Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ is a Splendid Love Letter to the Power of Movies

Hugo movie poster

Maybe it was Martin Scorsese’s desire to utilize the 3D format which kept me from seeing “Hugo” on the first day of its release. 2011 saw 3D movies get a serious public beating as audiences became convinced it existed solely for Hollywood studios to jack up ticket prices. But to watch “Hugo” is to be reminded of how amazing 3D can be when using the right tools and not just throwing cheap gimmicks at the audience. But moreover, it is backed up by a great story and remarkable performances as Scorsese shares with us his love of all things cinema.

Seriously, the first five minutes of “Hugo” will blow you away as you will feel like you are traveling over the Paris of the 1930’s. It truly looks as though the snow it is literally blowing in your eyes, and it reminded me of when kids were grasping at the snowflakes coming off of the silver screen during “The Polar Express.” Scorsese was lucky enough to use the same Fusion Camera System which James Cameron used to superb effect in “Avatar.” The images stretch out from the screen, and the extra dimension gives these visuals a depth which at times feels remarkably real.

Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo, a young boy living alone in a Paris railway station while maintaining the clocks and stealing whatever supplies he needs in order to survive. One major obstacle he has to deal with is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) who patrols the station with his vicious looking dog. Gustav shows no hesitation in picking up orphans and sending them straight to the orphanage which, in the kids’ eyes, seems like an unforgiving house of horrors.

Two people come to play an important role in Hugo’s life: the toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his spirited goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). They enter Hugo’s life as he continues to work on fixing an automaton he and his father, Mr. Cabret (Jude Law), were putting it back together in working order when Mr. Cabret was tragically killed in a museum fire. It is this same automaton which will draw these three together in ways none of them could ever have imagined.

By taking us back to a time when motion pictures were in their infancy, effects we now see as cheesy and simple to create come to feel as magical as they once did. Scorsese is brilliant in putting us into these characters’ shoes as we watch audiences react strongly to a film with a train which looks like it is coming straight at them, or at Buster Keaton hanging on for dear life from a clock outside a tall building. Looking at the awe which is so vivid in the faces of these children reminds us of how movies can magically draw us into another world, and this is a feeling many movies do not give us these days. In this day and age, we take the power of motion pictures for granted.

Butterfield’s performance is remarkable. Showing the pain and resourcefulness of a young boy who has lost his parents and is forced to fend for himself is no easy task, and he ended up giving one of 2011’s most underrated performances. Butterfield inhabits the character of Hugo so deeply to where, after a while, it does not feel like we are watching a performance at all.

Kudos also goes to Moretz, the star of “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In,” for adding yet another superb role to her already splendid resume. As the adventurous Isabelle, she pulls off a flawless English accent which is worth noting as we have gotten so used to actors screwing them up. The warmth of her smile onscreen is utterly genuine, and she lights up “Hugo” whenever it feels like it is getting a bit too dark.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hugo” as well. Ben Kingsley is fantastic as usual as Georges Méliès, and the late Christopher Lee has some wonderful moments as bookshop owner Monsieur Labisse. One of the big standouts in the supporting cast though is Sacha Baron Cohen who takes a break here from his “Borat” and “Bruno” mockumentaries as Inspector Gustav. He’s a hoot throughout, and his interactions with the infinitely lovely Emily Mortimer (“Lars and the Real Girl”) who plays Lisette are hilariously sweet.

Scorsese has put together a truly beautiful motion picture which deserves a bigger audience than it received while it was in theaters. The fact that more people went to see “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” than this is deeply depressing. A lot of moviegoers really hated 3D movies back in 2011, so this did not do “Hugo” any favors. But after watching it, you will find yourself believing this extra dimension is worth your money when it is put together by the best masters of filmmaking.

* * * * out of * * * *

William Friedkin Talks About ‘Killer Joe’ at Landmark Theatres

Killer Joe movie poster

Oscar winning director William Friedkin made a special appearance at Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles on August 3, 2012 to talk about his film “Killer Joe.” He appeared in front of a sold-out audience who had just finished watching it, and Friedkin ended up paraphrasing a review from the Los Angeles Times by saying, “Welcome to the abyss!”

This remark was in reference to the fact that “Killer Joe” has already earned a bit of notoriety after receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for what they described as “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality.”

At the start of this Q&A, Friedkin went over the three things a director needs to consider before they begin working on a project:

  1. Choose the material you want to do. Friedkin said this is very important as you will have to “live with it for a year.”
  2. Cast the film with the right actors. Friedkin said if anything goes wrong with the movie, it won’t matter how good the cast is because odds are the director has chosen the wrong actors for it.
  3. You need to create an atmosphere where the actors are comfortable enough to do the work. Friedkin remarked this is 75% of what a director does, and that the remaining 25% has the same person figuring out how to put their movie together.

When it came to casting “Killer Joe,” Friedkin said he went to actors Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church first as he was familiar with their work. These days, Friedkin says he continues to watch “old movies” as they continue to inspire him, and he doesn’t watch new movies much.

Friedkin also admitted he has “never seen any of Matthew McConaughey’s films” before casting him here, and he originally wanted someone “more grubby” and with “a more evil look.” However, after watching McConaughey being interviewed by Charlie Rose where he was just being himself, he realized someone like McConaughey would be more interesting as opposed to what some would call a “more obvious choice.”

McConaughey, however, read and hated the script to “Killer Joe” and that he “wanted to take a bath with a wire brush” after reading it. Regardless, McConaughey read the script again because he couldn’t get it out of his head, and he told Friedkin he found it “absurd and hilarious in a dark way.”

Friedkin also admitted he knew nothing about Juno Temple before casting her as Dottie. He was originally going to go with one of three beautiful actresses for this role, but he ended up watching an audition tape Temple put together in which she read the script along with her 10-year old brother who played the part of Joe, the cold blooded cop and contract killer played by McConaughey. Friedkin said he loved what he saw but that he was worried about her “thick British accent.” He ended up asking the cast to tell Temple when she was speaking in a way which didn’t sound like she was from Texas. From what we saw onscreen, the cast helped Temple out big time.

In talking about Gina Gershon (the mention of her name got the audience to applaud loudly), Friedkin said she was not his first choice for the role of Sharla. When it came to casting this particular role, Friedkin said he saved this question for last when interviewing prospective actresses, “Can you handle the sex and violence that is presented in this script?” It should go without saying Gershon could, and Friedkin described her as being “courageous” in playing Sharla. She is asked to portray some of the hardest things any actor is asked to do, and I don’t just mean the scene involving her and that piece of fried chicken.

“Killer Joe” marks the second film Friedkin has made from a play written by Tracy Letts whose “Bug” he turned into a film back in 2006. Friedkin said he and Letts “share the same worldview” as they both “see the absurdity of the many facets in life.” Their projects, as Friedkin sees it, deal with people “stuck in their realities and willing to do anything to get out of them,” and that neither of them is “fond of violence.”

Still, Friedkin said he did not expect the NC-17 rating the MPAA gave “Killer Joe,” but he thinks it is somewhat correct as he was not targeting young teenagers for this movie as they are more impressionable. Both he and LD Entertainment, which is distributing the film, fought the MPAA over the rating, and in trying to get it down to an R, they ended up cutting not scenes but instead frames of footage. This, however, was not enough, so Friedkin and LD Entertainment ended up appealing the decision. Friedkin joked how they “narrowly” lost the appeal (13 to nothing) and that he felt he “had to destroy the movie in order to save it.” But after all the fights he had over movies like “The Exorcist,” Friedkin declared he is “too old to get down on my knees and change the picture” for them.

When asked what the tone on set was, Friedkin described it as “light” because he and the actors already knew what was in the script. Friedkin also said he only does “one or two takes these days” when making a movie as opposed to the “15 or 20” he did when he was younger and “praying for miracles.” These days, he looks for spontaneity in his actors, and he finds the first take they give him is often the “most spontaneous” of all.

Whatever you end up thinking about “Killer Joe,” it is clear Friedkin is still a masterful filmmaker who has not lost his touch. The characters may be beyond redemption, but he is quick to point out we are all sinners, and this is an inescapably true fact. After all these years, Friedkin continues to challenge his audience, and we should be thankful for this in a time where most filmmakers choose to play it safe and to their own detriment.

‘Hanna’ Features One of Saoirse Ronan’s Best Performances

Hanna movie poster

Joe Wright’s “Hanna” on the surface looks a bit like “Kick Ass” as, like that movie, it follows the exploits of a young girl who has been trained to be an elite assassin so she can avenge her mother’s murder. But “Hanna,” however, is more down to earth in how it treats its characters and the events which envelop them. Does this make it better than “Kick Ass?” No, just different.

On top of it being an action thriller with a bit of Luc Besson sleekness in its design, “Hanna” is also a fish out of water story as the title character discovers the real world in a way previously denied to her. Hanna has spent her entire life in the woods, living in a snow-covered cabin where her dad, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has kept her safe. But now she is heading into a world completely unfamiliar to her. Hanna’s mission of assassination is also a journey of discovery, and this movie ends up coming with more surprises than I ever could have expected.

Playing Hanna is Saoirse Ronan who has gone from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Atonement” to an excellent career which includes unforgettable performances in films like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “Mary Queen of Scots.” On paper, Hanna seems like a completely unrealistic character who could in no way exist in real life. But the beauty of Ronan’s performance is how she makes Hanna seem as real as any 16-year old girl even as the character leads a double life the average teenager does not. Seeing her come into contact with a civilization she has been sheltered from provides her with evidence of how not everything involves guns, bullets and violence. Of course, seeing her get her first kiss is frightening because she can flip back to assassin mode in a heartbeat if she gets the wrong impression.

Most of Hanna’s adventures come as a result of her befriending a British family on a road trip whose daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) introduces her to teenage rebellion and some rather tacky fashion statements. Sophie’s parents, Sebastian (Jason Fleming) and Rachel (“The Ghost Writer’s” Olivia Williams), come to admire Hanna and help her as she moves on to a safer haven from the government forces who look to eliminate her.

Wright comes up with several invigorating action sequences which made me feel like I was watching a Jason Bourne movie. There’s not much in the way of shaky camerawork, but you can feel the bullets flying in the air as well as the punches and kicks which land on her opponents, crushing them as if she were simply swatting flies. This is the kind of action film I like to watch as it makes you feel things instead of letting you just sit back like you’re some passive observer.

In addition, Wright gets some amazing unbroken shots as we watch characters make their way through crowds of people while being followed by their cold-hearted adversaries. It makes me want to say “eat your heart out Brian DePalma” as the choreography involved in filming an unbroken sequence like this is anything but easy.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hanna” as well. One in particular is from Eric Bana who plays Hanna’s father Erik Heller. His character is also a spy on the run whose relationship with Hanna is far more complicated than at first glance. Watching Bana here reminded me of just how much he throws himself physically and emotionally into his characters. It’s exhausting watching him here as we get reminded of his strong work in “Black Hawk Down” as well as his comedic roles like the one he had in “Funny People.”

Then there’s the infinitely brilliant Cate Blanchett who never seems to suck in anything she does. While listening to her southern accent feels a bit odd at first, she is still sharp as ever as corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Throughout Marissa is as obsessive in eliminating Hanna and Erik as she is in cleaning her teeth. Heck, watching her brushing even while her gums bleed profusely reminded me of just how long it’s been since I’ve gone to the dentist. Blanchett also has a brilliant moment where she pays a visit to a key witness, but her face suddenly shows a wealth of pain which is mysterious in its origin. I don’t know how she did it, but it’s the one shot in “Hanna” which stays with me the most as her ruthless character succumbs to a moment of inescapable vulnerability.

On top of it all, you get a brilliantly propulsive electronic film score from The Chemical Brothers. I immediately downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got back to my apartment. It’s actually the first time they have ever composed for a movie. Learning this made me want to say, “duh, what about ‘Fight Club?’” But wait, it was The Dust Brothers who composed the score for that 1999 classic. I guess techno music is more of a family affair than I realized. Either that or all these brothers look alike.

“Hanna” is not without its faults. The pace of the movie tends to slag in between the action scenes which, while offering us beautiful moments for the title character, drag the proceedings down more than they should. Also, it ends without resolving the fate of several characters, leaving us wondering what happened to them and if they came out of this story alive and in one piece. As a result, the ending feels a bit too abrupt.

Still, “Hanna” is a remarkably involving action thriller which doesn’t lay out everything for you right at the start. The story continues to unfold throughout, revealing each of its secrets along the way. What brings it altogether is the fantastic performance of Saoirse Ronan who at a young age showed a professionalism and sharp focus on character equal to many acting veterans. Seeing her portray someone as innocent as she is very deadly made it one of the most unforgettable performances I had seen in any movie from 2011.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Winnie the Pooh’ Has Eeyore Stealing the Show

Winnie the Pooh 2011 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was back in 2011 when the movie was released.

You know what? I was looking forward to this one more than “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Granted, I saw the latter first, but anyone who knows me best will more than understand why I was in a hurry to watch this Disney animated film: I am a die-hard Eeyore fan! I got my first Eeyore plush toy before the start of the 5th grade, and I’ve lost track of how many I have collected since. My extraordinary niece told her friends I have over 3,000, but I beg to differ. To see him play such a pivotal part in “Winnie the Pooh” was a huge delight for me after seeing him get reduced to a mere supporting role in “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie.”

Oh yeah, I should talk about the rest of the film as well. That “silly old bear” once again headlines the proceedings as his grumbling tummy develops a mind of its own due to his endless addiction to honey. Sure enough, there are beehives nearby with a wealth of honey, but the bees are understandably protective of their export. Then there’s the case of Eeyore’s missing tail that has everyone giving him another which, to put it mildly, doesn’t exactly compare to the original. To cap it all off, this classic gang mistakenly believes Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by an evil monster known as the Backson (see the movie and you’ll understand).

For some reason, watching Pooh hurriedly pursuing the delicious and sticky substance known as honey kept reminding me of Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” with its characters becoming increasingly desperate for whatever their minds craved more than their bodies, but that’s just me. I somehow doubt the animators at Walt Disney had any intention of making a G-rated movie to remind you of one of the most seriously disturbing films ever made.

“Winnie the Pooh” brings the 100 Acre Wood back to the traditional realm of hand drawn animation which is something of a rarity these days. While the characters might have looked fantastic with computer animation a la Pixar, doing things the old-fashioned way was the right choice. The “Winnie the Pooh” films and shorts have been long since relegated to the Disney channel and direct to DVD realm, and this brought about a drop in quality its most devoted films could not ignore. But seeing Pooh and company on the big screen is a terrific reminder of why we grew up loving these characters in the first place.

Jim Cummings once again provides the voice for Pooh and Tigger, and he captures the distinctive voices of each character perfectly. Travis Oates gets the innocent stuttering of Piglet down to perfection, and Craig Ferguson makes Owl as jolly as he is oblivious to his own pomposity. Rabbit, on the other hand, has always been the most anal of A.A. Milne’s characters, so I thank Tom Kenny for making him more likable and bearable than he typically is. As for Christopher Robin, Jack Boulter gives him a strong British accent even if he still sounds like a girl at times, much like the actor who voiced him in “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore.”

Now back to the good part! Eeyore has been a great source of dry humor, and his brand of it is fully on display here. Watching him try on the tails others have given him should at the very least put a smile on your face even if it doesn’t on Eeyore’s. One of the movie’s most hilarious moments comes when Tigger trains him to be the second Tigger, leading to a montage I would love to say, but can’t quite get myself to believe, would put the one in “Rocky” to shame. Bud Luckey, who delighted us all with his great animated shorts on ” Sesame Street,” memorably voices Eeyore with all his gloominess and reduced expectations in life.

One great addition to this particular version of “Winnie the Pooh” is Zooey Deschanel. While she doesn’t appear in this movie, she does sing many of its songs including the classic opening track which introduces Christopher Robin’s friends. Her voice is lovely and it also has a whimsical quality which makes her contributions to this soundtrack all the more wonderful. While the songs by Robert and Kristin Anderson-Lopez aren’t as memorable as anything we have heard in “Beauty and the Beast” or “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut,” they fit the material nicely without indulging in any cringe-inducing cheesiness.

By bringing Pooh and his friends back to basics, “Winnie the Pooh” really proves to be a wonderfully innocent and nostalgic stroll back to the stories our parents read to us at one time or another. It’s the perfect family movie to see this summer even over the more popular, and unfairly maligned, “Cars 2.” Not once does it boil things down to the lowest common denominator for any audience prepared to pay tickets to see it, and it is a rare piece of cinematic innocence in a world filled with loud explosions and seriously crappy 3D effects. While it is a mere 69 minutes long, there is more story to this than its running time suggests. For proof of this, be sure to sit through the end credits.

Now let’s get Eeyore’s name in the title of the next A.A. Milne cinematic extravaganza! Tigger and Piglet both had enough charisma to get a headliner’s status above Winnie the Pooh, so you can’t convince me Eeyore does not deserve the same respect. It’s not like Owl, Kanga or Roo could upstage him anyway. And regardless of what Tina Fey and Seth Meyers said on “Saturday Night Live,” Eeyore did not commit suicide. As to whether auto-erotic asphyxiation was involved, I have no comment.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ Leaves You Hanging From Dizzying Heights

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol poster

Writer’s note: This review was written back in 2011.

The “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps getting better and better which each successive sequel, something few other franchises can ever lay claim to. The first one directed by Brian De Palma had a confusing storyline but spectacular action set pieces. The second one had a plot which was easier to follow and the signature ballet action sequences we’ve come to love and expect from John Woo. Part three gave us the directorial debut of J.J. Abrams, had a stronger plot, a very effective villain in Phillip Seymour Hoffman and ended up remembering what made the original television series work so well. Each movie in this series has its own unique identity which allowed this franchise to have a longevity we didn’t expect it to have. Of course, with Tom Cruise’s antics upstaging “Mission: Impossible III,” it started to seem his time as Ethan Hunt had run its course.

But Cruise is back for more, and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” turns out to be the best of one yet as it features some of the most ingenious action scenes I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. It also has the added benefit of having been filmed in part with IMAX cameras which gives certain scenes a highly realistic look and feel to where you are right in the center of the action. Just when I thought this franchise had ran out of steam, Cruise and director Brad Bird (making his live action debut) thrill us in a highly unexpected way.

It appears Hunt’s retirement from the IMF after “Mission: Impossible III” didn’t last long, and we find him at this movie’s beginning in a Moscow prison throwing a rock at the wall like he’s Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” But he is soon sprung from his cell with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton), and we find out he was imprisoned for a mission gone wrong, and he has since become estranged from his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) for mysterious reasons. Just like Jack Bauer in “24,” Hunt can’t stay away from what he does best when danger rears its ugly head.

After their great escape, Hunt and Dunn infiltrate the Kremlin in an effort to locate files of a nemesis with the code name of Cobalt. This mission, however, goes horribly wrong when the Kremlin is blown to smithereens, and the entire IMF is disavowed as a result. Hunt and his team are forced to take blame for the attack, but they are allowed to escape in order to locate Cobalt and stop a nuclear war. This time, Hunt and company have no support to rely on as they forced to work on their own.

As with the previous entry, Cruise lets the other actors shine as he has realized Hunt doesn’t need to do everything himself. Seeing Benji get upgraded from techno nerd to field agent is great fun, and Pegg is a real treat to watch here as he becomes much more than just comic relief. Paula Patton embodies her agent character of Jane Carter convincingly and gets to kick some serious ass in various scenes, one of which has her taking on a female assassin in something more than just your average catfight.

The best addition, however, to this “Mission: Impossible” movie is Jeremy Renner who plays William Brandt, a chief analyst for the IMF. Renner, whose career has been on a major upswing thanks to his performances in “The Hurt Locker” and “The Town,” is a great addition to this franchise, and he even gets a big action set piece as William proves to know far more than he lets on. His secrets threaten to be devastating if revealed, and Renner does excellent work in showing the turmoil Brandt endures as he is faced with a whole other kind of impossible mission.

The main antagonist this time out is Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) who is bent on starting a nuclear war so he can bring about the next evolution of the human race. Nyqvist brings a strong villainy to this role which makes you sneer at his presence whenever he’s onscreen. However, he’s upstaged by Léa Seydoux who portrays French assassin Sabine Moreau. Her cold glare penetrates your inner defenses with little difficulty, and you have to put on your best poker face in her presence to stay alive (and that may not even be enough).

But the real star of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is director Brad Bird himself. You’d think stepping outside the world of animation where he made “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant” would leave him at a spectacular disadvantage as what you can get away with in that realm of filmmaking does not necessarily translate as well to live action. But it’s clear Bird allows nothing to stand in his way in terms of what can be accomplished, and he comes up with one amazing action sequence after another.

The one sequence which needs to be acknowledged above others is when Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest building in the world. The IMAX cameras give this moment a reality like no other, and that feeling of intense vertigo is hard to ignore. Seriously, I felt like I was outside of that building with Cruise as he climbed up it with nothing but suction gloves. If there is a more intense action sequence with a character hanging on for dear life from one of the world’s tallest buildings, it certainly didn’t come to mind while I watched this movie. I had trouble getting to sleep afterwards because that crazy stunt was still on my mind and would not let me be.

There’s about a half hour or so of footage shot in IMAX, and Bird makes use of this format to great effect. Aside from Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, there’s a scene of the Kremlin exploding which literally takes your breath away. While many still complain of IMAX feeling like a rip off with its high ticket prices, it’s worth the extra money in a way 3D could only dream of being at this point.

“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a big surprise as this franchise looked like it had already hit its peak to where another sequel seemed needless. But Cruise and company successfully revive it by giving us characters to care about and root for, and they outdo themselves with stunts even more amazing than what we saw previously. Regardless of what you may think of Cruise as a person these days (many of my friends can’t stand him), he still puts on a good show even as he grows visibly older. Just when you thought he was out, he pulls himself back in!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Stands On Its Own

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 2011 poster

To call David Fincher’s “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” a remake of the excellent 2009 Swedish thriller wouldn’t be fair. Yes, it too is based on the runaway bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson, but Fincher has taken this material and, with the help of ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, made it his own. His version proves to be one which is neither better nor worse than the original, but one which effectively stands on its own two feet to where any comparisons are not really necessary.

Daniel Craig takes on the role of Millennium Magazine writer Mikael Blomkvist who, at the movie’s start, has lost a libel case against the wealthy but corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, a defeat which will seriously deplete his savings account. To escape the prying eyes of the press, he accepts an invitation from retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. Vanger believes she may have been murdered by a member of his family, one which proves to be far more dysfunctional than any you may know.

Fincher’s film takes its time in establishing the characters of Blomkvist and Salander, who is played here by Rooney Mara. In fact, they don’t meet face to face until an hour into the movie. While studio executives were probably begging to see these two come together a lot sooner, it gives these actors time to establish their characters to where we feel like we understand them and are eager to see each work with one another.

Stepping outside of the James Bond franchise, Craig is terrific in conveying Blomkvist’s single-mindedness in finding answers which need to be uncovered. This is not a heroic character taking out the bad guys with relative ease, but one who is dedicated to finding out the truth and soon comes to realize just how much danger he is in. But as frightened as he is, Blomkvist is in no position to just give up and go home.

As for Mara, her performance as Lisbeth Salander is nothing short of a revelation. She must have given one hell of an audition for Fincher because very little in her resume, certainly not the bland “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, could have prepared us for how good she is here. That is, except for her performance as Max Zuckerberg’s girlfriend who dumps him without remorse at the beginning of “The Social Network.”

Having watched Noomi Rapace inhabit this character previously, it was hard to think of another actress who could be anywhere as good in playing Lisbeth Salander. Mara, however, is more than up for the challenge, and her commitment in portraying this understandably anti-social character is utterly complete. I kept trying to find traces of Mara in this film, but I came out of it feeling like I never saw her. Instead, I felt like was watching Lisbeth Salander and no one else. Now this is a performance worthy of awards consideration!

Not to take away from Rapace’s star-making performance, but Mara has the advantage here of dealing with this character’s complexities which were not as deeply explored in the 2009 film. While Mara puts up a tough exterior, she simultaneously allows you to see those cracks of vulnerability hiding just beneath the surface. You fear for Lisbeth even though you know she eventually will kick ass.

There are many other great performances to be found here, and the actors have the fortune of playing characters which are given more depth in this version. Plummer has had quite the year with this and “Beginners,” and he gives Henrik a biting sense of humor which has aided him in dealing with the emotionally sordid history of his family. Robin Wright pulls off a surprisingly confident Swedish accent as Blomkvist’s co-worker and lover Erika Berger. Steven Berkoff of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “A Clockwork Orange” fame is a strong presence as Henrik’s lawyer Dirch Frode, Stellan Skarsgård remains one of the most reliable actors in movies with his performance as Martin Vanger, and Joely Richardson is fantastic as Anita.

Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth does a superb job of capturing the frozen landscapes of Sweden to where you get frigid just looking at the screen. The scene where Blomkvist desperately tries to warm up the cottage Vagner has provided for him pushes this point across than it would ever need to. I haven’t shivered this much since after I finished swimming the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon.

Fincher’s movie also has a mesmerizing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both whom won the Best Original Score Oscar for their work on “The Social Network.” They give the story and its characters a sonic soundscape unlike the typical orchestral score, and it brilliantly captures the growing emotions which get stronger and stronger as the movie reaches its brutal climax.

Speaking of brutal, Fincher never sugarcoats this story or makes it easy to digest down to a PG-13 rating. In retrospect, I’m not sure there was a way he could as it deals with serial killers and features a vicious rape perpetrated on the main character. As with the majority of his movies, Fincher’s vision of the world is a dark one where the characters can be as cold as the snowy weather, but his vision also remains one of the most powerful in today’s cinematic world.

When it comes to comparing the 2009 and 2011 movies, this one has an upper hand in that it’s far more cinematic. The original Swedish film was actually a television miniseries which got shortened when released theatrically. That one remains a great thriller worth watching, but David Fincher’s version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” threatens to be more compelling as it builds on the original without taking away from it. I have yet to see him make a truly bad motion picture, and yes, that includes “Alien 3.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Young Adult’ Deals With a Serious Case of Arrested Development

Young Adult movie poster

Young Adult” comes to us from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody who gave us “Juno,” but this is a very different movie. This collaboration of theirs is a bruise-black comedy starring Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary, a writer of young adult novels which resemble those “Sweet Valley High” books many read years ago (I did not). She finds out her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) has become a dad, and she travels back to her hometown in a mission to steal Buddy away from his wife and rekindle their long-lost romance.

Both Reitman and Cody dare us to share some time with a most unlikable character. Mavis is a recent divorcee who spends her mornings chugging down Diet Coke, her nights getting drunk on premium whiskey (Maker’s Mark should see an increase in sales from this movie), and she can barely hide her contempt for the town she grew up in. That she writes young adult books is a metaphor for her arrested development as her best years were in high school, and she has never gotten past them.

Theron is one of the best actresses working in movies right now, and her performance as Mavis Gary is one of her bravest. This is not a likable character, but Theron finds the humanity within Mavis, and this makes us want to follow her journey. While we despise Mavis’ desperation in reclaiming a past which has long since passed her by, Theron digs deep into the pain and depression which has long since engulfed this character, and she succeeds in making “Young Adult” more unforgettable than it already is.

But as great as Theron is, she is almost outdone by comedian Patton Oswalt who plays Mavis’ former classmate, Matt Freehauf. His character got beaten up very badly in high school, and his injuries have kept him from moving forward in life. Oswalt inhabits his character fully and never allows Matt to turn into a caricature. His sense of humor acts as a defense against the hurt he can quickly be reminded of, and he too finds the humanity in a character who could have easily turned into a cliché.

Cody’s script is excellent in mining the humor out of incredibly awkward and pitiful situations. This is a cathartic story which perfectly captures the dynamic between those who have moved on from high school and those who have not. This feels like a very personal script for her as it ponders those formative years which define us more than we want them to. While we would love to see those popular kids suffer tremendously, we can’t get past the sadness of Mavis’ current situation.

Reitman bravely moves out of his safety zone with this movie. As with his other movies, he succeeds in making all the characters seem as real as those we know in real life. While the beginning may seem slow and unnecessarily cold, he brilliantly highlights the sad state of Mavis’ life as much of it has been stolen from her.

Whether or not you think “Young Adult” reaches out to all those who loved “Juno,” it does show off the tremendous talents of Reitman and Cody. What results is a movie which dares to go down roads we would rather not revisit, and it finds a humor and humanity many will not see coming. Some will strongly dislike this movie as its main character is far from likable, but you don’t need likable characters to make a good movie, let alone a great one.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ Features Tilda Swinton at Her Most Devastating

We Need to Talk Kevin poster 4

I think “We Need to Talk About Kevin” would make an interesting double feature with “Rosemary’s Baby” as both prove to be cautionary tales for prospective parents. But unlike Polanski’s classic film which dealt with the occult and supernatural, the horrors of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” are rooted in real life. Stories of kids going on murderous rampages at their schools have gotten far more media coverage than they deserve, but Lynne Ramsay’s film is not out to exploit this subject but to explore what could have triggered such a massacre.

Acting goddess Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian (good luck trying to pronounce that last name), a successful travel writer who is picking up the pieces of her life after a tragic event people have come to blame her for. The movie shifts back and forth in time as we see Eva finding happiness with her husband Franklin (the always great John C. Reilly) to becoming pregnant with her first child, and then back to present day where she tries to make sense of the crimes her son committed. We see her as a pariah of the community, and everyone constantly stares at her as if to say, “How do you live with yourself?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character look less forward to motherhood in a movie before this one. Eva’s face of happiness is wiped away almost permanently by her new role in life, and while her husband is thrilled at being a parent, she just looks on despondently as if her life just came to a shocking end. Without words, you immediately get the impression she has no interest in being a parent, and she never really forms an affectionate bond with Kevin. Eventually, Eva sees the parts of herself she doesn’t like in Kevin’s cold, dark eyes as he glares at her as if to say she resembles everything wrong in the world.

Swinton has never been an actress content to fall victim to overly emotive acting or chewing the scenery for an Oscar moment. She inhabits her characters more than plays them, and her performance as Eva ranks among the very best of her career. She creates such an unforgettably human portrait of a mother whose superficial behavior towards her son isn’t fooling anyone, especially him. But at the same time, Swinton makes you feel deeply for Eva as she forces you to confront what you would do if you were in this unimaginable situation.

While we see Eva losing her temper at Kevin when he does bad things, we also see she’s the only person who realizes something is seriously wrong with him. Franklin, on the other hand, is either completely oblivious to his son’s nastiness or just doesn’t want to see the truth of how troubled he is. To everyone else, Kevin is just a boy doing boyish things, and this leaves Eva feeling even more isolated as she feels completely helpless in her attempts to repair the fractured relationship she has with him.

Kevin is played by three actors at different parts of his life: Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller. All do great work in making Kevin the kind of child none of us ever hope to have, and each manages to perfect the wicked glare Kevin gives off to where you would think they were auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick movie, hoping to outdo Vincent D’Onofrio’s piercing glare in “Full Metal Jacket.” But of those three actors, the one who deserves the most praise is Miller as he makes Kevin into one of the scariest sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Damien from “The Omen” has got nothing on this guy, and it’s tempting to think he could give Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” a run for his money. Miller never portrays Kevin as a simple one-dimensional villain, but as one whose meaning in life has been corrupted to where he doesn’t see much good in anything.

Director Ramsay previously made “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” and her work behind the camera has been justly acclaimed. With “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she shares in Swinton’s fearlessness in delving into subject matter many would choose to avoid if they could. Not once does she judge the characters here, and she leaves their actions up for us to judge. She is not out to provide answers to a situation like this because none are ever easy to come by.

The movie’s opening shot has Eva participating with dozens of people in some Italian tomato festival to where it looks like they are all bathing in blood, and it symbolizes what will eventually become of her life. Ramsay makes great use of the color red throughout as it acts as a stain on Eva’s conscience which cannot be washed away. The movie is beautifully shot to where the sterile setting Eva and her family lives in is just asking to be forever dirtied, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood, who composed the score for “There Will Be Blood,” illustrates the violence just underneath the surface that will eventually explode for all to see.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” could easily have been an exploitive feature, but it never falls victim to that. There’s actually very little violence shown as Ramsay is far more interested in the aftermath of what has happened, and the movie ends on a surprising note of possible redemption for some of the main characters. Having seen it, I can now safely say Tilda Swinton was most definitely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her performance here. What she does is truly astounding as well as completely brave. Not many actors would easily venture into a topic which hits too close to home, but Swinton is never one to back down from a challenge.

Coming out of this bruising film experience, I kept thinking about this line of dialogue said by Augustus Hill on the HBO series “OZ:”

“One of the last things Jesus did on Earth was to invite a prisoner to join him in heaven. He loved that criminal. I say he loved that criminal as much as he loved anyone. Jesus knew in his heart it takes a lot to love a sinner. But the sinner, he needs it all the more…”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Attack the Block’ Features John Boyega in a Terrific Debut Performance

Attack the Block movie poster

Attack the Block” is a highly entertaining combination of action and sci-fi genres which deals with humans defending themselves against a swarm of unfriendly extra-terrestrials. It follows a street gang of young kids who, in the process of robbing a female nurse, get greeted by an alien who lands with a loud thud on someone’s car (here’s hoping they have auto insurance). It marks the beginning of an attack by an alien race which immediately tears apart anything in its path, and it’s up this gang of delinquents to save the day.

The majority of “Attack the Block” takes place in a council estate, a location which houses the financially challenged of England’s residents, and it is generally overrun by a nasty criminal element. This setting has been used to great effect in “Fish Tank” and “Harry Brown,” movies which effectively showed how isolating it can be to live there. The characters presented feel very true to life, and it makes what could be seen by many as another B-movie far more effective as a result.

Leading this street gang is Moses (John Boyega), a 15-year-old who is older than his age would suggest. Moses and his mates spend their time robbing those walking through the terrace they live in. But when the aliens enter into their territory, they find antagonists that are completely unwilling to give up their valuables (assuming they have any), and the threat they pose to this gang make their struggles in daily life a cakewalk in comparison.

“Attack the Block” was directed by Joe Cornish, an English comedian, television and radio presenter, director, writer and actor. This marks his directorial debut as he has previously helmed several behind the scenes documentaries like “The Fuzzball Rally” featured on the “Hot Fuzz” DVD and Blu-ray. Cornish’s work here is very assured, and he does an excellent job of combining elements of horror and comedy to great effect, something never easy to pull off. He also generates highly suspenseful moments which really get the audience on edge, and they make for a surprisingly unpredictable motion picture.

Of all the performances, the most impressive comes from John Boyega as Moses. This is his film debut, but he looks and acts like he’s been acting for ages as his eyes reveal a battle over how far he will go and of all the bad things he has seen in life. As the fight against the aliens goes on, it offers his character a chance for redemption and to be a hero, and Boyega makes Moses earn those honors long before the film’s conclusion.

Also impressive is Jodie Whittaker as Sam, a hospital nurse faced with an impossible situation where she has to work with the same gang of kids who mugged her in order to survive. Whittaker convincingly takes her character from being a frightened woman to one who holds her own alongside these kids, and she is not your typical horror victim screaming her way throughout the entire movie.

It’s also great to see Nick Frost here as the drug dealer, Ron. Frost brings an ever so dry humor to the proceedings, and all the other actors work off of him to great effect. In each movie he does, Frost is brilliant at sneaking the occasional joke in when you least expect it, and you can always count on him to leaving on the floor laughing.

“Attack the Block” was made for only $13 million, and the visual effects the filmmakers came up with are very impressive considering the budget. Having less money forces directors to be more creative, and Cornish succeeded in making this film look like it cost a lot more. The aliens themselves are minimal in their design, but they feel far more threatening than the ones you might remember from “Cowboys & Aliens.” Their pitch-black fur is highlighted by neon-like eyes and teeth, and their horrendously loud shriek is certain to make audiences jump out of their seats more often than not.

The action is also highlighted by a super cool electronic score by Basement Jaxx which really puts you in the right frame of mind. I definitely recommend buying the soundtrack once you have watched this movie. I myself didn’t even hesitate in purchasing a copy. That’s how much I like this kind of film music.

The summer 2011 movie season was mostly disappointing due to a lack of creativity and inspiration as many of the blockbusters were cynically made by studios with the intention of making money while giving audiences what they thought they wanted. Watching “Attack the Block” though is a great reminder of how much fun it can be to go to the movies, and it was one of the best action movies to come out that year. This is a must see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *