Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

Black Swan

Movie Review #731

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Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin. (Story: Andrés Heinz.) Produced by Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, and Brian Oliver for Protozoa Pictures and Phoenix Pictures, presented by Fox Searchlight Pictures, made in association with Cross Creek Pictures and Dune Entertainment. Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan, and Stanley B. Herman. Premiered at Venice Film Festival on September 1, 2010; and in New York City, New York on November 30, 2010. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Fox Searchlight Pictures in limited release in the USA on December 3, 2010; and in wide release on December 17, 2010. Rated R: strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use. Runs 108 minutes.

Cinemaniac Reviews four stars

“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.”

“Black Swan” is twistedly, heart-stoppingly original. It’s a tale of desire, power, obsession, and any combination between the three. For every time we take the involuntary chance to blink during the film, director Darren Aronofsky takes two seemingly natural chances to delve further into his psychosis of the protagonist. I can’t put the film any other way than to say it’s brilliant.

I’ll say it again: its approach and accomplishment are both sublimely original. And yet I struggle with the paradox, that it’s also retelling the classic Swan Lake. Nina (Natalie Portman) is anything but happy that she has received the role of the Swan Queen in Chaykovsky’s ballet; she’s more worried about winning, succeeding, attaining perfection in the role. She can’t lose, and making sure she doesn’t involves frequent paranoia, devastation, and ultimately, self-destruction. It’s no accident that the story’s journey through the mind, in fact, parallels the tale of Swan Lake.

The ballet Swan Lake ends with the White Swan leaping off a cliff to her death, and it is no spoiler to say that the protagonist in “Black Swan” meets her end the same way. Darren Aronofsky has made self-destruction a staple to his catalog of directed films. He’s also made character a staple, but never like this. We’re really put into Nina’s head in “Black Swan”.  Natalie Portman delivers an absolute tour de force performance here. Between her performance and the masterful cinematography of Matthew Libatique, the film’s most engaging game is in letting us guess what’s real and what’s just in the mind. Where this opus most succeeds, though, is in its distance from reality.

“Black Swan” is a lurid, bizarre, and hypnotic experience. Its dark, demented psychodrama vastly outweighs “The Wrestler”, Aronofsky’s 2008 film to which it is a companion piece. Indeed both films look at all the dangers that surround human nature’s greatest fantasy (perfection), but in comparison, “The Wrestler” only glanced at the concept.

BLACK SWAN IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD.

Veronica Mars

Movie Review #729

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Directed by Rob Thomas. Screenplay by Rob Thomas & Diane Ruggiero. (Story: Rob Thomas. Characters: Rob Thomas.) Produced by Dan Etheridge, Danielle Stokdyk, and Rob Thomas, for Spondoolie Productions and Rob Thomas Productions, presented by Warner Bros. Digital. Starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Chris Lowell, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Krysten Ritter, Enrico Colantoni, Andrea Estella, Ken Marino, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, Daran Norris, Max Greenfield, Jerry O’Connell, Duane Daniels, Amanda Noret, Christine Lakin, and Lisa Thornhill. Credited cameo: Jamie Lee Curtis. Uncredited cameo: James Franco. Premiered at South by Southwest Film Festival on March 8, 2014. Special screenings in Mexico City, Stockholm, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney on March 13 and 14, 2014. Distributed by Warner Bros. and Warner Bros. Digital Distribution in wide release on March 14, 2014. Rated PG-13: sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language. Runs 107 minutes.

Cinemaniac Reviews two and a half stars

Veronica Mars lives in the fictional town of Neptune, California.  She claims it’s not just a place where movie stars go and hang out, but then again, her colleagues exchange stories about Brad Pitt, and she can contact James Franco pretty easily.  Anyway, she’s retired from her life as a sleuth for a whole nine years.  This matches the seven years that separate the third season of the neo-noir TV series Veronica Mars from the film adaptation/followup of the same name.

All I really know of the story is what Kristen Bell and company presented in this year’s version.  I know that the three seasons of TV’s Veronica Mars (2004-2007) featured the titular heroine as a teenage sleuth, and I know that Veronica’s father became a private investigator after he lost his job as the sheriff in the beginning of the series.  I also know that Veronica herself is a private eye, and that she began by helping out her father on his private investigations.  But I don’t really “get it.”  I don’t understand half of the back story in the movie, because the script chooses to give brief, shallow explanations of what happened throughout the course of the TV series. “Veronica Mars” is for fans of the character, and maybe only those fans. Those who hold little familiarity with the series will find the setup rather confusing.

Though the characters are rather interesting, and interesting enough to make me curious about the original series. The story, as well, possesses quite some intrigue. This is a neo-noir, but it’s an unusual one with a genuinely quirky screenplay. The search for the man or woman who murdered a certain celebrity (who Veronica knows from high school) is told with style and charisma from director Rob Thomas, who also co-writes, produces, and created the TV series. Editing and cinematography are worth their mention, too; they’re just about top-notch.

If only that story was told more pointedly, this would be a much more gripping movie. “Veronica Mars” suffers from movie ADHD, and eventually, it’s created enough subplots that it’s not longer a movie; it’s just a reincarnated season of the TV show, minimized to two hours. I’m getting the sense that the TV series was a cult phenomenon in its time, and that this movie version is the final execution of a plan held since its cancellation: to bring back Veronica’s character. Apparently that was basically all they wanted in this movie. Even with great performances from Kristen Bell and Krysten Ritter, plus everything else I’ve commended the film for, the newfangled, 2014 “Veronica Mars” feels like less than enough.

VERONICA MARS IS IN THEATERS. IT IS ALSO AVAILABLE THROUGH VIDEO ON DEMAND SERVICES.

The Bourne Identity

Movie Review #711

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Universal Pictures presents…

Kennedy/Marshall
Hypnotic
Kalima Productions GmbH & Co. KG
Stillking Films

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Country: USA – Germany – Czech Republic
Spoken Languages: English – French – German – Dutch – Italian

Directed by Doug Liman. Produced by Patrick Crowley, Richard N. Gladstein, and Doug Liman. Screenplay by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron.  Novel by Robert Ludlum.

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – violence; infrequent profanity. Runs 1 hour, 59 minutes. Premiered in the USA on June 6, 2002. Wide release in the USA on June 14, 2002; in Germany on September 26, 2002; and in the Czech Republic on October 17, 2002.

Cinemaniac Reviews three stars

Doug Liman has had a history of not just action movies but action movies with creative plots. Results have varied from taut and entertaining (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) to dull and self-indulgent (“Jumper”). It’s rather satisfying to be able to say that “The Bourne Identity” places in the former. The excitement in action sequences goes sky-high, but it doesn’t try and boast that with any savvy camerawork or overwhelming special effects. In fact, it seems to humble these sequences in order to make sense of its plot. For good reason, things start out confusing. Before long, they’re interesting.

“The Bourne Identity” details the life of a man who has lost his memory. There’s a sort of inner science to this. He can speak several foreign languages, including but not limited to French and German. He can tell by pure instinct when he’s in danger. He knows how to react to danger, too. But he doesn’t know why he can do all this. He no longer has a clue of his employment status, his marital status, his criminal history. He can’t remember where he lives, his telephone number, his date of birth.

He doesn’t even know his real name.

Perhaps that makes this just as much an action movie as a character drama. Matt Damon isn’t fittest actor for this role, but he doesn’t have to go the distance to make it work. His portrayal of this character is ultimately as enticing as the plot itself. The entire cast is solid, with Chris Cooper seeming to stand on the balcony and look over any other actor. His character was given thoroughly cheesy dialogue, but his delivery of even that is superb. Save for the aforementioned cheese, the movie is well done by writers Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron. A rather loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s classic thriller novel, but if you want a different spin on the premise, here it is.

Tomorrow’s Review

Introducing…Short Film Smorgasbord

THE BOURNE IDENTITY IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD, AND VHS.

Se7en

Movie Review #694

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Cecchi Gori Pictures
New Line Cinema

Distributor: New Line Cinema
Country: USA
Spoken Languages: English

Directed by David Fincher. Produced by Phyllis Carlyle and Arnold Kopelson. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker.

Rated R by the MPAA — disturbing content, strong language. Runs 2 hours, 7 minutes. Wide release in the USA on September 22, 1995.

Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Daniel Zacapa, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Also starring R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, Richard Portnow, Leland Orser, and Richard Schiff. Featuring a credited cameo appearance by Andy Walker as a dead man at 1st crime scene; and uncredited cameo appearances by Charles S. Dutton and Grigori.

Cinemaniac Reviews three and a half stars

“What sick ridiculous puppets we are
and what gross little stage we dance on
What fun we have dancing and f__king
Not a care in the world
Not knowing that we are nothing
We are not what was intended.”

There’s no dressing up a movie like “Se7en”, a thriller that–just when you least expect it–is all dressed up and ready to go. “Se7en” may very well be the best neo-noir of the 1990s, and if it’s not, it’s most definitely number two or three. It may be the best neo-noir since Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, and if it’s not, it’s sure in the top ten. The only thing really to hold it down from such honor is its one flaw: the title sequence is über-cool, thanks to director David Fincher, Almighty Fontmaster of the Cinema, but it’s also briefly promising of a TV pilot.

But forget two or three, forget ten, and for what little it’s worth, forget one. “Se7en” is seven. If I can clarify that, it is the number that is seven. You can’t get a more accurate title than “Se7en” for a movie like this, and I’m not trying to joke around here. The number seven is what makes this movie interesting. It’s literally at the center of the story.

About that story. Two detectives, Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt), are on their most difficult case yet.  Pitt exemplifies a rookie perfectly, while Freeman complements him in a role of the pure opposite.  His dialogue is pensive, serious, and often philosophical, unlike the fun-loving, carefree Pitt.  “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth [the] fighting for,’” he tells us eventually.  “I agree with the second part.”

But these two don’t have time or patience to worry about getting along.  They’ve got a real psychopath to deal with.  A real clever psychopath. This man was raised Southern Baptist. As an adult, he still practices, but he’s taken things a bit far. So far that he’s begun to think about humanity like Travis Bickle. For him, it’s all about killing the undesirables in the world. He’ll play his mind games with these two detectives (and anybody else who’s looking at the case), but in the end, he really doesn’t care whether he’s caught.

The pivotal point of our interest here is who he finds undesirable. Even before Somerset and Mills begin finding clues in library books (The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and more), they’ve found that their guy kills those who are specifically and obviously subject to their own lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride. In other words, he’s obsessed with the Christian belief of the seven deadly sins.

Just that much is enough to say that “Se7en” is an interesting tale. That you’d find in most thrillers, but at times, horror movies fall short of the grim atmosphere here. So you’ll find this not only thought-provoking, but chill-provoking. The movie seems to get tenser as it moves on, and although most of the violence seems to happen offscreen, get ready for gruesome imagery early on. Some of the real chills seem to come from Darius Khondji’s panicky cinematography and the eerie music with which Howard Shore complements it. But I’ve got to be honest, the music works even better when it’s not this memorable leitmotif. That library scene with Bach’s “Suite No. 3 in D Major”. And, of course, David Fincher’s payoff in this movie guarantees Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer”, as if the suspenseful Hollywood score meant nothing.

There’s more, but I’d best not spoil “what’s in the box.” There’s so much suspense offered in “Se7en”, it’s almost difficult to spoil.

POSTSCRIPT: Writer Andrew Kevin Walker hasn’t written anything half decent, except for this, which is outstandingly written. It’s been announced that he’s returning to Fincher for The Girl who Played with Fire. Thoughts?

Tomorrow’s Review

Sucker Punch
SE7EN IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD, VHS, AND LASERDISC.

Hit the jump for an announcement regarding the 2nd Annual Cinemaniac Awards:

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Exorcist: The Beginning

Movie Review #666

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Studio: Morgan Creek Productions – Dominion Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Country: USA
Spoken Languages: English

Directed by Renny Harlin.  Produced by James G. Robinson.  Based on the movie The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.  Story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr.  Screenplay by Alexi Hawley.

Rated R by the MPAA – graphic violence, disturbing content, profanity.  Runs 1 hour, 54 minutes.  Premiere in Hollywood, California on August 18, 2004.  Wide release in the USA on August 20, 2004.

Featuring Rupert Degas in an uncredited voice role as the Devil.  Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Izabella Scorupco, James D’Arcy, Julian Wadham, Andrew French, Ralph Brown, Antonie Kamerling, Eddie Osei, and Israel Aduramo.

Cinemaniac Reviews half star

“Beware the ides of January…”
–The Cinemaniac, upon noticing that his 666th review was set for 1/15

“Exorcist: The Beginning” isn’t the subject of my 666th movie review simply because it’s an “Exorcist” movie.  It’s also because the movie is so abysmal, it’s as if Satan himself produced it to cast a dreadful curse upon the greatest Halloween classic ever to hit the silver screen.  That this 2004 film shares part of that 1973 film’s title is heresy.

The movie cares way too much about shrill violin music, excessive gore, and over mixing its sound effect to go “boo.”  In effect, we’re left with but half a story.  And that half a story isn’t even interesting.  Nobody really cares about Father Merrin’s encounter with Pazuzu.  William Friedkin showed us that experience ever so suspensefully, as the ten-minute prologue to 1973’s “The Exorcist”.  We don’t need two hours of Father Merrin in his Indiana Jones-esque role.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But that’s not precisely why “The Beginning” is a drag.  It has an obvious attention deficit (and it’s telling that so do we while watching it).  The preference is at times to focus on romance, perhaps because that markets better with audiences.  As if they don’t already know the movie is bound to be successful: 1973’s “Exorcist” remains the all-time highest grossing horror movie, highest grossing R-rated movie, and ninth highest grossing movie overall.  Even the characters seem to have already seen the events in that movie, despite this being a prequel, so a box office failure would be shocking.

It deserves a second mention that the sound mixing is downright annoying  If anything keeps us from sleeping in “The Beginning”, it’s a migraine.  Not one bit of this frightens, so there’s no point in making such a loud, frenetic movie out of it.

But that’s what you get when you have a director who’s totally in it for the money.  Director Renny Harlin likely hasn’t seen “The Exorcist”, and if he did, he didn’t appreciate it as a movie with a story.  Hell, he probably didn’t appreciate it at all.  He’s constantly nodding at other horror movies and trying not to let us notice.  Look!  There’s a toddler wailing because something’s gone wrong in the Roman Catholic Church!  That’s “The Omen” for ya.  A moth!  A moth!  Another moth!  That’d be “The Silence of the Lambs”.  Ooh look a woman showering!  There’s “Psycho”.

Though those are revered horror movies.  I must say, what a damn shame that they made it into the god-awful script that became (dare I speak the name once more?) “Exorcist: The Beginning”.  It’s the worst possible “Exorcist” movie: where if you do make it to the end, watching the demonic, lustful, profane demon undergo an exorcism is a hoot.

Tomorrow’s Review

Our Idiot Brother

The Blair Witch Project

Movie Review #656

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Studio: Haxan Films
Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Country: USA
Spoken Languages: English

Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Produced by Robin Cowie and Gregg Hale. Written by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez.

Rated R by the MPAA – profanity. Runs 1 hour, 21 minutes. Premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 1999. Limited release in the USA on July 16, 1999. Wide release in the USA on July 30, 1999.

Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams. Also featuring performances by Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sánchez, Ed Swanson, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallex, and Patricia DeCou as Mary Brown.

Cinemaniac Reviews three stars

I must start on a question that I had from the beginning until the end of “The Blair Witch Project”.  The characters are established, but only by their portrayers.  None of the writing gives a clear motive to the titular project.  The characters don’t seem to believe the legend, and frankly, they seem to be investigating it for fame.  That itself implies that they probably wouldn’t have stayed in the woods for so long, but let’s look a little further: neither outcome of the project is desirable.  If they don’t find the witch after enough searching, they’ll give up on looking, which means they’ll give up on filming.  No fame.  If they do find the witch, yes they’ve confirmed the folktale, but there’s a very small chance of them getting away alive.

But let’s put that aside.  I guess it’s a pretty minor plothole in this story, which seems itself to be a folktale.  As far as one’s ability to produce a horror that convinces us its events are indeed real, the chances are slim to none.  But watching “The Blair Witch Project”, I was at the very least intrigued by the story.  We’re told about three college students in pursuit of a legend that floats around Maryland.  This is the Blair witch, which only one woman in the town seems to know of; others are clueless and dismiss it as a myth.  The students go into the woods with their filming equipment, hoping for a documentary that concludes whether or not this “Blair witch” indeed exists.

My best recommendation is to view the film either on a VHS or not at all.  While it looks like a low-budget indie movie on a DVD or Blu-ray, there’s no doubting it looks like a plausible, homemade video on a VHS.  It’s just a tip to enhancing a bit of horror factor, even if “The Blair Witch Project” will never have the same effect on you that it had on a 1999 audience.  It’s safe to assume that this really spooked film festivals.  This was the prototype for horror movie cinéma vérité.

The movie’s primary intention, when not to scare, is to invent.  Everything from “REC” to “Paranormal Activity” to “The Last Exorcism” has copied it since, but parts still feel genuine.  The budget is daringly scarce.  No more than $22,500 was set aside; while the interchanging between grayscale and color was likely forced, I must note that the black and white scenes are eerily reminiscent of “Night of the Living Dead”.  Though this isn’t a zombie movie.  Who knows whether it’s even about a Blair witch, as 99% of the horror comes from the characters’ constant stressing.  No violence is seen, but it’s all implied in the heightening panic.  The cast works as if there were no writing, and I mean that as a compliment.  Everything seems to scream improv here.  There’s a pretty strong cast, regardless of whether we know any of it.  They establish their characters solidly.  I’ll distinguish kudos to Heather Donahue, whose control freak persona seems natural.  Even a few “red herrings” feel pretty unpredictable with their conversational dialogue, and if that doesn’t break ground in a horror movie…well, look at the above.

The Usual Suspects

Movie Review #653

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PolyGram Filmed Entertainment & Spelling Films International present…

Studio: Blue Parrot – Bad Hat Harry – Rosco Film GmbH
Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Country: USA – Germany
Spoken Langauges: English – Hungarian – Spanish – French

Directed by Bryan Singer. Produced by Michael McDonnell and Bryan Singer. Written by Christopher McQuarrie.

Rated R by the MPAA, for violence and a substantial amount of strong language. Runs 1 hour, 46 mins. Premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 1995. Wide release in the USA on August 16, 1995; and in Germany on January 18, 1996.

Starring Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, and Pete Postlethwaite. Also starring Benicio del Toro, Suzy Amis, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dan Hedaya. Additionally featuring Peter Greene in an uncredited performance.

Cinemaniac Reviews three stars

“The Usual Suspects” is a fast-paced, cool crime caper. Though that statement, in all honesty, says nothing. So here’s a better way of putting it. It’s a seriocomic jumble, in which the characters would break every bone in their bodies to “get to the bottom” of the crimes at hand…but their driving force, the script, is carefree. Think Scooby-Doo, except “The Usual Suspects” targets more of a Tarantino audience than a Hanna-Barbera audience.

The movie has surely been remastered flawlessly on Blu-ray, particularly in its simplistic title sequence. Regardless, it’s now on my list of movies I “need” on VHS, above all other formats. The “why” in that is simple: it’s strictly a ’90s movie. “The Usual Suspects” represents its decade more than movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “American Pie”. And the entire time, it’s seemingly in love with another decade. Film-noir has this film as if by the collarbone. Leaving aside the music that kills the effect, Kevin Spacey’s narration perfectly enunciates his talkative character. Being that he also gets to play his typical “bored” character here, he’s the best A-lister here. Hell, his tired face sort of reminds us of Humphrey Bogart. (And I’m not simply saying so because “round up the usual suspects” was a line from “Casablanca”.)

“The Usual Suspects” doesn’t always succeed in crafting film-noir. Twice does it fail to bring to life a “femme fatale.” Once is at the 30-minute mark, where we get a glimpse at Dean’s (Gabriel Byrne) girlfriend. I may be wrong, but something tells me we never once see her again. The second time is in a flashback–the sudden introduction of depicted violence in this hugely conversational movie. Thumbs up to anyone who can focus on the fleeting “femme fatale” in that scene, not the fact that several children are seen being slaughtered.

I might mention that this is a brave web of whodunits, not a single, benign whodunit. It’s most definitely a crime movie: arson, drug dealing, murder, corrupt police officers, and more are part of the story. There’s no denying it, these guys are crooks. The movie has a good idea of handling this. Early on comes the memorable “Hand me the keys” scene. Then we’re left with the question “Who is Keyser Söze?” It’s as haunting a question as “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, except Twin Peaks had no way of ending this exceptionally. “The Usual Suspects” features a “final chord” I dare not speak of. It’s brought about as a twist ending, at the very last minute, just when everything was calm. Director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie really heighten our excitement here, even if you’ve predicted the twist early on. (Though I’ll forgive it for being so predictable.)

I’d even wager that this movie features the best final five seconds in any movie. I won’t spoil anything more than, it’s sort of the stylish mini-epilogue that would be placed after the credits today, but wraps the film up phenomenally. Okay, maybe I’ll give away the quote, too.

“The greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, he’s gone.”

Snap your fingers, cue the credits.

Flickan som lekte med elden

Movie Review #648

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Yellowbird presents…

…in co-production with ZDF Enterprises, Sveriges Television (SVT), Nordisk Film, ZDF, Filmpool Stockholm Mälardalen, Film i Väst & Spiltan Underhallning M AB…

…with support from Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI)…

Distributor: Music Box Films
Country: Sweden – Denmark – Germany
Spoken Languages: Swedish – Italian – French

Directed by Daniel Alfredson. Produced by Søren Stærmose. Screenplay by Jonas Frykberg. Based on the novel “The Girl who Played with Fire” by Stieg Larsson.

Rated R by the MPAA, for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language. Runs 2 hours, 9 minutes; two-part extended version runs 3 hours, 3 minutes. Limited release in the USA on July 9, 2010. Wide release in Sweden and Denmark on September 18, 2009; and in Germany on February 4, 2010.

Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Georgi Staykov, and Micke Spreitz.  Also starring Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Per Oscarsson, Sofia Ledarp, Yasmine Garbi, Annika Hallin, Tanja Lorentzon, Paolo Roberto, Johan Kylén, Magnus Krepper, Ralph Carlsson, Anders Ahlbom, and Tehilla Blad.

Cinemaniac Reviews two stars

I won’t say that I expected a sequel that would improve on the original. I never do, because I rarely am given a reason for such expectations. But it might allot some space for more disappointment in this sequel, because of how promising it is. “Flickan som lekte med elden” (released in the USA with its direct translation, The Girl who Played with Fire) spends the first ten minutes, maybe twenty, asserting that it’s a much better movie than its predecessor, “Män som hatar kvinnor” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The first thing we notice is that the story no longer feels like a “made for TV” movie. I wouldn’t doubt that Daniel Alfredson is a much better (not to mention, more cinematic) director than Niels Arden Oplev. Seeing his more palatable style, I’d assume that if he’d thrown away Jonas Frykberg’s script and written his own, this would’ve been a better movie, as well.

“Flickan som lekte med elden” is a completely unfocused, so-called “thriller.”  It’s a crime movie that’s too distracted by soap opera and an otherwise random plot.  It’s focused too centrally on uncertain relationships between Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and between Salander and Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi).  In other words, they’ll track down sex traffickers whenever the hell they so choose, because none of them really care about the crisis that is misogyny anymore.  Also note that Salander’s past is bookmarked with sexual violence, the crime that actually led her to set fire to her own father at a young age.  There’s no way any woman can overcome the crime that quickly, and I’m not just referring to how Salander fares in the screenplay.  Noomi Rapace completely cops out in her performance.  All there is between the first and second movies is a vacation to a Caribbean.  If only that was enough to make an emotionally disturbed woman put on a persistent smile.

More on the script.  Movies like “The Departed” are what I call “cell phone movies.”  The characters’ interactions, impulses, and dangers are often fed through the technology in their pockets, and that’s what moves the tale forward.  It’s telling that in that movie, we wouldn’t have seen the climactic confrontation between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, if it weren’t for cell phones.  Another example would be “Flickan som lekte med elden”, but for less advantageous reasons.  As a “cell phone movie,” it cheats entirely.  Cell phones are used as an excuse for characters to end the scene at the right moment, or for interactions to begin at the right moment.  It feels gimmicky soon after it’s been established; even Steven Spielberg, God of Deus Ex Machina, has never employed the technique so incessantly.

And the constant use of cell phones here is a dam to any sort of explanation.  Why is Salander suddenly accused of killing somebody?  And what does Blomkvist suddenly hold against her?  The experience, even for those who have read the book, is flummoxing.

Even for those who were engrossed in the story, it’s disinteresting.

Män som hatar kvinnor

Movie Review #645

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Studio: Yellow Bird – ZDF Enterprises – Sveriges Television (SVT) – Nordisk Film – ZDF – Filmpool Stockholm Mälardalen – Film i Väst – Spiltan Underhallning – Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI) – Nordisk Film & TV Fond – Det Danske Filminstitut
Distributor: Music Box Films
Country: Sweden – Denmark – Germany – Norway
Spoken Languages: Swedish – English

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Produced by Søren Stærmose. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg. Based on the novel “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson.

Rated R by the MPAA, for disturbing violent content including rape, grisly images, sexual material, nudity and language. Runs 2 hours, 32 minutes; two-part extended version runs 3 hours, 6 minutes. Limited release in the USA on March 19, 2010. Wide release in Sweden and Denmark on February 27, 2009; in Germany on October 1, 2009; and in Norway on March 13, 2009.

Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Ewa Fröling, Gunnel Lindblom, and Gösta Bredefeldt.  Also starring Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirwall, Björn Granath, Michalis Koutsogiannakis, Annika Hallin, Tomas Köhler, Stefan Sauk, Jacob Ericksson, Julia Sporre, and Tehilla Blad.

Cinemaniac Reviews two and a half stars

The reason Angelina Jolie isn’t associably “the girl with the dragon tattoo” is because we have Noomi Rapace, the perfect fit for the character.  For starters, her name isn’t French for “happy,” but Rapace really nails her role in this 2009 adaptation of bestselling Scandi noir.  She gives this character, formally known as Lisbeth Salander, every complexity she needs according to Stieg Larsson’s novel.  Rapace is a bitchy, quick-witted, intuitive woman in “Män som hatar kvinnor”.  She’s much more than her dragon tattoo, and when we see that mark, it’s an implication that she’s been exposed, even victimized.

“Män som hatar kvinnor” goes in depth with the story (for a full explanation on that, see my review of the 2011 remake) as well as how the characters relate to it.  Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) are seen remembering their past as they track a girl who has been gone for nearly four decades.  Both are motivated by disturbing events in their childhood, we learn soon enough.  The effect is great, especially when a connection is drawn between Lisbeth and another key character.  (On the other hand, I might note that the flashbacks are only leading up to an overwhelmingly cheesy finale.)

You could probably guess it from the title (translated as Men who Hate Women), but the movie reveals itself over several discussions and acts of misogynous violence.  The first of these instances is a well choreographed tunnelbana (metro station) scene, but it isn’t hard hitting.  In fact, there’s only one sequence that actually affects its audience; for the sake of decency, I’d rather not put anything about it here, other than that it’s gruesome and revolting.

The lack of style leaves me unsurprised by the fact that the extended versions of “Män som hatar kvinnor” and its sequels, aired as a TV mini-series.  This plays out exactly like a TV movie, and although it held my attention for two and a half hours, I’m not sure I’d be willing to stick around for the amended three hours.  The product is deficient in cinematography and music cues, among other aspects of the technical department.  Even the story suffers.  You can tell it wants to be spooky, and it has a right to be.  It just isn’t at all.  Nothing ever elevates “Män som hatar kvinnor” to a cinematic level.  Maybe the acting, but that’s why it makes bare success.

Stoker

Movie Review #635

Click here for the audio review.

stoker_ver5
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures – Indian Paintbrush – Scott Free
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Country: USA – UK
Spoken Languages: English

Directed by Park Chan-wook. Produced by Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, and Michael Costigan. Written by Wentworth Miller.

Rated R by the MPAA, for disturbing violent and sexual content. Runs 1 hour, 33 minutes. Premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2013, and at Glasgow Film Festival on February 16, 2013. Limited release in the USA on March 1, 2013. Wide release in the UK on March 1, 2013.

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, and Jacki Weaver. Also starring Lucas Till, Alden Ehrenreich, Phyllis Somerville, Ralph Brown, and Judith Godrèche.

Cinemaniac Reviews four stars

After seeing him conduct a vengeful massacre like “Oldboy”, I would’ve expected anything but for Park Chan-wook to direct a deadpan comedy. But he did, and that’s where “Stoker” comes in. This is strange, in case that’s not obvious from Dracula meets “Shadow of a Doubt”. This movie is bloody. It’s incestuous. It begins by taking home two awards: one for sunniest funeral scene, the other for most careless people in a funeral scene. It’s demented enough that I’m scared of how it’ll fare in my memory.

And yet it is, quite possibly, the best movie of 2013.

I’m beginning to see Park Chan-wook as a master of emotionally distraught characters. Just looking at this and his decade-old boy (SEE FOOTNOTE), he’s given us two great antiheroes, and I’d assume he’s done so on other occasions, as well; I’d like to see so for myself. He’s also a master of technical artistry. How one can describe the title sequence in words, or how one scene wipes into the next, I don’t exactly know. He often uses sound mixing to put us in the character’s head. Let’s hear that egg cracking, but make it sound like a hailstorm. When she opens the freezer up, make sure we can hear the ice that’s been keeping it shut for so long. Let the laundry machine overtake this scene. Oh and when she takes that slow, reluctant sip of wine, make sure we can hear her breathing echo around the wineglass.

Mia Wasikowska plays the lead female, India Stoker. She’s a very curious character. I’ve seen her in two complex roles thus far. The first being in 2011′s “Jane Eyre, where she played the titular Brontë character. The one thing she doesn’t have in “Stoker” is the advantage of a familiar literary character…and she nails the performance in all its insinuations.  But let’s narrow her down just a little, to avoid spoilers. Her father, Richard Stoker, died recently. Maybe it was as soon as she got home from the funeral that her mother started going out with her uncle. Weird, right? It gets weirder. Just look at the mother, and imagine the father. Nicole Kidman’s performance as Mrs. Evelyn Stoker flourishes with deadpan humor. She’s always staring straight at someone, or something, as if she’s trying to analyze its soul with her very pupils. It’s anything but her usual character, and when she does smile, once or twice, the effect is even more morbid than the straight face.

You just try keeping a straight face watching her delivery. Her final soliloquy had me grinning from ear to ear. And those moments won’t be lost in time. Like “Tears in Rain”.

FOOTNOTE: It’s easier than saying “Oldboy, which is now ten years old.”




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