29 April 2012

Movies: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1340800/

Mystery Thriller (Cold War espionage-type film)

Set in 1970's and centered around the British intelligence service, specifically the core group at the top.  After an operation goes terribly wrong in Budapest the head of the organization, Control, resigns. It is believed that one of the other four top members directly under Control is a double agent leaking information to the Soviets that led to ruin that operation, and perhaps others. Retired agent Smiley is contacted on the side to out the mole and is assigned a trusted agent, Peter Guillam, to help him.

Stars a great core cast of folks with Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt as Control, plus Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik rounding out the core top men in the intelligence service.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Peter Guillam, Smiley's 'agent on the inside'. This time I had no trouble spotting Cumberbatch, unlike in "The Whistleblower" where I forgot to pay attention. I point out Cumberbatch 'cause (1) that's a cool name and (2) he plays a great modern take on Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series "Sherlock" which should be airing on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery starting May 6, 2012. The first season was darn good and I'm looking forward to this next one.

That aside aside, back to this film.

This film requires paying close attention. At first I had a bit of trouble keeping track of who is who and what's happening when and where.  The events happen in sort of a present/flashback/present oscillation, where you get to see what's happening, what's lead up to it, more of what's happening, more about the background of this or that, and sometimes I wasn't sure if what was happening was past or present. As the film progressed I did get a little better at sorting things out, and right before the end I was good and caught up. By the credits roll I felt the resolution was well worth the effort of watching.

The cast and acting were superb, as one would expect from such a cast. Technical aspects of filming were top-notch as well. All bundled with a very good story. Apparently the first English language production by the director, Tomas Alfredson, who directed the very-good "Let the Right One In".

This film is based on a 1974 spy novel of the same name, and a 1979 seven-part BBC series again of the same name. Checking the background I found out that the story is inspired by true events involving the Cambridge Five. The film made me consider watching the old BBC series. As dense as the film seemed I suspect exploring this story in seven episodes would make it a bit easier to follow. 

If having to pay attention to a film makes it too much effort to watch this one will certainly try your patience, but it is a solid story and worth every frustration to see it through to the end. Especially if you enjoy real-world(ish) Cold War espionage type films.

20 April 2012

Movies: The Descendants

The Descendants (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1033575/

Drama

Matt King is a lawyer by trade and lives on Oahu in the Hawaiian islands. Descended of King Kamehameha's daughter that married a haolie he is the sole trustee in control of a large tract of land on Kauai. By law the trust will dissolve in seven years, so out of respect for his living cousins he's been meeting with them to collaboratively discuss selling the land off and splitting the money.
During this time his wife is in a boating accident. He retrieves his oldest daughter (17) from private school so she can be with him and his other daughter (7). As his job kept him away from home much of the time he had little idea how to interact with his kids and vice versa. As the damage to her brain is so great that, per stipulation of her living will, she will be taken off life support. As Matt tries to reconnect with his daughters he finds out why his oldest had such a rebellious and contentious attitude. She had caught her mother having an affair with another man. When she tells Matt, Matt's world falls apart even more.  Matt decides to track the guy down on Kauai and ends up making a family vacation out of the trip.

The film is a character drama exploring the relationships between Matt, his daughters, his comatose wife, their friends, her parents, his wife's adulterous love interest.

Stars George Clooney as Matt. Also Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Beau Bridges. Some greats in the cast and the supporting cast does quite well too. Good acting, great scenery, production and writing.  Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, writer/director of "Sideways" and producer of "Cedar Rapids".

The story is poignant and funny. I thought it a well-written well-acted moving story with humor appropriate to the events in the story. As dark as some life events may be humor still occurs and they capture it perfectly. I was also impressed by the character depth explored, not just in the primaries but in a few of the supporting cast as well. Things mattered. People grew. A great balance of the serious and humorous. Thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying film.

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It won an Oscar for  Best Adapted Screenplay, one of the writers is Jim Rash, Dean Pelton on "Community". That was actually one of the reasons why I decided to see the film. I don't normally go for films that at first blush seem to be just another family drama, but I heard a lot of good things about this film, saw the Oscar win, and Rash's Dean Pelton is hilarious. Knowing Rash comes from an improv background and thus far I only recall him in comedic roles I was curious how his skills translated into a drama.
Out of curiosity I checked Jim Rash's resume - apparently I've seen him more than I thought, including roles in "Minority Report" and "One Hour Photo". I might just have to watch those again to see if I can spot him. In any case, congrats to him and Nat Faxon and Alexander Payne for the Oscar win.

18 April 2012

Movies: The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0376136/

Comedy Drama

Set in the 1950s, struggling writer Paul Kemp gets himself hired at a local newspaper in Puerto Rico. Well, he was the only applicant for the job, so... As he struggles to tone down his drinking (well, says he struggles) he gets caught between wanting to write about actual conditions for indigenous residents and the effects of American development on the island and getting swept up in writing brochures for developers who are eyeing a nearby undeveloped island to flood with hotels for tourists, basically making them into a mini copy of 1950's Puerto Rico. Along the way he develops a love interest in another American ex-pat, the fiancee of his developer/boss.

This is another Johnny Depp playing the protagonist in a movie based on a Hunter S. Thompson novel. But if you are expecting another film along the lines of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" that isn't what you'll get. Not by any stretch.  Like it or not, Fear and Loathing was rather off the rails. This one, not so much.

This film does have a couple of funny moments, some amusing moments, has it's "big money developers ruining the area" message to deliver, but for me ended up mostly a middle-of-the-road sort of film. It seemed to meander about. It has a lust romantic interest storyline between Kemp and the developer's fiancee, of course initiated through a chance meeting of the two before the developer ever approaches Kemp. Then there's the developer hiring Kemp storyline, the 'look at what development has ruined' storyline. Then there is Kemp's aimless wandering through existence inter-threaded to hold it all together. At least the interactions involving Kemp and his ex-pat roommates are amusing. Nothing seemed to change between the start and end of the film. It just happens.

The film was shot in some great looking locations in Puerto Rico. So that's good. Great period cars too. So for production, no complaints.

Casting - great job. Can't really go wrong with Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Giovanni Ribisi and Richard Jenkins in the cast. Michael Rispoli does well too, and Amber Heard is good eye-candy. The cast definitely makes this film work. I daresay a weaker cast would have made the film less enjoyable.

An okay-enough watch, but nothing great. If you liked "Fear and Loathing" you might be let down because all the reasons to superficially enjoy "Fear and Loathing" aren't here. If you hated "Fear and Loathing" you probably hadn't planned to see this one anyhow.  I think the worst thing they did was hint at any tie-in between this film and "Fear and Loathing." I suppose it was unavoidable considering this is the second film with Johnny Depp in a Hunter S. Thompson story and all. Heck they tried getting Benicio del Toro back for this one. To me that just screams a bald attempt to sell this film not on its own merits but on the merits of association with the cast and author of  "Fear and Loathing".  Then again, as Depp is one of the producers, perhaps he just likes the material.

Watching the film wasn't a waste of time, it is entertaining in its way, but I don't feel especially compelled to talk folks in to seeing the film. Pretty much a "watch if you want, but you aren't gonna feel like you're missing anything if you don't" sort of film.

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PS I considered re-watching "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" to do a vs. sort of review because it's been years since I saw Fear and Loathing the first (and only) time.
Instead I watched the whole Harry Potter series of films again.

16 April 2012

Movies: A History of Violence

A History of Violins
Actually, this isn't a review for A History of Violins. So sorry, violin history seekers.


A History of Violence
(2005) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0399146/

Drama Thriller

The cold open shows us a couple of bad guys on the road and establishes how bad they are, Then we switch to Tom Stall. He owns a diner in a small Indiana town, has a wife, a daughter, and a teenage son. They establish the son is the target of bullying by the jocks at school and rather submissive.
So, since they showed us the two bad guys they of course end up in Tom's diner. Checkov's gun, you know? They try their bad guy ways with their guns and stuff, only Tom ends up killing them both. I won't say how, but it's a decent action scene. Tom's deed hits the papers, then the thriller drama really begins moving.

Stars Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in Lord of the Rings) as Tom. Maria Bello as his wife. Ashton Holmes (Tyler on Revenge, which I've never watched) as the son. Plus some awesome Ed Harris, William Hurt and Peter MacNeill performances.  Great casting for the most part.

Which brings me to why I watched this film today.
I watched this film a few years ago and decided I wouldn't watch it again for one particular reason. Then, today, I decided I'd watch the film specifically for the very reason I planned on never watching it again.
Lemme explain.
See, I had just watched "Dream House" and remarked that the little girls cast in the film did well in their roles. After making note of that I made a point to bring up "A History of Violence" as contrast. Not because the films are anything like each other, but because of the little girl cast as Tom's daughter. She's terrible.
Six minutes in to the film and I wanted to stop watching the film specifically because of her awful performance.  So clear was that memory from the first time I watched the film that I watched it again expressly to see if I still felt the same way.
Yep. Absolutely.
The girl is terrible and almost completely derails the film six minutes in. The only saving grace is she thankfully doesn't have a whole lot of scenes that require paying attention to her. Just don't look at her unless absolutely necessary. Her physical acting without speaking is as terrible as her voice acting. ADR didn't help at all.

So yes, after all this time, the most memorable thing about the film to me was how terrible that girl was in her role. And watching it again confirms it. I really hate to crack on terrible actors because I'm not an actor thus they're getting more film roles than me. But I figure I do get to have some say as a consumer. And as a consumer, she was terrible. I generally like Viggo Motensen's and Maria Bello's performances as well, but that whole family sequence six minutes in seems to me especially bad. I blame the girl.

As for Viggo's performance, he did good but I sort of wished for a bit more nuance. He delivers the first half of the film so convincingly that his transformation seems a little off. I wish he had nuanced the requirements of his character a little more. Oh well, I blame the little girl for that too. Might as well.
There is one early Mortensen-Bello scene that seemed a little too lengthy than needed for the film, less is more. But I pick nits at this point because when I'm put off by a performance that fast in a film I'm on edge. Again - blame the girl, even though she was nowhere near that scene.

If you do make it past the daughter it is an interesting story to watch unfold. I like where it goes and how it gets there. The film does get violent in its good short-but-effective action scenes.

Despite my gripes I did like most of the rest of the film. Probably worth watching once if you like the 'past comes back to bite you' type thriller dramas. That statement shouldn't be spoiler-y, I mean, the title of the film says it. Right?

Movies: Dream House

Dream House (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1462041/

Mystery Thriller

We join the film as Will Atenton resigned from his job as editor at a publishing company. He plans to write a book as he retires with his wife and daughters (5 and 7) to a recently purchased a house in the boonies. Soon after moving in to the place the girls report they've seen a man hiding outside looking in the windows. As Will investigates he stumbles upon and chases away a group of teenagers in the basement holding a 'spooky session' commemorating the 5-year anniversary of the house's infamous history. Unknown to Will and his family, the previous family was shot to death in the house. That is, all but the husband, who was shot in the head by his wife but survived and had been institutionalized. Mystery engaged.

I watched this film trailer-unseen solely because I saw that the primary cast was Daniel Craig as Will, Rachel Weisz as his wife Libby, and Naomi Watts as the neighbor Ann.
Anymore if I see Rachel Weisz is in a film I'm going to probably watch it unless it seems to be a hardcore romance film. I hold Naomi Watts in almost as high esteem as well. I love the work those actresses have done and can count on them delivering top-notch performances. Craig is a fine actor as well, however he needs to work on his American accent some. Weisz delivers a flawless American accent, Craig, not so much.

I was also pleased to see Elias Koteas and Martin Csokas in the film too. Koetas has been delivering solid support performances for decades now. Csokas does well in everything I recall seeing him in, I'm just not as familiar with his work as the others.

Production is fine, acting good, sound and music score are fine. The child actors are cute, realistic and not annoying, which I truly appreciate. Bad child acting can ruin a film. Seriously. For example, as good a film as "A History of Violence" is, my watching experience was ruined by the gal playing the daughter. Darnit, now I gotta watch that film again just to remember why I hated that girl so much.
Sorry about getting off track there. Back to Dream House.

The story, well, unfortunately I've watched so many similar story lines in films over the years that I quickly surmised where the story is going early on in the film. I got most of the twists figured out rather quickly, although there were still some things I had to wait to see to tie the threads together and such. I had one minor gripe about a fleeting moment that occurs near the end of the film. I suppose I could let it slide but it just irked me because it crossed a line the film hadn't crossed the whole time. 
I can't explain those things without spoiling the film, nor can I provide titles of films of similar ilk without telegraphing how this film unfolds. Chances are if you've seen any of those similar films I have in mind you'll catch on quick enough as well.

Honestly this isn't an especially great or groundbreaking film, but I still liked it well enough. Lucky for me I hadn't had any preconceptions about what the film was supposed to be like or about. I enjoyed the film despite self-spoiling it for myself. I think the things that made the film work are the high-quality cast and a coherent story with hardly any useless distractions or dropped threads.
Even though I knew where the road was going I enjoyed the trip.

15 April 2012

Movies: Hugo

Hugo (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0970179/

Family Adventure

Hugo is an orphan living in the maintenance crawl spaces in the train station in 1930's Paris. His father was a master clock maker and taught Hugo many things, including working on a clockwork automaton that was found in a museum. After Hugo's father died in a museum fire Hugo lived with his uncle, learning how to keep the clocks wound at the train station. He stayed there after his uncle disappeared, avoiding the station security master, stealing food to survive and stealing various small items to use to tinker with clockworks. Hugo gets caught by the owner of a toy shop in the station. The story then takes us in a new fascinating direction.

The story is from a fiction book that is based on some real-life people and some real-life events.  At first I was surprised that Martin Scorsese would even direct what seemed to be a children's adventure film, considering how adult the bulk of his work has been. However as the story unfolded I realized exactly why Scorsese wanted to direct this film, and that the film isn't quite the type of children's adventure film I thought it was going to be. I don't want to say exactly why because it would spoil a big part of the film. Plus I suspect it was apparent to me so early in the film because I know Scorsese is quite the film historian.

Sets, camera-work, direction, shots, all beautiful and as perfect as one would expect from Scorsese. The opening sequence was stunning. If there's one thing he knows it is how to film a story.  Casting was good too including Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat and more), Chloe Grace Moretz ("Let Me In", "Kick-Ass"), Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law. I never figured out why people seemed to have British-ish accents when the film is set in Paris. Sort of a niggling thing that I found hard to completely suppress.

I really enjoyed the film overall, and also enjoyed the many levels the story has.

Will children enjoy the film? I can't say for sure, I have lost the ability to see this film from a child's perspective, but I suspect there's enough bits to keep them interested. Will they grasp the bigger underlying story? That I'm also not sure about, but that's probably more dependent on how exposed one is to old films.  But if viewers young and old do catch on and express interest in knowing more, all the better. The material is out there, possibly from libraries, and if not, certainly from Netflix.

Good family entertainment, and even good for adults that have no little childrens running about to entertain. Definitely deserving of all accolades showered upon this film.

14 April 2012

Movies: The Whistleblower

The Whistleblower (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0896872/

Drama Thriller

A cop from Nebraska takes on a contract peacekeeping job with the U.N. in post-war Bosnia. While there she stumbles upon a human trafficking ring, specifically one that enslaves women for prostitution. As she investigates she finds that not only are local police involved, but U.N. peacekeeping personnel as well.
Based on a real person and true events. The repercussions of the scandal are still being dealt with to this day. Just recently legislation was introduced to Congress to prevent human trafficking in government contracting.

Stars Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac. Yes, Weisz is British and is portraying a Nebraskan. Lucky for us viewers Weisz is a very capable actress and delivers a great performance. A great supporting cast too including Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, David Strathairn to name a few. Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch was in the film. I saw his name in the credits up front, figured I'd spot him right away, then got to the end of the film and didn't remember seeing him. Kind of kickin myself for that. First off, Cumberbatch is a cool name. Secondly he's Sherlock Holmes in the awesome BBC series. I suspect I missed him because he's sortof like Karl Urban where you can see him in a bunch of films and then only later realize who it is because he's so good at playing his characters. Next time I watch the film I'll be more vigilant. Promise.

What I liked about the film, beyond it being based on real events and such, was the thriller aspect of the film. The tension and suspense continues to build as Kathryn Bolkovac continues to investigate and realizes just how many U.N. peacekeepers and even fellow contractors are actually involved she becomes more isolated and distrustful of everyone around her.

I'm sure there's amalgams of characters, fictionalized dialog and such. Pretty much any film that isn't a documentary is going to be. The point isn't detailed point-by-point factual history but getting across what is really happening and what Bolkovac went through to expose the problem.  The DVD includes an interview with the real Kathryn Bolkovac, and there's plenty of press to read about it as well to get the story.

As a film, good drama thriller. As a means of getting more people aware of the sex trafficking problem, rather effective as well. Worth watching as a heavy drama movie-night film.

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By the way, I actually watched this film a few weeks ago, I just realized I had forgotten to write about it. So if this review seems a little sparse it's because of the gap between watching and writing.

12 April 2012

Documentary: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1787660/

This documentary is about Kevin Clash, the man behind Sesame Street's Elmo. It tells of his humble beginnings in Baltimore, the impact of his seeing Sesame Street, how he was drawn to puppetry early in life, how he got started, how he ended up working for his idol Jim Henson, how he came to operate Elmo, and beyond. Pretty much the beginnings to now story.
If you know anything about Jim Henson's start in puppetry you'll easily spot the parallels in Kevin's story. It is also amazing to see how much Kevin made his own way before he started working with Henson. It wasn't at all easy for Kevin, he worked hard to get where he is, and parts of his life suffered for his dedication.
I did get the sense that there is probably a lot of stuff that didn't make it in to the documentary, probably to keep the overall feel of the film positive. I suppose there is plenty of time years from now to cover such things if that's even necessary. Perhaps by just hinting and not going in depth it is actually refreshing compared with the banal screeds emanating from sources like TMZ and E!.

It's a great watch. Well put together. It has some amazing historic footage, especially the film clips of  Kevin meeting Kermit Love, the amazing puppet builder, for the first time. It has interviews with not only Kevin's family but other recognizable folks, including the greats of old-school muppeteers like Frank Oz and Carroll Spinney. The documentary is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.
There was also one part that's probably going to bring tears to many a viewer's eyes, especially those folks who grew up loving Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. This many years later and it is still  moving.

I came away with even greater appreciation for the man behind Elmo. As I'm of the old-school Sesame Street generation I was always a bit resistant and grumbly about Elmo's star rising above the traditional muppet cast I grew up loving, but after this I can't help but admire Elmo's place in the Sesame Street universe. Well deserved, Elmo and Kevin.

I watched this documentary on the PBS Series Independent Lens. It is also currently available on Netflix if you are interested.

Bonus: Captain Kangaroo 

04 April 2012

Movies: 13

13 (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0798817/

Thriller

A young electrician, Vince, overhears a conversation at a job site where his employer is discussing receiving a letter that will get him a lot of money in a single day's work. As Vince's father is in the hospital with mounting care bills and the family has already remortgaged the house, Vince sees an opportunity to steal the letter and take the job himself.  When he follows the instructions he ends up as a contestant in an underground game gambled on by people who have millions of dollars to spend.
The game? A series of Russian-roulette rounds with contestants in a circle pointing their guns at the head of the contestant in front of them. At the signal, all pull their triggers. Survivors go to the next round.  If you survive to the end, you make a lot of cash for participating.

Yes, it may seem I spoiled it by giving up the Russian Roulette thing, but it doesn't reveal anything that isn't already revealed by the Netflix description or the TV guide description.

In some ways this is an intense thriller keeping you on edge wondering how everything is going to turn out. On the other hand it ends up somewhat predictable. But despite my plot predictions coming to pass I enjoyed the tension anyhow. Besides that bit of predictability, I'd venture that the worst of the film actually stems from its musical score. Most of the music just doesn't work with the film. The house where the game takes place reminded me of the big mansion in "Eyes Wide Shut", though I can't confirm that and could easily be misremembering as it's been years since I saw that movie that one time.

Cast-wise there are quite a lot of new faces, but there are also a few familiar ones as well. Especially Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham. We also are treated with Ben Gazzara, Michael Shannon, Ray Winstone, Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood's Eric Northman), David Zayas (Dexter's Batista), even 50 Cent. Even if you don't recognize the names you'll recognize the faces. The kid playing Vince, Sam Riley, I've not seen before but he did a good job of lookin terrified out of his mind when he realized just what sort of shit he got himself in to.
What sort of surprises me is I hadn't heard anything about this film before I chanced upon it, especially with the biggish-names in the supporting cast. Especially when I've been deliberately paying attention to movie trailers the past few years to keep my Netflix queue well stocked in to the future.

This film was critically panned mostly because it is a remake of the film "13 Tzameti", a French film by the same writer and director as this film. Yep - a remake by the guy that wrote and directed the original is considered unimaginative and worse. They complained it was the same film but more glossy and less gritty and less tension-y than the original. I haven't seen the original, so I dunno.

Despite my thoughts on the film's weaknesses it was entertaining in its dark way, suspenseful and engaging enough. Actually, I watched it twice. The first time because it just happened to be on but I missed the first 15 minutes, so I had the DVR record the next showing so the wife could watch it and I could see that first bit I missed. She was on the edge of her seat the whole time. I kept my mouth shut not wanting to spoil anything for her. Despite knowing what was going to happen I was able to enjoy the film the 2nd time around mostly because of her reactions.

It's an evil game, it's game organizers and gamblers must be bored to the point of psychopathy, so chalk it up as guilty devious entertainment. And, luckily, it isn't torture porn like the Saw or Hostel type films.

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As it was so critically reviled as a remake I'm tempted to watch the original. Then again, I'm scared that by watching the remake I've spoiled that fresh-movie-smell for the original. I suppose if I do watch the original I'll just tack on some thoughts here.