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Archive for January, 2012

What is the perception of a NC-17 film? (The discussion about the unfair economic and physical distribution effects of a NC-17 rating is for another time.) One look could be perceived as a film that shoots the line between pornographic or extreme violence that it’s not appropriate for any regular viewer.  Others perceive it as an incredibly risky and unique venture.  True, the rating itself shouldn’t affect the end product of a film and although probably in the back of a filmmaker’s mind, is probably not the primary driver of why a film is created.  However, it’s a fascinating look at perceptions; an interesting discussion to have especially when looking at Shame, which itself deals with societal and personal values in the guise of a NC-17 film.  In the end, Shame is a simple film in its plot linearity but a fascinating societal and character study that is thoughtful and nuanced.

Shame follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York businessman who is obsessed with sex whether it is in digital and visual content, such as pornography, or in visceral and tacile contact, such as hiring a prostitute.  He keeps his personal life private, living alone and not contacting family.  However, one day, his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), forces herself in and begins to live with him.  This unexpected surprise starts to affect Brandon in different ways, his personal space being violated.  What ensues is a push-and-pull action between Brandon’s obsession with sex and the presence of his sister in his personal life.

The few parts of Shame that have trouble throughout the entirety of the film are in its shaded simplicity and the occasional overly long take.  Although the subject matter and the main characters’ characterizations may be deep and complicated, the plot progression and side character’s shades are much less so.  The film leaves few surprises or deep twists and creates a bit of a simplistic-minded overall movie when looking past the main plot.  Such characters as an overly flirtatious and cheating boss and a ring of prostitutes are only glimmered upon and called on as plot devices than for serious observations against Fassbender.  More could have been done to explore this arena and create a deeper film.  Secondly, some of the long takes the film thrives on feel unnecessary and gratuitous.  A graphic sex scene near the end of the film borders on the pornographic than exploratory and although the discomfort created by such scenes is understandable, the meaning and understanding behind their inclusion feel less necessary than some of the other brilliant long takes.

Other than these various missteps, the film showcases magnificent acting and some engaging and provocative themes shown in a unique way.  The film is bold in its message about addiction, lust and individualism in many various ways.  One method comes through it’s acting.  Although there are some great side roles as well, especially the much more bubbly and chirpy foil played by Mulligan, none of it would work without the frontman, Fassbender, leaving a huge impact.  Fassbender plays a multi-faceted role in this tale of an addiction that takes over his personal life as he has to showcase a longing for the physical while still playing the everyday man on his exterior.  Much like the best acting from 2011, this impact doesn’t come just from the dialogue but from the facial expressions and motions that portray so much suffering along with pleasure.  Fassbender comes off as a fascinating and candid character that is sure to evoke a bevy of emotions in the audience.  Assisting Fassbender is McQueen’s interesting slow and quiet build-up that is built on long takes and conversations.  At first, they seem unnecessary and much more like filler but as the film continues to build to it’s kinetic climax, the scenes start to make much more sense both in revealing exposition and thematic moments.  Take for example Fassbender’s candid conversation on his date that at first seems innocent yet the more his date tries to tear down his walls, the innocuous answers become more and more revealing.  Even scenes that seem repetitive or commonly juxtaposed are carefully crafted and decided upon that do add to some simplicity in it’s formula but makes the audience feel like an uncomfortable voyeur.  And why would I use the word uncomfortable?  Because McQueen deals with ideas that aren’t commonly discussed in the media in general from relationships, addiction, shame and openness.  Indeed, some may point to the film as not really making a bold case concerning sexual addiction, but I would argue back that the film is much deeper than that superficial layer.  The film is about so much more that brings into question our societal values and the impetus of the right to live any type of life versus the obligations one has to keep to those around him or herself.  McQueen’s fascinating film is a great discussion piece that is bold in it’s subject matter and so much more.

Shame is a candid and nuanced film about a man’s obsession deteriorating his personal life.  True, the film may not exactly convince viewers of the notion of sex addiction with its fairly straightforward and basic plot progression, and the film won’t suit all audiences with its very methodical and juxtaposition methodology.  However, as a whole, the film is engrossing and fascinating because of the nuanced methods it uses to showcase an ever-growing case of cause-and-effect, which both McQueen and Fassbender masterfully embody in filming and acting.  Shame is a fascinating film all-around and asks us on a basic level what our obsessions shuns out and on a more complicated level what society deems correct and incorrect.  

Director: Steve McQueen
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Rated: NC-17

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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It’s fascinating to run into a remake of a film that hasn’t long passed, since many comparisons and questions pop up.  Essentially, does the remake have a purpose and a clear reason for existing?  If not, then how does the film stand for different types of audiences?  In the case of Fincher’s iteration of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the mileage on one’s likability of the film is most likely going to hinge on these very questions more than other remakes or adaptations in the past.  Have you read the book?  Have you seen the Swedish adaptation?  If you answered yes to both of these questions, most likely, much like myself, you’ll find a very faithful book-to-film adaptation that is marred by the lack of anything unique or purposeful in revisiting the property. For newcomers or perhaps even for some fans that just enjoyed the book, the fascinating characters and plot will still make an impact.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who was the co-owner at Millennium Magazine and recently convicted of libel against a powerful business.  Disgraced, he takes a leave of absence at his magazine only to be asked to take on another mystery as a personal request for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). The case? To find the murderer of his grand-daughter, Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal).  Whisked away near Henrik, Mikael starts to investigate and finds he needs help.  He finds a research assistant in the socially awkward but brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara).  Together, they need to figure out who killed Harriet before they themselves are threatened.

Fincher’s film excels at faithfully adapting the source material with some interesting small twists.  Overall, the elements are all in place.  The two leads, Craig and Mara, are fairly accurate to their characters.  Craig plays a serious and slightly flawed lead man with ease and Mara gives both the highs and lows of Lisbeth’s punk hacker mentality and their interactions together create some chemistry.  Along with this interpretation of the characters, the script itself is much more faithful to the original text.  Fincher purposefully creates a part one film in a trilogy, navigating his film away from scenes that will be emphasized in the latter parts while staying much more true to characterizations and plot progressions such as the much more sexual and love-angst version of Lisbeth and an end sequence that is very different from the Swedish version but plays very close to the novel.  The pacing itself is fairly brisk as well with a strong beginning and climax; a difficult proposition since the film is so exposition heavy, and does a decent enough job trying to explain all the in-between names and history.  The most fascinating parts come within its soundtrack and raw look which are the most unique sections of the film.  Trent Raznor’s great soundtrack work from The Social Network bleeds over to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and while it may not be as memorable, persay, the electronic beats and creepy yet rocking music creates for a unique blend of sound to go hand-in-hand with the action.  In addition, the film’s look and feeling is very raw and edgy.  The color correction to the cinematography create a great look that really make up a unique perspective to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t distinguish itself enough to really differentiate enough from the other iteration while languishing in some problems of its own.  On the one hand, viewers of the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will find little to appreciate and take other than a more faithful adaptation.  Perhaps some will think that this differentiation is interesting enough yet in terms of the film format, this adaptation loses some of the ferocity and bite of its predecessor.  For instance, Lisbeth is much more vulnerable and lighter in this iteration in this film, which book purists might say is better but here, it’s a characterization that, due to the amount of information and storytelling already being told, feels odd and disconnected precisely because there is not enough time to establish the dichotomy of the two personas.  The same thinking lies in the faithful ending as well which feels unnecessarily elongated. Why did this happen? Personally, I feel as if Fincher and his team couldn’t decide which part of the plot he wanted to give more focus to – the main mystery or the relationship of Lisbeth and Mikael.  The ensuing answer?  Not enough of either plotline to emotionally engage with the audience.  On the one hand is the character study that doesn’t seem to go far enough into trying to comprehend who these characters are, while on the other side is a mystery that seems to have little care by its climax and resolution.  Even with the relentless pacing, the plot feels lengthy and tedious because it cannot fully commit to either side of the two plotlines.

Coming from someone that has read both the book and the Swedish iteration of the film, my review may come off skewed than someone coming in new.  Indeed, many should find Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a very faithful adaptation of the acclaimed book moreso than even its international counterpart and an overall good, edgy mystery thriller with an intriguing character, Lisbeth.  However, not only are there problems with the central mystery plot but the nature of the final film itself.  As a viewer of all the material surrounding the film, unlike other American remakes, this iteration didn’t feel like it had a unique perspective or fresh undertaking that warranted it’s creation.  And so brings the confounding question of this review, was the film really necessary?  In the end, newcomers (whether fresh from the book or going in without any other prior knowledge) will probably still appreciate all of the intrigue behind the characters and plot but for everyone else, Fincher’s vision of the Dragon Tattoo is more of an interesting juxtaposition at best.  

Director: David Fincher
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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When I was growing up (and I’m sure this still applies to some degree to current times as well), early Saturday morning cartoons were interesting products because they not only had entertaining self-contained stories but an interesting mythos that also had kept you coming back for more and more adventures many familiar characters.  Why bring this up in a review about an animated epic film like The Adventures of Tintin?  Because both for the better and for the worse, Tintin had elements from these old pastimes (and to note, this review is coming from someone that is fairly oblivious to the original Tintin comics).  Although filled with some beautiful imagery and visually bombastic moments, the film was fairly emotionally flat, lacking context for its plot and characters and a haphazard pacing.

The titular character in The Adventures of Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a young journalist well-respected in his town for solving various cases.  With his trusty dog, Snowy, he is on hot on a new case involving a model ship that has him crossing path with a dastardly villain named Rackham (Daniel Craig), who is seeking these model ships to uncover an ancient secret.  Along the way, he runs into Captain Haddock (Andy Serkins), whose ship has been taken over by Rackham but with a much more important past that connects him to the treasure, along with the help of two clumsy detective twins Thompson and Thompson (Simon Pegg/Nick Frost).  Together, they battle against time to see who can obtain the ultimate treasure first.

Tintin’s strengths are in its visual presentation and motions.  Spielberg and his team has created a beautiful world for Tintin and his comrades (and villains) to travel through, helped by the many different lands that they visit.  The motion capture animation style usually has an uncanny valley feeling to it that feels stilted and eerie, yet there is a mostly good balance here between a slightly exaggerated artstyle and the realistic touches of the locales and human beings.  Clumsy characters like Haddock benefit the most from the art along with more drawn-out action scenes that have a wonderful long take feel that can be implemented.  A sword fight between Haddock and Rackham is a truly terrific scene that showcases this style well.  The animation is also well-done because of the clever thinking behind what happens in each scene.  The many set pieces that are contained within the film are fun and filled with tons of adrenaline.  Take for instance an action set piece that involves multiple characters in a motorcycle and jeep that incorporates a ton of environmental elements, animals and marvelous long takes that would be hard-pressed to see in a live-action film.  Even the transitions get a creative visual treatment and are expertly done so no matter how small or trivial it may be, from drops of water into ripples to storms.  One last positive note needs to be made of Captain Haddock, the most interesting character of the entire film.  Not only is he amazingly played by the versatile Serkins who thrives under the mask of illusions, but the character is so whimsical and out-there that it is through his actions that my interest (and I’m sure many others) will be kept with the film.

And yet the film feels like it misses an emotional core as a complete afterthought to all the beauty and animated interests created.  The main issue comes in the lack of context and care in the core characters.  Other than the interesting characteristics of Haddock, everyone else not only feels very one-dimensional but with very little care on who they are.  ‘Lessons’ that characters seem to learn are trivial and given a second of screen time.  Not helping matters is a plot that has an awkward introduction, middle and end, in which the film plops in and rushes out without any satisfaction.  This point isn’t to argue that it needs an origin thread or a completely finished conclusion, but instead, to argue that the plot decisions lack any definition and therefore creates an even flimsier plot line and sense of any emotional connection with the overall film.  Indeed, the pacing’s haphazard nature didn’t help at all either with anticlimatic finishes and story beats that are based more around set piece to set piece than a more organic feel.  Why are all these such important points though?  Because of these glossy, one-note caricatures and the flimsy plot, the film has no emotional weight.  What is the point of a thrilling spectacle when the audience doesn’t really care about the main characters?  Fights, flying airplanes, and explosions become the core film and seem pointless without heroes to root for or even despise, and the plot isn’t strong enough to hold them up to scrutiny.  (One final note that wasn’t considered in the final review of the content of the film – the 3D didn’t add anything to the final value of the film.)

The Adventures of Tintin is most likely going to be judged very differently in terms of those that are familiar with the original comic series and those that aren’t, in which I personally fall in the latter.  For that reason, I felt that the film was filled with exciting set pieces and some grand cinematography, but overall, Tintin felt incomplete with little emotional weight to back it up.  Spielberg’s directorial style and motivations are very clear and, many times, make for some wonderful, entertaining scenes, no doubt helped by a really beautiful, mo-cap animation style that fits the mood of the film.  However, without context and much emotional resonance, there is little reason to care when the titular characters are beaten up or accomplish a major goal and instead results in a more Saturday morning cartoon feel than an epic plot.  

Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Rated: PG

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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Biographies are fascinating to see captured on film because of the limited time given.  Directors and writers need to decide on a variety of factors, most importantly the angle and the character they want to bring forth to the subject.  Whether it is to show a specific time frame or a lifelong tribute, the importance of nailing down this important purpose is crucial to both understanding the film and creating something worthwhile.  Eastwood has taken the route of showcasing a wide timeline and back-and-forth flashback mentality to his biopic, J. Edgar. Although admirable for the ambitious scope of the task and carried by its fearless DiCaprio, the scope seems far too long and unfocused to make any sort of real impact along with other rough spots.

J. Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the titular character, the first Director of the FBI.  The film tells his life through a series of flashbacks starting from the inception of the Palmer Raids, a series of arrests aimed against radical leftists in the late 1910s when Edgar was part of the Justice Department. Soon, after his dedication to the department, he would rise to the first FBI Director in which he looked over its creation and continued operations.  However, controversies would erupt between Edgar and the many enemies he made during his tenure.  His only true cohorts become his number two man, Clyde Tolso (Armie Hammer), his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his mother (Judi Dench).

The strengths of J. Edgar lie in its ambitious script and acting.  Eastwood presents a very long period of time in a fairly great amount of detail to showcase the possible reasons and ambitions that exist within Edgar.  Although other films have showcased such scope before, it’s still a commendable feat to really try and cram in a treasure trove of historical backdrops that change in terms of style, mood and atmosphere.  Eastwood isn’t shy either of dropping historical names and giving them actual faces from Robert Kennedy to Richard Nixon.  This script is backed up by a great cast that doesn’t falter away from the task, but the best comes from Leonardo DiCaprio who really does his best job to play the young to the old iterations of Edgar along with all his character deficiencies, which there are quite a lot of.  DiCaprio is defiant till the very end, however, in a great acting role that showcases both powerful character mannerisms to subdued nuances.  Finally, there are some consistent Eastwood touches that always define his latest films from the good color correction and stylistic choices.

Unfortunately, these positives are greatly hindered by the hesitation in discovering what Eastwood wanted out of his film to the rough edges surrounding its characters and aesthetics.  The very ambition of the scope of the biopic is part of its detractor. One part the scope affected was its pacing, which is slow and tedious.  Eastwood has a tough time finding a good rhythm to the deep plot as scenes drag out much too long and doesn’t feel as if it added much to understanding of the characters or scenes.  This point comes into play as well due to repetitive points and a high usage of melodrama.  Characters have a habit of repeating a plot point much too often in different ways that bogs down the film as well as a heavy-handed camera that tends to linger on a scene to try to show the emotive qualities but comes off as more cheesy and forced.  A key end scene with Edgar as an older man that has already been reiterated should have been a loving and emotional moment, but because of how long Eastwood lingers on the scene, not only did it feel like the audience is receiving the same bit of information for the fifth time but an overly sentimental scene that didn’t seem emotionally honest.

The script itself also seems fairly confused in terms of its focus.  Many side characters that have a fairly large amount of screen time or presence feel underdeveloped and undervalued.  Watts’ character, for instance, is there with Edgar throughout nearly his entire lifespan and her motivations and character intricacies are fairly one-dimensional and never developed further than slightly having a motherly concern later on in her life.  One would think this lack of characterization may be due to time constraints or a real focus on Edgar, yet as explained before, the film spends a great deal of time already on repetitive points or unnecessary aspects.  It doesn’t help that the scenes, in which the characters are much older, include prosthetics don’t really sell the age difference, looking too fake with too much make-up   The final oddity comes with the purpose of the film, in which it isn’t quite clear.  Indeed, the film is interesting in its remarks of Edgar’s life and motivations, but the perspective is neither objective or purpose-filled.  Instead, there is a strange middle ground the film tries to take but isn’t successful there either as the film meanders and tries to find its footing.  In the end, audience members will take from J. Edgar as a strange man with lofty ambitions and a weak spirit but very little else.

J. Edgar is a biopic that is lethargic and rough but still has enough intrigue due to the commitment by its actors to pull all the way through.  This very intimate look into J. Edgar’s supposed life and motivations make for a tough watch due to the overuse of melodrama and the slow pacing of the entire affair.  However, the passionate acting troupe and the ambitious lifelong plot line makes the film at least worth a gander with DiCaprio pushing through to grab the audience’s lulled attention.  This strange back-and-forth positive-and-negative thinking really is core to the film unfortunately as the film seems muddled and unsure of its purpose, perhaps much like its central character.  In the end, perhaps even Eastwood could not pin down the Edgar’s strange life as a cinematic character study which is in itself a revelation.    

Director: Clint Eastwood
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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