Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)


A Midsummer Night's Dream

Why is it that beautiful women always fall in love with asses?

(1999) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Sam Rockwell, Bernard Hill. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

At first glance, you’d think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice for a modern interpretation of Shakespeare. In fact, with the glut of Shakespeare adaptations that were in theaters at the time – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V among them — it’s actually amazing this one didn’t get the star-studded, splashy treatment sooner.

In fact, of all of Shakespeare’s body of work other than those named above, only Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest have more resonance to 21st-century sensibilities than this in my opinion. Of course, you may have an opinion of your own.

A talented cast makes this a Dream worth having. Updated to a late 19th-century Italian setting, Hermia (Friel) is betrothed to Demetrius (Bale), but is in fact in love with Lysander (West). Demetrius is being pursued by Helena (Flockhart), who loves him unrequitedly. Hermia and Lysander plan to flee her intractable father (Hill) and Lord Theseus (Strathairn) – who as it turns out intends to wed himself, in his case the astonishingly beautiful Hippolyta (Marceau)  – because they are forcing Hermia to wed her betrothed.

Perchance all four young people flee into a nearby forest, where Titania, Queen of the Faeries (Pfeiffer) has been carrying on, much to the chagrin of her husband Oberon (Everett). Oberon dispatches Puck (Tucci) to fetch a particular flower that when its essence is rubbed on the eyelids causes that person to fall in love with the first person they see. Mischievous Puck makes sure that the wrong lovers are paired up by the potion and that the Queen espies a would-be actor (Kline) who has been given the head of a donkey by Puck. Make sense yet? It’s Shakespeare – pay attention.

And by that I mean of course not. Truthfully, all you really need to know is that All’s Well That Ends Well and you won’t understand half of what’s going on and that’s quite okay. Still, it’s great fun to behold and I found myself laughing at lines written 500 years ago that are still uproariously funny. I’m not sure whether to be comforted or saddened that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening centuries.

Kline, Tucci and Everett are wondrous to behold; their classical training is in evidence and all of them take their roles and run with them. Pfeiffer does surprisingly well as the promiscuous Titania; she is at the height of her beauty here and to add fuel to the fire, she is showing signs here of her immense talent which had often to this point been overshadowed by her looks. Strathairn, one of John Sayle’s repertory actors, shows a great deal of affinity for Shakespeare which should not really be surprising – a great actor will rise to the occasion when given great material.

The element of fantasy is not as intrusive here as it might be in other romantic comedies and the filmmakers wisely shy away from turning this into a special effects extravaganza, using technology sparingly and subtly to enhance the story instead of overwhelming it. Kline and Tucci are particularly enjoyable in their performances – both are terrific actors but have never been regarded as Shakespearean classicists. They handle the challenge well here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything but boring although an atmosphere free of distraction is preferable when viewing it – having a 10-year-old demanding my attention probably deducted at least half a star from the rating which is patently unfair. Nevertheless, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is frothy, lighthearted and enjoyable – a perfect introduction to the Bard for those who have had little or no experience with him.

WHY RENT THIS: Light, frothy entertainment solidly acted. A good introduction to The Bard if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be awfully confusing for those with short attention spans and an impatience for language.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the incidental music is taken from composer Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the 1843 staging of the play.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.1M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a mild box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tempest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Argo

The Bourne Legacy


 

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner is having to get serious about fighting the women off.

(2012) Action (Universal) Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Shane Jacobson, Michael Papajohn, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by Tony Gilroy

 

We aren’t content to let things just go their own course. We have a habit of meddling, intruding, making changes willy-nilly without first considering the consequences of our actions. This continually gets us into trouble but if you think it’s a catastrophe-maker for you, think of it on an institutional scale; what happens when a government messes up?

Aaron Cross (Renner) is in Alaska on a training evaluation. He is climbing rocks, fighting off wolves, taking blood samples from himself and taking a little blue pill (no, not that one) and a little green pill; the first, as we will find out, improves his mental acuity; the second, his physical.

At last he reaches a remote cabin where a fellow operative (from Project Outcome, as we also later find out – you’re going to find a lot of things out later, trust me) who is known only as Number Three (Isaac) – best not to be known as Number One or Number Two – has been exiled to wait for agents like him and turn in their blood samples for analysis.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the next mission. Aaron hears a strange noise outside the cabin and goes to investigate it. That strange noise turns out to be a U-CAV drone firing a missile that essentially vaporizes the cabin and everything in it, including the little green and blue pills which Aaron is going to need. He escapes the drone by doing a little homemade self-surgery on himself, removing a tracking device and placing it in a hapless wolf (wolf lovers, turn away from this one). He decides to head down to the lower 48 to find out what’s going on.

You see, what is happening is that the Jason Bourne affair has sent the upper echelons of the clandestine government operations – the Division, if you will – into a tizzy and in full panic mode, they enlist retired USAF Black Ops specialist Eric Byer (Norton) to close up shop on Treadstone, Blackbriar and all the related operations – particularly Outcome – and all those who knew what was going on. This involves giving the operatives little yellow pills which cause them to suffer from fatal nosebleeds.

At Sterissyn-Morlanta, which is the essential public face of Outcome, a scientist goes berserk (with a little help from his friends) and shoots everybody in his lab. The only survivor is Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz), who is understandably upset. She gets a lot more upset when a psychologist (Marvel) sent to evaluate her in her Maryland home as she packs for a trip to visit her sister in Canada turns out to be there to terminate her. She is saved by the arrival of Cross who is looking for some pills.

This is bad news for Byer, who thought Cross dead at the cabin. When he discovers Cross has fled with his new friend to Manila, he figures out that Cross is there to get an upgrade which would give him the permanent mental facilities without having to take a pill. He sends in a grim operative from a different project, known only as LARX-3 (Changchien) to clean up the mess. LARX-3 has the same or superior mental and physical skills as Cross and a real dogged determination to see his mission through. Can Shearer and Cross figure out a way to escape from the implacable LARX-3 – not to mention a government with unlimited resources that wants them both dead?

A lot of fans were upset when they heard that the latest Bourne movie would be without Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon in the last three movies of the series, or without director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two. New director Gilroy does have a connection with the series- he wrote all three of the movies, so he’s very familiar with the world of Jason Bourne. That is a double-edged sword though.

To the good, he understands the backstory and grafts this new branch onto the tree seamlessly, in a way that makes sense and isn’t quite as jarring as seeing a brand new face playing James Bond. To the bad, there are many references to programs and projects from the first three films, with bureaucratic characters from them making an appearance in roles that range from little more than cameos to much more meaningful supporting roles. For those unfamiliar with the first three films it can be mighty confusing, although if you simply choose to ignore all of the code names and characters therein you can enjoy the ride of the movie on its own merits.

Renner, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Hawkeye in The Avengers further cements his place as one of the hottest leading men and action heroes of 2012. He’s got lots of charisma and my female friends tell me he’s rather easy on the eyes. Far be it for me to impugn the veracity of my female friends in matters of male hotness. I just know that when I see the guy onscreen he has my full attention.

Weisz is one of my favorite actresses in terms of performance but she is curiously muted here. There isn’t much energy and few sparks generated between her and Renner. I know why she was cast – few actresses appear to be as smart as she is – but she’s unconvincing in the action context and has little to do but look terrified and/or concerned.

The action sequences are as good as any I’ve seen this year, with pieces set in Dr. Shearing’s Maryland home, in the Alaska woods and a parkour and motorcycle chase in Manila all generating plenty of adrenaline. There is an intelligence here as well that is often missing in other action films, although not to the same degree of the first three Bourne movies which caught the essence of the Robert Ludlum books they were based on if not the plot – the sense of wheels within wheels, conspiracies and political game-playing all just under the surface. While there are all of those things here, they simply aren’t to the same level as, say, The Bourne Ultimatum which was the most recent in the series.

I’d say at the end of the day this is a must-see for action fans and adrenaline junkies, although those who don’t like their cerebellum being disturbed might find this headache-inducing. It’s a lot better than I feared it would be, and a good career move for Renner who looks to be a superstar if not already then dang soon.

REASONS TO GO: Renner is a magnetic lead. Action sequences are top-notch. Continuity between this and first three films is well-done.

REASONS TO STAY: Weisz’ character seems a bit bland. May be a bit hard to follow for those not familiar with the previous three films.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action, plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the book is the same of the first novel of the series to be written by Eric von Lustbader (after Ludlum passed away) but has nothing to do with the plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale

U-CAV LOVERS: An assassination attempt is made by unmanned drones who send missiles into the cabin where Cross had been moments earlier.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Hope Springs

New Releases for the Week of August 10, 2012


August 10, 2012

THE BOURNE LEGACY

(Universal) Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Oscar Isaac, Donna Murphy, David Strathairn. Directed by Tony Gilroy

Jason Bourne created a whole lot of trouble for the government and their super-secret Treadstone project. Bourne has disappeared off the grid, but he wasn’t the only agent created by that program. Meet Aaron Cross who like Bourne has an incredible skill set. And in the aftermath of the Bourne fiasco, the government is eager to erase every trace of Treadstone and its related projects. That includes Aaron Cross; trouble is, he doesn’t want to be erased.

See the trailer, clips, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and action sequences)

The Campaign

(Warner Brothers) Will Farrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Aykroyd. A long-term congressman who has had little competition for the seat that he’s owned for some time finds himself in a competition with a fumbling bumpkin whose got the support of some deep-pocketed benefactors who have their own agenda. The mudslinging quickly gets personal as the two candidates engage in a little game of “how low can you go.”

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for crude sexual content, language ad brief nudity)

Hope Springs

(Columbia/MGM) Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell, Jean Smart. A happily married couple approach their golden years but the wife is feeling a bit of the old magic missing. She wants to attend a couples therapy session in a bucolic Maine village under the guidance of a published psychologist but the husband is skeptical, not wanting to upset his routine. Hilarity ensues. Now go about your business..

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG (for mature thematic content involving sexuality)

Neil Young Journeys

(Millennium) Neil Young. One of the most respected rockers of his generation reminisces about his Canadian childhood, his rise to fame and his career in the spotlight on the occasion of the last two nights of his world solo tour in 2011.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for language including some drug references, and brief thematic material) 

Nitro Circus The Movie 3D

(ARC Entertainment) Travis Pastrana, Tommy Passemante, Jolene Van Vugt, Gregg Godfrey. Jackass with cars. Oh joy.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Sports…Sorta

Rating: PG-13 (for depiction of extreme and dangerous stunts throughout, and for language)

Ruby Sparks

(Fox Searchlight) Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas. A young writer who achieved extraordinary success early is trapped by writer’s block and a romantic life that, safe to say, is just as moribund. At last, he makes a breakthrough and creates a character named Ruby Sparks, a woman full of life and charm and just perfect for him. He falls a little bit in love with the character he created. When she turns up on his couch about a week later, he doesn’t know what to think – only that forces are at work that are beyond his comprehension. But who cares when your soulmate is involved?

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use)

The Tempest (2010)


The Tempest

Helen Mirren is one hot Prospera.

(2010) Fantasy (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, David Strathairn, Djimon Honsou, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Jude Akuwudike, David Scott Klein, Bryan Webster, Kevin Cannon. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

William Shakespeare was a man who understood human nature perhaps better than any writer in history; certainly he understood his own and it isn’t far-fetched to theorize that when he wrote his play, The Tempest, he was fully aware that it would be his last and accordingly, gave himself leave to discourse on our own mortality which he did in a way that was beautiful and neither grim nor morbid. Visually acute director Julie Taymor has stated that it is the most visually beautiful of Shakespeare’s plays and she would certainly know – she has already directed a filmed version of Titus Andronicus (as Titus with Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

Prospera (Mirren), once the Grand Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to a barren Mediterranean island along with Miranda (Jones), her daughter. The machinations of her wicked brother Antonio (Cooper) are what landed her there; he longed for her political power and wealth. However while on the island Prospera has amassed power of a different sort – magical and so when King Alonso of Naples (Strathairn) – complicit in Antonio’s usurping of her position and subsequent placing in a raft to die – returns from the wedding of his daughter with Antonio along, she uses the opportunity to summon a great storm that wrecks their ship. The passengers of the vessel are washed onto the rocky shores of the island, separated by the magicks of Prospera and her fairy servant Ariel (Whishaw), whom she previously had rescued from a tree where he’d been imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax who died long before Prospera’s arrival.

King Alonso, along with Antonio and Antonio’s co-conspirator Sebastian (Cumming) and Prospera’s former advisor (and Alonso’s current one) Gonzalo (Conti) find themselves beset by evil visions brought upon them by Ariel at Prospera’s command; drunkards Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) have discovered the island’s sole other inhabitant, the horribly deformed Caliban (Honsou) who had been enslaved by Prospera after he attempted to rape Miranda years earlier; the three plot Prospera’s downfall and assassination while partaking of much liquid courage.

Finally there is Ferdinand (Carney), Alonso’s son who has fallen for Miranda and vice versa, a union Prospera is not opposed to. The three groups will make their way to Prospera’s home and laboratory where Prospera will be faced with an awful choice upon which the fate of most of the castaways hangs upon.

Taymor is one of the most visually innovative directors working today; her images in Across the Universe are nothing short of spectacular. She works her magic here as well, showing Prospera dissolving into a flock of crows, or Ariel morphing into a variety of forms, or Prospera’s Escher-esque home. The visuals are often beautiful and dazzling, sometimes changing the night sky into alchemic equations that spin around the actors like locusts.

The cast is impressive but none more so than Mirren. An Oscar winner and along with Meryl Streep perhaps the most respected film actress of the 21st century to date, Mirren infuses Prospera with wistfulness, rage, motherly concern ad political savvy. The casting of a woman in the role completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between Prospera/Prospero and Miranda from father/daughter to mother/daughter and as we all know, those relationships are a different kettle of fish entirely. Whishaw plays the ethereal Ariel as androgynous and otherworldly; it is a scene-stealing performance that often ends up as the visual center for Taymor’s imagination.

Strathairn and Cooper are magnificent actors, both Oscar-nominated and in Cooper’s case, an Oscar winner. Strathairn has done Shakespeare before onscreen (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and both capture the essence of their characters nicely. Brand shows little affinity for Shakespeare, reciting his lines as if he is performing a stand-up routine. Honsou as well carries Caliban’s rage and torment to fruition, although he occasionally goes over the top.

“Over the top” often describes the visuals that Taymor inserts into the film. Some are wonder-inspiring but after awhile I found myself somewhat inured to them; some of the most beautiful dialogue in history is here in this play – “We are such stuff that dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by sleep” being one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever spoken in any play, ever – and yet these exemplars of language take a back-seat to special effects. Taymor may as well have set the movie on Tatooine and been done with it.

However, the prose of Shakespeare is ultimately what makes this movie worthwhile. That and some of the fine performances using those words. Usually I’m all good with special effects eye candy but here it detracts more than it creates wonder and that is where the film has its greatest failing; Taymor fails to trust Shakespeare to carry the movie on its own merits. If you can’t trust the greatest playwright in history, who can you trust?

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful eye candy. Mirren, Cooper, Whishaw and Strathairn are tremendous actors and show why here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many visuals and not enough substance; after awhile the effects distract from Shakespeare’s beautiful prose.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of nudity, some scary content and images and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Prospero was originally written by Shakespeare to be a man. Taymor encountered Mirren at a party and the conversation turned to Shakespeare; Mirren mentioned that she had previously played Caliban in a stage version of the play and thought she might like to do Prospero as a woman. Taymor, who was thinking along the same lines, told Mirren so and the two essentially cemented Mirren’s participation right then and there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some rehearsal footage (one focusing on Russell Brand alone) as well as a music video of “O Mistress Mine” which runs over the closing credits.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $346,594 on a $20M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:Mongol

The Whistleblower


The Whistleblower

Sometimes the peacekeepers aren't so blessed.

(2010) True-Life Drama (Goldwyn) Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Roxana Condurache, Paula Schramm, Alexandru Potocean, William Hope, Rayissa Kondracki, Jeanette Hain, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Hewlett. Directed by Larysa Kondracki

In the course of our working day, we often see things that we find repugnant. Most of the time, we just let things slide. After all, why get yourself into a tizzy over things you can’t change? Once in awhile however, we run across things that we just can’t leave alone. We have to put a stop to something that is heinous.

Kathy Bolkovac (Weisz) is a hard-working police officer in Nebraska. She is recently divorced and her husband has been awarded custody of her daughter. He is now moving to Georgia for a new job and Kathy is doing her level best to find work down there but hasn’t been able to as of yet. Her commanding officer tells her about the potential of making $100K working as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia after the end of the Bosnian civil war.

This will enable Kathy to eventually move to Georgia when she finishes her six-month tour. She agrees and is given a position with the security contractor Democra and before long she helps train the Bosnian police in successfully prosecuting the first case of domestic abuse since the war ended. It’s a difficult job at best, given the still-simmering mistrust between ethnic groups and the attitude towards women in general in the region, but she perseveres and gets her conviction. This brings her to the attention to UN official Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) who installs her in charge of the Office of Gender Affairs, there to investigate crimes against women.

 Boy, does she find one. A ring of human traffickers are bringing women into Bosnia to serve in forced prostitution, particularly in the case of 15-year-old Ukrainian Raya (Condurache) and her friend Luba (Schramm) who were sold to human traffickers by her own uncle. When Raya is discovered beaten to the point of near-unconsciousness, Kathy investigates the incident and is shocked to discover that not only were the Bosnian police complicit in the affair but so is the United Nations and high-ranking diplomats and military personnel. Kathy will have to battle apathy and indifference in a bureaucratic nightmare that has some powerful forces arrayed against her, and the health, welfare and very lives of innocent young women in the balance.

This is based on an actual case and yes, Kathy Bolkovac is a real person. She worked for the real life company DynCorp which Democra substitutes for here. More on that in a minute.

This is an unflinching look at what is one of the fastest-rising crimes in the world. Human trafficking is at an all-time high and shows no signs of slowing down. Director Kondracki is obviously passionate about the subject and that passion is reflected in Weisz who gives Bolkovac a simmering, dogged personality. Not knowing much about the real Kathy Bolkovac, I can’t say whether that’s accurate or not but I can say that it fits the needs of the character in this movie nicely. Weisz as an actress can be extraordinary when given the right role. This isn’t her very best work but it’s darn near.

She is aided by an excellent supporting cast including Redgrave, regal and majestic as the UN official and Strathairn, as an internal affairs officer at Democra who helps Kathy in her investigation. Kaas plays a Dutch member of the international Democra peacekeeping team who enters into a romantic relationship with Kathy as well as a professional one.

The movie’s dark tone is underscored by the dark cinematography which occasionally descends into murkiness. There are scenes where it is difficult to ferret out what’s going on. A few more lights might not have been a bad idea here. Also, it feels like major plot points have been edited out or skipped over. I don’t mind reading between the lines in a movie, but this one needed a few more that would have helped explain some of the goings-on.

In real life, the investigation cost Bolkovac her job, forcing her to sue DynCorp in the British courts. DynCorp fired seven people (including Bolkovac) and reassigned several more but to date the company has never paid any restitution for its role in the incident. Personally, I find this sort of injustice infuriating; at the very least they should have been find and personally I think they should have lost every government contract they have. Not so much because their employees committed crimes under their aegis, but because they complicitly supported them by protecting them and impeding the real-life investigation of Bolkovac. To my mind, that’s unconscionable.

This could well have been an important movie and still might be. I don’t remember a movie dealing with the human trafficking subject that was this stark and this realistic. For once you get an idea of the degradations and horrors that these girls go through and the sexual slavery aspect isn’t just there for titillation. That The Whistleblower is based on actual events makes this as terrifying as any horror movie hitting the October release schedule.

REASONS TO GO: A terrifying view at a subject rarely tackled by films and never with this level of realism. Weisz, Redgrave, Strathairn and Kaas give raw performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many blanks left for the viewer to fill in. The cinematography is often murky.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, much of it of a sexual nature including one particularly brutal sexual assault. The language is rough as well and as you might expect, there’s plenty of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly shot in Romania. Weisz had originally been approached to play the role in 2005 but turned it down due to her pregnancy. When she discovered the movie’s production had stalled, she accepted the role and consequently the movie was made.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d say see this in a theater; it might be easier to make out some of the images on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: You Again

New Releases for the Week of October 14, 2011


THE THING

(Universal) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eric Olsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Paul Bronstein. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen

This is the prequel to the 1981 John Carpenter version of the film (which is in itself based loosely on the John Campbell short story Who Goes There). Here, a Norwegian team in Antarctica makes an amazing discovery in the ice – which turns deadly when they foolishly let it out.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Horror

Rating: R (for strong creature violence and gore, disturbing images, and violence)

The Big Year

(20th Century Fox) Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Rosamund Pike. Three men at various stages of life face crises and all decide, separately, to take a year to fulfill all their dreams. Each of these friendly rivals find themselves crossing paths and cross purposes as they take on the adventure of a lifetime…or several lifetimes.

See the trailer, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for language and some sensuality)

Footloose

(Paramount) Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Andie MacDowell, Dennis Quaid. After a small Texas town bans dancing following a tragedy involving several of their teens, a newcomer in town takes on his peers in an attempt to establish himself and the town fathers in an attempt to establish dancing and self-expression. Yes, this is a remake and yes it’s got hip-hop dancing and no, I’m not going to review it.

See the trailer, clips, promos, an interview and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for some teen drug and alcohol use, sexual content, violence and language)

The Whistleblower

(Goldwyn) Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, Monica Bellucci, David Strathairn. An American police officer serving with the UN peacekeeping force in post-war Bosnia discovers a terrible secret involving a cover-up at the highest levels. Doggedly determined to bring justice to the oppressed, she places her life – and her mission – in great jeopardy. This is inspired by actual events.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity and language)

My Blueberry Nights


My Blueberry Nights

Nothing like a cup o' joe to finish your evening.

(2007) Drama (Weinstein) Jude Law, Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, Adriane Lenox, Benjamin Kanes, Chan Marshall, Hector Leguillow, Chad Davis, Katya Blumenberg, John Malloy, Frankie Faison. Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Love is no easy thing. It chews you up and spits you out like a burnt blueberry pie. Time and distance can give us perspective and sometimes even lessen the pain, but it is a conscious choice to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and move on with our lives.

Elizabeth (Jones) is recovering from a relationship breakup after her boyfriend cheats on her. She finds refuge in the diner owned by Jeremy (Law), where she is the only customer who orders his fresh-made blueberry pie. The two start to converse; it turns out that Jeremy is a broken soul as well. Jeremy begins to fall for Elizabeth but she flees from New York before he can establish a beach head.

He searches for her meticulously and desperately, knowing only that she’s gone to Memphis. He makes calls and sends postcards to nearly every restaurant in the Memphis area trying to find her. He must have missed the one where she’s at, working as both a waitress (by day) and bartender (by night) as Lizzie. It’s at the bar she meets Arnie Copeland (Strathairn), an alcoholic ex-cop who pines for his wife Sue Lynn (Weisz) who persistently and openly cheats on her husband from whom she is separated. His struggle seems to resonate with Lizzie who befriends him, and when he threatens Sue Lynn one night with a gun, the resulting tragedy sends Lizzie off west to the desert.

Now known as Beth, she meets up with Leslie (Portman), a professional poker player who’s had a run of bad luck. She does have a car, which Beth needs but she needs a stake in the big poker tournament. Beth agrees to stake her in exchange for one third the winnings if she wins and her car if she loses.

Leslie plays in the tournament and eventually reports back to Beth that she lost. She asks if Beth could give her a ride to see her father, from whom she’s been estranged. They arrive in Las Vegas only to find that Beth’s father died the night before. They’d just missed him. Leslie confesses that she actually won the tournament and wants the car back for sentimental reasons. She gives Beth the money which is more than enough to buy a car…and Beth heads back east, having made a journey to evade love – had it found her anyway?

Chinese director Wong Kar Wei is known for being one of the most visually arresting filmmakers in the world, and in his English language debut retains that distinctive visual style. The neon lights make for a colorful backdrop in Manhattan and Memphis while the loneliness of the desert vistas are magnificently captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji.

And this isn’t case of images over story either; the movie depicts a journey, an evolution as it were, of Elizabeth from a scared, broken-hearted little girl into a wise, self-aware woman. Casting Jones, a singer with no acting experience in the role was a bold move but one that paid off. She has an interesting face, which is a Wong Kar Wei trademark – he utilizes close-ups better than any director working today, so in that sense she suits him well. She also proves to be at least competent as an actress; clearly she can use some improvement if she decides to prove a dual career with the music business, but she has the potential if she wants to go that way.

Law is solid in a part that doesn’t require much of him but to look soulful. Strathairn, the talented veteran character actor is most impressive as the broken-hearted alcoholic who desperately loves a wife who has given up on him. It’s a performance that is as soulful as it is poignant; I thought it was one of the best of his career. He and Weisz had real chemistry together.

The movie is only 90 minutes long so there is an economy here that’s refreshing – Wei does no more and no less than he has to do. The brevity works in the movie’s favor; the constant barrage of symbols (keys play a big part in this movie) grew annoying after awhile. But of course American sensibilities are different than Asian ones obviously. Some find that level of layered nuances challenging and gratifying on an intellectual level.

This is a movie that should be experienced rather than seen. I found that letting the images and story wash over me was helpful in my enjoyment of the movie. As Wong Kar Wei movies go, this isn’t his masterpiece…but it may make a good jump-in point for American audiences to be introduced to this amazing director.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all of Kar Wai’s films, this is a visual treat for the senses. Strathairn brings great poignancy to his role. Jones is a capable actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is symbol-heavy and not all of the vignettes are as striking as the Strathairn/Weisz one.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, but also a good deal of drinking and smoking as you might expect in a movie where so much of the action takes place in bars.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chan Marshall, who plays Katya, is better known as Cat Power, a leading indie musician. This is also her feature film acting debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with director Wong Kar Wai conducted by the Museum of the Moving Image that lends fascinating insight as to his philosophy of moviemaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.0M on an unreported production budget; the movie almost certainly made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ahead of Time

Cold Souls


Cold Souls

David Strathairn shows an amazed Paul Giamatti what a soul looks like; being in Hollywood, he's never seen one before.

(2009) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Lauren Ambrose, Katheryn Winnick, Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Tucker, Armand Schultz, Boris Kievsky, Gregory Korostishevsky. Directed by Sophie Barthes

What is our soul, really? Is it just a concept, as ephemeral as a thought? Or is it something real and tangible, something that can be made physical and as such, something that can be removed if need be?

Paul Giamatti (playing himself – kind of) is an actor who has been lauded for many performances and is currently taking on the role of Uncle Vanya in a Broadway production of the Chekhov play. It’s meant to be a comedy, but Paul is having issues. He is feeling too much and his performance is suffering.

He reads an article in the New Yorker about a service in which souls may be extracted and stored. Intrigued, he meets up with the man behind it, Dr. Flintstein (Strathairn) who assures him that the procedure is painless and safe. After some reluctance on his part at first, Paul finally decides to do it.

The operation is as promised; brief, painless and safe. At first, it’s like a great weight taken off of his shoulders. Surprisingly, whereas souls took all sorts of odd shapes and sizes, Paul’s looks very much like a chick pea – or garbanzo bean if you prefer. Such a small thing, Paul muses, but such a great weight it carries with it.

At first things are swell. But as time passes, things are not swell, as things often become. Soon, Paul’s wife Claire (Watson) – whom he never informed about his procedure – notices a change in Paul’s personality. So does the director (Tucker) of the play, which is very disturbing as they are days away from opening and Paul is clearly not even close to ready. It seems that Paul’s soul was necessary after all and he returns to the clinic to have it re-installed.

Except it’s missing. As it turns out, there is a high demand for black market American souls in Russia and a mule named Nina (Korzun) has taken Paul’s soul, thinking it was Al Pacino’s, for the girlfriend (Winnick) of a Russian mobster who yearns to be a movie star. Paul must journey to Moscow to retrieve his stolen soul in the company of a sympathetic Nina, who has elements of all the soul’s she’s carried within her, including Paul’s. However he’ll have to brave the wrath of a Russian gangster and the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union if he’s to get his real soul back.

Not many would tackle souls as a subject for a movie in a Hollywood that is politically correct, for fear of offending the religious right or the non-religious left. In that sense, Barthes is an equal opportunity offender here but I don’t get that’s her actual goal.

She’s gathered a decent cast around her. Giamatti is an Oscar-nominated actor, one who has been giving consistently strong performances nearly every time out since his coming out party for Sideways back in 2004. He’s not playing himself, really – he’s playing a character here loosely based on himself – or at least looking a lot like himself – but maybe more of what he perceives others perceive him as. I know that sounds confusing but don’t think about it too much and you’ll get used to him being addressed with his real name onscreen.

Strathairn is also one of the best character actors of his generation, one who projects competence and character in every role. While his part is essentially comedic, he lends a bit of – not gravitas precisely, but legitimacy in any case. As always, even in a part that might not necessarily demand it, he gives a smart performance.

Watson, who I’ve barely mentioned in the description of the plot, manages to make the most of her brief appearance. She is understanding and devoted to the point of ferocity to her somewhat quirky husband. She comes off as a somewhat ideal wife and that in itself can make for a bland performance, but she is far from that here. As a critic, I appreciate that she took a role that lends itself to being taken for granted and makes it shine. I also liked Korzun’s performance as the sympathetic soul mule. It may have taken the souls of others for her to develop a conscience but Korzun makes Nina’s change from amoral employee to sympathetic assistant to Giamatti a fluid and organic one.

I have a thing about movies that make you think, and this one is one of those. Director Barthes, who also wrote the script, is offering up a debate about a subject not often tackled by the movies because of the religious implications. What is the soul? What makes it important? What does it look like? How can it be changed? What happens to us when it does?

Big questions deserve big answers and sadly, none are forthcoming here. The problem with the movie is that it is VERY cerebral but it really leaves the debate in the theater and not on the screen. Because it’s so very thought-provoking, it takes it’s time getting itself established and the whole Russian mobster sub-plot felt a bit misguided. Still, it’s a smart and at times very funny exploration of a subject that’s so rarely tackled in ANY medium that the filmmakers get a couple of points just for attempting it. I’m looking forward to more movies that provoke this kind of debate from Ms. Barthes.

WHY RENT THIS: A unique concept, well-executed. Fine performances from Giamatti, Strathairn and Watson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So overly cerebral that at times the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality as well as some fairly mature concepts. The language can get a little rough too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was inspired by a dream that Woody Allen had in which he discover his soul resembles a garbanzo bean.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a three-minute featurette on the design and construction of the soul extractor.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: In a Better World (Haevnen)

The Uninvited


The Uninvited

Alex and Anna compare notes on the dock.

(DreamWorks) Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, David Strathairn, Arielle Kebbel, Maya Massar, Kevin McNulty, Jesse Moss, Dean Paul Gibson, Don S. Davis. Directed by The Guard Brothers

If there is anything worse than losing your mother, it is watching your father take up with a younger woman after an unseemly short period of mourning. That’s enough to make a girl psychotic.

Anna (Browning) is about to be released from a mental hospital. Dr. Silberling (Gibson) is concerned that she still has some issues, but is satisfied that she is able to function on her own. She had difficulty dealing with the death of her invalid mother (Massar) in a fire. Her father (Strathairn), a noted author, has since taken his late wife’s nurse Emily (Elizabeth Banks) into his bed, which has upset Anna’s other sister Alex (Kebbel) very much to the point where she barely talks to her father and not at all to his new girlfriend.

Anna is haunted by terrible nightmares that she feels are efforts by her mother to communicate with her from beyond the grave. She begins to suspect that Emily had something to do with the fire. Certainly, as warm and welcoming as Emily seems to be, there is a lot of things that make Anna suspicious. When local boy Matt (Moss), with whom she was canoodling the night of the fire, tells her that he saw something the night of the fire, those suspicions grow. Alex feeds into those suspicions; she never liked Emily anyway.

Anna’s visions are growing steadily more frightening and events begin to turn ugly. Anna does some research into Emily’s background and finds some disturbing information – or lack thereof. It certainly looks like Emily is hiding something and Anna is sure that she means to get rid of the two sisters so that she can have her father all to herself. How can she get anyone to believe her when everyone thinks that she’s crazy?

The Guard brothers, Charles and Thomas, hail from England and this is their first feature. They do a lot of things right. Casting Browning was the first thing. She is simply perfect in a role that requires a very juvenile look but a very mature actress. Her wide eyes, sensuous lips and Alexis Bledel-like bangs make her look gamine, but with a certain sophistication that teen girls possess. She is completely believable in her role.

There are also some pretty nifty scares as well as some particularly gruesome images. The Guard brothers have a good sense of how to control the viewers’ emotions, making the scares as effective as possible. They prefer subtlety to over-the-top imagery and while they don’t shy away from the gruesome, they use the mood to their advantage.

Along with Browning, Strathairn and Banks deliver impressive performances. Banks has to be almost schizophrenic in her performance, as both the friendly and maternal persona and as well as the evil and manipulative persona and she gets both across nicely. Strathairn is always impressive as an actor who can radiate affability and menace at the same time. He is one of my favorite character actors working today.

One thing that disturbed me a little bit was that this is a remake of a really good Korean horror movie called A Tale of Two Sisters and the producers seem to be distancing them as much as possible from it. The DVD is nearly silent about the fact that an earlier version exists which in a way I can understand – it is a much better movie than this one.

Still, this one is pretty good. The sense of menace is palpable and the scares well-executed. The ending is supposed to be a bit of a twist, but in all honesty it isn’t that much of one – veteran horror fans will probably spot it well in advance even if they didn’t see the original. Despite that, I can still recommend it to fans of the horror genre, although non-horror fans may give it a wide berth, even though I’d classify this as more of a psychological thriller than out-and-out horror – it has elements of both. If that doesn’t scare you off, then have at it.

WHY RENT THIS: Browning is the ultimate ingénue, and her relationship with her sister is very believable. There are some genuine scares and not just the startling kind, either. Strathairn and Banks are two pros who always deliver.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie that this is a remake of is much better. The “twist” ending is not that shocking.

FAMILY VALUES: While this is rated PG-13, I would hesitate before letting smaller kids watch this. There is some gruesome imagery and sexual content, as well as some pretty nasty violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final feature appearance of character actor Don S. Davis (best known as General Hammond in the “Stargate: SG-1” series) who passed away from a massive heart attack several months after filming was completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus