Review: The Grey

If all audiences are able to take one thing from “The Grey” when they go and see it, it will not be a unanimous verdict of whether it is a good or bad film, but that there may not be a bigger bad ass in Hollywood right now than Liam Neeson. It may not be “Taken” Liam Neeson destroying the underbellies of Paris, but the presence and gravitas he brings to his character still make him a man you don’t want to mess with. When it comes to the movie though itself it will all come down to whether or not you can look past the fact that it isn’t the action adventure the trailer promises, but rather a more inward looking experience of people dealing and coming to terms with life and death. I personally can say that I enjoyed the film maybe a little more for this reason, though at times it could be heavy-handed, because the “we’re being chased by wolves” angle was a bit one dimensional until the end.

The look of “The Grey” is an element in itself that should impress anyone. It is beautifully shot by Masanobu Takayanagi, the film captures the harsh elements of the Alaskan wilderness the story is set in, the chaotic and terrifying moments where the characters run for their lives, but also the beauty of the wilderness and the warmth of the character’s memories that are shown at times in flashbacks. Also, Joe Carnahan has a clear vision of the story, which isn’t the one the ads would have you believe, but from the first minutes of the film the tone is set and Carnahan doesn’t waver from it despite the temptation to make it a strict action/survival thriller kind of movie, and that is something you have to respect.

Speaking of the tone of the film, a majority of the film is a reflective study that covers faith, life and death, a pretty heavy-handed subject but one that works with the situation at hand since the main characters survive a plane crash, are stuck in freezing temperatures, and are being pursued by man-eating wolves. As I mentioned earlier these are the moments in the film that I liked the best because they gave allowed for a breath between the “how are we going to stop the wolves” question. And there is no one answer in the end that they come out of, every character is affected differently by the situation they are presented and that leads differently to their fate. It makes each death a little more meaningful than in a lot of strict action films.

And now for the man of the hour: Liam Neeson. In the summer there was word that this was a performance from Neeson that if it had come out in 2011 could have garnered him some award attention. Clearly that didn’t happen but the hype is justified, maybe not enough to have really challenge any of the nominees from this past year, but it is a very solid performance from an actor who has had quite the career resurgence in the last coupe of years. He demands the attention of the audience and his fellow characters when it would be easy to slip into a state of panic and fear, but then he’ll show his own side of fear and loss that can rock you. This isn’t like “Taken”, a solid performance, but secondary to the joy of seeing someone like Neeson just kick some serious ass, this is a performance that demands more than just the physical ability, and Neeson pulls it off extremely well.

However there are things that just keep this movie from really doing it for me. If you’ve seen the trailer I’m sure you remember the shot where Liam Neeson is under the covers with a woman, his wife, and then she is pulled back and Neeson wakes up in the snow after the plane crash. I personally loved that shot, however it isn’t the first time in the film that shot, or something very similar, is used and so right away the uniqueness of that shot it taken away. Also, again regarding his wife, that part of the story line is entirely predictable, which then makes the ending a little less impactful. Then we get to the wolves, which I found more of a threat when they were just howling in the woods then when they actually attack. It could have been really interesting if they took the “Jaws” approach and went with the unseen terror; because when they actually attack it’s just a big black/grey furry blob taking up the screen.

Still the movie comes out as a good one for me, a film that isn’t afraid to go into more thought provoking areas rather than just your typical action film. That may do it for you or not, as I can see this going down as a film with a lot of detractors and some very passionate followers as well. It reminds though of my experience with “The Tree of Life”, it was a film I was middle of the road on, and I found myself somewhere along those lines again, but the fact that we didn’t have an hour of celestial majesty put it more on the positive side without question.

Review: The Artist

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

Right from when the fade up to the opening credits with the textile background and velvet looking credits appeared I knew “The Artist” was going to be a piece of film truly echoing back to the era it portrays. And I couldn’t have been happier about that. It is a masterful example of a silent film with a true touch of 1920s cinema but the cinematic ability and skill of today. The story of the Artist himself, Jean Dujardin’s George Valentine, is strong but a little weak at the climax of the film, but all is forgiven as this was an experience that hasn’t been readily available for the world for such a long time, and if you have ever seen and enjoyed a silent film, one that you should see first hand.

Michel Hazanavicius deserves so much credit here. First, he wrote a true silent film. It had the feel of something that could have been made in the 1930s, it’s pace, the type of dialogue that would be chosen for title cards, even exactly how the sentences would have been written or spoken back then. And on top of that he directs this in a way that if it wasn’t for the camera quality and the presence of actors like John Goodman and James Cromwell (both do an excellent job) the case could be strongly made that this film was made in 1933. But if it were made in 1933, it would already be classified as a revolutionary piece of filmmaking because he blends new techniques and a more present style nearly flawlessly with the classical approach. If there was a type of film that ever proved that film is a director’s medium it is a silent film, because there is no witty dialogue to hide behind, if the film fails, the director failed. Hazanavicius does not even come close to failing as this is a masterfully crafted, pitch perfect film, silent or not.

The acting is what comes next to mind. As I mentioned veteran actors like Goodman and Cromwell lend their talents to this film and do an excellent job, and there presence in the film does not make it odd, they fall so naturally into this environment, as do all of the actors, but none more so than Jean Dujardin. Dujardin picks up a style of acting long lost with such ease and charisma that he is a revel to watch even without the complexities of George Valentine; lets just say he would be one hell of a mime. But he goes further than that; Valentine is a confident seeming actor on top of the world when the film begins, but with the emergence of talking pictures we soon see him as what he truly is, a man so scarred to put himself out there and go away from his comfort zone that he is not able to make that leap to talkies as people have only ever loved his face and his fancy clothes, could they ever love his voice too? He would rather see himself in ruin then to take that chance, and he does. Dujardin embodies this fear, as he must without the crutch of telling us with words, and that feat is something that everyone should truly appreciate. Berenice Bejo also takes to the silent style with minimal problems, and she does a fantastic job as the bright eyed emerging star who still remembers and admires that man that gave her her start, Valentine.

The only thing that I found that frustrates me a bit is the path Valentine takes in his third act. It is predictable and over dramatic, and its resolution too simple. However, that in itself is an echo back to the early days of cinema as melodramas were what people connected with more, and the happy endings had to come. So while by today standards it is a weakness, it fits, and doesn’t detract from the overall joy that the movie is.

One more kudos for Hazanavicius, and something that might make everyone a little happy to know. The film is not 100% silent. There are a couple of  scenes where sound is incorporated to brilliant effect. I won’t go into it because I think it is something that should be seen rather than told because they really are fantastic scenes.

I’m biased. I have always liked silent films. I’m a big fan of Charlie Chaplin and others, but even enjoy silent films that aren’t slapstick comedies, from King Vidor’s “The Big Parade”, to the first Best Picture Winner, and only silent film to do so (to date), “Wings”. I have been anticipating this movie for some time and it did not disappoint, me. I know there are those who have never seen a silent film and will have a problem getting over that hurdle, but this is a film that will be able to convert you if you can be converted. Maybe this is a resurgence of the silent style, but admittedly that is a long, long, long shot. But even if silent films don’t make a comeback, this film does honor to the history of cinema as well as bring us a wholly enjoyable experience at the cinema regardless of how it was shot and recorded.

Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has been one of the most well know books to be released in the last ten years and since the Hollywood adaptation was announced a couple of years ago with David Fincher directing it’s been one of the more anticipated movies, I count myself as one of those who eagerly awaited for it. And now that it is here I have to say it is probably the most disappointing film of the year for me. Is it a horrible movie? No. But with the level of expectation that I had for what Fincher and company could do to tell this story, possibly improve from the Swedish adaptation, it fell short. The only thing that met was Rooney Mara’s performance, which equals if not exceeds that of Noomi Rapace’s star making turn as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish films.

Let’s start with the story. The book is somewhere around four hundred pages long, and it is extremely detailed and intricate as any good mystery novel needs to be. In an interview David Fincher gave one thing he said was how after first reading the book it was difficult for him to determine what could be cut. And while every scene is in one way or another contributing to the details of the story, the pace at which it is delivered here is about as slow an iceberg, especially compared to Fincher’s last outing, “The Social Network”. Bloated is a term that came to mind when I was watching the film. Then to my surprise the final cut to black of the film was so abrupt and against the pacing of the two and a half hours that came before it. There are changes to the original book and Swedish adaptation here and there, but nothing that is to alarming; in fact the changes that Fincher and writer Steven Zaillian employed is one of the highlights from the two.

As for Fincher himself, he is known to be one of the most stylistic directors working today, but this was tame. It is a well-shot film; it’s pretty much clean, well done overall. But this was a film both visually and as stated about the story above that doesn’t ring as a David Fincher production. The main plot point of the film that involves the mystery of Harriet Vagner is the world that takes up a good 70% of the film, and that is a world that I don’t think is longing for the touch of someone like Fincher. He is much more suited for Lisbeth Salander’s story, and that really shows as those are the parts that are most alive in the first half of the film, and then she again is the pulse of the film in the second half, her and when we finally get into some of the more gruesome details, the reasons why Steig Larson’s book was originally titled “Men Who Hate Women.” The film felt like it was on cruise control, completely satisfied to let it go sailing along when what I was really wanting for the majority of the film was an energy boost.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the script and the visuals that kept the energy down, the actors themselves couldn’t help the film along, save Rooney Mara, but I’ll get to her in a moment. At first glance this is an excellent cast: Daniel Craig, Robin Wright, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard. Robin Wright is barely in it, and when she is her character of Erika Berger, which you wouldn’t know unless you read the books because it is never said in the movie, is actually quite flat, and her relationship with Craig’s character is not even close to as important as it was in the books. Christopher Plummer is kind of passed over, he’s okay, but like Wright, he is so rarely seen that his performance and anything overly interesting about his character is hidden. I actually feel bad that I included Skarsgard in with the other actors as not really coming through, I have to correct myself, and he does to a pretty good job with his character of Martin Vagner. So my apologies to Mr. Skarsgard.

The real cake of the actors underperforming is Daniel Craig, however. We get plenty of Mikael Blomkvist, but Craig’s problem is that he plays everything at such a monotonous level that even when something new in the mystery comes up, all we get from him is a slight turn of the head to signal something is askew. Blomkvist had more swagger in the books, and in the Swedish film, and with James Bond himself portraying him I’m surprised that that wasn’t there more.

And then there is Rooney Mara. She’s fantastic. The character of Lisbeth Salander is why these books became popular, and the reason I believe that Fincher probably agreed to do this film. And it was a surprise when her casting was announced, but Fincher saw something in her that the rest of us didn’t and thank goodness he did. Mara can be as tough as Lisbeth needs to be, and she is certainly a badass, but what really makes her performance so good is when her guard is down. What I love about Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is that she’s completely believable as the girl who hacks computers and gets in fights, but she is even more believable, and endearing, when her insecurities come out and she is in situations with people that she is able to connect with, a rare occasion for her.

Those relationships, with Blomqkist especially, are definitely the strongest part of Fincher’s film, and the biggest improvement on the Swedish film. The Swedes built around the mystery more than anything else, Fincher and Zaillian could have taken a lesson from that, but they really left the juicy stuff of Salander and Blomkvist alone, as a result, where the relationship goes in the sequels isn’t as fully understood, and it even feels like it’s not an issue at all, which it is in the books. But Fincher nailed it. Lisbeth is revealed more in her relationship with Blomkvist than with anyone else in her entire life. And because of this Mara is able to get in touch with her character more than anyone else in the film, and she is able to knock it out of the park, while the others simply just plug along. And as much as the ending of the film and its abruptness jarred me, where it leaves Lisbeth emotionally is just right.

Mara and Fincher, sorry Noomi Rapace, have created the definitive Lisbeth Salander, and that is what should be taken from this overall so-so film. I guess it’s fitting, after reading all three books what I took was that Lisbeth was bigger than everything that happened. It wasn’t the story that gripped us so much as it was this girl that we simply couldn’t get enough of. Unfortunately the stories won’t be changing, and in my opinion this was the best book of the trilogy, so we might have some more meh films to come, but hopefully Mara is able to deliver again whenever the sequel inevitably comes.

What’s your take on the film? Did it live up to the book if you’ve read it, or the Swedish film if you’ve seen it?

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”

Both positive and negative reviews of the new “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” often talks about how this is not the same Holmes that was originally imagined on the page by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Those that see this as a positive say that because of Holmes’ new action heavy style of solving his cases it is more in line with the type of films that most audiences want to see today. I however arrive somewhere in the middle, enjoying the fast paced action when it is called for, but longing for the devilishly clever detective that solves mysteries. For at the heart of my concern for this new Sherlock I wonder where was the mystery?

When we last left Holmes and Watson, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, both seemingly more on coast in the sequel than in the first installment, they had become aware of the threat of Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). We pick up with Holmes investigating Moriarty for some time now, and Moriarty well aware of this fact. They begin a game of cat and mouse, letting each other know of their plans throughout the movie as if to see which one will be able to use their wits the best. And the ultimate goal of Moriarty I won’t say specifically for those who are going to see the film, but if you’ve seen “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” you might be a little disappointed.

The original was able to bring a new unique perspective to the legend of Sherlock Holmes through a handful of things, Guy Ritchie’s unique directing style, Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score, and Robert Downey Jr.’s narcissistic know-it all Sherlock that he brought alive. All of which are either played up to death or seemingly drowned out here.

First, Ritchie seems to think that since people liked the slow motion snippets of Holmes analyzing his fighting style why go away from it… ever. Every time Holmes is involved in any type of fisticuffs we must first go with a minute long analysis of how he intends to defeat his opponents. It reaches the point of stupidity when Holmes and Moriarty face off themselves and apparently, because of one can only assume their genius brains, can communicate telepathically on how they intend to fight the other. Ritchie also decides that is not enough for just Holmes’ foresight to be shown in slow motion, the running through the forest scene in the trailer is almost constantly going in and out of slow motion. Ritchie brought a uniquely modern style to the first installment, but this time he tried to hard to recreate it.

Second, the score. Hans Zimmer’s score was completely missing it seemed. My number one suspect, all of the explosions and action sequences became the backdrop instead of continuing on the Oscar nominated score from the original. It’s unfortunate because Zimmer is one of the best composers working today and it really would have added to the overall quality of the film if it were more present. And then there is Mr. Downey. His charm and quick wit made his character lovable the first time around, but the second time we were wise to his antics and it doesn’t come off as charming or as witty twice, maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising since a similar thing happened with his portrayal of Tony Stark. Sherlock does though what Iron Man attempted to do with Sam Rockwell’s character, to create a character similar to that of the title one and have them just as entertaining. Rockwell failed, but Jared Harris as Moriarty is a clear representation of what Holmes could be as a villain and it is really one of the real joys to watch in the film.

Outside of that, Noomi Rapace is underwhelming in her first major film in the U.S. after her success in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo”, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s back and forth as Holmes and Watson is much flatter, and the inclusion of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes is fruitless except to cover some holes in the plot.

Interestingly enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could write a whole new Sherlock book on where the mystery was in this film. From the get go we know it is Moriarty, he in fact tells us himself, but that’s not the problem. There were few things that only Holmes knew that the audience couldn’t quite figure out or wasn’t told shortly after to keep the exact details of Moriarty’s plan a secret, and when there were these instances they were quite underwhelming. Holmes is a private detective, but this is rather more along the lines of a rogue cop having to shoot his way out of a dilemma and happening to discover the master plan along the way.

I will not say that I was not entertained at all, there is one sequence where we learn of a particular fear of Holmes’ that is enjoyable, but it drags on too long. Overall, if you liked the first one go ahead and see this one, maybe these things will be different for you, but if you were already middle of the road I wouldn’t worry about passing on this until it comes out on a cheaper method of viewing.

Review: A Better Life

Demian Bichir in “A Better Life”

I’ve had “A Better Life” lying around for the past week or so, unable to find a real good time to watch it with finals and finishing up with school. But I’m done with school now and thought I’d start my first day off with it. It just so happens to coincide with today’s SAG award nominations, where the star, Demian Bichir earned a surprising, but well deserved Best Actor nomination. This is a film that came out over the summer, a small independent that probably didn’t make it out of the art house cinemas of Los Angeles and New York, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is for many of you the first time that you’re hearing about “A Better Life”.

The film takes place in Los Angeles where Carlos Galindo (Bichir), an illegal alien, raises his 14-year old son, Luis, alone. He words as a gardener who has just bought his own truck and has high aspirations that things will start to turn around for him and his son; that he will be able to pay for a new home, get Luis to a better school and take him way from their current environment, where the constant threat of gangs in East L.A. is ever present. However, the truck is stolen from Carlos and he and Luis must find it or the dream that they had will shatter.

To say this film pulls at the heart string with a father only wanting to do what is best for his son is an understatement. Bichir helps create a character who not only has the best intentions for this son, but has such integrity and morals that and damage to any person is a huge pain on himself. Bichir’s body language, the pain he pushes through every time he pulls out his lightly filled wallet is clear and makes you at the same time wish he would listen to Luis to no give away their money but also admire and truly care for the kindness and righteousness of his character. If this performance was given by someone of the status of Clooney, Pitt, or another one of the big boys this would be and easy shot for the Oscars, but it’s nice to see that it is being recognized and hopefully continues to have support.

The film itself draws an instant reminder of “The Bicycle Thief”, the classic Italian Neo-realist film. It is a father and son searching for the one thing that they know can make their life better, a bike, or in the case of Carlos, a truck. The father and son pair in both films go on odysseys to find the thieves of the keys to their economic aspirations but struggle upon struggle follows them. One thing that “A Better Life” does thought that “Bicycle Thief” in my opinion isn’t able to is to really have a strong and fully developed relationship between the father and son. The child in “Bicycle Thief” is young, probably 7 or 8; in this film Luis is 14, he has his own opinions of the world and his father, though those thoughts are that of a cynical 14-year old. But through their tribulations and Luis seeing his father be the best man he can be in a difficult situation he learns and grows to a point that you know that his father has taught him enough to be okay. So it ultimately is a happier experience than if you were to watch “The Bicycle Thief”.

I want to take some time in this review, it being my first official, to forewarn people of some of my preferences when it comes to films. This is a film that as I said earlier probably didn’t play in more than a few hundred theaters, didn’t make a blip on the box-office radar, and prior to it I had heard of no one in front of or behind the camera (through director Chris Weitz’s prior films include popular titles like “About a Boy”). But I’m a fan of small films, films that  take a look into life and characters that maybe at times isn’t the escapism of mainstream cinema. I thoroughly enjoy the fun movies; comedies, action films, blockbusters, but it is experiences like watching this film and the rare occasion when the bigger budget studio pictures aren’t afraid to tread similar ground that look into the relationships and physical, mental, and sometimes like in this film, financial hardships of characters that remind me of the art of cinema that means the most to me.

This is a very good film. I hope that Demian Bichir is able to find future projects where he can show the talent and grace that he showed here. And I hope that some of you guys take the time to sit down and watch this film.