The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

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You look at her from a distance, and all you see is just another punk chick who’s nothing but trouble; born under a bad sign. You’d figure she’s pierced her body in lord only knows how many different places, and the mascara applied to her eyes might make you see her as an intimidating threat. Not once does she try to adjust her antisocial behavior or clothing attire in the workplace, and this is a sign of how unwilling she is to compromise her learned set of values.

But once you get to know her, you will find Lisbeth Salander is not your average punk rock girl. In fact, she’s a brilliant hacker and researcher who knows more about yourself than you could possibly realize. Bo Diddley was right when he said you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. I mean you could, but she would just kick your ass because a rough upbringing has more than prepared her for the harsh reality of life.

Lisbeth Salander is the heroine of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a brilliant mystery/thriller based on the best-selling novel by the late Stieg Larsson. Many have said Noomi Rapace gives a star making performance as Lisbeth, and nothing could be more true. She finds the heart of this incredibly intelligent yet mysterious character whose past is hinted at but never explained until the end, but we come to get enough of a glimpse which helps us understand where she is coming from. Lisbeth sets the bar high in terms of compelling characters (and not just females) you can find in movies from any country.

Right from the start, this film absorbs us in its compelling mystery involving the case of a missing girl which has remained unsolved for 40 years. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the publisher of Millennium Magazine, is coming off of a trial where he was wrongfully disgraced, and soon after he is hired by rich man Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) who wants him to look into the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet who was last seen years ago when she was only 16. Henrik believes Harriet was murdered by someone in his family, and it’s a very dysfunctional family filled with those who will fight one other for the whole inheritance without a single thought for anyone else.

Please believe me when I say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” puts so many American movies of this genre to utter shame. Seriously, many of the mystery thrillers I have seen in the past few years are full of plot holes Michael Bay could lead both Autobots and Decepticons through no matter how enormous they are. Instead of being enthralled, we come out of them feeling like they are average at best, but they do allow us to feel smarter than the filmmakers since we spotted all their foolish mistakes.

Compared to all those wannabes, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has a very well-constructed plot to where if it is at all flawed, we certainly don’t realize it because we are too caught up with what’s unfolding onscreen. But where this movie truly succeeds is as a character piece in how deeply it involves us in the lives of two very different people. The two main characters are well developed and are very complex, something I always look forward to seeing. Lisbeth is a wounded person, damaged by life, and the trust she puts in others is exceedingly rare. These two end up coming together as Lisbeth has been hacking into Mikael’s computer as part of his case, and she ends up giving him some clues which have eluded him. While she is hesitant to get involved with Mikael professionally or emotionally, he points out how she contacted him in a way that is easy to track.

Lisbeth and Mikael are indeed an odd couple, and yet perfectly matched to work on the coldest of cases. They are also coming together at a time where they are in a very isolated state, having been largely misunderstood by just about everyone around them. While many view them negatively, they come to see one another as who they really are. The more they work together, the more they gain each other’s trust. In the large scheme of things, these are two people who do not let others define them.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a three-time award-winning director from Denmark. He deserves a lot of credit for keeping us deeply involved in a movie that could have easily overstayed its welcome. Not once did I find myself getting bored or restless while watching it. Oplev balances out the story and the acting to where they are on equal footing and never upstaged by style. Never does he indulge in quirky camera angles or other visual elements which would have taken away from this movie. Some directors just love to show off instead of just trusting what is there, and Oplev has clearly laid his complete trust in the story and the actors cast.

Noomi Rapace brings a powerful life force to Lisbeth Salander, a character destined to become as iconic as Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Beneath her hard exterior is a person whose trust in others is practically non-existent for reasons which eventually become clear. Rapace more than succeeds in making Lisbeth tough as well as sympathetic. Her performance could easily have been a caricature, but she proves to be far too good of an actress to allow this to happen.

Michael Nyqvist does excellent work as Mikael Blomkvist, showing his strong resolve and utter frustration without ever going overboard in his performance. When he is first shown to the audience, it is as a man who has just been found guilty. We don’t know why at first, so we can only assume he had it coming or perhaps he was framed. We see him walking down the street when his picture comes up on television, pretty much defining him in the eyes of those who do not know him personally. But Nyqvist invests his character with a strong moral code which he never surrenders even when it seems smart for him to do so. We sympathize with Mikael as it always seems the wealthiest of people are more than willing to smash down the individual, especially when said individual is correct in what he or she discovers about them. The truth always seems to come at a heavy price.

Peter Andersson doesn’t even try to hide the hideous slime that consumes his utterly immoral character of Bjurman, a sexually abusive bastard who takes advantage of Lisbeth in the worst way possible. Even worse, he is her new legal guardian who takes charge of her trust fund after her original guardian suffers a stroke. Not to worry though, the pain Bjurman inflicts on Lisbeth comes back at him in a most vicious way, showing us once again what you see on the surface does not even begin to tell you the whole story.

Two sequels based on Stieg Larsson’s follow up novels have already been made, and I eagerly await the opportunity to see them on the big screen. They will have a tough act to follow after “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but with Rapace and Nyqvist reprising their roles, they will continue one of the more interesting and unusual partnerships you can hope to find in cinematic history.

It will be interesting to see who will be the next idiotic human being who foolishly thinks they have complete control over Lisbeth. Even more interesting will be in what way Lisbeth lets said person know just how wrong they are. Pray for whoever it is.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Deepwater Horizon

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It appears director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are on their way to completing a trilogy of movies which aim to show audiences how Americans stand up and take care of their own during the most trying of times. In 2013 they gave us “Lone Survivor” which dramatized the unsuccessful United States Navy SEALs counter-insurgent mission Operation Red Wings, and before 2016 ends we will get “Patriots Day” which deals with the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent terrorist manhunt. But before that we get “Deepwater Horizon” which focuses on the offshore drilling rig of the same name which exploded in 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. As you can expect, it is a riveting motion picture which provides audiences with a visceral experience even though we know how the story will end.

Wahlberg portrays Mike Williams, one of the chief rig workers on Deepwater Horizon, and as the movie starts we see him spending precious time with his beautiful wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter. Before he leaves to go to work for a couple of weeks, Mike’s daughter shows him a science project she is working on which involves poking a hole in the bottom of a Coke can and then stuffing it up with honey. But, of course, it explodes all over the family dinner table as it foreshadows the terrible disaster which is yet to come.

Berg does great work portraying the working environment these oil rig workers endure on a daily basis as their work is always dangerous, and their animosity towards the executives of BP and Halliburton, a company whose name has long since become a four-letter word, is completely understandable. While these workers aim to do their job safely, the execs are eager to increase their profits as the drilling schedule has fallen behind by forty days. Profit always seems to reign supreme over the rights of the workers who might never reach the level of the 1%, and this is further proof of how the 80’s never left us.

The foreshadowing of the explosion becomes a little too much as Berg employs Steve Jablonsky’s music score to an unnecessary degree. Jablonsky’s score booms way too much as we watch the beginnings of this explosion which emanate far below the ocean’s surface. It alerts us way too early that a natural disaster is about to occur, and this could have instead been a time where we could have seen proof of how silence is golden because, as Gary Oldman’s character from “The Professional” said, we like these quiet little moments before the storm, and that’s regardless of whether or not it reminds us of the Ludwig Van Beethoven’s music.

When things do go horrifically bad on the rig, Berg captures it in a way which feels horrific and almost unbearable as he captures the disaster with a lot of handheld footage. When the main pipe goes bust, it’s not like your average disaster movie where things go out of control but in a not so dangerous way. Bodies are flung with full force against metal railings, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to feel how painful the deaths and injuries on display are. To say what happened here was a natural disaster is an understatement as the chemicals underneath the earth’s surface make their way to the surface to where it feels like planet is having serious revenge on us.

Wahlberg is an actor who can authentically portray a blue collar worker without any movie star swagger. With a role like Mike Williams, he never ever lets his ego get the best of him or tries to show off in some obnoxious way. You may never lose sight of the fact you are watching Mark Wahlberg on the big screen, but he always succeeds in portraying a character who spends his days doing hard work for an honest living. Not many actors of his stature can pull that off these days.

Then we have Kurt Russell, a veteran actor you can never ever go wrong with, who plays Jimmy Harrell, the man who is very serious about ensuring the safety of his workers. The oil company’s profits may suffer, but that is the least of Jimmy’s problems. Russell makes it clear from the get go where Jimmy’s priorities lie, and you never doubt him for a second. Even when Jimmy suffers greatly from the rig’s explosion to where one of his eyes is swollen shut, which quickly reminds us of Russell’s role as Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” he is still infinitely determined to ensure the safety of his workers.

Another standout performance to be found in “Deepwater Horizon” comes from Gina Rodriguez who plays Andrea Fleytas, an oil rig worker prepared to do what’s necessary to save lives but is stopped by the men who somehow think they know better. Rodriguez throws herself into the role to where you never doubt her for a second, and it makes you all the angrier when she is admonished by her superiors who are afraid to make decisions under pressure. She certainly knows her way around an oil rig better than her beat up Mustang.

As for Kate Hudson, she does fine work with an underwritten role. As Felicia, she has to be stuck at home and worried sick about her husband and the situation on the rig, so we only get to see so much of her in this movie. However, her role is an important one as she puts a human face on those who have to suffer from a distance. Besides, it is so nice to see Hudson in a good movie after she appeared in the cinematic monstrosity that was “Mother’s Day.”

But the biggest star of “Deepwater Horizon” is Berg as he thrusts into a real life story with gusto and intensity. As a director, he has never been one to give us a decent time at the movies. Whether it’s “The Rundown,” “Lone Survivor” or “The Kingdom,” Berg wants us pinned to our seats and gasping for air. He achieves this once again with “Deepwater Horizon,” and in the process pays tribute to those who lost their lives while doing their jobs. It makes me look forward to his next movie, “Patriots Day,” all the more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

I Saw The Light

I Saw the Light movie poster

Watching “I Saw the Light” reminded me of when I saw Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Both movies have a great cast, a lead actor who perfectly embodies an iconic singer, and scenes which vividly bring to life the classic songs of the artists. At the same time, both movies keep their main subjects, in this case country singer Hank Williams, at arm’s length to where we come out feeling like we never really got to know them. Considering the talent involved, this particular music biopic proves to be a major disappointment.

Writer and director Marc Abraham, whose previous film was “Flash of Genius,” eschews Hank’s childhood and goes straight to when he married Audrey Sheppard, a divorcee and single mother. They look like the perfect couple, and this is especially the case when you consider the palpable chemistry between stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. But like many biopics, we know everything is heading downhill for these two, and Hank’s life got cut short by alcoholism and a painful medical condition. He was only 29 years old when he died, but he looked much, much older.

The movie gets off to a wonderful start as we see Williams singing one of his most famous songs in a sequence which is beautifully lit by the brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti. We are instantly hooked as the country icon’s lyrics capture our attention right away, and it makes us look like we’re in for quite the biopic. Unfortunately, this proves to be its high point as nothing else ever measures up.

One of the big problems with “I Saw the Light” is it is so sloppily edited to where it’s hard to tell what part of Hank’s life we are looking at. It goes from one section of his life to another before we can ever fully digest what is going on. This makes the movie very confusing, and it keeps us from getting to know Hank and the other people in his life more intimately. I felt like I never really understood what fueled his music, and he became the kind of person who is not at all fun to hang out with.

Also, the movie feels undercooked to where Abraham has his cast of actors underplay every single scene they appear in. Nothing ever comes to life in the way it should, and everything in “I Saw the Light” eventually becomes an exercise in tedium. It’s bad enough we never get deeper into Hank’s psyche, but to see this story portrayed in such a passionless way makes this whole project come across as an unforgivably missed opportunity.

“I Saw the Light” does, however, have Hiddleston as Hank Williams, and his performance is in some respects amazing. We all know him for playing Loki in the “Thor” and “The Avengers” movies, and at first he seems like an odd choice to play the man who made “Lovesick Blues” such an unforgettable song. But he succeeds not only in mastering Hank’s accent, but in getting the audience to feel the songs as much as he does when he sings them. That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing here, and this makes his work here all the more admirable.

I was also impressed with Olsen’s performance as she makes Audrey perhaps the only human being who could possibly deal with Hank’s alcoholism and womanizing. Watching her here makes one realize what a powerful actress she can be, and she brings this movie to life in a way others are unable to.

As for the supporting characters, they are given short shrift and serve little purpose other than to further Hank and Audrey’s exploits. Cherry Jones, a tremendous actress, is wasted here as Hank’s mother Lillie as she has almost nothing to do other than sneer at any woman who grabs her son’s immediate affection. Bradley Whitford makes a bit of an impact as Fred Rose, the man who helped Hank rise to stardom, but Fred’s contributions to Hank’s career are made to feel smaller than they were. Maddie Hasson fares better as Billie Jean, the young woman who eventually becomes Hank’s second wife, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her here.

For what it’s worth, “I Saw the Light” did give me a good appreciation of Hank Williams’ songs. I have never been much of a country music fan, but the movie made me see why his music struck such a strong chord in so many people. Hank understood the pain of love in a way others didn’t want to experience firsthand, and it was not hard to connect with the feelings he so deeply expressed through music.

Still, the movie never digs deep enough into his life, and what results is a inescapably frustrating cinematic experience. This could have been one of the best biopics of recent years, but the filmmakers treat their main subject with kids’ gloves to where he feels like a complete stranger from start to finish. Coming out of “I Saw the Light,” I wanted to read more about Hank Williams on Wikipedia among other places on the internet as there’s got to be much more information on him there than what we got here.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* ½ out of * * * *

Krisha

Krisha movie poster

Krisha” is one of those movies which can be best described as emotionally pulverizing. It starts off with a close up of the title character’s face as the sound builds to a feverish crescendo, and this is enough to tell everyone this movie is going to be a psychological endurance test for the audience watching it. It’s a powerful motion picture which is as emotionally cathartic as they come, and it’s one of the best movies of 2016.

Krisha Fairchild stars as the Krisha of the movie’s title, a deeply troubled woman returning home to the family she abandoned years ago for a life of drug addiction and self-destruction. It’s Thanksgiving and everyone welcomes her back with open arms, prepared to forgive her trespasses, but right from the start there is a palpable tension in the air as everything seems off. While her family is happy to see Krisha, they are still unsure of whether or not she can be trusted. As for Krisha herself, we find she is still struggling with her demons and may not make it through the night in one piece. She’s also cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, and the turkey is just a time bomb just waiting to go off.

It should be noted that the movie’s writer and director, Trey Edward Shults, based its story on a similar family situation he experienced when his cousin Nica came home for the holidays. She was in the throes of her own drug addiction which would end her life prematurely two months later. For Shults, making this movie was a way to confront this tragedy, and he cast many of his family members who had been through the same situation as well.

But the one family member who stands out here the most is Shults’ aunt, Krisha Fairchild.  Fairchild is not playing herself here even though she shares the same name of her character, but this makes her performance all the more extraordinary as she plumbs the depths of a drug addict struggling to prove to her son and family everything is okay with her now. As crazy as she gets in this movie, Fairchild still makes Krisha a sympathetic character who we cannot help but feel for. And when she puts on a red dress which looks a lot like the one Ellen Burstyn wore in “Requiem for a Dream,” she goes all out for an emotionally shattering climax.

The rest of the cast does terrific work, and this especially goes for Bill Wise who plays Doyle, the family member who proves to be its biggest personality and asshole. Doyle sees right through Krisha and tells her flat out, “You are an abandoner. You are heartbreak incarnate, lady.” And then there’s Robyn Fairchild who plays Krisha’s sister, the most stable of all the family members. When Robyn breaks down after a protracted argument with Krisha, it’s impossible not to feel her pain and emotional exhaustion as we all know strong family members who eventually reach their breaking point after holding it together for so long.

“Krisha” is Shults’ first feature film, and it is an incredible debut made all the more amazing by the fact he shot it all in just 8 days. He makes the film look like it was shot a lot longer and cost more than it did as he balances many different elements with a director’s masterful touch. Shults is also aided tremendously by the almost dreamlike cinematography by Drew Daniels and the abstract sounding music score by Brian McOmber which illustrates the increasing tension bubbling beneath the surface. This movie is an emotional powder keg just waiting to go off, and Shults never lets anyone off easy.

There have been countless movies made about drug addiction and the effect it has on the family members of the addict, and “Krisha” certainly feels like one of the most effective. It also rightly reminds the viewer that an addict will only seek help when they want to stop. We can’t make them stop. We can only hope for the best and pray for the addict to see the light and make a conscious decision to seek help. Watching this movie makes you want to see Krisha succeed and put her past behind her, but when things begin falling apart for her we can’t look away. Deep down we would like to, but her suffering is all too real to ignore.

“Krisha” shook me in a way very few movies do these days, and it marks the arrival of a gifted feature film director named Trey Edward Shults. Now that we have seen what he can do with the smallest of budgets, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. As for Krisha Fairchild, she is an actress whose work has been under the radar for years, and here she gives one of the most unforgettable performances the world of movies has seen in some time. All good things to those who wait.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

De Palma

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When it comes to interviews, filmmaker Brian De Palma always seems rather remote or looks like he would rather be somewhere else. In an interview about “Redacted,” he flat out told the interviewer he was simply there to sell his movie, and the interviewer replied perhaps De Palma was enjoying his company. To this De Palma replied, “I don’t think so.” So aside from him crushing the interviewer’s ego, his reply illustrates how uncomfortable he gets when talking about his movies. Perhaps this is why he has never done an audio commentary on any of them to date.

But this is the real joy of watching the documentary “De Palma” as he seems more than willing to spill the beans about his life and the inspirations behind his work. It also helps that it was directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, filmmakers De Palma has been friendly with for several years. Whether he’s talking about his greatest works like “Carrie” and “Scarface” or facing up to his critical and commercial disasters like “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the revered filmmaker holds nothing back as he discusses each of them with a sense of humor which shows how he’s dealt with the movie industry and the way it has treated him over the years.

Now De Palma has often been accused of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock, and the documentary does start off with scenes from “Vertigo,” a movie now considered to be the greatest ever made. De Palma said he was so compelled by “Vertigo,” and we can see how this particular Hitchcock film influenced much of his work. However, the documentary gives us a deep overview of his films and how he drew inspiration from other filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard. He also explains the purpose of using split screen as it allows the audience to put everything together for themselves.

One of the real treats of “De Palma” is how it looks at the director’s upbringing, something we haven’t heard much about in the past. He never had much of a relationship with his dad, he says, who was an orthopedic surgeon which had him growing up around a lot of blood. This certainly explains why blood has played a big part in his movies whether it’s the prom scene in “Carrie” or the chainsaw scene in “Scarface.” We also get to see actor Robert De Niro, who appeared in De Palma’s movies “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom,” at the start of his career long before he played Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

From there, we get to view his movies in chronological order and of how his work as a filmmaker evolved from one decade to the next. Now granted, this might make certain viewers a little impatient as they might want to skip ahead to his stories about “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Untouchables,” but it’s sitting through the others before them that shows De Palma’s evolution as a filmmaker and how he managed to pull so much off despite intense pressure from studio executives and the MPAA.

Looking at these descriptions, “De Palma” may sound like just another talking head documentary. In a way it is, but to dismiss it as such would be unfair. De Palma is such an interesting guy on top of being a brilliant filmmaker, and I loved how he looks back at his triumphs and struggles with an almost gleeful sense of humor. He has been through a lot of heartbreak and struggles throughout his life, and it’s kind of a relief to see him laugh at some of the darker moments he was forced to endure.

What both Baumbach and Paltrow have pulled off is more than just the average documentary on a filmmaker you often see on cable. They present us with something which feels more like a friendly conversation with someone who is not always so open, and it’s a real pleasure to sit back and hear him talk. At the same time, “De Palma” also provides us with a look back at the great filmmaking period that was the 1970’s and how that period will never be repeated again. Then again, I have no issue with people proving me wrong there.

But perhaps most importantly, “De Palma” shows us a filmmaker who managed to stay true to his own voice despite working in a business which, as he puts it, makes you lose your own way. Even as he began working with bigger budgets and movie stars, he still tried to stay true to what he wanted to accomplish, and you come out of this documentary admiring him for that. And unlike other filmmakers who were stubbornly resistant to changes in technology, he was quick to utilize them whether it was high definition filmmaking in “Redacted” or the advent of music videos in “Body Double.”

There are many surprises and interesting bits of trivia to be found throughout “De Palma,” and I would rather you discover them for yourselves. What I can tell you is that this is one of the best movies, let alone documentaries, I have seen so far in 2016. It is infinitely interesting and a must for movie buffs and aspiring filmmakers. Whether he intended to or not, Brian De Palma has provided us with a master class in directing many would be smart to watch as the movie business is one which can tear an auteur’s vision apart out of fear or for the sake of profit. But here’s a man who, for better or worse, has done things his own way and continues to do so from one movie to the next.

And while it may be wishful thinking, here’s hoping it will give studio executives enough of a reason NOT to remake “Scarface.” We’ve already seen what others have done to “Carrie” for crying out loud.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * * out of * * * *

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Rio Bravo’

Rio Bravo movie poster

I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and of how he is seen as an American hero to many. There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses an enormous statue of him in his western gear that towers over all those taking a flight out of there. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who don’t want to watch his movies because of that. But come one, we’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo” was directed by Howard Hawks and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a “right wing response” to “High Noon” in which Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to join him in defending the town they live in. In “Rio Bravo” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who has no time at for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. That should give you a good idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.

The plot revolves around Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who murdered another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to arrive to take Burdette away, but his brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until he is freed. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your sibling from being someone’s best friend, in a manner of speaking, behind bars.

“Rio Bravo” is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan where bullets fly in all directions. We see these characters going about their normal lives and the Sheriff starting up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies today would demand filmmakers cut out the character developments and simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like “Rio Bravo” made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced to where we keep losing the art of subtlety.

I see why Wayne was such an incredibly strong presence in movies. He handles the dialogue well, but his best moments come when he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where he glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man walks away. Like Chance, Wayne had a face with a lot of history written all over it, and few others could pull off a scene like that so effectively.

You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in life, and this added immeasurably to the “don’t mess with me” attitude he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others.

The other actor who impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time drinking to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack to where I thought it completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state to a world of sobriety he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.

I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast here. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help this movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe he is quick on the trigger.

But the big scene stealer here is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy. All Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors, and he can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of Chance had me laughing my ass off.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks. He shoots with an economy of style and doesn’t overburden “Rio Bravo” with too much style and overlong shots a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is on the characters and how they interact with one another. This makes the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t want them to get hurt.

Director John Carpenter pointed out how one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can tame Chance. You never doubt Feathers to be an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers where she doesn’t always appear trustworthy.

The scenes Dickinson has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where he can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was 26 when they made this movie. It turns out Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.

“Rio Bravo” is filled with many memorable moments not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.

One of my favorite moments comes when the men come in harmony together as they sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.

I found “Rio Bravo” to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. It certainly holds a strong place in the cinematic history of westerns, and it endures to this very day. Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking it after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can. That’ll be the day!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

 

The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy poster

Some consider “The Bourne Legacy” to be a cinematic cheat, nothing more than a greedy attempt by Universal Pictures to continue a hugely successful franchise without its main stars (Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass). Truth be told however, Universal has done a good job making it clear to audiences that this movie is not out to replace the character of Jason Bourne or have an actor other than Damon playing him. Even though it doesn’t break any new ground in the franchise and threatens to pale in comparison to the trilogy of films which preceded it, “The Bourne Legacy” proves to be an exciting action flick that finds its own rhythm and goes with it.

Describing this movie is a little complicated as it cannot easily be called a sequel or a prequel. This one is really more of a parallel story or a “parallel-quel” if you will. Like “Paranormal Activity 2,” it surrounds the events of the movie which came before it, “The Bourne Ultimatum.” With Jason Bourne systematically taking apart Operation Blackbriar, “Legacy” looks to pull back the curtain to reveal there were several other secret government programs which trained American soldiers to do their dirty work. The program focused on here is Operation Outcome which has employed Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), an agent who’s not suffering from amnesia but one who knows he is as easily expendable as Bourne.

In differentiating Aaron Cross as a character, Outcome agents are shown to be more like mice in a science lab as they are given certain kinds of medication which give them increased mental and physical abilities. There are no red or blue pills like in “The Matrix,” but instead green and blue ones which Aaron needs to function. If he misses a dose or doesn’t have access to a refill, he will go into serious withdrawal and could die. Anyone who has had experience with certain medications can certainly understand how bad the withdrawal part can get.

When the situation with Bourne gets as explosive as it did in the last film, retired Air Force Colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is brought in to contain the situation and decides the Outcome agents need to be eliminated for the government’s own protection. So despite the agents’ allegiance to their countries, they are stabbed in the back and assassinated in the coldest way possible.

Aaron narrowly escapes an assassination attempt and ends up going on the run to escape detection and to find some more of those pills. This has him traversing through the Alaskan wilderness while being chased by wolves and going all the way to the Philippines. Joining him in his exploits is Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), one of the doctors who helped Aaron achieve such amazing abilities. The setup does have a ring familiarity about it as Marta, like Marie in “The Bourne Identity,” sees her life get turned upside down and is forced to go on the run with Cross. But whereas Marie was an individual who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, Marta does have a stronger purpose as Aaron needs her to stay alive.

 

I could spend a lot of time comparing “The Bourne Legacy” with the three previous films, but I would rather not. Those three movies set a new standard for action movies which is extremely hard to top, and that makes certain comparisons somewhat unfair. Greengrass at one time joked that doing another Jason Bourne movie might as well have him calling it “The Bourne Redundancy,” and that could have been the case here. Indeed, the setup is the same with two characters on the run from a government that has betrayed them, but Tony Gilroy does ground this story in a reality that wasn’t as present in the previous movies.

Gilroy has already made himself well known as one of the main architects of the Jason Bourne movies with his involvement in writing the screenplays for them, but his talents as a director were established before “The Bourne Legacy” with “Michael Clayton” which was one of 2007’s best movies. He does solid work in making this particular Bourne movie stand out from the others, and he doesn’t have the camera shaking all over the place.

Renner creates an intriguing enough character in Aaron Cross that makes us want to follow him some more in the future. Renner has long since acquitted himself as an actor in movies like “The Hurt Locker,” “The Town” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” and with “The Bourne Legacy” he gets a lead role in a motion picture worthy of his talents.

And while her character yells more than she should, Weisz is Renner’s equal in one scene to the next as she is thrown into a situation which changes her life permanently. Weisz is a powerful actress to say the least, and she keeps us hanging on during the movie’s more intense sequences.

Edward Norton creates a down to earth nemesis with his character of Eric Byer. While Norton is not always known as one of the easiest actors to deal work with, we know he will always give a multi-dimensional portrait of each character he plays. Eric is not a man driven to do evil, but one whose patriotism forces him to do extreme things in order to protect his country.

You also have to acknowledge actors like Oscar Isaac, Donna Murphy, Zeljko Ivanek and Stacy Keach who take their small roles and made them into compelling characters. Other actors who show to reprise their roles, however briefly are David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, and Joan Allen who once again proves with a single line that Deputy Director Pamela Landy is not a person to be messed with.

I missed John Powell’s brilliant music from the past three movies, and the scoring duties this time are left to Gilroy’s frequent composer James Newton Howard. Powell created adrenaline pumping music for the previous three movies that fused orchestral and electronic elements together to thrilling effect. Having said that, Howard is an excellent composer in his own right, and he does give the movie the kinetic score it deserves.

With “The Bourne Legacy,” Tony Gilroy gives us a new chapter in this franchise which in some ways is more realistic than the ones which came before. This may take fans for a bit of a loop depending on what they expect, but it still manages to deliver the goods all the same. Still, it would have been nice for Aaron Cross to have his own theme song instead of Jason Bourne’s (“Extreme Ways” by Moby). How about “Renegade” by Styx? That would work.

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2012.

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond poster

With “Star Trek Beyond,” the rebooted franchise now follows the Enterprise crew on its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations and to boldly go where no one has gone before. What results is a mixed bag of a movie that gets a little too bombastic for its own good at times, but which still entertains better than many of the other summer blockbusters released in 2016. More importantly, this movie remembers what makes “Star Trek” so memorable: the relationships these characters have with one another.

We meet up with James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew in the third of their five-year mission. Kirk finds his duties as captain growing monotonous and becomes increasingly interested in accepting a promotion to Vice Admiral. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is reeling from his breakup with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the death of Spock Prime (the late Leonard Nimoy) to where he is considering leaving Starfleet to help New Vulcan. Scotty (Simon Pegg) still loves his warp engines, Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) are still at the helm, and McCoy (Karl Urban) is still eager to remind everyone that he is a doctor and nothing other than that.

The Enterprise’s latest assignment has them traveling through an unstable nebula on a rescue mission, but it turns out to be a trap that destroys the Enterprise and leaves its crew stranded on an alien planet whose inhabitants are quick to enslave them. An alien commander named Krall (Idris Elba) seeks to destroy the Federation of Planets for reasons which eventually become clear as the movie goes on.

As the trailers for “Star Trek Beyond” have long since revealed, the Enterprise is destroyed early on. This isn’t the first time we have seen this famous starship destroyed. We watched helplessly as it self-destructed in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” and we its lower half explode and its saucer section make a spectacular crash landing in “Star Trek: Generations.” But what’s significant about this movie’s Enterprise is that it is destroyed very early on as opposed to the halfway point. This is a bold move as these films thrive on the presence of the Enterprise for the most part, but here we see it destroyed from the get go to where you wonder how the crew can do their jobs without it. As a result, things in “Star Trek Beyond” feel more unpredictable than usual as everyone is separated from one another and trying to figure out what to do without easy access to the Federation of Planets.

J.J. Abrams stepped away from the director’s chair as he was busy directing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In his place is Justin Lin who is best known for his numerous contributions to “The Fast & The Furious” franchise, but I also like to remind people of his 2002 film “Better Luck Tomorrow” which I felt made him a good choice to helm this “Star Trek” movie. Thanks to a script by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, he takes the time to focus on the characters and their evolving relationships with one another. I especially loved the scenes between Spock and McCoy as these two can’t stand one another but still need to rely on each other when danger looms over them. Spock may find the fear of death of illogical, but McCoy rightly points out that it is what keeps us alive. This is reminds me of a pivotal moment from the original “Star Trek” television series when McCoy said, “Do you know why you’re not afraid to die Spock? You’re more afraid of living.”

Having said that, Lin does make the action scenes in “Star Trek Beyond” feel, and I have to say it, a little too fast and furious. It gets to where we threaten to lose sight of the movie’s plot and what its main antagonist is aiming for. I imagine that when I see this “Star Trek” movie again, and seeing any “Star Trek” movie just once is not enough, I will better understand all that is going on, but the fact that I wasn’t able to follow every little detail here did take away from my enjoyment. I liked “Star Trek Beyond,” but I came out of it feeling like I could have liked it a lot more.

Speaking of the main antagonist, he is Krall and is portrayed by Idris Elba, an excellent choice as he is the kind of actor who can elicit fear with just a look of his eyes. Like Oscar Isaac in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” he is covered up with way too much makeup which threatens to take away from his natural charisma, but he still gives us a villain that is in no way, shape or form a one-dimensional character. As “Star Trek Beyond” goes on, we learn that he is a victim of circumstances beyond his control, but while that doesn’t justify his actions, it certainly explains why he does what he does. Elba is one of the best actors out there today, and his performance here is further proof of that.

It’s great to see how these actors have grown into the roles they were first cast in seven years ago. Pine shows how the years of space travel have worn down Kirk’s soul but not his spirit. Quinto continues to do excellent work as Spock, having made this character his own a long time ago. Urban remains a pitch perfect McCoy, and his delivery of that character’s classic catchphrases is worth the price of admission. Saldana continues to give us a kick-ass Uhura who isn’t about to take shit from anyone, and I mean anyone. With this “Star Trek” movie, Pegg gets to make Scott more than a comic foil as he works to get the support of a particular alien who can help him and the crew defeat Krall. And there’s Yelchin who finally gets to do much more as Chekov here than in the previous films. He’s terrific here, and it makes his recent death all the more tragic as he was a major talent whose life was cut much too short.

Special mention also goes to Sofia Boutella who gives a genuinely strong alien warrior character in Jaylah. This is the same actress who made an undeniably memorable impression as the henchwomen whose prosthetic legs were designed to leave some serious damage. Boutella steals every scene she has here as Jaylah looks to defend herself against those who destroyed her family, and I can’t wait to see what role she will take on next.

While part of me wishes “Star Trek Beyond” was a better movie than it is, it still proves to be better than many of the other summer blockbusters released so far in 2016. Many believe that this franchise is still be converted into one resembling “Star Wars,” but I don’t believe that as the filmmakers involved are fully aware that the characters are far more important in this one than the special effects. It also makes me smile that this franchise continues to live on to further generations no matter what. While some look at Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future as nothing but hooey, others see it as one that nobody should stop believing in, and I am one of those people. Here’s to this franchise continuing to live long and prosper no matter what.

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Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is an Infinitely Intense Thriller

10 Cloverfield Lane poster

A few hours after watching “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I found my nerves were still fried by what I had just witnessed. It feels like it has been ages since a movie made me feel that way, so that’s quite the compliment. Billed as a “spiritual successor” and a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield,” this one works best if you know very little about it when you go inside the theater. Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten a kick out of this as the filmmakers play with your expectations and leave you in a suspended state of suspense throughout. It would be wise to see the movie before reading this review because it is that riveting.

The movie opens on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things and moving out of the apartment she shares with her fiancé Ben. While driving through rural Louisiana, she ends up getting into a very serious car accident which renders her unconscious, and she later wakes up to find herself in a concrete room chained to the wall. Eventually she meets Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who tells her he saved her life and is nursing her back to health. However, Howard also tells her that a deadly attack has taken place and that everyone outside is dead or dying.

They end up occupying an underground bunker which Howard built himself as he always suspected that America was going to be attacked somehow, and along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) they try to live normally by watching videos, doing puzzles, playing board games and occasionally playing a song on the jukebox. But things are never what they appear to be, and soon the bunker won’t be big enough for the three of them.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” marks the feature film directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg whose previous work includes a short film entitled “Portal: No Escape” which caught the eye of producer J.J. Abrams. It’s a heck of a debut as Trachtenberg puts us right into Michelle’s shoes as we come to have as much an idea of what’s going on as she does. Was there really an attack? Is Howard really worth trusting? Should they stay in the bunker until it’s alright to come out? Questions keep coming up as we try to stay one step ahead of the characters, but anything is possible and nothing can be left to chance.

Trachtenberg is also well served by a strong screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and “Whiplash’s” writer/director Damien Chazelle which gives us characters who are complex and easy to relate to. These three people are not cardboard idiots out to make the dumbest mistakes possible but instead complex individuals trying to navigate through their own personal issues while attempting to adjust to a possibly post-apocalyptic world. This only adds to the very palpable tension which escalates throughout as does the sharp cinematography by Jeff Cutter, the efficient editing by Stefan Grube and the pulse-pounding music score by “Battlestar Galactica” composer Bear McCreary.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven to be a terrific actress thanks to her unforgettable turns in movies like “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and in the criminally underrated “Smashed.” She is a revelation here as Michelle as her character goes from running away from trouble to being forced to confront it head on. It’s great to see Winstead portray Michelle not as some ordinary action heroine, but instead as someone trying to stay one step ahead of those who might not have her best interests in mind.

John Gallagher, Jr. is perhaps best known for his work onstage in the rock musicals “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” as well as for appearing on “The Newsroom.” For a moment it looks like his character of Emmett is going to be some clichéd southern dude, but Gallagher never falls into that trap as he reveals Emmett to be a man whose best days may have passed him by, but who is not about to give up on life and those he cares about.

But after coming out of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I kept wondering if audiences realize just what a great actor John Goodman is. He has delivered one terrific performance after another for years, but has his talent been taken for granted? After serving time on “Roseanne,” he delivered a stellar performance as the seriously disturbed insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. I was reminded of that performance while watching him here as Howard as this is a character who cannot be simply described as a good or bad guy. Goodman makes him into a complex human being and one who is driven by fear more than anything else, and this makes the actions he commits all the more unnerving.

It may still be early in 2016, but Goodman most definitely deserves Oscar consideration here. He proves what a masterful actor he is in that he never has to move a muscle in certain scenes to generate severe unease in the other characters as well as the audience. Just a glare from his eyes will have you on edge as Howard is a man desperate to control his surroundings as well as the people living with him. It’s a frightening performance as Goodman makes Howard terrifyingly unpredictable in his actions. At one point Howards seems agreeable, and in the next he finds himself in a rage. If you are not convinced that Goodman is one of the best actors working in movies today, watching him here should change your mind.

Like I said, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has been described as a “blood relative” or a “spiritual successor” to “Cloverfield.” Those descriptions are very appropriate as it differs quite a bit stylistically to the 2008 movie. None of the characters from “Cloverfield” appear here, and this one is not a found footage film which means no shaky cam. In fact, it’s highly likely that “10 Cloverfield Lane” doesn’t even exist on the same timeline as “Cloverfield.” Still, this movie does share a number of thematic elements that were prominent in its predecessor. To say just how many of them it shares, however, would ruin many of the surprises in store for the audience.

While most sequels or follow ups try to outdo their predecessors by giving us something even bigger, this follow up is instead more simplistic in its approach and shows how less can be more. Trachtenberg makes you experience every claustrophobic and nerve wracking moment to an infinite degree, and it makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow “Cloverfield” right out of the water.

2016 has so far given some good movies and others that will be forgotten in no time at all, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is one of the first great movies I have seen so far in this early year. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride filled with sharp turns, and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

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The Duel

The Duel poster

The Duel” is one of those movies that wants to generate tension you can feel simmering below the surface, but it doesn’t come to life until it is much too late. It’s a shame because it features a pair of mesmerizing performances that are offset by a weak one, and its last half really does keep you on the edge of your seat. Everything leading up to that, however, is undone by a dullness that infects the whole proceedings.

The movie starts off in the year 1866 as young David Kingston watches his father get killed in a knife duel by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and then it moves to 20 years later with David (now played by Liam Hemsworth) a man and serving as a Texas Ranger. David gets assigned to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that have taken place in an Old West frontier town named Helena, and he reluctantly brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) who doesn’t want to wait for him to return home. It is there that he becomes reacquainted with Abraham who is the town’s preacher and manages to keep the people there in a fearful grip. You should have a pretty good idea of where the story will go from this description.

The setup of the story is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which had Leonardo DiCaprio avenging his father’s death at the hands of Daniel Day Lewis, and “The Duel” looks to travel that same path. The problem is that director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook are not entirely sure how to reach the expected climax with David and Abraham fighting to the death. There are also many questions the movie raises and never answers in a satisfying way, and it really should not have taken long for Abraham to realize who David really is. As a result, the movie never comes to life until we get past the halfway point.

The best thing about “The Duel” is Woody Harrelson who, at this point in his career, can play just about any character he wants to whether it’s in a comedy or a drama. Right from the start, he is a menacing presence as he stares down into everybody’s soul and manages to put the town under a hypnotic spell. Harrelson has played his share of bad dudes before in movies like “Natural Born Killers,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Rampart,” and Abraham Brant is another he can add to his ever-growing resume. Harrelson may have made his Hollywood breakthrough playing a dim-witted bartender on “Cheers,” but watching him in “The Duel” makes that seem like such a distant memory.

Another strong performance comes from Alice Braga as Marisol, David’s wife who falls under Abraham’s spell to where you really want to kick David for leaving her alone so much. Braga is riveting as she takes Marisol from a strong-willed woman to one who is under the grip of something she is desperate to get control over. This is not some stock female character that can be found in your typical western movie, and Braga makes that very clear throughout.

But then there’s Liam Hemsworth who is simply miscast as David Kingston. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a Texas Ranger, but that he shows no real acting range in the role. In many ways he gives an emotionless performance, and it would have been better if another actor equal to Harrelson were cast in his place. Hemsworth just doesn’t bring much to the part, and the movie suffers considerably as a result.

For what it’s worth, Darcy-Smith does a very good job of transporting the audience back to the 1880’s as everything we see feels authentic to the era. He also jacks up the tension considerably in the last half as David and Abraham try to outsmart one another in the barren fields outside of town, and there’s a taut scene where the two face off in the town’s bar. It’s a very effective moment as the anticipation of guns going off becomes unbearably strong, and we can’t be sure of who is going to walk out of there alive.

Indeed, there are many things to like about “The Duel” from its production values to its performances, so it is frustrating to say that it really disappoints. The filmmakers may have wanted to emulate the great and gritty westerns of the past like “The Wild Bunch” or any starring John Wayne, but it can’t hold a candle to them. They are many who say that the western is dead, but no genre ever really dies. But after watching “The Duel,” it does feel like it needs a lot of reenergizing.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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