August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Advertisements

Womb (Clone)


Oedipus, anyone?

Oedipus, anyone?

(2010) Sci-Fi Drama (Olive) Eva Green, Matt Smith, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, Istvan Lenart, Hannah Murray, Ruby O. Fee, Tristan Christopher, Jesse Hoffman, Natalia Tena, Ella Smith, Wunmi Mosaku, Alexander Goeller, Gina Stiebitz, Adrian Wahlen, Amanda Lawrence, Jennifer Lim, Tina Engel, Noah Hedges. Directed by Benedek Filegauf

Letting go is the hardest thing possible. When we lose someone, particularly someone who is more dear to us than life itself, accepting that they’re gone is a monumental task. Moving on seems next to impossible. What if the technology existed to bring them back – not as they were but as a completely new person?

Rebecca (Green) met Tommy (Smith) when as a nine-year-old girl visiting her grandfather for the summer she fell deeply in love with him – as he did with her. However, summers end and Rebecca is whisked away to join her mother in Japan. Twelve years pass.

However, Rebecca has never been able to put Tommy out of her mind and as it turns out, neither has he for her. The two reconnect and marry. The future looks limitless; Rebecca works as a computer programmer and Tommy is an environmental activist. Even though the two don’t seem compatible, they are very much in love and all things are possible when you’re young and in love. Unfortunately, so is death.

Rebecca is devastated by Tommy’s untimely demise as our his parents Judith (Manville) and Ralph (Wight). Rebecca is particularly inconsolable, and out of her grief hatches a nutty plan – she wants to use Tommy’s genetic material to create a cloned embryo which she would be impregnated with and carry to term. Judith is aghast at the idea and won’t hear of it. Ralph is more accepting of the idea but urges caution and consideration of the potential pitfalls. He signs the permission forms without Judith’s knowledge and you can guess what happens next.

Little Tommy’s clone-ness however makes him a target for neighborhood bullies and so doting mom Rebecca moves him to an isolated beach shack where she home schools him. As Tommy grows (much more rapidly than the average kid it seems while mom remains just as hot as ever), the bond between them grows deeper – and more than a bit strange. Rebecca has her Tommy back – but has her unwillingness to let her lover go set up her son for ruin?

Hungarian director Filegauf takes a fairly complicated subject with all sorts of twisted implications and to his credit never makes it tawdry or lurid. Certainly there are elements of incest suggested, although it is never made too overt – and yet he doesn’t ignore those implications either. There is definitely a sexual tension between Rebecca and her son.

What I do have issues with is not so much the incest element but the lack of character development.  We never get a sense of why Rebecca is so obsessed with Tommy to the point where she is making choices that can only end in heartbreak. We don’t really see how their relationship develops as adults (before his untimely demise) nor do we get a sense of Tommy the son’s personality other than how he relates to his mom and later, to would-be girlfriend Monica (Murray).

Green is a capable actress, and it really falls upon her to carry the film to a large extent. Unfortunately, she’s not given much of a basket but she does the best she can with what she had. Smith, best known for being the most recent Doctor Who (at least until Peter Capaldi takes over next year) breaks his quirky mold here and plays it pretty straight although he has a few moments that will remind his many BBC fans of his performance on the beloved science fiction show.

I’ve said this about other movies but it bears repeating here – there was a good movie to be made here but the filmmakers didn’t make one. They made an okay movie out of a subject oozing with potential which considering the length and breadth of product out there is probably not a sufficiently good motivation to choose this movie above all the rest.

WHY RENT THIS: Takes a fairly lurid subject and never goes down the exploitation road.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks character development.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very, very adult and there are a couple of disturbing images here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was retitled Clone for its home video release in the UK.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Negligible box office on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Possession

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Butler

We’re the Millers


The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Molly Quinn, Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Luis Guzman, Thomas Lennon, Mark L. Young, Ken Marino, Laura-Leigh, Crystal Nichol, Dickson Obahor, Brett Gentile, Kelly Lintz, J. Lynn Talley, Deborah Chavez. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

What could be more middle America than a road trip vacation with the whole fam damily in the ol’ RV? Nobody is going to take a second look at one of those, not even George Zimmerman even if the entire family is wearing hoodies and munching on Skittles.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a low level drug dealer; he has a certain moral compass (he doesn’t ever deal to kids, even 18-year-olds) and is part of the neighborhood fabric, making deliveries like the milk man used to. He lives in an apartment building where his neighbors include the dorky latchkey kid Kenny (Poulter) and the grouchy stripper Rose (Aniston).

When David gets robbed of all his cash, he knows he’s in deep to his supplier, Brad (Helms). However, Brad gives David an assignment; go to Mexico, pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed, and bring it back to Denver and not only will the debt be forgiven but he’ll get the standard courier rate of $100K. David isn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to be a drug smuggler with potential federal ramifications but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He’s a bit worried on how exactly to go about it when he hits the idea of the family RV road trip. Nobody at the border will give him a second look, particularly if he clean up and shaves. However, David is single so he’ll have to rent a family. Kenny is all in, and David convinces a street urchin named Casey (Roberts) to be the daughter. That leaves mom.

David approaches Rose but she – having an ingrained distrust of drug dealers to begin with – isn’t having it. However her finances are, shall we say, in crisis so reluctantly she agrees to get on board. And of course, we know this isn’t going to be a trip one is going to show home movies of afterwards.

As with most R-rated comedies these days there’s a fair amount of raunchiness although surprisingly less than you might expect. There’s plenty of drug humor although not so much of the Cheech and Chong variety; this is a stoner film where nobody gets stoned. Then again, it really isn’t about the marijuana.

Aniston plays very much against type; ever the girl next door, she does one scene where she delivers a pretty hot strip tease (down to her undies – sorry pervs) and she’s not so much brassy as she is grumpy, but she is definitely the star attraction here. Sudeikis meshes well with her, maybe as well as any actor since David Schwimmer, and plays against his usual nice guy type as well.

Hahn and Offerman are hysterical as a straight-laced couple also on an RV adventure who aren’t as straight-laced as they might lead you to believe; Offerman’s career in particular is really taking off and I suspect it won’t be long before he’s headlining some big flicks of his own.

There are some really wicked bits here, including a girl-on-girl action scene, one in which Kenny is taught how to properly kiss a girl, and an adverse reaction to a spider bite. A lot of the humor has to do with taboo sex and those whose values are a bit straight-laced might be offended – of course not many of those will be lining up to see a comedy about drug smuggling I would think

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film – the comedies this summer have been a pretty dismal lot in general and I suspected that the funniest bits of the movie might well be in the trailer but that doesn’t turn out to be the case (although the trailer hints at them). While the ending is a bit predictable, the cast – particularly the core family cast – get on so well that you feel a genuine affection for the lot of them by the film’s end and do stay for the credit roll outtakes; one of the funniest moments in a movie I’ve seen all summer can be found there.

We’re the Millers is one of those summer movies that the expectations are pretty low for and manages to exceed them. In a summer where most movies haven’t met the expectations set for them, mild or not, it’s a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe Detroit-smelling air. Not really fresh mountain air. You smell what I’m cooking.

REASONS TO GO: Laugh out loud funny. Nice chemistry between Sudeikis and Aniston. Offerman and Hahn nearly steal the show.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like drug humor might take offense. Pushes the taboo sex angle a bit hard.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh, where to begin? A ton of foul language, plenty of drug humor, a ton of sexual references and one scene of brief but unforgettable nudity (as in you can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter stayed up all night listening to TLC’s ”Waterfalls” in order to learn the rap portion properly for shooting the following day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Life, Above All

Pieta


Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.

That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.

Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.

Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?

Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?

The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.

The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.

One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.

Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.

The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.

The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of  you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.

REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Rundown

The Woman


This is the new Goth look.

This is the new Goth look.

(2011) Horror (Bloody Disgusting) Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Marcia Bennett, Sean Bridgers, Carlee Baker, Tommy Nelson, Lauren Ashley Carter, Shyla Molhusen, Vincent Gordon, Zach Rand, Shelby Mailloux, Laura Petre, Lauren Schroeder, Alexa Marcigliano. Directed by Lucky McKee

Take the animal out of the person and, so the way of thinking goes, you are left with a civilized human being. Often however that civilization is only a veneer and when you strip it away you find the inner animal.

Chris Cleek (Bridgers) is a lawyer and a family man, well-respected around town. He likes to go hunting now and again and on one such trip he spies a woman (McIntosh) with a fishing knife in the river spearing it and eating it raw on the end of her knife. He is fascinated by this obviously feral woman and decides to take her home and civilize her. He captures her with a net and knocks her out.

When she awakens, she is chained in his garage on his rural, isolated property. Cleek turns out to be a monster, abusing his wife Belle (Bettis) and oldest daughter Peggy (Carter) who is becoming withdrawn at school, her grades plummeting. His son Brian (Rand) is developing a sadistic streak of his own. The youngest, Darlin (Molhusen) is just a toddler.

Chris begins enlisting his family in “civilizing” the woman, using a pressure hose to wash her, and subjecting her to all sorts of torment. Brian participates enthusiastically while Belle and Peggy are much more reluctant. In the meantime Mrs. Raton (Baker) has become suspicious of Peggy’s change in behavior and decides to pay the home a visit.

There she’ll find a house of horrors that she (and we) didn’t expect. Survival of the fittest is what nature teaches us and the woman will have to be very fit indeed to make it out of the garage alive.

This movie debuted at Sundance  in 2011 to a great deal of controversy. A significant portion of the audience walked out on the film and those that stayed accused it of being misogynistic trash. This is where you can tell the difference between a critic who understands film and those who don’t – there is a difference between a misogynistic film and one in which misogynistic acts are displayed. On the one hand, the agenda is to describe women as inferior who deserve the treatment that they’re receiving; clearly in this movie the men are the monsters, perpetrating all manner of horrors on women. However, it is these men who are woman-haters – these characters. We are able to identify them as such by their behavior. Calling this movie misogynistic is like calling the makers of the Bond films megalomaniacs because their villains behave in that manner.

A superior performance is demanded of McIntosh and, fortunately, received. She doesn’t utter a word of dialogue other than grunts, snorts, screams and screeches. Much of her acting is done through body language and through her eyes. An Oscar-winning performance this ain’t but it does show a great deal of physical talent. I’m not sure she’ll get a lot of opportunities out of this but she should – there’s a real deal actress under all the grime.

There is a good deal of gore and violence, including the (inevitable) sexual assault of the woman by Chris. This is definitely not for the squeamish or those who find violence and sex distasteful. Then, this isn’t the sort of movie that was really made for that sort of person. It is a movie about the savage inside us, one that often has a civilized veneer. Which one was truly the monster – the Woman or Chris? I think you’ll find that question easy enough to answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Brutal but not meant to be taken seriously. McIntosh lets it all hang out in her portrayal of a feral woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some might find it misogynistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Warning, this is a pretty shocking film by any standards. Let’s see, there’s some pretty graphic violence and gore, misogynistic  behavior, a fairly brutal rape, graphic nudity, foul language and torture. Louise May Alcott this ain’t.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word anophthalmia which is used repeatedly during the film by Chris refers to the congenital absence of an eye or both eyes and teases one of the aspects of the film’s climax.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an animated short and a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Promised Land

A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Lisabeth Salander has Mikael Blomkvist in stitches.

(2011) Thriller (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Ulf Friberg, Julian Sands, Moa Garpendal, Embeth Davidtz. Directed by David Fincher

 

Sometimes a movie is so good when it is originally made that it seems virtually unthinkable that it be remade. Most of the time, those remakes fall far short of the mark. Once in awhile however, the remake comes out with a voice of its own that offers something to the original, enhances it even.

Purists were aghast when the hit Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was set for an American remake. There was some comfort in that Fincher, whose pedigree includes Se7en and Fight Club would be behind the camera but still there were shudders to think of what liberties and watering down Hollywood would do to the source material, the late Stieg Larsson’s novel (the first in a trilogy, all of which have been translated to film in Swede and all of them reviewed elsewhere on the site) which was grittier and more brutal than Hollywood tends to be.

Mikael Blomkvist (Craig), a crusading journalist and co-publisher of the left-leaning Millennium magazine has been convicted of libel against a wealthy Swedish venture capitalist named Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Friberg). The judgment against Blomkvist essentially empties out his savings and puts Millennium at risk of failing. His co-publisher and lover Erika Berger (Wright) confesses that the magazine may have three months of life left at best.

Wennerstrom isn’t the only one looking into Blomkvist. A security firm is hired by lawyer Dirch Frode (Berkoff) to investigate Blomkvist and the operative of the security firm, Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is asked to turn in her report in person, something that makes her uncomfortable. It turns out that her report is pretty thorough and the few things that are missing are best left that way.

Berkoff represents reclusive industrialist Henrik Vanger (Plummer) who wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet (Garpendal) whom he believes was murdered by a member of his family 40 years earlier. There are certainly plenty of suspects; ex-Nazis who may not be as ex as they might have you believe; bitter, jealous and greedy, grasping money-grubbers, torturers, rapists and pederasts. Makes for quite a Christmas list.

At first Blomkvist is met with hostility from nearly everyone other than Martin (Skarsgard), Harriet’s brother who is skeptical that Blomkvist will find out anything new. Martin is running the family business now and not running it with much success. The once-vast Vanger empire is shrinking; once a great steel and railway manufacturer, they make most of their profits from fertilizer these days. Considering all the BS that is fed to Blomkvist, I’m quite certain he must have thought that appropriate.

As Blomkvist discovers that his e-mail was hacked by Salander (whose identity he doesn’t yet know), he is infuriated but begrudgingly realizes he needs a research assistant as he is making a little bit of progress but needs someone who can help him dig things up from corporate records at Vanger Industries. He meets Salander who proves to be skittish but intrigued; she isn’t very fond of men in general, having been raped brutally by her state-appointed guardian Nils Bjurman (van Wageningen). She did get her revenge however and proved herself someone not to mess with in the process.

Blomkvist and Salander turn out to make a formidable team and the lies and prevarications of 40 years of silence begin to slip away and they discover Harriet’s disappearance may be the gateway into a much more hideous secret – and that Harriet may not be the only victim. Worse yet, the killer is fully aware of their discoveries and has them both firmly in their sights.

When I found out about this remake, I was like most fans of the books and the Swedish versions somewhat troubled. I couldn’t see Hollywood allowing a movie to include scenes of graphic rape and torture, all of which were at the heart of the previous versions. I fully expected something sanitized and vapid. Then I heard that it was Fincher directing, and to be honest my reaction was “He’s probably the only director in Hollywood who could pull it off,” but I thought he might have difficulty getting the studio to allow him free rein to make the movie he wanted.

Surprisingly he did and we might have The Social Network to thank for it. The runaway commercial and critical success of that film has given Fincher greater clout than he’s had previously and might have allowed him to shut down studio interference in the project. Certainly the rape sequence and the torture sequence late in the film are as disturbing as those in the Swedish film and the book.

Craig was only able to do this film because of the delay in filming the latest James Bond. Here he plays a man unused to action, one more cerebral than some of the heroes he’s played lately and quite frankly Craig is up to the task. It is as different a role from Bond as you can get but equally as heroic, and if this franchise is successful will really put up Craig among the elite stars working today.

Mara is the breakout star here. One had to worry if she could fill the shoes of Noomi Rapace, who was so very central to the success of the Swedish trilogy.  Not only does Mara fill those shoes, she may well surpass them and will herself into stardom; this is a star-making performance to say the least. Salander is a tortured soul and certainly Mara captures that, but she’s also no longer willing to be a victim and the inner strength that makes Salander one of the most interesting heroines of all time is very much evident here as well. She may wear outlandish hair styles, provocative t-shirts and smoke far too much but she is also brilliant as well.

The movie is a bit longer than three hours long which was nearly more than my poor bladder could take – theater sodas are so darn large these days! It also fleshes out the Swedish film quite nicely, although the Swedish version ends with the death of the killer more or less with a brief coda showing a television report that covers the denouement between Blomkvist and Wennerstrom. The American version plays that out a bit further which frankly was unnecessary for my taste.

Still, this is some terrific filmmaking buttressed by some great performances, particularly in the case of Mara (Plummer and Skarsgard, both veteran actors, also deliver solid performances). It may be too intense for some, a bit too long for its own good but by and large this is a really good movie that doesn’t disgrace its source material in the least; if anything, it enhances it nicely and makes for a worthy addition to Larsson’s legacy.

REASONS TO GO: Mara does a star-making turn here. Based on one of the best-written thrillers in recent years. Great cast and production values.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and sexuality can get very intense. Doesn’t measure up to the original in several critical areas. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very disturbing content here, including graphic rape and torture. There is also plenty of nudity and sexuality and a surfeit of naughty words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The piercings that Rooney Mara sports as Lisabeth Salander are real; none of them are cosmetically or digitally enhanced. Mara got them for the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the empty vistas of Northern Sweden seem best on the big screen but it might not be a bad thing to see this at home in front of a roaring fire on a cold night.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Artist