Monday, March 30, 2015

Before I Die #544: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

This is the 544th movie I've watched out of the 1,162 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: David Fincher

An excellent adaptation/alternative version of a phenomenally successful novel.

Like millions of readers, I got caught up on the "Millenium" trilogy of books by the deceased Swedish author Stieg Larsson several years ago. I found the first book a very engaging and novel look at deep-rooted, institutional xenophobia and misogyny through the lens of a complex murder mystery.

I saw the original Swedish film adaptation that was released in 2009, and I thought it a solid but slightly flawed take on the story. In 2011, we got a rare treat: a U.S. remake that is actually better than the original European version. The improvements can likely be connected to a much larger budget and the direction of David Fincher, a man who is no stranger to telling very dark and complex tales in films.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it mostly follows two unique characters. Mikael Blomqvist is a crusading but embattled journalist who is hired by an incredibly wealthy businessman to potentially solve a 40-year old murder within his large and largely-dislikable family. Also involved is Lisbeth Salander, a tortured and antisocial genius hacker who becomes Blomqvist's research assistant. There are a ton of curious and sordid details that go into explaining how the two become connected, which make for a dark and fascinating story. Fincher's movie ties the many threads together as skillfully as possible, though an unfamiliar viewer will need all of their attention to keep up.

Yes, Lisbeth can be just as wicked as she
dresses. Fortunately, she tends to direct her
scary smart rage towards misogynists. 
Blomqvist and Salander are great characters in their own rights, and they are brought to life by outstanding performances by Daniel Craig and Roony Mara. Not to slight Noomi Rapace, who admirably portrayed Salander in the original Swedish film version, but I found Mara added just a little more bite to the role. The affable Blomqvist and prickly Salander are different in nearly every way but for two important things: their desire to see justice done and their their unwavering energy to see it through. When the two find their causes overlap, we get some extremely satisfying storytelling.

For those unfamiliar with the details of the story, I have to warn you that it goes to many extremely dark places, with graphic detail regarding murder and rape. If you can stomach such things in your fiction, then this movie is well worth watching. While I found the subsequent two novels not as strong as the first, I do hope that the cast and crew of this 2011 adaptation come together for the rest of the series.

So that's 544 films down. Only 618 to go before I can die...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Before I Die # 543: Shame (2011)

The is the 543rd movie I've watched of the 1,162 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: Steve McQueen

If you ever wished to see Michael Fassbender in a porn movie, this is as close as you're ever going to get. If you balk at that statement, rest assured that the movie is a very good one, though highly disturbing.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a handsome and successful Manhattanite who lives alone and regularly indulges his severe addiction to sex and pornography. Whether through one-night stands, hiring prostitutes, engaging in online porn, or arousing himself with sexual magazines and his own fantasies, Brandon can never get enough casual and superficial sexual gratification.

Brandon's sordid patterns of fixation are thrown off when his sister, Sissy, shows up unexpectedly to stay with him for an indefinite period of time. The siblings' relationship with one another is strained at best, and it is made worse when each starts to encroach on the other's destructive behaviors. Sissy, though a very talented musician, is a highly emotional, possibly bi-polar, drifter who tries to connect with her detached brother in various ways. The implication is that the two had an extremely difficult upbringing, which suggests why they are unable to accept and deal with each other in constructive ways. The results are tragic on a highly personal level.

This movie represents a different, arguably much better, take on human sexuality in modern metropolitan society than Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The latter is a far more intellectual and mature but overly cold analysis of sex. Shame looks at the subject through a single, damaged man and his chronic struggles with this most basic of human impulses. Shame is also much more explicit and raw in its depictions of sex than Kubrick's earlier film. Potential viewers ought to be aware, so they aren't completely shocked by its graphic nature. The graphic nature, though, brings home the very point that the film is making.

File this one under "excellent movies that only need to be seen one time." With the ever-increasing commodification of human sexuality in the information age, the many themes in Shame are well worth pondering, even when they lead us to very uncomfortable places.

That's 543 films down. Only 619 more to see before I can die...

Monday, March 16, 2015

New(ish) Releases: Gone Girl (2014); Horrible Bosses 2 (2014); Robocop (2014)

Gone Girl

Director: David Fincher

A well-constructed, gripping, and bold movie. Gone Girl is also a film that will likely leave you unsure of exactly how to feel when the credits roll.

It is impossible to say much about the plot of the movie without taking away great parts of its strengths. The set-up is thus: Nick and Amy Dunne are in a marriage that has grown painfully stale. What started as a storybook romance has become a dull affair that has revealed each person's worst flaws. On their fifth anniversary, things take a turn for the tragic and strange when Amy disappears, seemingly kidnapped. Nick, though at first not a suspect, increasingly becomes the focus of the investigations for various reasons.

If it seems like this is a fairly standard crime thriller set up, this is because it is. But it is a grave mistake to think that Gone Girl is a typical crime thriller. While it exhibits a number of the tropes typical to the genre, it turns many of them on their heads, while examining several larger, far more interesting and disturbing questions that go well beyond the "Who done it?" force that normally drives such movies.

The technical merits are outstanding, as is true with every Fincher movie that I've seen. The visuals are brilliant, the music enhances the film exceptionally well, and the acting is strong all around (yes, even Ben Affleck is fine). In short, it's a pleasing film to take in, aesthetically.

The movie explores several areas that are grey, dark grey, and eventually pitch black. This is to be expected from director David Fincher, who long ago proved himself unafraid to explore such places, most notably in his early film Se7en. Gone Girl is not for the faint of heart, or those looking for a nice, easily-digestible tale of heroes, villains, and ultimate justice. For that, I commend it, even if I probably never need to watch it again.

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

Director: Sean Anders

Just funny enough not to be a waste of time, but it was a tight race.

I really liked the first one. The over-the-top titular "bosses" were cast perfectly, and there was plenty of great banter between them and the trio of likable average Joes played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day. Such can't really be said of the sequel. Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz do just fine, but the script was far weaker than its predecessor. Pine and Waltz make the most of what they were given, but what they were given wasn't much to speak of.

The story, at least, differs from the original in that the three main shmos are attempting to start their own business. This pits them against Waltz's ruthless billionaire venture capitalist, who thinks nothing of crushing them like insects. Through it all, Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day go through the familiar stages of hope, rage, and panic that produced many of the great scenes in the first film. In part two, however, the chemistry is often out of balance. Where the three main players had previously been lovable, if a tad dim occasionally, in this movie Sudeikis's and Day's characters are stupid beyond belief. Stupid to the point that you wonder how they're even able to function. This idiocy results in a handful of good laughs, but many more duds than the first movie.

I knew not to expect anything great from this sequel, so I wasn't terribly disappointed in it. Just don't get your hopes very high - this will give you just enough laughs to make it worth your while, but no more.

Robocop (2014)

Director: Jose Padilha

While not terrible, this reboot of one of my favorite 1980s action flicks does little to recommend itself. This remake had potential, but most of it went unfulfilled.

It took some serious guts to even attempt a reboot of one of the most iconic 1980's tough-guy action movies. Twenty-seven years ago, Director Paul Verhoeven gave us a fun, ultra-violent action flick that constantly winked at us with its satirical advertisements and fantastic one-liners. This 2014 version played it much straighter, while attempting to inject some of the sly social commentary of the original. Unfortunately, the recent version is nowhere near as clever or entertaining.

The shame of the movie is that so many great foundational elements were in place. The tale of mangled police officer Alex Murphy is compelling enough, and witnessing his transformation into a cyborg war machine is a bit of fun. There's even a really stunning scene in which we see what Murphy looks like without the intimidating, prosthetic Robocop suit. The actors are all top-notch as well. It's tough to go wrong with Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, and Samuel L. Jackson; and Joel Kinnemann was a solid choice for the title role. However, even these talents could only breathe so much life into a rather lukewarm script. The action is merely OK, as it does nothing to stand out from other blockbusters in the genre.

This movie set itself up for failure, really. Had it not been a remake of such a great movie, it might have been more engaging. As it is, though, one has to question whether it even needed to be made. My answer is "No." At least, it didn't need to be remade in such a bland way.

If nothing else, though, the movie did provide this hilarious interview with Kinnemann on The Daily Show with John Stewart. Start it at the 2:00 mark, and listen to the "Uncle Scotty" story. It had me rolling.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Before I Die #542: Dracula (1931)

This is the 542nd film I've watched of the 1,162 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Awesome poster.
Underwhelming movie.
Director: Tod Browning

In a word, disappointing.

I knew going into this one that the vampire story has been told and retold so many times that an early adaptation was likely to seem hackneyed, despite being the source for so many tropes. Still, I have watched several very old horror movies and found them quite good, especially the Murnau version of Nosferatu and James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. The Browning version of Dracula I thought rather dull.

There's very little need to give a synopsis. Anyone who has read Bram Stoker's book or seen the extremely popular 1992 adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola knows the basic story of an undead Transylvanian count infiltrating London in order to leech a few upwardly mobile virgins. Browning's 1931 version is really the same story, but done with the visual and special effects limitations of his day.

I give the movie credit for being reasonably faithful to Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, including several of the grimmer and darker aspects of the tale. Of course the movie is nowhere near as graphic or grisly as anything we 21st-century viewers are accustomed to, but the implied horrors are strong enough. There are a few decent performances, as well. Bela Lugosi, of course, became an icon after playing the title terror. Also, Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, who play Renfield and Van Helsing, respectively, do solid work in their roles.

Ah, the helpless virgin. Even a  suave, superpowered
creature of the night can't resist.
Still, there were far too many elements that have since become the stuff of caricature. The ridiculously fake bats. The shrieking, helpless damsels in distress. The idiotic fiancee who refuses to believe the horrors on his doorstep, despite overwhelming evidence. This is not to mention the overblown, melodramatic acting. Aside from the three actors mentioned above, the rest of the cast is completely forgettable, including Helen Chandler as Mina Harker, a key role. All of these things led to me either rolling my eyes or having my attention drift at several points in the film. This is pretty sad for a movie which is only 77 minutes long.

An iconic movie it may be, but I'll take the Murnau, Herzog, or Coppola versions any day.

So that's 542 films down. Only 620 to go before I can die...

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Retro Trio: Take Shelter (2011); The Wolf of Wall Street (2014); The Negotiator (1998)

Take Shelter (2011)

Director: Jeff Nichols

This is a great movie. Unsettling, to be sure, but great.

Take Shelter follows Curtis (Michael Shannon), a family man in the mid-west who starts having terrifying dreams at night and apocalyptic visions while awake. He becomes convinced that a menacing storm of Biblical proportions is coming, and that he must make preparations in order to save his wife and young daughter, at any cost.

What we soon come to realize is that paranoid schizophrenia runs in Curtis's family, Curtis does realize this and even does some research, but he is too terrified to completely admit the possibility to himself or his family. The result is anguished confusion and confrontation with those he loves the most.

The whole movie is outstanding drama told from the unusual perspective of a person in the earliest stages of severe mental illness. Director Jeff Nichols uses sparing but extremely powerful special effects to allow us viewers to experience the terrible visions that haunt Curtis, making him a very sympathetic character. The acting is excellent, most notably by Michael Shannon as the caring husband and father who slowly becomes an unintentional menace, and Jessica Chastain is great as his caring but increasingly-frightened wife.

It's not an "enjoyable" movie, but it's one that I would recommend to everyone. It is one of those rare films that can give us a glimpse into the dark and terrible places that people can find themselves falling into, through no fault of their own.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

Director: Martin Scorsese

This was the second time I watched this one. My feelings are about the same - it's entertaining enough, but belabors its points and becomes rather tiresome, if not highly disturbing, by the end of its nearly 3-hour running time.

This image says a lot. The full film will test just how much
debauchery you can take while dealing with a smug, smirking
Jordan Belfort.
It follows the real-life exploits of Jordan Belfort, a modern personification of avarice and hedonism in its purest form. Belfort was an ambitious stockbroker from Queens, New York, who spent the better part of the 1990s pulling highly illegal stock deals to fatten his pockets to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. He tirelessly put his considerable skills as a salesman and motivator to recruit like-minded locals into his own brokerage firm, which quickly grew into a juggernaut by the mid-90s. Along the way, Belfort and all of his cronies indulged in every manner of drug intake, conspicuous consumption, and sexual deviancy that they could dream up.

The movie can be quite amusing at times, which is a hallmark of Martin Scorsese's more modern "East Coast Crime Movies." We see plenty of wretched people doing horrible things, but presented in often hilarious ways. As with Scorsese's 1995 film Casino, we also get to witness the ascent and descent of highly driven individuals, giving Wolf the same appeal of any similar construction/destruction tales.

However, the joke tends to wear off at roughly the 2-hour mark. At that point, I found that I didn't need to see yet another example of how degenerate Belfort or his followers had become, and it was evidently clear that he was a disgusting human being. The film continues to try and present most of the debauchery as humorous, but when you realize that these were real things done by real people, it all becomes simply reprehensible.

Great acting and great direction go a long way to making the movie mostly enjoyable, but it will never hold the place in cinema history that Scorsese's earlier movies have.

The Negotiator (1998)

Director; F. Gary Gray

This is a really solid movie, and I'm not completely sure why it has always flown so far under the radar. I have a few guesses, though.

The nutshell summary is that Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is an expert hostage negotiator for the Chicago police department. Through a nefarious scheme, Roman is framed for the murder of a fellow police officer and large-scale embezzlement of police funds. A desperate Roman takes an Internal Affairs officer, whom he suspects is involved in the plot, hostage along with a few others. This sets up a hostage chess match between Roman and outside negotiator Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), who takes an intelligent and unbiased approach to the whole affair.

The Negotiator has every element that an action/thriller movie fan could want: a taught, high-stakes premise and plot. Amazing acting. Outstanding direction and cinematography. All of the ingredients are there for a box office hit, yet the movie was a financial bust despite strong critical reception. I have a few theories as to why, and most of them are disturbing.

One reason may be that several massively popular movies were released in the weeks just prior to The Negotiator. Saving Private Ryan, There's Something About Mary, and Armageddon all came out within three weeks earlier, to huge success. The most upsetting is, of course, Armageddon, one of the best/worst examples of Michael Bay's insulting film making. This and the others likely swallowed up much of The Negotiator's potential audience.

The more disturbing possibility is that wider audiences simply were unwilling to accept an African-American in the lead role of an action thriller. Samuel L. Jackson had already cemented his place as a fantastic actor, having been nominated for an Academy Award for Pulp Fiction and been in other solid movies like Losing Isaiah, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Jackie Brown, and more. Still, people didn't seem interested in seeing him completely take the reins. I can't shake the feeling that, if an established white actor like Bruce Willis or Russell Crowe had played the part of Roman, the movie would have been a blockbuster. It doesn't speak well of us as moviegoers if this is, indeed, the case.

I wish I hadn't waited so long to see this one, but I'm glad to have finally remedied this omission.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Before I Die #541: Prizzi's Honor (1985)

This is the 541st I've now watched of the 1,162 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through...

It's past the statute of limitations, but I still
feel like suing this poster for false
Director: John Huston

Totally disappointing.

When I see the words: "mafia," "Jack Nicholson," and "John Huston," I start to think good things. Such thinking resulted in the sad shock I felt in watching this movie.

The basic story is thus: Charley Partanna is a man quite literally born into the mafia. His father and god-father swear, immediately after his birth, to raise him within the Prizzi "family." Charley doesn't disappoint, growing to become one of the most feared mafia enforcer/assassins in the country. A very serious problem arises, however, when Charley falls in love with Irene Walker, a fellow assassin who robs the Prizzis. Things are further complicated when Charley's ex-wife, Maerose Prizzi, gets involved in the entire mess.

The story seems, on paper, to make for a solid mafia movie. When you add in a brilliant cast including Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Anjelica Huston, and many other great character actors, then you would expect movie gold. What I saw was a borderline-mess of a film that fell completely flat.

Firstly, Jack Nicholson's New York accent is horrendous. This is very odd to me, as he was born and raised in New Jersey. Despite this, his faux New York street guy affect is even worse than the shakey Boston accent he put on in The Departed. This wouldn't be such a nuisance if Nicholson weren't in nearly every scene. He is, though, so it's a nuisance. A larger, less superficial problem to me is that the tone is never consistent. At times it wants to be a dark comedy; at others a touching dramedy; and at others a suspenseful crime tale. It's a very difficult trick to pull off, and John Huston (an indisputably great director) failed on every count. Neither the characters nor their motivations ever fully gel, leaving a bizarre, rambling story in which I cared about no one and nothing.

I couldn't shake the feeling that this movie is one that could have been done by filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, whose quirky sense of genre and tone blending might have resulted in a brilliant cult classic. As it is, though, I'm left to wonder just why so many film critics have hailed Prizzi's Honor as an "all-time great gangster movie." I just don't see it.

That's 541 movies seen. Only 621 to go before I can die...