who catches most of the little details and who realizes how and why people are being dishonest. There are plenty of instances in which we see Termeh simply sitting and observing while everything she's watching quickly falls into chaos. But the best performance in A Separation, by a mile, is the one given by Sareh Bayat. It's not unwarranted that you'll frequently go from thinking she's a mean-spirited liar to feeling sorry for her situation, and then back again, until the end of the film, when you'll probably feel she's just as much of a victim as anyone else who gets entangled in a situation like this. Consider the scene in which Bayat literally begs the judge not to write down what he's about to write down, and she nearly pulverizes from the desperation. It's the kind of scene that the best suporting actress Oscar was made for, and it would most definitely be under consideration if the Academy's asinine politics didn't hinder this film's chances in all categories except Best Foreign Film.

And those politics truly are asinine because the issues in A Separation are as universal as they get. You don't need to live in any specific part of the world to know how complicated it is to decide whether to do what's right versus what's better for your personal survival. You don't need to live in any specific part of the world to know that decisions like that become exponentially harder when money is involved. And you don't need to live in any specific part of the world to know that the stakes are a dozen times higher when the well-being of your loved ones is in play. A Separation isn't just a reminder that perfect, masterful dramas can still be made - it's a reminder that it's not even that difficult to make them. All it takes is the sensibility to effectively display heart-wrenching issues and situations, and a group of talented actors who can make those issues and situations burn up the screen. I should mention that the release of A Separation puts an end to a ridiculously long and depressing drought: not one truly great film was released during 2010, and 2011 looked to be headed in the same direction until now. The fact that the drought was ended by a non-Hollywood, non-American release speaks volumes. A Separation is one of the finest motion pictures of the young decade, thanks to the enormous amount of intellectual and emotional stimulation that it has to offer and to its unfettered realism and dramatic power.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Posted : 12 years, 2 months ago on 23 December 2011 04:45 (A review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

The title character in David Fincher's latest cinematic venture is a ferociously dark soul, a hellishly badass girl down to the very core of her being. She's also savagely intelligent and resourceful, a computer whiz who can literally hack into anything whenever she wants to, but even worse, if she finds out something about you or if you pose any sort of threat to her, you're in for nothing but pain and agony. And she WILL find you. This is one of the most fascinating characters I've had the admittedly perverse pleasure of meeting at the movies in 2011. What a shame it is that the context in which we get to meet her is that of a murder mystery that, despite being stylish and despite having a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, is as interesting as the murder mystery you'd encounter in your average police procedural on primetime television. If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had truly been a story ABOUT this girl with a dragon tattoo, if the film had delved deeply into her background, and if it had given us more than the superficial look that we get here at her harsh life and at her sexuality, we'd have a hell of a story, one that I'm confident Fincher could've turned into a cinematic gem. But the film follows the source material, which actually relegates a character as amazing as Lisbeth into an almost secondary role, and it focuses on a story that's engrossing enough but way too far from the dark character study this could've been.

You see, Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) works as a researcher for a company that's in charge of basically finding out people's dirty laundry. She's their best investigator, but they try to keep her a secret, because she's what many would call unorthodox, sporting a totally gothic look with piercings in different places on her face. So, rather than working at the office, she does all her sleuthing and hacking at home, and only goes to the office when necessary. We soon find out that Lisbeth had a really difficult childhood and that she was institutionalized at one point, so she has a legal guardian who's in charge of her. Apparently, her legal guardian had a great relationship with her and was even nice enough to let Lisbeth handle her own finances, but when he suffers a stroke, Lisbeth is assigned a new guardian... and well... it'd be an understatement to say that, this time, Lisbeth isn't as lucky - and that's as much as I'll reveal, considering the fact that the dynamics of what goes on between Lisbeth and her new guardian offer the film's most searing and audacious material. Later on, Lisbeth's skills garner her an offer to work as an assistant for Mikael (Daniel Craig), an investigative journalist, to help solve the apparent murder of a girl named Harriet Vanger who's been missing for decades. The crime took place on a remote island, and there's a suspicion that the culprit may have been a family member of Harriet's. Both Lisbeth and Mikael are cunning researchers who would normally have better things to do with their time. But each of them has a motivation to work on this case. Mikael was recently involved in a legal scandal that tarnished his reputation, so getting away to a remote place seems like a great idea (plus, solving this case may even give him some redemption). For Lisbeth, considering what she's gone through in her life, getting the chance to catch someone who murdered a young girl is just too tempting.

It takes about an hour of the film's running time before Lisbeth and Mikael actually meet each other. The contrast between the quality of the scenes involving each character couldn't be more stark. The Mikael scenes are sufficiently engaging, but every time Lisbeth appears, she burns up the screen with her menacing, reticent persona. Consider a moment in which the film cuts back and forth between what's happening to one character and what's happening to another. Lisbeth is exacting sweet, horrifying revenge on someone, while Mikael is... well, I don't remember what he was doing anymore. I just remember getting a very "meh" feeling and praying for the switch to Lisbeth to happen as soon as possible. So, in a way, when Lisbeth and Mikael finally meet, it represents the end of the greatness that this film could've aspired to, as Lisbeth becomes an aide in a whodunnit that's rather lackluster and doesn't have much of a surprise in store for us. In fact, the solution to the mystery of Harriet's death comes more from an exercise in playing "Where's Waldo?" than in any sort of interesting or substantive discovery. To make matters worse, the film is too long by about 30 minutes, and the final act feels very protracted, where a tight epilogue would've been more efficient.

Still, the presence of this utterly fascinating character throughout the majority of the running time is certainly enough to make this worth seeing. There's a fantastic early scene that takes place at the escalators of a subway station in which Lisbeth's badass persona is put on display in a quiet yet aggressive way. I think that my dissatisfaction isn't just limited to how I feel about the potential that this film had to be great if it had focused less on the mystery and more on Lisbeth's life. I think I'm also feeling a dissatisfaction that's similar to what I felt last year after watching the Coen brothers' version of True Grit. In this case, it's all about the fact that I know Fincher is capable of making something fantastic out of raw material like this, as he did masterfully in Se7en and very well in Fight Club. In Se7en, Fincher's examination of humanity's filth and all the moral questions that came into play always took precedence over the puzzle that the two detectives were trying to solve. It's too bad that we can't say the same about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And it may be easy to rebut this by saying that he had to work with the source material, but my answer is that if you're making a film adaptation and your source material is weak, either don't make it or do something drastic in order to mold it into something great. But that wasn't done here.

Rooney Mara loses herself in Lisbeth's wretched, deeply tortured soul. You'd be forgiven if you felt surprised to find out that this is the same girl who traded verbal fireworks with Jesse Eisenberg last year during the opening scene of The Social Network. Lisbeth may not have long lines of dialogue, but she can convey the fire of hell with her penetrating gaze. Daniel Craig obviously has the less demonstrative role, but fares remarkably well without letting his celebrity status steal the spotlight from Mara. Part of me was concerned that the Swedish accents would be an issue, but the interesting thing here is that, apparently, Fincher had the actors affect an accent that didn't feel too pronounced, to the point that sometimes Mara strays right into American pronunciations, but it feels like a conscious choice rather than a mistake, and I preferred it that way anyway.

I find it incredibly perplexing that we've been deprived of the opportunity to get to know such a fascinating character on the profound level that we deserved. Yes, Lisbeth's involvement in the investigation helps to further show us what a great researcher she is, but there are clearly so many more layers to her personality that are suggested (from her experiences with her parents when she was a child to her criminal past to her sexuality) yet left completely unexplored. I know that it seems wrong to assess a film based on what it didn't do instead of on what it did, but I AM assessing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo based on what it did, which is present us with a serviceable murder mystery that'll certainly pass the time but nothing that'll sear into our brains and souls. At one point during the film, Lisbeth angrily complains to Mikael about how much time she's spent working on the case, and she says "Because you and Harriet Vanger have kept me busy!" They sure did, and I wish they hadn't. But getting the chance to at least superficially meet Lisbeth makes the film worth a passing grade.

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Posted : 12 years, 2 months ago on 17 December 2011 01:35 (A review of Carnage)

Some people claim to hate dramas that consist entirely of characters sitting in a room talking to each other. That hatred sometimes goes so far as to make the person say they will NEVER watch films like that, and to a certain extent, I understand the feeling. After all, if a camera has the ability to capture SO MUCH, and technology has taken us to a point that the possibilities of what film can show us are basically infinite, why make a movie that limits itself so much? "If I wanna hear people talk, I can just go somewhere where there are people talking and listen to them." My personal take on this, though, is that it depends entirely on the context and on the dynamics of what goes on in the film. It's my opinion that dialogue, when handled expertly, can have the same searing impact as an explosion-filled action sequence or a bombastic musical number, even if the dialogue occurs entirely within the confines of a room - just watch 12 Angry Men if you don't believe me. Roman Polanski's most recent cinematic effort, Carnage, had all the potential to be equally great, considering the subject matter and its top-notch cast. I'm still recommending the film, because it's engaging enough, it's economical in length, and it features a very strong performance from Jodie Foster, but in several ways, this is kind of a missed opportunity.

Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) are a married couple who live in an apartment with their kid, who recently got into a fight at school with the son of another couple, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). So, the two couples convene in the apartment to discuss the situation and to figure out alternatives to resolve the conflict. The meeting seems to end quickly and amiably enough, and just as Nancy and Alan are about to walk out, something happens that leads them to go back into the apartment, and thus, the discussion between the two couples gets protracted. Awkward niceties, sarcasm and bickering ensue.

What shocks me the most about Carnage is that, considering the fact that, similarly to 12 Angry Men, it's a film in which characters are in a room together talking about events we didn't witness, this was a terrific opportunity to give us dialogue drenched in moral/ethical debates in terms of whether it's correct for a child to respond in a particular way in a situation at school and in terms of the roles of parents in the resolution of conflicts of this sort... but Carnage dedicates about 15% of its dialogue to that. What does the remaining 85% focus on? The frustration over having to dry soiled pants. The reasons that may have led a character to throw up. An argument over whether a cake had gone bad or not. A cellphone that won't stop ringing. Yes, the most mundane stuff you can imagine. See, this is the type of thing that will bolster the argument of people who believe dialogue-driven dramas are worthless - they might say of Carnage "If I wanted to see this, I can just go watch my parents argue with the neighbors whenever I want." But like I said, it all depends on HOW the plot is exploited. I believe that realistic situations in films can be every bit as engrossing as long as the right amount of edge, spice or dramatic heft is heaped upon them. But in the case of Carnage, to make matters worse, the realism isn't even handled particularly well. This film is based on a play, and it shows - and the WAY in which it shows is pretty dispiriting. The film features an excess of the staged fakeries that tend to characterize plays. It has too many of those moments in which a character is asked a question and he/she will answer by changing the subject entirely thus leading to a complete shift in the nature of the conversation that the characters are having. It's also got an exaggerated amount of those moments in which a character will be sitting down, make a decision, and immediately stand up in order to convey his/her resoluteness. The fact that there are so many REPETITIONS of this sort of thing makes it all feel kind of artificial, which is, of course, a detriment in a film that's aiming for authenticity.

This should've easily been a vehicle that gave all four of these actors the potential to earn acting nominations, a la Doubt. It's too bad that the great Kate Winslet does nothing but look constipated the entire time, Christoph Waltz's character spends most of the film answering his cellphone (a gag that's funny the first four times, but by the fourteenth time, it gets kind of ridiculous), and John C. Reilly does too much REACTING to what everyone else is saying and doesn't get a chance to convey much from his end, which makes it impossible for his character to ever register as someone with thoughts and emotions of his own. The lone bright spot in the acting department is Jodie Foster, who nicely acquits herself here after her double-duty failure at directing and acting in The Beaver earlier this year. Foster is truly given the space she needs to shine, as she has about three scenes in which her character gets emotional, and she gets the chance to display anger and frustration effortlessly. This is incredibly refreshing, considering the fact that it's been a long time since we've seen Foster at the top of her game.

I'm giving what you may call a "reluctant" passing grade to Carnage because it's elevated by Foster's performance and by the fact that, while it focuses too much on mundane trifles, at least it does it for less than 80 minutes, which means it never quite reaches the point of annoyance. Also, I fully admit that the film has occasional bursts of humor. Still, I would've almost liked it if some of the silly humor had been sacrificed to make this a film that featured serious, thematically complex verbal jabs between these two couples. The fact that each of the couples was basically there to serve as the lawyer for their kid should've made for a script full of moral questions and quandaries, and with at least an insight or two on parenthood, but that's largely absent from Carnage. I won't go as far as to tell you not to see it, but I'll warn you that, if you're expecting something with the dramatic/acting caliber of the typical Oscar-bound drama that gets released around this time of the year, you may be disappointed.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin

Posted : 12 years, 2 months ago on 9 December 2011 08:26 (A review of We Need to Talk About Kevin)

Parents who struggle with raising their kids will often make comments like "Man, if only each kid came with a manual..." But would a manual be of any use if your kid was born with the heart and soul of a young Michael Myers? We Need to Talk About Kevin is a brutal, cold-hearted motion picture, and that's all because of the brutal and cold-hearted kid it has for a title character. This isn't a story about a nice boy who became a monster after puberty, or who grew traumatized because he was raised poorly. The film has no qualms in letting you know that this is a child who was evil and sociopathic from the moment he was conceived, despite being raised by loving, well-to-do parents. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrifying film, and it's also a potent drama, thanks to the fact that most of the running time is dedicated to examining how a mother deals with the shock and consequences of her son's unfathomable actions.

Eva (Tilda Swinton) lives alone in a small, crappy house that seems to be falling apart and was recently vandalized with red paint. People on the street give Eva hateful looks. We quickly get the superficial version of the explanation for all this - flashbacks start showing that Eva's son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), did something terrible at his high school that caused the deaths and injuries of dozens of students. We find out that Eva used to live in a luxurious, amazing house with her family, which (aside from Kevin) also includes her husband and a younger daughter. The film continues to intercut between scenes in the present (in which Eva is dealing with her new miserable life) and scenes in the past (in which we get to see Kevin from the moment he was born and we watch him grow up). But Kevin is really a secondary character here, because the film is all about Eva's struggle: in the flashbacks, she deals with what may be the hardest-to-raise and most vicious kid you've ever seen on a film, and in the present, she deals with the horrible burden that has resulted from the cards she's been dealt.

As far as visuals are concerned, this movie is particularly creative and intense, especially when it aims to provide visual symbols of Eva's martyrdom, from the nightmarish dream sequence in the beginning that feels like something taken out of a biblical passage, to the frequent shots of Eva cleaning the red paint off her house (as a way of representing her attempts at emotionally wiping away the catastrophic situation that Kevin caused), to an eerie moment that shows an image of the actual conception of Kevin as a fetus, during which the accompanying score practically screams that something terrible is brewing. Kevin's mean-spiritedness turns out to be relentless: as a young kid, he knowingly does everything possible to make his mother's life difficult (which includes purposely shitting himself right after he's been cleaned up). Once he's a grown teenager, his treachery is even more blood-curdling - his reaction to getting caught masturbating is the exact opposite of what a regular teenager would do. The film makes the particularly fascinating choice to have Eva and Kevin sport similar hairstyles and often even wear similar white shirts, to the point that there are times that we'll see a character from behind and won't immediately be sure of who it is. This is supremely effective for two reasons. First, because the predominant emotional thrust of the film comes from Eva being accused and feeling guilty due to actions that were committed by her son - actions that may or may not be morally attributtable to Eva. Second, because once the final act reveals the extent of what Kevin did and did not do, one gets the feeling that Kevin's mental and emotional problems can't be reduced to simply saying that he "hated" his mother - there's something else lurking here. This makes the moral and emotional complications in the film even more layered.

One could say that We Need to Talk About Kevin is divided into three parts: (1) first, a quick overview of what Kevin did, whilst setting up Eva's struggle in the aftermath of what he did, (2) then, flashbacks that focus largely on Kevin's childhood and process of growing up, and (3) finally, the full-on revelation of everything Kevin did, complete with Eva's interactions with her now imprisoned son. It's my opinion that the first part and the third part are both absolutely fantastic, whereas the middle part is only very good. The film spends a little more time than necessary on pushing (as hard as it can) the message that 8-year-old Kevin is an evil bastard, with long shots of the kid with sinister looks on his face, to the point that you wouldn't be faulted for getting confused and feeling like you're watching The Omen all over again. The film goes overboard in showing as many examples as it can pack into the running time of little Kevin's malevolence, which eventually leads to a sense of predictability and lack of surprise whenever he's about to do something. When Kevin's little sister receives (as a Christmas present) the cutest, furriest live pet you've ever seen, we already know what the poor animal's fate is going to be (and this isn't a spoiler - the film's handling of it makes it obvious as hell right off the bat). The other issue is that, because the movie spends longer than it should on Kevin in the 6-8 age range, it takes a long time before actor Ezra Miller (who plays him as a teenager) really gets the opportunity to shine. And as much as the film often benefits greatly from its choice to look at all of this through the filter of how the mother deals with the situation, it does deprive us of the opportunity of seeing anything through Kevin's eyes. You see, the flashback scenes are still all from Eva's perspective - we see all the things that Eva saw Kevin do. We never get to see Kevin at school, interacting with other classmates or talking to other people. The reason why this is a bit of an issue is that it would've certainly been interesting to look at this from more than one perspective, and also, it would've given Miller the chance to put up a performance worthy of a best supporting actor nomination. Prior to watching We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was well aware that this guy was more than prepared for a role like this, considering how he handled the cold and harsh environment that permeated Afterschool, and how he then proved his range when he was such a comedic highlight in City Island. Sadly, I think that, for Miller to have been able to get that opportunity here, the film should've allowed us to see at least a few things from his character's vantage point. But at least it's good to know that this film will probably keep propelling him into great projects.

Of course, the reason why it's not that big of a problem that we don't get to see much through Kevin's eyes is that, thanks to the magnificent Tilda Swinton, seeing things through Eva's eyes here proves both spellbinding and horrific. Swinton pulls no punches in portraying the crude, harsh reality of the suffering she is going through and the impact that is being exerted on her by the guilt that other characters keep tossing in her direction. Consider a scene in which she finally gets a moment's bliss, a mere trifle of happiness, and then it's instantly shattered as quickly as a slap in the face. Swinton is an animal of an actress, and I mean that in the best possible sense - she's as fierce and fearless as it gets. This searing performance is on par with the equally audacious work she did in the likes of Female Perversions, The War Zone and Julia, and is further evidence of how in-her-element she is when she's placed in the context of relentlessly dark material. I certainly hope that her work in this film doesn't turn out to be as criminally underseen as the ones she gave in those three other films. It's one of the most stunning female performances of the year, and it's thanks in large part to her work that the first and last acts of the film are both so masterful - it's impossible to look away from Eva's face as she reacts to the gradual revelation of Kevin's deeds.

It just occurred to me that, at this point, my highest-rated films for the year all fall into the depressing/disturbing arena (and if they've got any humor in them, it's all undeniably dark). For the record, it's not that I have an absolute bias in favor of films like that and that I reject anything uplifting; in fact, I'm crossing my fingers that something uplifting will emerge during the next few weeks, so that my top 10 list doesn't end up being the most somber I've made in years. Still, there's something interesting to be said about our fascination with films that portray events that are horrific or hard to watch - We Need to Talk About Kevin makes some significant points about this issue. There's a scene in the film in which it's basically suggested that audiences enjoy watching someone as fucked-up as Kevin wreak havoc, because they take pleasure in seeing something that's so out-of-this-world, whereas "if Kevin was just a kid who got an A in Geometry, you guys would be switching your channels." While I'd hardly classify it as enjoyment, there's no doubt that stories like this one can have a skin-crawling, devastating impact, and that they should be commended highly when they accomplish it as well as We Need to Talk About Kevin does. My sense of fascination towards a film like this comes from something that I think is better than the superficial fun we often have at the movies - it comes from the effect exerted by a work of art that manages to pierce my soul and horrify me so much. It seems that 2011 was the year for films that entered this supremely dark realm by looking at school murders through the perspective of the parents of the perpetrator, first with the awfully-titled Beautiful Boy and now with We Need to Talk About Kevin. The former film was decent, but sputtered towards the end, and thus, its impact fell just a little short. Not so with We Need to Talk About Kevin, a powerhouse of drama and horror, and a film I won't soon forget.

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Posted: 3 years ago at Feb 16 10:33
Thank you so much for your kind words, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It's such an exciting moment to see one of my flicks get actual distribution. Who would've thought that we'd get here?

Hope you're keeping safe and well, my friend :)
Posted: 3 years, 4 months ago at Oct 20 11:52
I'd like your thoughts in full as soon as you watch it ;)

Cheers, dude!
Posted: 3 years, 4 months ago at Oct 18 13:57
My first full-length feature, Unleashing the Demons (a kinda Inviting the Demons sequel but designed to stand alone), has now been released in the US, UK and Australia. It’s on Amazon Prime. The DVD is also available on Amazon. I hope you get the opportunity to watch it, it was a self-funded two-year odyssey and we got international distribution at the end of it.

The three-hour “making-of” documentary will be on Vimeo On Demand on Halloween.

Posted: 7 years, 4 months ago at Oct 9 13:26
Hey brother, if you have a spare moment, my new movie is up, available to watch for free. Another feature.
Posted: 7 years, 10 months ago at Apr 25 13:03
Not sure if you ever did watch the new Betrayals & Bullets, but I've got a new flick in the works. Here's a clip!
Posted: 8 years, 2 months ago at Dec 12 9:06
So, uh... Watched my movie yet? Lol
Posted: 8 years, 3 months ago at Nov 17 2:16
Hi. If you're interested, come check out Listal's 100 Favorite Movie Villains!


Thanks for letting me waste your time.
Posted: 8 years, 3 months ago at Nov 11 3:01
On Sunday I attended my FIFTH Lord of the Rings cinema marathon. It was the extended editions, too. People called me insane, but it was an absolutely magical experience as always, and it confirmed that LOTR completely holds up, is the best trilogy of all time, and is the greatest motion picture achievement ever.
Posted: 8 years, 4 months ago at Oct 29 13:21
Your Friday night is sorted, mate. Support a young filmmaker and watch :)

And since it's listed on Listal/IMDb, you can rate and add to your watch list!


Very much looking forward to comments, thoughts, reviews...
Posted: 8 years, 5 months ago at Sep 9 3:16
Trailer now... youtu.be/Cjr-4TjV530
Posted: 8 years, 5 months ago at Sep 7 1:53
Heh, fair enough, well I reckon you should head over to my Twitter for behind-the-scenes photos and movie stills from my movie.


Trailer to come soon...
Posted: 8 years, 6 months ago at Sep 4 10:59
Still alive out there mate?
Posted: 8 years, 6 months ago at Aug 19 1:29
As an appetiser for my new movie, here's an 80-minute behind the scenes documentary on Inviting the Demons!!
Posted: 8 years, 7 months ago at Aug 3 7:20
Posted: 8 years, 7 months ago at Jul 11 6:24
I don't wanna reveal much about my new movie, but I will say this...

Title and stuff will be announced via an announcement trailer that will be released soon after I start shooting in mid-August. Until then, speculate away!
Posted: 8 years, 8 months ago at Jul 6 2:44
Posted: 9 years ago at Feb 17 6:12


I can't say much except, nothing is confirmed. And I now own thousands of dollars worth of quality camera gear.
Posted: 9 years ago at Feb 5 1:39
Just for the record, the sudden influx of lists is purely because I'm dusting off old lists I never finished or published (they remained on private). I have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, so yeah.
Posted: 9 years, 1 month ago at Jan 25 2:53
Posted: 9 years, 2 months ago at Dec 30 6:31



Hope you had a good Xmas.