Archive for the ‘ reviews ’ Category

Men Who Hate Women: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For a film so dependent on its plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s story isn’t as gripping as it needs to be. Though seemingly meant to genuinely unsettle us, it too often feels like little more than an exercise in paint-by-numbers. Take its premise, for instance: a falsely-convicted journalist whose name has been dragged through the mud gets a chance to redeem himself and make a few bucks in the process; a family with much to hide on a secluded island adds layers of intrigue; alternative-looking love interest helps everything fall into place and the skeletons come out of the closet one by one. The murder mystery that serves as Dragon‘s catalyst is fine as a starting point, but director Niels Arden Oplev seems less interested in turning the late Stieg Larsson’s 2004 novel into a resonant look at the innate darkness of his native Sweden than an atrocity exhibition a few rungs higher up the ladder than Saw. To this end, there are liberal doses of graphic violence, three rape scenes that add nothing to the plot–and far too little in the way of character development–to justify their inclusion in the first place (to say nothing of their excessive length), and an undercurrent of Nazism lest we forget that even a socialist haven like Sweden has its dark underbelly. Continue reading

Ordinary People: Kick-Ass

We learn everything we need to know about Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), soon to be known as Kick-Ass, in his opening monologue: he is a teenager remarkable only in how unremarkable he is; a bit on the nerdy side, he’s got two friends funnier than he is (though even more forgettable) and an unrequited crush on a girl named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). To put it in his words, “I just existed.” Unfortunately, I tend to agree: Dave does little over the next two hours to distinguish himself, the end result being a movie whose unanchored violence leaves us at sea in terms of whether what we’re watching is meant to be taken with an open mind or a grain of salt. Such is the world of Kick-Ass.

One of the film’s most glaring flaws is that it isn’t consistent with its own logic. The first fifteen minutes are devoted almost entirely to subverting the superhero myth by establishing how painfully normal both its world and its protagonist are, only to abandon that angle half an hour later. What makes Dave unique, we’re led to believe, is that he has no superpowers of any kind; he isn’t bitten by a spider, privy to a vast fortune, or even out for revenge: he’s just a skinny kid who wants to help people. Problem is, Dave gets stabbed and run over the first time he puts his plan to action (note: this is one of the most realistic scenes in the movie), which necessitates that a series of metal plates be infused with his bones. Needless to say, this heightens his pain threshold considerably. This hiccup in logic would be less of an issue if it ended up affecting the plot much, but it doesn’t. Instead, it invites an immediate comparison to Wolverine (something Dave himself happily acknowledges) and contradicts the movie’s own premise that Dave is fundamentally different from other superheroes when, in truth, there’s little setting him apart from someone like Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne: like them, his heroism lies in his moral fiber and the choices he makes. Everything else—their costumes, abilities, and catchphrases—is just an embellishment. That Kick-Ass attempts to reinvent the superhero genre while misunderstanding one of its central tenets is a bit troubling. Continue reading

B.A. in Malaise, Expected: The Graduate

Out of the past and my unending resentment of the goddamn Cinema 7 for not playing Hot Tub Time Machine comes this look at The Graduate, which I’ve been forced to conclude is either a film of its time that hasn’t aged well or one I’ve failed to understand, despite my best efforts. It’s hard to tell which, considering the timeliness of my reviewing the film: In less time than I care to admit, I, too, will have returned home to Los Angeles after graduating from a mysterious college on the east coast. Words fail to convey my great hope that I find life after college less disenchanting than does Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), the title character.

The Graduate works best as a portrait of ’60s-era disillusionment, something no character showcases more clearly than Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). We can tell almost instantly, just from the tone of her voice, what she’s up to: First the ride home from Ben, the request that he come inside, have a drink, listen to some music, and answer a series of personal questions. She’s long ago stopped caring about being subtle or preserving appearance; life for her is unfulfilling, and she’s looking for a distraction. We suspect what she’s doing before Ben does, but it’s not until he says something that these suspicions are confirmed—we know, but we don’t. Continue reading

Seal Your Lips Tight: Samurai Spy

It is clear from the first few frames of Samurai Spy that we are about to watch a film that stands an arm’s length away from its peers in the chanbara genre. It begins and ends with a narrator explaining the story’s historical backdrop, immediately making it clear that the Battle of Sekigahara, which took place in 1600, serves as the catalyst for the events that are to follow: the characters’ lives have been shaped by it to such an extent that some see themselves as mere riders on the crest of a wave of war; they have enjoyed relative peacetime for nearly fourteen years, but can sense that it will soon pass.

Like Sword of the Beast, the film was released in 1965 and has since become part of the Criterion Collection’s Sixties Swordplay Classics. (This strikes me as a bit odd, considering that, while Beast balanced the internal and external action, Spy more clearly focuses on the former.) Another, more defining, commonality is that this is also a character-driven story with a complex protagonist at its core. Our hero in this case is a samurai named Sasuke (Kōji Takahashi), who is, in his own words, “pursued, always pursued by something.” He is trying to literally run from the violence that has made his life the way it is, and somehow avoid the conflict he and everyone else knows is inevitable. Above all else, he wishes that the peace he has gotten used to will last, and is thus reluctant to engage in the battle and intrigue that thrust Spy‘s plot forward, despite his exceptional skill with a sword. One of his final opponents, bleeding to death after being felled by Sasuke, puts it best: “You’re a strange man,” he says, moments from death, “You truly are.” Continue reading

Name and Pride: Sword of the Beast

Sword of the Beast is a strange one. On the surface, it seems a standard tale of swordplay and vengeance, but there’s much more at work here: namely, a meditation on what it means to live honorably as a human, hidden in the guise of an almost Ahabic quest for gold. What better vehicle for such heavy ideas than a samurai film?

The beast of the film’s title is a ronin (masterless sumaurai) named Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), disgraced and on the run after killing a counselor in his clan. He did this on the implicit orders of another superior, a man who then went on to betray him in order to wrest power for himself. Gennosuke’s act is thus murky in terms of morality, and it’s a good while into the movie before you’re able to get good read on him: Even as he’s called anything from a beast to a dog to a wolf–sometimes by himself–it’s clear that there’s a complexity to the character hidden beneath his disenchantment. This development is subtly woven into the 85-minute film; Gennosuke acts far more often than he speaks, and you almost don’t realize you’re getting to know him even as you are. It’s quite a feat, and adds layers to a film whose principal attraction is seemingly its swordplay. Continue reading

To the Lighthouse: Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese is long past the point of having to prove himself. Having finally won his long-overdue Oscar, it seems he can pretty much do whatever he wants (if he couldn’t already). That freedom has led him to the enigmatic Shutter Island, the premise of which almost seems beneath the giant in whose hands it is delivered: and yet it’s because of those hands that the movie works so well. Drawing on uniformly brilliant performances from his cast, stunning cinematography, and his own incomparable skills as a director, Scorsese has woven together a thriller as intricate as it is haunting.

Adapted from the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name, Shutter Island is the story of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), two U.S. Marshals who, in 1954, are sent to the remote Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where a patient has somehow escaped. (Lehane’s work is also behind such recent successes as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.) It’s clear from the onset that Teddy and Chuck are seen as nuisances at best, intruders at worst: they’re met with a lack of cooperation bordering on outright hostility, forced to surrender their firearms, and have trouble getting a straight answer out of anyone. What’s also clear is that Teddy isn’t that stable himself: he’s haunted by the death of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) in a fire, and prone to migraines, seasickness, and dreams bordering on hallucinations. He’s also determined to “blow the lid off” Ashecliffe, about which he’d made up his mind long his arrival on Shutter Island. Continue reading

Buddha’s Punishment: Onibaba

OnibabaIf you’ve seen A League of Their Own and can imagine that film’s setting transposed to fourteenth-century Japan and the womens’ wartime occupations from professional baseball players to samurai-killers, you’re coming close to Onibaba, a Japanese film from 1964 so strange and unsettling that there still doesn’t seem to be a consensus on it. The violence is grisly, the sex nigh-gratuitous. At its core, however, Onibaba is an almost-tragic tale of three people living through war and poverty, coping in ways that only make matters worse for themselves and each other.

Released at a time when Akira Kurosawa still dominated Japanese cinema, the film is handled artfully by director Kaneto Shindô. He presents us with a poignant blend of heavy, black-and-white atmosphere and genuinely unnerving moments of horror. The tension is high immediately, and maintained throughout. This is due in no small part to Onibaba’s three leads, Nobuko Otowa (the woman for whom the film is named),  Jitsuko Yoshimura (the daughter-in-law), and Kei Satô (Hachi), who returns home from war alone, leaving the woman without a son and the daughter without a husband. The web of sex, murder, and betrayal that ensues makes this a tough one to forget. Continue reading

Keep on Rotting in the Free World: Zombieland

Zombieland, the latest entry in the nascent zombie-comedy subgenre, is a film of few surprises. Its archetypal characters are just fleshed-out enough (no pun intended) to keep us interested, and the requisite explanation for the zombie apocalypse is nothing we haven’t seen before. The film doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, nor does it need to: it sticks to a tried and true formula, and relies on the always-charismatic Woody Harrelson to keep us entertained. More Shaun than Dawn, the Ruben Fleischer-helmed film, which proves that boy-meets-girl-meets-zombie can be a recipe for success, delivers just what you’d expect and hope for: gore, laughs, and fun by the bucketful. On a related note, who the hell is Ruben Fleischer?

A pretty lucky guy, as it turns out. Calling Zombieland a directorial triumph would be going too far, but Fleischer’s handling of the film is certainly as good as it needs to be, and it seems a sequel is already in the works. Could this be the advent of a new hybrid genre–the buddy zombie-killer–and could a second installment work as well as the first? Continue reading

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Paul Giamatti: Cold Souls

Guy walks into a doctor’s office. Not for a checkup, not for an x-ray, but because his soul is weighing him down. The man is Paul Giamatti (as a fictionalized version of himself), and his angst stems from an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya in which he’s the title character. He hears about the Soul Storage Company, in whose office he’s now standing, from an article in The New Yorker his agent half-jokingly suggests he read. Believing his soul is hindering his performance, Paul takes the advice seriously, which leads him on a misadventure from New York to–where else–St. Petersburg, Russia.

Such is the world that debutante filmmaker Sophie Barthes has presented to us in Cold Souls, an existential dark comedy that should either be praised for its originality or lamented for inviting unfavorable comparisons to Charlie Kaufman. Maybe both. Continue reading

The Unconsoled: A Single Man

“Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty.” This line, spoken by a male prostitute in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, is perhaps the most poignant and encapsulating of the entire film. The man, named Carlos, says it to George Falconer (Oscar nominee Colin Firth), an English professor at a small college in 1960s Los Angeles trying, as he says to himself in the mirror at the beginning of the movie, to “just make it through the goddamned day.” His partner of the last sixteen years, Jim, has died in a car crash, and George is far from over it. He drifts in and out of the present, reminded of his lover by every little thing, and spends much of the one day over which A Single Man takes place planning to join him again.

The first thing you’ll notice is Firth’s commanding presence, of which more later. The second is the aesthetic: first-time filmmaker Tom Ford (who wrote, directed, and produced) seems in love with his setting, and clearly took great pains to portray it just so. His visual sense lends an air of unreality to the film that matches George’s mood. Events sometimes appear to be flashbacks even when they aren’t, and flashbacks appear to be happening in the present. This sometimes leaves us at sea in terms of what we’re looking at, thus leaving us in the same boat as George. Continue reading

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