The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
A Remake by Any Other Name
David Fincher Takes One for the Team
By Cole Smithey
David Fincher can do a great re-make. Now, let’s hope he never does one again. By definition, remakes demand that audiences go back to the original to compare differences slight and large. I don’t put any credence in the faulty premise that a second film based on the same source material constitutes anything other than a remake. Indeed many of the compositions and sequences are similar enough between director Niels Arden Oplev’s version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Fincher’s that watching both is akin comparing apples with apples. Still, the significant difference between the two films is a big one. In Fincher’s version Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist get busy, and as such earn a level of intimacy sorely missing from Arden Oplev’s sill powerful film.
Audiences will split hairs over Noomi Rapace’s iconic Goth portrayal of Lisbeth Salander as compared to Rooney Mara’s savant-sex-alien rendition. It’s a fascinating comparison. Rapace kicked bat-shit-monkey-ass in the original, while Mara’s Lisbeth is more the type to ask permission before seeking lethal revenge—as occurs in a pivotal scene late in the film. Mara approaches a bland quality of androgyny whose asexual appearance is belied by her lustful intentions which she carries out with respectable focus.
There’s no question that David Fincher is a muscular director whose capacity for creating cinematic wonder is astounding. “Zodiac” (2007) is one of the most stunning police procedurals ever made. He understands the importance of seducing his audience right from the start of every one of his movies. His opening credit sequence here explodes with a shiny, oily-black sensual fury that announces the movie as an exploration in thoroughly modern style and sass. And to that end he succeeds full stop. Where he slips up is, surprisingly, in articulating Stieg Larsson’s story—something that Niels Arden Oplev did better. Some of the blame can be put on screenwriter Steven Zaillian, but editing decisions by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall play a hefty role. You don’t care as much about the mystery of the missing girl as you do with the original film because the narrative isn’t enunciated with the same degree of passion.
Even the seemingly ideal casting of Daniel Craig doesn’t work as well for the role. With his downtrodden bearing and doughy charm Michael Nyqvist made for a more empathetic Mikael Blomkvist. Although the filmmakers wisely keep the action in Sweden, rather than transposing the story to somewhere like the Hamptons, the film refuses to soak up the European culture it’s submersed in. Here again miscasting plays a part. Robin Wright just isn’t convincing as a Swedish character. Her accent evaporates mid-sentence. In spite of her blonde hair and Nordic features, Wright feels like an interloper in the movie. An utter lack of romantic chemistry between her and Daniel Craig further distracts from the story.
David Fincher’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a very entertaining movie. The credit sequence alone is worth the price of admission. Is it better than Niels Arden Oplev’s film? I’ll leave that up to you.
Rated R. 166 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Midnight Cowboy - Classic Film Pick
Waldo Salt's magnificent screenplay adaptation is only slightly diminished by the overuse of Fred Neil's song "Everybody's Talkin.'" Regardless of Harry Nilsson's emotional rendering of the song, its repetition inhabits an aural arena that could have been put to better narrative purpose.
John Voight's Texas-born stud Joe Buck quits a job washing dishes at a diner to hop a bus to Manhattan. With a portable radio stuck to his ear, Buck dreams of turning the town red as a cowboy-styled gigolo. However, Buck is woefully unprepared for the harsh reality of 1960s New York. Even rich people are broke. The would-be hustler's first pick-up, a Park Avenue lady who lunches played by Sylvia Miles, extracts $20 from him at the end of their assignation rather than the other way around. Buck imagines his luck turning when he meets lowlife conman Rico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly greasy-haired cripple living in an abandoned tenement building on the Lower East Side. Ratso agrees to work as Buck's manager. The hastily made arrangement lasts long enough for Ratso to abscond with $20 from Buck in exchange for an introduction to a gay religious fanatic. Fate reunites Buck and Ratso. Locked out of his hotel room for non-payment Buck takes up Ratso's offer to move in with him. A cold New York winter sets in.
Beautiful editorial flashback sequences express Joe Buck's traumatic childhood. A history of sexual abuse by his grandmother and teenage peers has made Buck damaged goods. A chance invite to a downtown party allows Ratso and Buck to rub shoulders with drugged-out hipsters. Uptown socialite Shirley (Brenda Vicarro) peeks through the crowd at Joe Buck. Finally, Buck gets his first legitimate customer just as Ratso's health goes on its last leg. Although Sylvia Miles received an Oscar nomination for her brief role, Vicarro steals the film in the role of a woman who awakens Buck's sense of healthy sexuality.
"Midnight Cowboy" is an exquisite time capsule. The film is filled with dark social and political commentary. Only through his problematic friendship with Ratzo can Buck reclaim his humanity. The palpable sense of comradeship between Voight and Hoffman—two young method actors working at the height of their powers—pushes the drama in something rare and sublime.
I Melt With You
Generation X takes one on the jaw in director Mark Pellington's heart-on-sleeve adaptation of newbie screenwriter Glenn Porter's first screenplay. Savvy audiences know better than to go near a debut screenwriter unless you're willing to take a chance that the movie you sit through will be utter shite. Even with a stacked deck of capable actors that include Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, and Jeremy Piven, "I Melt With You" is an exercise in futility. Considering the story is about a group of four male friends who wrote a due-date suicide pact 25 years ago, the crash-and-burn drama doesn't come as such a surprise.
Fortysomethings Richard (Thomas Jane), Ron (Jeremy Piven), Jonathan (Rob Lowe), and Tim (Christian McKay) converge on a rented multi-million-dollar ocean-side home on the cliffs of Big Sur. The annual reunion allows for a weeklong spree of drug-taking and male-centric loose chatter. Jonathan is a well-supplied quack doctor who makes his living writing scripts for "patients" who pay him for the luxury of an unlimited supply to such drugs as Oxycodone. The candy-man doctor's black bag is filled with enough cocaine and pills of every variety to put down a zoo. Each of the punk-rock-loving men carry around so much emotional baggage they can barely function, much less communicate on any kind of coherent level. Richard is a high-school English teacher for whom "words are tools" for getting into the pants of an endless stream of women. Ron is an equities broker on the verge of getting busted by the SEC for his years of illegal activity. Gay Tim has never recovered from driving a car involved in an accident that killed his lover and sister.
Faulty subplots involving a snooping cop (played by Carla Gugino) and a group of party-friendly college kids that include Sasha Gray in all her obligatory nudity, arrive with sad-trombone notes of unintended humor. “I Melt With You” is a train-crash of a movie. You can’t really take your eyes off of it, but you’ll feel a little sick afterward.
Rated R. 116 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
We Bought a Zoo
Cameron Crowe casts a heart-warming cinematic spell that will milk many a tear from its widespread target audience. However calculated to meet the demands of family-friendly holiday movie fare, "We Bought a Zoo" does everything it sets out to achieve. Some supporting characters, such as Patrick Fugit's zoo-keeper Robin Jones, get short shrift but it's all in the interest of keeping the potentially overpopulated story moving toward its intended goal of family unity.
Matt Damon is likeable as ever as Benjamin Mee, a father of two attempting to reinvent his family after the recent loss of his wife. Benjamin's 13-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is acting out at school. Dylan draws disturbingly violent pictures of things like decapitations and weird monsters. He’s been caught stealing. Seven-year-old Rosie (played wonderfully by the scene-stealing Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is emotionally better equipped to deal with the shifting reality around her. It goes without saying that, against conventional wisdom, Benjamin quits his job and purchases a rundown zoo as a way to reestablish a nurturing home environment for himself and his kids.
The run-down rural facility's 40-odd endangered animals face the threat of being put to sleep unless Benjamin can make the necessary renovations for the zoo to pass inspection. John Michael Higgins adds comic appeal as Walter Ferris, a quirky zoo inspector widely disliked by the staff Benjamin inherits when he purchases the property. Scarlett Johansson coasts through her role a zookeeper Kelly Foster, a dedicated young woman whose undeniable beauty causes simmering romantic tension with Benjamin. Indeed, romantic suspense is one of the film's trump cards. The anti-social Dylan tries to avoid the noticeable chemistry he shares with the zoo's youngest assistant Lilly (Elle Fanning). His failing attempts at skirting love's arrows give the movie a youthful sense of nostalgia that runs parallel to its idyllic sense of wonder regarding wild animals.
You never believe for a moment that Thomas Haden Church's playful character Duncan could be Matt Damon’s sibling. Yet you wouldn't want it any other way. Haden Church adds just the right amount of brotherly support to give the story the essential familial lift it needs. It doesn't hurt that he delivers every line with an infectious dose of good-humored intentionality. You can't help but love Damon and Haden Church as brothers even if they don’t share a single physical trait in common.
As with all of Cameron Crowe's films music plays an important part. Although the film slips into music video sequences from time to time it's difficult to challenge the director's pitch-perfect ability for matching perfectly contrasting yet complimenting pieces of rock music to the tone of the action at hand. Aside from songs from Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, Crowe tapped Icelandic singer/songwriter Jónsi from the rock band Sigur Rós to compose original music for the score. The formula works like a charm.
Without having even seen “We Bought a Zoo,” New Yorker magazine film critic David Denby famously slagged Cameron Crowe’s movie in emails to producer Scott Rudin regarding Denby’s faceplant decision to break a film review embargo on “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Such kneejerk critical reaction to solid holiday entertainment as “We Bought a Zoo” speaks volumes about corporate media’s attitudes that Hollywood is left to questionably interpret. As if there wasn’t already a dearth of G and PG-rated films, Denby’s malicious remarks reflect a damaging ideology of cultural condescension.
“We Bought a Zoo” never pays quite enough attention to the incarcerated wild animals we hear so much about throughout the story. The predictable climax comes across like so much melted peanut butter. Still, the movie wins in its ability create a glow of giddy movie pleasure that audiences crave. If that means you’ll tear up more over this movie than “War Horse,” well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Rated PG. 131 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Disclosure: I've never been a fan of Glenn Close. I always considered her a poor man's Meryl Streep. I can't think of a single role she’s played that wouldn't have been improved upon if Streep had played it instead. However, Glenn Close's muted, carefully nuanced portrayal of Albert Nobbs is a career-defining performance that commands the deepest regard and, for what it's worth, blew me away.
Director Rodrigo García’s exquisitely crafted period drama set in 19th century Ireland is based on a short story by Irish author George Moore. "Albert Nobbs" is a socially oppressed woman so desperate to survive economically that she dresses and behaves as a man. The asexual Albert has worked as a quiet live-in waiter/butler at the elite Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin for more than 20 years. Her androgynous looks make the subterfuge possible. Lonely Albert—the only name she goes by-- pinches every penny of her wages and tips, keeping careful record of the savings she stashes under a loose floorboard inside her tiny room. Albert's tightly held secret is threatened when she is forced to allow Hubert Page, a contract painter working in the hotel, to share her bed for a night.
Spoiler alert: Hubert (Janet McTeer) is as adroit at hiding her sexuality as Albert. So much so that she has succeeded in establishing a relatively comfortable lesbian lifestyle with her partner, sufficiently obfuscated from the public eye. Albert begins to imagine how she might create her own unique arrangement with fellow hotel service worker Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska). She imagines opening a tobacco shop where the couple can live and work together. The much younger Helen—she’s barely a day over 18—is already wrapped up in a fresh romance with Joe (Aaron Johnson), her unreliable boyfriend. Joe has recently been hired to work in the hotel as a handyman. Albert unwisely ignores the obvious obstacle Joe represents to woo Helen with practical-minded dates over which she hopes to advance her idea of entering into an arrangement that necessarily involves marriage.
As such, the story hits its stride of aspirational vitality in Albert’s active daydream of putting her life’s savings to use in a place where she can enjoy economic prosperity and companionship for the first time in her life. Rodrigo García’s flawless depiction of Albert’s suddenly awakened inner emotional life is the story’s treasured seed of hope and happiness that must be transformed under the constraints of a brittle reality.
Glenn Close famously played the same role in “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” a 1982 Off Broadway production directed by Simone Bemmussa; she won an Obie. This time she is surrounded by terrific supporting efforts by Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, and Brendan Gleeson.
“Albert Nobbs” falls into the zeitgeist of female-themed survival films such as the Angelina Jolie-directed Bosnian war examination “In the Land of Blood and Honey”. Equal parts character study and social commentary, “Albert Nobbs” is a melancholy film of enormous power that could easily slip through the cracks without the aid of the Oscar nominations it deserves. The story is an original one that doesn’t pander to its audience, as Hollywood films are famous for doing. ”Albert Nobbs” is an uncompromising and rigorous movie that dismisses conventional compositional devices to the delight of audiences seeking intellectual and emotional depth in their cinematic adventures. Don’t miss “Albert Nobbs.”
Rated R. 114 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Actor Paddy Considine turns writer/director with an overwrought drama burdened with the symptoms of a dramatist trying too hard to make a mark, if not a lasting impression. Domestic violence in an Irish small town is the narrative coin Considine throws like so much gravel against a dirty tin wall. The effect is noisy and messy. No one walks away unscathed yet no one gets redeemed. Peter Mullan is scary as Joseph, a self-defeatist alcoholic whose misery and cynicism knows no bottom. Joseph receives some undeserved kindness from Hannah (Olivia Colman), a salt-of-the-earth thrift-shop owner who prays for him after he runs into her store after brutalizing three boys in a local pub. At home Hannah is humiliated and abused by her wealthy, unpredictably violent husband James (Eddie Marsan).
Anti-hero Joseph is an unreliable protagonist whose fierce temper threatens to annihilate everything and everyone in its path. The ill-conceived plotline snaps back like a slingshot rather than following any traditional arc of character and theme. For all the outrageous violence Joseph doles out--he kicks his dog to death--the people he takes a shine to end up suffering more than he does. The one thing the film has going for it is a set of tremendous performances from Mullan and Colman, who elevate the dubious source material considerably. Olivia Colman is a revelation.
It's a common trap for actors-turned-filmmakers to flout the laws of dramaturgy in order to make a splash. Here Paddy Considine creates an exploitation film that could have the effect of reducing tourism to Ireland. If you’re going to emotionally devastate your audience, there had better be a good reason. “Tyrannosaur” has none.
Not Rated. 91 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Alessandro Nivola and Abigail Breslin can elevate just about any piece of dramatic material, even when comes to portraying convincing singer/songwriter types. Still, their efforts don't sufficiently pull up director David M. Rosenthal's hackneyed imaginings about a rock ‘n’ roll band frontman confronted with a 13-year-old daughter he didn’t know he had. Nivola plays Ethan Brand, an alt rock narcissist who gets charged with custody of his daughter Janie Jones (yes, named after the Clash song—now go away). Shameless mommy (Elisabeth Shue) needs time to clean up in rehab. Given his temper-driven tendency for self-destruction it’s impossible to see how Ethan has held his lame band together for 15-years, much less managed to make any kind of living, touring around the country playing dive bar gigs booked by his well-meaning manager (Peter Stormare). Little Janie takes after dad in the singer/songwriter department. The conceit of the movie is that Breslin does a decent job of singing and playing guitar. A few nicely performed father/daughter duets provide the only narrative meat there is on the bones of Rosenthal’s sketchy script. The musical set pieces aren’t enough reason to see “Janie Jones,” but at least there’s some payoff for an otherwise dismal excuse for a story.
Not Rated. 107 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Writer/director J. C. Chandor makes an impressive debut with a theatrically bound drama about the 2008 collapse of a big financial firm that follows a trajectory similar to Bear Stearns' meltdown—an event that signaled America’s second Depression. Chandor's behind-the-scenes story takes place over a 36-hour period. The neatly contained script could easily have been adapted into a one-act Broadway play. An insider's viewpoint captures cataclysmic economic events enabled by people obsessed with money and lies. Senior financial analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) begins his day getting unceremoniously axed along with 80% of the firm's associates in a merciless act of slash-and-burn capitalist housecleaning. Dodged questions point to chief risk officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) for throwing Dale under the bus. Unbeknownst to Robertson, Dale has been doing some investigative number-crunching about the company’s less-than-ethical dealings. Before the elevator door closes on Dale for the last time, he passes a loaded thumb drive to his well-suited underling Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) with a warning to "be careful." Without missing a beat, Sullivan stays late to follow up on his former boss's findings and extrapolate on the company’s instability. Sullivan sounds an alarm that instigates a midnight meeting with the company's big wigs, including CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) and his right-hand man Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). Talky to a fault, "Margin Call" is nonetheless a smart snapshot of the white-collar culture of greed that cost America its leading role in the global economy. Chandor's ability to tell the story without demonizing the criminals whose heads have yet to roll is the film’s double-edged sword.
Rated R. 109 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Ides of March
Beau Willimon's low-simmer stage play "Farragut North" fails to come to a boil in this George Clooney-directed film adaptation. The reason is as simple as the brief limits of the source material; Willimon doesn't go far enough in dissecting flaws in America's media-infected democratic process. The author is content to keep the focus on predictable human failings of politicians--mainly infidelity. Inspired by Howard Dean's crash-and-burn run at the 2004 Presidential race, “The Ides of March” follows behind-the-scenes machinations of a Democratic presidential campaign. Forget that the media pulled the rug out from under Howard Dean, and not any act of adultery. Clooney plays presidential candidate Governor Mike Morris with all the ease and charm you'd expect from the polished Zen master of charm. Ryan Gosling plays Morris's campaign right-hand man Stephen Meyers. As the campaign’s overachieving press secretary, Meyers has drunk the Mike Morris kool-aid and loved every drop. Alongside veteran campaign organizer Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), 30-year-old Stephen is one of the best and brightest. But Steven's ego is a couple of sizes too big. This obvious sticking point comes into harsh relief when Stevens commits a double whammy of insolence by sleeping with a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and taking a secret meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’s Republican rival. Ironically, Steven’s mistakes have a way of cancelling one another out.
“The Ides of March” is entertaining even if suspense barely builds and pay-off revelations come with little surprise. Clooney’s character disappears into the background, but Ryan Gosling’s capable performance masks the oversight. The film’s overriding theme, that all politicians are corrupt, is too simplistic to support the estimable performances on hand.
Rated R. 100 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Director Jonathan Levine ("The Wackness") has a knack for conveying unconventional drama with enough droll spice to make the medicine go down easily even if the subject is cancer. Television-producer-turned-screenwriter Will Reiser ("Da Ali G Show") fulfills his part of the bargain with a semiautobiographical script that dares to go for the throat when necessary. The big C might be the topic du jour, but "50/50" puts the pernicious disease into a manageably personal context with equal parts humor, sincerity, and cynicism.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Adam Lerner is a Portland National Public Radio sound editor with a bad-animal for a girlfriend. Bryce Dallas Howard fills her unlikable character's wandering shoes as Rachel, an artist with about as much loyalty as a tom cat in heat. Rachel promises to stay by Adam's side through thick and thin, but she's just no good with handling the messy stuff of life.
Adam is the kind of guy who waits for the stop light to change even if no cars are coming. One of the movie's most explosively humorous scenes involves Adam's best friend Kyle (Seth Rogan) falling over himself in Adam's living room to share with his unfortunate pal video proof--captured on his cell phone--of Rachel's recent infidelity at a gallery opening. Rachel’s arrival at the event avails her to deny or confirm the evidence. Kyle has reason to take special pride in outing Rachel’s true colors. Adam’s recent discovery of malignant tumors on the base of his spine means that he must endure painful chemotherapy treatments. If Kyle's self righteousness catches the audience off-guard, it's a testament to the surprise of seeing a loyal friend take such bold and decisive action.
Frequent counseling sessions with an upstart therapist named Katherine (exquisitely played by Anna Kendrick) bring out Adam's waves of conflicting emotions surrounding his illness. Katherine and Adam develop a guardedly romantic friendship that nudges along an arm-distance of hope in spite of Adam's downward spiraling health. A testy relationship between Adam and his mother Diane (Anjelica Houston) needs addressing. The film's direct but minimalist handling of the mother/son subplot proves especially effective.
Seth Rogan's portrayal as Adam's no-BS best friend is a study in nuance. Rogan pulls back on his trademark chuckling tic. The film's bromance carries the burden of comic relief, but also expedites an unexpected kind of catharsis that arrives with an air of authenticity. I'm not a fan of the split-genre term "dramedy," but "50/50"--as the title could be read--is a perfect balance of comedy and drama. In keeping with all of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's consistently solid work, the talented actor knows just where to hold back and where to let go. "50/50" is a gem.
Rated R. 99 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Social-activist-narrative-filmmaking goes astray at the hands of dueling sibling directors Mark and Adam Kassen. Mark Kassen double duty acting as Paul Danziger the attorney partner to dope-and-sex-fiend lawyer Mike Weiss (played all too consciously by Chris Evans). Based on a true story of corporate greed surrounding medical syringes, the film pricks itself in attempting to serve as a complex character study and a legal exposé. At a Houston hospital Nurse Vicky (Vinessa Shaw) is accidentally stung by a syringe that infects her with the AIDS virus.
Vinessa's friend Jeffrey Danfort (Marshall Bell) goes above and beyond to develop a "safety-point syringe" that automatically retracts making such endemic accidental prickings out of the question. Danfort finds that getting his salvation product to market in the American health-care industry is impossible thanks to a monopoly of faceless corporate corruption blocking him at every turn. The industrious inventor gets lucky when he attracts the legal aid of Weiss & Danziger who take up his cause. Unfortunately, Danfort is socially inept to the point of alienating potential investors. His most committed defender is a drug addict. "David and Goliath" stories don't fly in the modern world where cynical society already knows all to well how such conflicts will end. Chris Evans gives an empathetic performance up to a point. Most people have had some contact with a drug-addled family member or friend incapable of shaping up and flying right. There comes a time when you have to give up on that person because they can’t give up their addiction. “Puncture” is just such an exasperating experience. You come out of it not caring about any of the characters or their cause regardless of how substantial it might be.
Rated R. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
“When in Rome, [do as the Romans do.]” James Marsdan’s clueless screenwriter character David Sumner uses the age-old adage to rationalize how he should interact with snotty Southern hicks in his wife Amy’s hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi. Kate Bosworth plays Amy a blonde sexpot whose military father recently passed away, leaving behind the stone family mansion that withstood the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. The adjacent farmhouse however didn’t fair so well. David makes the mistake of hiring Amy’s ex-boyfriend—and former high school football hero—Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) to repair the farmhouse roof with the help of his less mannered construction crew of prototype hillbillies. Nothing good can follow for David because he lets his ego get in the way of common sense.
The only reason a filmmaker should ever attempt remake to make a film is to improve on the original. David Cronenberg performed just such a feat with his version of “The Fly.” Co-writer/director Rod Lurie isn’t as fortunate, even if his revision of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film does allude to modern America as a combination of passive aggressive martyrs and bloodthirsty bullies. Lurie and his two screenwriters stick surprisingly close to the original film’s storyline. The murder of a family cat sets the narrative gravity of snowballing violence into play.
As in Peckinpah’s film, Amy is as much to blame for the chaos that befalls her and her nerdy—read impotent—husband as are the religious right assholes that terrorize the wealthy couple. Amy is a hometown girl who went on to great success as a television actress in Hollywood. She enjoys taunting her ex-boyfriend Charlie and his beer-swilling buddies with her exposed breasts. Lurie doesn’t go as far as Peckinpah did in disclosing the excruciating details of Amy’s rape at the hands of Charlie and one of his crusty crew. Still, a question hangs over the film about how much of the brutal episode Amy designed herself from a long-held fantasy. The event is not, as Pauline Kael noted of Peckingpah’s film “a male fantasy;” the rape is Amy’s super-objective that allows her to label herself and her husband as “cowards.” She is the fly in the ointment.
As in the original film, the central theme comes down to David defending “his house.” For as much as David has been grandfathered into the region via his native wife, he is nonetheless an interloper whose spouse throws him to the local wolves that she relates to better than she admits. Possession may represent “nine tenths of the law,” but legal constraints can be illusive and fleeting.
The filmmakers substitute Blackwater, Mississippi for Peckinpah’s Cornwall, England. It’s no coincidence that “Blackwater” is the name of the notorious private military security firm that broke every law in the book in Iraq—so much so that the company changed its name to Xe (pronounced zee). John Burke (Laz Alonzo), a black local Iraq war hero, is the town sheriff but he is as ineffective as Amy’s deceased military father in protecting anyone. The former soldier is a “straw dog” set up for the sole purpose of being knocked down by private—read radical—political forces. Peckingpah’s original film is consequently positioned as a straw dog for Lurie’s version. The trouble is that Peckinpah’s movie is better.
Rated R. 109 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Piano - Classic Film Pick
Cloaked psychosis is a crucial element to Jane Campion's exploration of Victorian era female repression. Widowed Ada (Holly Hunter) has been mute since she was six—ostensibly by choice. The voice we hear in Ada’s narration is her “mind’s voice.” Ada’s father arranges for her to travel from Scotland to marry Stuart (Sam Neill), a European industrialist living in a tiny enclave of Christian settlers in 19th century New Zealand. Ada and her precocious six-year-old daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) are deposited by local Maoris, along with Ada’s many trunks of possessions and prized piano, on a desolate beach. Stuart’s failure to greet to her prefigures his ambivalence toward his new wife. Mother and daughter are forced to camp alone for a night on the cold beach. Anna’s betrothed deigns to greet them the next day but refuses to receive the crate containing her exquisite piano—Ada’s primary form of expression. It sits abandoned on the windswept beach, a symbol of lost hope and freedom.
The iconic imagery captured by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh evokes ideas regarding nature and industrialization. The beautiful but bulky musical instrument is the unambiguous object Ada assigns as her primary means of communication. Michael Nyman’s lush score allows Holly Hunter to portray her character’s estimable musical abilities. Ada is small in stature, but her musical means of sound production is enormous; important. Ada makes furious use of her hands during sign language that Flora then translates to others with liberal embellishment. As much as the piano is Ada’s surrogate voice, her muteness allows Flora to manipulate the adult world around her with an imaginative but undisciplined disposition.
This cycle of gentle exploitation expands at the opportune hands of Harvey Keitel’s Baines, a former whaler who has gone native to the point of wearing Maori tattoos on his face. Oddly disinterested in Maori women, Baines becomes entranced with Ada’s playing when he accompanies her and Flora to visit her piano on the beach. Keitel’s clever character engages in a complex plan to seduce Ada by trading a piece of land with Stuart in exchange for the piano. He goes on to request Ada come to his house to give him lessons, Baines makes clear his ulterior motives. He will sell Ada back the piano based on piecemeal installments of favors calculated on segments of its 88 keys. By fetishizing the piano Baines gains access to Ada’s erotic imagination in a way that Stuart can only wonder at when he eventually discovers the truth of their relationship. Flora’s jealousy of her mother represents a generational competition. If Ada chooses to be with Baines, so then Flora curries favor with Stuart. It is a recipe for disaster.
“The Piano” is a powerful film for its slow, inevitable inertia of drama. If Ada is mentally crippled, she is less so than the reactionary people surrounding and oppressing her. She is punished for her sins, and equally rewarded for them as well.
The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll
From its opening frames you know you're in knock-off land. But more than that, you're watching a knock-off of a knock-off movie that has the audacity to attempt to authenticate its rock 'n' roll credibility by casting a giant like Peter Fonda in a supporting role. Shame. It hardly seems necessary to dissect the storyline of debut writer/director Scott Rosenbaum's cinematic regurgitation. The film was finished in 2009, but has finally reared its ugly head for a theatrical distribution that won't register a blip on anyone's radar. Kevin Zegers plays Spyder, a washed-up rock star who grants a rare interview in the discomfort of his trashed abode to allow for a flashback journey. The story follows Spyder's dive-bar road tour of America toward recording his last and never released album. Cut to ego-freak Spyder imposing on his disenfranchised former bandmate/songwriter Eric Genson (Jason Ritter) to rejoin his world of snotty drugged-out madness. Somebody's got to write the songs because Spyder certainly isn't capable. Peter Fonda plays chaperone/tour-bus driver August West. Taryn Manning takes one for the team as Rose, the band's musically knowledgeable manager. Hear Jason Ritter sing and play the crappiest version of The New York Dolls' "Lonely Planet Boy" you've ever heard. Watch as Eric falls for Rose even though she'll always spread her ankles for Spyder. Witness how coke, booze, and jealousy ruin an already dubious musical endeavor. If this sounds like a good time at the movies, think again. Get another tattoo instead.
Rated R. 92 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Life, Above All
Director Oliver Schmitz deploys a grainy neo-realist style in balancing this powerful drama about the plight of a 12-year-old girl in the dusty South African town of Elandsdoorn. Allan Stratton's book "Chandra's Secrets" provides narrative grist that Schmitz and screenwriter Dennis Foon shape into cinematic form. Khomotso Manyaka gives a persuasive performance as the fiercely engaged protagonist Chanda. The death of Chanda's baby sister weakens her sick mother Lillian's already tenuous relationship with Chanda's adulterous, alcoholic stepfather Johan (Aubrey Poolo). Lillian's condition worsens. A visit to a highly regarded local physician reveals Chanda's observant eye when she recognizes the doctor's prominently displayed awards as coming from the same pharmaceutical company. Chanda isn't one to bite her tongue.
"Life, Above All" strikes at the heart of internal and external social problems which strangle rural South African communities. The AIDS epidemic stamps a scarlet letter on its victims in a terrified culture unwilling to address the issue in a mature way. Chanda's clear-eyed humanity acts as a balm in a place where life is cheap. "Life, Above All" puts the audience in the heart of complex social issues on a grassroots level. Here is a film you can see out of as well as into.
Rated PG-13. 106 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The hackneyed suicidal-man-on-a-ledge trope gets trotted out once again. This time it comes from Charles Darwin's Great-Great-Grandson Matthew Chapman (screenwriter on "Runaway Jury"). Organized religion is the ostensible fall-guy in a drama that checks its reality coat at the door. Terrance Howard plays Hollis Lucetti, a police officer morbidly upset after discovering that, since he is impotent, could not have fathered the son he raises with his apparently unfaithful wife. Hollis's disturbed mental state isn't ideal for talking down a would-be jumper. Still, that doesn't stop Howard's character from extracting nuggets of juicy flashback exposition from ledge-man Gavin Nichols (Charlie Hunnam). Gavin works as a hotel banquet department manager with no compunction about sleeping with his employees even if they're married and living in a next-door apartment. Liv Tyler fits the bill for Gavin's seduction abilities. He takes special pleasure in destroying Shana's (Tyler) wobbly marriage to Christian religious fanatic Joe (Patrick Wilson). That is until Joe finds out about the torrid affair going on under his up-turned nose. Nothing much holds together in this entropic drama that still manages to entertain sporadically through the efforts of its sincerely invested cast.
Rated R. 101 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Art of Getting By
Debut writer/director Gavin Wiesen's coming-of-age in upper class New York story reduces emotions to flat shiny surfaces. Freddie Highmore graduates from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" with an American accent that mostly works in order to disguise his British upbringing. Highmore's high school senior George is a child of privilege. Realization of life's finite reality leaves George unmotivated to do his school work. He's bright but inarticulate. George is the smart kid who's too good to compete because everything seems too easy, an end-run. Freddie Highmore's charm is so natural that he's able to make such an unexpressive character likable. George discovers a muted stirring in his libido when he befriends Emma Roberts's Sally. However, the stirring in her nether regions is considerably stronger than his. Unsure of how to follow through on their romantic feelings, George and Sally spend time drinking in Manhattan bars where bartenders somehow never card them. Michael Angarano adds much needed pizzazz to the movie as Dustin, a successful painter who graduated from George's private school. Though Dustin's generous attempts at mentoring George fall on deaf ears, he's the only character in the movie who has any depth. In spite of its many clichéd flaws "The Art of Getting By" does nail the aloof quality of entitled teens who posture at maturity without doing the dirty work of growing up.
Rated PG-13. 88 mins. (C) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Insufferable. Debut feature director/co-writer Shawn Ku pretends to examine the emotional fallout for a pair of parents after their not-so-"beautiful" boy Sam (Kyle Gallner) takes a semi-automatic weapon to his fellow college classmates and then offs himself. Playing a couple whose marriage is dissolving, Maria Bello and Michael Sheen are good actors stuck with a lousy script. Kate (Bello) and Bill (Sheen) live a cultureless suburban life. He's a workaholic and she works at home on a spellchecking assignment for a novelist. Rather than hashing out their son's devastatingly tragic actions, as a normal couple might be expected to do, the pair barely talk about it. The screenwriters don't dare write the tear-filled conversations that ought to make up the meat of this weak drama. Not even the most emotionally unavailable people in the world could be so removed. They go on the lam to escape the press permanently camped in front of their gloomy home. After wearing out their welcome at the home of Kate's brother, with his wife and child, they live at a motel where they eat dinner from the vending machines and have sex. "Beautiful Boy" is depressingly amateurish. If you're going to make your audience feel bad for two hours, you had better let them know why. If the screenwriters are going to throw their audience into such a deep-end drama, they should at least be able to swim themselves. This movie simply sinks.
Rated R. 100 mins. (D-) (Zero Stars - out of five/no halves)
As bland melodramas go, "Skateland" manages to stare up at the bottom rung. The move has "first-time-director" (read amateur) written all over it. As is the case, co-writer/director Anthony Burns makes an audition reel that shows why he isn't ready to helm feature films. From the miscasting of the look-at-that-freaking-hipster Shiloh Fernandez--as the film's lead--right down to a myriad of disjointed period elements, "Skateland" is a filmic sleeping pill. Small-town Texas, circa 1983, is the setting for has-he-got-a-pulse Ritchie Wheeler (Fernandez) to savor the waning days of summer. 19-year-old Ritchie loves his job at Skateland, the roller-skate rink where he works when he isn't being too lazy to apply for college. Ritchie loves Skateland more than his lame girlfriend, but we don't really know why he cares about either. Ritchie likes to hand out with his ex-motocross racer pal Brent (Heath Freeman), drinking booze and riding around in Brent's El Camino. Limp dramatic plot twists come in the form of an ineptly foreshadowed divorce, and the insignificant death of a supporting character. If anything, "Skateland" reminds you that not everyone "comes of age." The movie certainly doesn't.
Rated PG-13. 85 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
The First Grader
It's a shame that writer Ann Peacock and director Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") have taken the story of 84-year-old Kenyan villager Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge's struggle for education and turned it into a dishwater melodrama. "The First Grader" sustains a soap-opera tone held together with barely any dramatic momentum. The production design is strictly television quality. The whole movie feels like a stock story pulled from some dusty shelf. Gifted actor Oliver Litondo gives a convincing portrayal as Maruge. The actor's best efforts are the only thing that makes the film watchable. Maruge is a surviving soldier of the Mau Mau rebellion that took place against Kenya's occupation by British imperialists during the 1950s. In 2002, the Kenyan government opens up free primary school education to all. However, all is not as advertised. Maruge takes the opportunity at face value and arrives at his local schoolhouse to learn alongside his child peers. Naomie Harris plays the school's committed teacher who takes up Maruge's side when local political powers attempt to prevent him from attending daily classes. By all rights "The First Grader" should be an engaging and moving film. It isn't. It's impossible to watch it and not constantly wish that the story had been handled by more competent filmmakers.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Everything Must Go
First-time writer director Dan Rush doesn't know how to craft a story arc, much less deliver catharsis. By cinema standards, he simply doesn't know how to tell a story. Such is the mushy narrative terrain of a ponderous movie about a man who loses everything at the hands of his ungrateful adulterous wife--who we never see--and the faceless company that fires him after 16 years of service. Will Ferrell's failure in a straight man role as suburban casualty Nick Halsey comes as no surprise. What is amazing is how pathetically timid the filmmaker is about creating a personalized allegory about the quarter of America's population that are out of work due to a corporate stranglehold that has resulted in outrageous profits for CEOs while draining the blood out of every social system around. Nick Halsey should by all rights be as mad as Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" when his company car gets repossessed and all of his worldly possessions are tossed on the front lawn of his home, which his wife has permanently locked him out of. However, he's content to spend his last few dollars on crappy beer he can't even get drunk on.
Part of his problem is that Nick listens to the wrong music. There's no Iggy on the front lawn turntable to inspire Nick to go get the forty-five-grand his wife looted from his bank account. Instead, he's relegated to selling off his worldly objects for pennies on the dollar as if the experience will enrich him. The film's theme seems to be that getting raped by society at large is rewarding when you lay down and take it like dead cat. In Paddy Chayefsky's day, that kind of behavior would be termed unforgivable. Chayefsky was the brilliant screenwriter of "Network" (1976). Dan Rush has created a vacant character that represents everything wrong with America in 2011. Nick isn't merely an unreliable protagonist, he's a lazy and stupid one.
Rated R. 100 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)