‘Let the Right One In’ is Not Your Average Vampire Movie

Let The Right One In movie poster

This is one of those movies which made me want to be a film critic. I love to tell you what movies I really like and flat out hate, and this is even though I never expect to change your mind over what you want to see. But there are certain movies which I really want to see get the audience they deserve, preferably in a movie theater. “Let the Right One In” is a Swedish movie which absolutely deserves a loyal following as it is one of the most beautifully atmospheric movies to be released in 2008.

“Let the Right One In” follows young Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) who is an overlooked kid bullied by kids at school that have somehow managed to recite lines of dialogue from “Deliverance.” This is a kid who clearly doesn’t have a lot of friends and, like many, is a child of divorce. One night, while he is in the snowy courtyard outside his home, he is met suddenly by a girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) who has just moved in to the same apartment complex he lives in. Eli quickly tells Oskar she cannot be his friend, but soon enough, they bond over a Rubik’s Cube. Their friendship builds throughout the film and serves to strengthen them as people to where they deal more effectively with the struggles they are forced to endure.

There is one catch though, and it is clear to the audience from the start: Eli is a vampire. An older man believed to be her father ends up blocking the windows with cardboard and other forms of paper to keep their apartment dark. We see this same man going out in the freezing dead of night to kill total strangers and drain them of their blood. Why? He’s got another mouth to feed. When he screws up and doesn’t come through, she shows just how vicious she can be in her displeasure. But despite who she is, you can see why she is cozy with Oskar. They are both outcasts in a world which does not appear to have much use for them.

What I really loved about “Let the Right One In” is how it takes the vampire genre and makes it fresh by combining it with the things we remember from our childhoods: bullies, sucking at sports, parents not understanding what we are going through, etc. We always hope for that one person who understands us and can relate to what we are going through. Some of us are lucky enough to have such a person in our lives, but others are not so fortunate. You could say Oskar becoming friends with a vampire would not be in his best interest, but these are two people who need each other at this fragile point in their lives.

We see Oskar getting whipped at school by the bullies who pick on those they feel are beneath them, and they call him piggy among other things. We later see Oskar fantasizing about getting revenge on those bullies as if he is Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver.” With Eli, he finally gains the confidence to get back at them. In turn, Eli’s growing friendship with Oskar provides her with an escape from her eternally lonely existence. The real question between them is, can Eli trust herself enough to keep herself from making Oskar another victim? And if she reveals herself to him as who she really is, will he still accept her as his friend? Despite the bloody acts we see Eli committing, deep down we don’t want to see these two separated.

“Let the Right One In” was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and he does a brilliant job of opening the movie in silence as he slowly introduces us to the snowy suburb these characters inhabit. The frozen landscape mirrors the dreary and repressed nature of everyone who lives there, and it feels as cold as upstate New York felt in “Frozen River.” Of course, were the movie to be sunnier, it would require certain characters to die a fiery death. The vampires here perish the way vampires do in other movies, and if you are a vampire, it should go without saying how you appreciate the nighttime more than others.

But the wonderfully surprising thing about “Let the Right One In” is how tender it is. While it looks to be marketed as a horror movie, it is really a love story. While it is at times a violent and bloody movie, what really wins out is the bond these Oskar and Eli share throughout. It is a chaste relationship (they are both 12 after all) built on need and loneliness. There is a moment where they both lie together in bed which is really lovely, and it reminds one of how lonely it can be to sleep by yourself.

There is not a weak performance to be found here, but the real credit goes to the two young kids who have to carry this movie almost entirely on their shoulders. Kare Hedebrant is exceptional as the young Oskar, and there is never a moment in his performance which feels fake or forced. Hedebrant is a natural in front of the camera, and he acts from the heart. This is not your typical nerdy school outcast we see in so many movies made in America, but instead an intelligent boy who never quite fits in the way we all wanted to when we were his age.

Lina Leandersson, who plays the vampire Eli, has the toughest role in as she has to portray different emotions without actually showing them. Throughout the movie, her face is a mask of coldness and detachment, but in her eyes, she shows how much she likes being in this unexpected relationship with Oskar. Leandersson’s performance is truly remarkable as she makes you care about this person even after she commits abhorrent acts against others. This is not your typical vampire drunk on power like Lestat in “Interview with The Vampire,” but one who was born into this life without any choice. Eli does not drink the blood of others because she wants to, but because she needs to in order to survive. Lina’s drive is one of survival, not dominance.

Looking back at 2008, there were a lot of really good movies released, but not many great ones. Maybe I hold things to a higher level than I should, but “Let the Right One In” is a true masterpiece in this or any other year. It is both frightening and tender at the same time, and I don’t know of many other movies which have managed this balance ever so effortlessly.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Jaws’ – Peter Benchley’s Novel vs Steven Spielberg’s Film

Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” is much darker in tone as the main characters come across as unhappy and have harsh tempers which constantly get the best of them. There are also a number of subplots that bring out the negative sides of each character throughout. When it came to turning “Jaws” into a movie, Spielberg worked with different screenwriters to make the characters more likable, and he eliminated many of the novel’s subplots. In the process, he changed much of the story to where the movie focused on the terror the shark wreaks on the helpless townspeople and tourists, and on the last act where Brody, Hooper and Quint go on a hunt to destroy it.

The movie has the married couple of Martin and Ellen Brody more or less settled on Amity Island, and Ellen seems to be happier than Martin about their relocation from New York City to their current residence as her husband has a big fear of the water. Benchley’s novel, however, has them at odds with one another to where they argue most of the time, and it is Ellen who is more dissatisfied with the move to Amity Island as she misses her former life in the city.

One major subplot which did not transfer over to the movie is when Ellen Brody has an affair with marine biologist Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss). It turns out she used to date Matt’s older brother and being with Matt vividly reminds her of the life she used to have. While Spielberg’s film portrays Matt and Martin as being friends, Benchley’s novel has them becoming enemies as Martin struggles with getting older along with his envy of Hooper who represents the man he used to be.

Quint, who was unforgettably portrayed by Robert Shaw, is described much differently and barely speaks at all. Suffice to say, his speech about being on board the USS Indianapolis when it sank is not in the book. Even Quint’s death is different as, instead of him being eaten by the shark after it jumps on board the Orca, he gets his foot caught in a rope attached to the great white and drowns after he is pulled underwater.

As for Hooper, who survived his ordeal in the shark cage in the Spielberg movie, he is killed off in the book as well. Perhaps it is karmic justice as Benchley portrays him as an obnoxious man who Martin almost chokes to death at one point.

Another subplot which did not carry over from the book is when Mayor Vaughn is found to be seriously in debt to the mafia, hence his strong need to keep the beaches of Amity open despite the shark attack. Spielberg’s movie, however, has him resisting Martin’s urges to close the beaches as Amity Island is seriously dependent on tourist dollars during the summer for its very existence.

When it comes to the ending of “Jaws,” Martin Brody does not kill the shark by shooting a bullet into the air tank stuck in its mouth which causes it to explode. In the book, he is helplessly stuck in the water after the Orca sinks, and the shark heads straight for him. In the process of Brody accepting his fate, the shark ends up passing away just mere inches away from him. After battling these men for several days while having barrels stuck in it and suffering from blood loss, the shark just gives in and dies which makes for a rather anti-climactic ending.

Many of the changes came about because Spielberg set out to make an audience pleasing movie, and he didn’t want the main characters battling one another as they battled the shark. But for those who have seen the movie hundreds of times, it is worth reading the book as Peter Benchley uses the shark as a metaphor for Martin Brody’s realization of his mortality and how it comes to affect his actions on the job and in his marriage.

Despite its differences, Benchley’s novel remains a riveting tale of suspense and terror worth reading while you sit on the beach and getting a nice suntan.

‘Jurassic Park’ – Michael Crichton’s Novel vs Steven Spielberg’s Film

Michael Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park” served as a cautionary tale on scientists’ tampering with biology as they bring dinosaurs back to life without thinking about the consequences of their actions. When Steven Spielberg adapted it to the silver screen in what turned out to be a genuinely thrilling movie, much of it was changed and details were omitted to make it the kind of audience pleasing movie he was best known for making at the time. He doesn’t delve as much into the darker side of Crichton’s characters and made them more likable, and the changes proved impossible to miss.

Working with David Koepp, who got screenwriting credit along with Crichton, Spielberg developed the cartoon the main characters watch during the park tour to remove much of the exposition found in the book. Crichton goes into extensive detail about how dinosaurs were recreated using their DNA which ends up being found in mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree resin. Despite many scientists saying it is impossible to create dinosaurs in this way, it still makes for a very compelling story.

Koepp also cut out a sequence from the book which had Grant and Hammond’s grandchildren being chased down the river by the Tyrannosaurus. This was done for budgetary reasons, but this dinosaur would later appear in “Jurassic Park III.”

The book also had a sub-plot about young children getting attacked by small theropod dinosaurs, but Spielberg cut this out because he found it too horrific. However, that same sub-plot would be used to start off the movie version of “Jurassic Park: The Lost World.”

When it came to the characters, some of the biggest changes occurred with John Hammond, the curator of Jurassic Park. The book describes him as a ruthless businessman who is arrogant, deceptive, utterly disrespectful, and thoughtlessly rude. Even though he eventually comes to see the consequences of his experiments, he still moves ahead with his plans in the name of profit. He is even willing to sacrifice his grandchildren to the dinosaurs if that’s what it takes.

In the movie where Hammond is portrayed by Sir Richard Attenborough, he is instead an eccentric and friendly old man who is caught up in the wonder of what he has helped bring to life. However, he eventually realizes he cannot control the dinosaurs and is desperate to see his grandchildren brought back safely. This change came about because Spielberg very much related to Hammond’s obsession with showmanship.

Dr. Alan Grant, played by Sam Neil, is shown to like kids and enjoys being around them in the book. However, the movie has him being not the least bit fond of them. This change was made to give Grant more room for character development as he comes to be the father figure Hammond’s grandchildren lack when things go wrong.

Ellie Sattler, played by Laura Dern, is described as a 23-year old graduate student of Grant’s who is planning to get married to someone other than him. In the movie, she is Grant’s love interest and hopes he will one day be open to having children with her.

Jeff Goldblum gave a scene stealing performance as chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, and he gives Spielberg’s film the bulk of its comic relief. Crichton, however, wrote Malcolm as being more serious, philosophical, and at times downright condescending. Unlike the movie, Malcolm is killed off at the end of the book, but in the follow-up book “The Lost World” he is revealed to have survived.

One character that got drastically downsized was Dr. Henry Wu who is played by B.D. Wong. Crichton has him providing much of the detail about how the dinosaurs are cloned, and he stays on the island and is eventually killed off while the movie has him heading off to the mainland where he survives, and he was the only actor from this movie to appear in “Jurassic World.”

The lawyer Donald Gennaro, one of the movie’s greediest and thoughtless characters, comes across as rather likable in the way Crichton writes him. While he becomes something of a scapegoat towards the end, he is the one most insistent on the island being destroyed to protect the rest of the world from these dinosaurs. But in the movie, he is ever so eager to exploit the park’s profit potential any which way he can.

Then there are Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Tim, who are along for the tour of the island as well. In the book, Tim is the oldest of two at 11 years old and is good with computers while Lex is only 7 and more into sports. Spielberg switched these characters around to where Lex was the oldest, and he did this in order to cast Joseph Mazzello as Tim. Ariana Richards plays Lex, and she’s the more into computers and helps save the main characters in one critical scene.

Looking back at “Jurassic Park” the movie, it was the last time Spielberg adapted a book and changed the characters to where they were likable and easier for audiences to spend time with. His next movie was “Schindler’s List” which had him exploring one of the darkest periods of human history, and making it had a major effect on the movies he directed afterwards. When it came to turning “The Lost World” into a movie, Spielberg was more willing to embrace the darker aspects Crichton explored intensely in his books, and this was something readers wished he had done with the first movie.

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 * * * *

Lisbeth Salander is Resurrected in First Trailer for ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

The Girl in the Spider's Web poster

Lisbeth Salander returns to the silver screen after a long hiatus (7 years to be exact), but you may notice something a bit different. Despite the success of David Fincher’s cinematic adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” studio executives felt it should have made more money than it did. After efforts to follow up “Dragon Tattoo” with the next book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” fell through, Sony and MGM decided to do what they called a “soft reboot” of the franchise with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” which is based on the book by David Lagercrantz who wrote it following Larsson’s death. Now with its just-released first trailer, we do see some changes, but I am also reminded of what Snake Plissken said in “Escape From LA:”

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Is this good or bad? Well, let’s take a look.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, an English actress best known for playing the young Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s “The Crown.” It is my understanding many people right now are having some difficulty accepting Foy as Salander because they can’t quite get the image of her playing the Queen out of their heads. I, on the other hand, do not have the same baggage as I have not watched “The Crown,” so perhaps this gives me an advantage here.

From her first appearance in this trailer, Foy owns this role with a strong confidence as we watch her subdue an abusive husband who has just used his wife as a punching bag like Ike Turner did with Tina Turner years ago. As Salander tells this spineless fraction of a man how she plans to transfer money from his accounts to the two prostitutes he was acquitted of beating up, we know right away this character is in the hands of the right actress. As the abused wife threatens to call security on Salander, the brilliant but antisocial heroine informs her she will be getting the rest of his money. The wife then puts down her phone, grabs her child and leaves. Just as she did with the hideous Nils Bjurman, Salander has cornered this man into a position he cannot undo, and we revel in her success in making him pay for the crimes he has committed. While I am bummed Rooney Mara, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work in Fincher’s film, is not returning, Foy looks to be a good choice to inhabit this unforgettable literary character.

The one question I did have, however, was this: how did Salander know this man would be in the exact position he needed to be in so she could capture him in a rope which would leave him dangling helplessly from the ceiling? It seems impossible she, or anyone else, would be able to pull this off, but then again this is Lisbeth Salander, and her brilliant mind has already managed to ensnare this man in a web of his own making to where he has no choice but to realize how karma is a bitch.

I was struck by the look of this movie from the trailer as it seems to match the icy cool visuals of Fincher’s film, and it makes this project look like much more than the average adaptation of a best-selling novel. Directing “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez who helmed the “Evil Dead” remake which I thought was just okay. But then he gave us “Don’t Breathe,” a horror thriller which kept us on the edge of our seats in a way few movies do these days. The screenplay was written by him, Jay Basu and Steven Knight, the screenwriter behind “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises” and “Locke” which he also directed. Looking at this, it feels like this “soft reboot” is in good hands.

But the most interesting thing about “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is how it introduces Salander’s main antagonist. We hear a female narrator saying how Salander is “the righter of wrongs” and “the girl who hurts men who hurt women.” Those of us who have seen the previous cinematic adventures of Lisbeth Salander can attest to this, but the narrator reveals herself to be the one woman Salander did not succeed in saving, and as a result, she is quite bitter. This woman is revealed to be Camilla Salander, Lisbeth’s estranged twin sister who is played by Sylvia Hoeks, the same actress who gave us a most lethal replicant in “Blade Runner 2049.” Learning Lisbeth will face a female antagonist here instead of a male one makes this film seem especially intriguing to where this “soft reboot” seems like it was worth the effort. Mara, Daniel Craig, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross may be gone, but those taking over this franchise seem ready to give us something we will not easily forget.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is set to premiere in theaters on November 9, 2018. Please check out the trailer below.

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Maximum Overdrive’

Okay let’s be honest, “Maximum Overdrive” is not a good movie, and that is being generous. It is one of the many adaptations of a Stephen King novel or short story, in this case “Trucks,” and it also marked the feature film directorial debut of King as well. The fact he hasn’t directed a movie since should be no surprise to anyone who has seen this one. The acting is embarrassingly over the top, the editing very sloppy, and not even a rock and roll score by AC/DC is enough to lift, as King described it, this “moron movie” out of the cinematic abyss.

But when all is said and done, the trailer for “Maximum Overdrive” is one of my favorite movie trailers of all time. Watching King gleefully describe what he has in store for us makes me want to watch this movie again, and that’s even though I already know just how bad it is.

Right from the start, King makes it clear to the audience how “Maximum Overdrive” will be a unique movie compared to the others based on his work, and as the camera closes in on his face, he gives off a wide-eyed expression and a twisted smile which quickly reminds us how this is the same man who wrote “Carrie,” “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.” I love how he talks about how he “sort of enjoyed” directing a motion picture, but it makes me wonder if this was the cocaine talking as he later admitted how “coked out of his mind” he was while making this Golden Raspberry nominated film.

It was also a brilliant move to use the “Chariots of Pumpkins” theme John Carpenter and Alan Howarth composed for the “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” soundtrack here as the wonderfully creepy music adds to King’s creepy appearance while he stands in front of the Green Goblin mask which is featured prominently on the front of the biggest truck in “Maximum Overdrive.”

The worst parts of each actor’s performance are kept to a bare minimum here, but the annoying nature of the character Yeardley Smith plays is something even the makers of this trailer could not hide from the public. But do not feel bad for Smith. She has more than persevered since “Maximum Overdrive” as she still is the voice of Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons,” and it is enviable role for any actor which she has held onto now for decades.

When King points his finger at us and says “I’m going to scare the hell out of you and that’s a promise,” it is a wonderfully unsettling moment as those of us who are fans of his writing are well-aware of how often he has kept us up nights. Of course, this movie is anything but scary, so perhaps he was talking about one of his books instead without even realizing it.

In a world filled with an infinite number of movie trailers, the one for “Maximum Overdrive” stands out for me among so many others. Even though the movie it advertises proved to be a critical disaster, I still enjoy watching it from time to time as there are few other trailers like it.

 

 

‘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 * * * *

‘Ready Player One’ Revels More in the Virtual World Than in Reality

Ready Pkayer One movie poster

Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” is a novel I could see a lot of directors being ever so eager to turn into a motion picture. Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Zemeckis and even (gasp) Michael Bay would have had a blast bringing to life the virtual world Cline wrote about to where the possibilities of what they could bring to the silver screen seem infinite. In the end, it makes perfect sense Steven Spielberg was the one to adapt it as no other filmmaker has captured our collective imaginations as much as he has.

The year is 2045, and Earth has long since become consumed by pollution, corruption and climate change (which is real folks, don’t let anyone tell you different), and its inhabitants, those situated in the middle or lower classes, are consigned to mobile trailers which are stacked on top of one another. While this cannot be mistaken for a glamorous lifestyle, many clueless politicians and wives of U.S. Presidents would be quick to describe them as FEMA luxury suites. Looking at how barren their existence has become, it’s no wonder these characters prefer a virtual reality as opposed to the one they are forced to live in and endure on a daily basis.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, manages to escape their depressing reality in the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a VR world which allows its users to engage in activities of either an educational, entertaining, or a profitable kind. You can be any avatar you want to be whether it’s Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, and you go into it believing it will allow you to be a somebody instead of a nobody. But eventually, even its most devoted users need to find a way to better deal with the real world as a line between the two needs to be drawn.

One of the OASIS’ most devoted users is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an 18-year-old who lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio with his aunt. It’s no surprise how quick he is to dive into this virtual world, but his reasons for doing so run much deeper than we initially realize. We learn the OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), an eccentric computer genius with an incredible love for 80’s pop culture. Halliday has since passed away, but he has left behind a trail of bread crumbs in the form of Easter eggs for his fans to discover. The first to find all these eggs is promised full ownership of the OASIS among other desirable gifts. Of course, there is a corporation, or a video game conglomerate if you will, named Innovative Online Industries (IOI) which is determined to gain ownership of the OASIS before anyone else. Will the rebellious users beat the greedy corporation to the finish line? Well, the answer might have seen obvious in the past, but these days it looks like the bad guys get away with far too much in the real world.

“Ready Player One” is essentially a combination of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Tron” as our protagonists are on the search for something which will fulfill their wildest dreams, but they have to find it in a world where the laws of nature do not necessarily apply. And when it comes down to it, the winner will not be someone who is the best at gaming, but someone with a good heart who wants to do the right thing, and who has a strong spirit. Finding someone like that in this day and age, let alone in the future, is an ambitious task as everyone appears susceptible to greed and corruption, but the filmmakers went into this project with the full belief such a person still exists, and a world without hope is not one we should be quick to live in.

The challenge Spielberg has with “Ready Player One” is balancing out the real world with the wondrous virtual world the characters are ever so eager to inhabit. But with all the tools he and his fellow filmmakers had at their disposal, it is easy to see how lopsided the balance is here. Spielberg clearly revels in amazing visual effects he can put onscreen. Watching this movie just once is not enough as there are an infinite number of Easter eggs to discover and acknowledge. While you may easily recognize such pop culture artifacts like Freddy Kruger and the DeLorean time machine from “Back to the Future,” there are so many others to acknowledge here to where you will be very surprised at what Spielberg and company were able to fit into a PG-13 movie.

When it comes to the real world, I feel Spielberg could have done more to distinguish it from the OASIS. This man did give us “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.,” movies which exceeded anything our imaginations could conjure up. Years later, however, he gave us “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich,” films which did not shy away from the horrifying reality people are forced to endure. Surely Spielberg would be able to balance out the real world from the imaginary one to where we can see the difference between them or at least determine which one is more important to live in, right?

Well, “Ready Player One” functions a lot like the original “Jurassic Park” in that the spectacle gets the majority of attention while the human element suffers in comparison. But like “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg still has us captivated with incredible visual effects which leave us in complete awe. As the movie goes on, the avatars of the main characters start to look and feel more real than I expected, and this makes up for the limited character development they receive throughout. Cline co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn, but it feels like everyone could have gone a bit deeper with the material.

On a personal note, I loved how Spielberg digs deep into 1980’s nostalgia. Being a child of this decade, I still very much enjoy the music and movies which came out of it. To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t reference his own movies here, regardless of the fact they play a big part in Cline’s book. It’s also great to hear the music of Alan Silvestri here as his themes from the 80’s, particularly those from “Back to the Future,” never grow old. Silvestri’s score here references a number of pop culture classics, and I’m sure you will recognize many of them.

Tye Sheridan has turned in terrific performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and “Joe,” and he fits comfortably into the role of the typical young Spielberg hero who is wise beyond his years and smarter than the average adult. Olivia Cooke is a wonderful and strong presence as Samantha Cook, a fellow OASIS player whose avatar goes by the name of Art3mis. Ben Mendelsohn also shows up as Nolan Sorrento, the infinitely greedy CEO of IOI who is determined to gain full control over the OASIS. It’s a lot like the character Mendelsohn played in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but this time he is playing someone who believes they are in charge and actually is.

But if there is one performance worth singling out here, it is Mark Rylance’s as James Halliday, the main creator of the OASIS. Rylance makes Halliday into a wonderfully eccentric character whose social skills could use a bit of work, but whose heart shines through in everything he has created and accomplished. Not once does this Oscar-winning actor make Halliday into a caricature of Steve Jobs and instead presents us with a human being desperate to find someone in this world who has not been completely corrupted by the powers that be.

“Ready Player One” will not go down as one of Spielberg’s best movies, but it is far from being one of his worst. The visuals alone are worth the price of admission and watching it once will not be enough as there are so many Easter eggs to identify. Heck, if you close enough, you can even spot a poster with Wil Wheaton on it. While its message of how important it is to spend more time in the real world than the virtual one might seem a bit hypocritical, this movie was directed by a man who knows the difference between the two to where he doesn’t have to prove to us that he knows this. Still, on a story and character level, this could have dug deeper beneath the surface.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Annihilation’ is a Unique Sci-Fi Cinematic Experience

Annihilation movie poster

I have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking risks in the past year or so on movies which defy what is considered these days to be mainstream entertainment. Last year, they released Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a film which could in no way be mistaken for a comic book movie. Despite it earning a rare Cinemascore grade of an F, Paramount stood behind Aronofsky and his film defiantly, saying they were proud of the work he did. Keep in mind, the studio made this clear even after “mother!” suffered a weak opening at the box office, especially when compared to other movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Now in 2018, Paramount has released “Annihilation,” a science-fiction horror film which not only defies what many expect from Hollywood at the moment, but also proves impossibly hard to fit into any specific genre. This has led many to accuse Paramount of not giving the movie the proper promotion it deserved, but we will address this issue at another time. Whatever expectations you have for this cinematic experience, it would be best to leave them at the door as “Annihilation” deals with themes and situations other filmmakers have explored in the past, but this time they are handled in a way which feels truly fresh and not the least bit routine.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier who, as the movie starts, is in a depressed state as her husband, Army soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, and many presume he has been killed in action. But suddenly, Kane reappears to Lena’s delight, but he resembles one of the pod people from Phillip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he seems devoid of any emotion and cannot remember where he was. Before Lena can get a satisfactory answer regarding his whereabouts, Kane becomes very sick and is transported via ambulance to the hospital. As you can expect, military officials stop the ambulance, and it becomes clear Lena and Kane have stumbled across something those in power would prefer to keep under a heavy veil of secrecy.

“Annihilation” puts us right into Lena’s shoes as she desperately tries to understand the situation she has been thrust into. Finding herself at the United States’ government facility known as Area X, a name which implies a location always closed off to the general public, Lena is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who finally gives her some answers and introduces her to an area known as “the shimmer.” We see a meteor hit a lighthouse, and from there an electromagnetic field has developed and continues to spread at a rate to where it will eventually absorb everything in its path. Soldiers have been sent into “the shimmer” to better understand this phenomenon, but Kane is the only one who has come back from it alive.

Dr. Ventress ends up recruiting Lena and two other women to join her on the latest mission to enter “the shimmer,” a mission they have every reason to believe is a suicidal one. This is where “Annihilation” becomes particularly unique as these characters are not trying to be heroic but are instead dealing with their own self-destructive tendencies. Indeed, self-destruction is a big theme as these four women are revealed to be individuals deeply wounded by life in one way or another to where they feel as though there’s nothing much left to care about or live for. But as they get deeper into “the shimmer,” their survival instincts become awakened almost immediately.

“Annihilation” was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland who started out as a novelist with his book “The Beach” which was made into a movie by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he has graduated to writing screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” In 2015, he made his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” a brilliant science fiction thriller which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence in a way which felt familiar and yet very fresh. Even if the story reminded me of “Frankenstein” in a way, the approach Garland took with the material and the characters felt invigorating and wonderfully unique.

Garland has brought this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to “Annihilation” as it follows a group of people caught in a situation much like the one in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to where they are dealing with an antagonist who is not quite visible, and this leads them to become increasingly paranoid about one another. Garland does an excellent job of keeping the audience off-balance as he takes us through the story in a non-linear fashion. When Lena awakes in a tent inside “the shimmer,” she admits she has no idea how she got there or of what she experienced in the past few hours. Indeed, we end up feeling as lost as her as we are desperate to better understand the situation everyone has been sucked into, and Garland holds our attention throughout as a result.

Throughout, Garland gives us much to think about such as the differences between suicide and self-destruction as well as the importance and inherent danger of discovery. While watching “Annihilation,” I was reminded of a scene in “Jurassic Park” between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. Hammond doesn’t understand why anyone would stand in the way of discovery, but Malcolm leaves him with this to chew on:

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

But while Garland has crafted “Annihilation” as the thinking person’s sci-fi movie, it is not at all lacking in the thrill department. Certain scenes have a visceral feel to where I jumped out of my seat for the first time in ages. On a visual level, it has a look which is as beautiful as it is haunting, and I am having a hard time comparing it to other movies I have seen recently. On top of this, “Annihilation” features a very unique sonic landscape courtesy of composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, both of whom combine an earthly sound with an electronic one as they work to separate the real world these characters have left behind and the alien realm they have dared themselves to enter.

Natalie Portman has a tricky role to play here. As Lena, she has to be vulnerable but also exhibit a reserve of strength deeply embedded in a character who has served her time in the military. That Portman manages to pull this off is not the least bit surprising, and she gives us a fully formed character whose experience and pain aid her in the movie’s spellbinding climax. Many still can’t shake the squeaky-clean image they have of Portman, but she has been around long enough to remind audiences of the amazing depth and range she has as an actress.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh here as well, let alone in any movie she appears in. As Dr. Ventress, she creates a truly enigmatic character who keeps her emotion in check to where you constantly wonder what is going on in her head. Clearly, this doctor has more interests than in just exploring “the shimmer,” and Leigh keeps you guessing what they are all the way to the end.

I also have to give credit to Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny for creating such memorable characters out of those which, in any other movie, could have been of the easily disposable variety. Some characters exist solely to further the actions of the lead protagonist or serve as mere fodder for an ever so lethal antagonist, but these actresses make theirs stand out in a way they would not have otherwise, and their final onscreen moments are hard to shake once you have witnessed them.

And when it comes to Oscar Isaac, you can always count on him to give an infinitely charismatic performance even in a role where the character looks to have been drained of all emotion. Telling you more about his character of Kane would be detrimental to your viewing experience, but once you watch him here, you will agree he has created a fascinating portrait of a man who once knew his place in the world, but who now is forever lost in it.

It has now been a few days since I have watched “Annihilation,” and I still find myself thinking about the movie quite intensely. Even if its pace lags a little more than it should, the questions it left me with remain endlessly fascinating. When we see Lena reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is that a hint of some kind? What led Garland to include the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Hopelessly Hoping” here? And more importantly, is the movie’s ending a hopeful one, or is it meant to be relentlessly bleak? Garland is not out to give us easy answers, but my hope is you will be open to the unusual experience this movie has to offer. Cinemascore may have given it an average grade of a C, but please remember this is the same research group which gave “America: Imagine the World Without Her” an A+.

Trust me, check this one out, and be sure to come into it with an open mind.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *