Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

Before he died in 1983, Belgian writer and artist Georges Remi developed a friendship with movie director Steven Spielberg. After the befriending, Remi publicly stated that if his comic, The Adventures of Tintin were to ever be adapted to the big screen, that Spielberg would be the ideal filmmaker to spearhead the project. Twenty-eight years later, Spielberg abided.

The Adventures of Tintin is a comic that first appeared in a Belgian newspaper in 1929. Since then, the series evolved into 24 books, with publication dates ranging from 1929 to 1986, which have been translated in over 50 languages and have sold over 200 million copies worldwide. So it wouldn't be surprising if Spielberg felt a tiny bit of pressure when creating the first film adaptation of the story.

Spielberg and Peter Jackson signed on to co-produced three Tintin films, and used Jackson's company to provide the animation and special effects. The story they chose to start with was "The Secret of the Unicorn," which was published in two parts by Remi in 1942 and 1943.

The stories, and Spielberg's subsequent film, revolve around Tintin, a reporter who has a thirst for adventure. He is young, wide-eyed and brave, and never turns down an opportunity for a good story. His reporter-like curiosities in his vocation have led him on a myriad of adventures, and are the impetus for all of the Tintin tales. "The Secrets of the Unicorn" is no exception.

First and foremost, let's just say that the animation in Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin is nothing short of stunning. There's no question that animation has evolved over the last decade, but never before has it looked more realistic than it does here. Naturally, the human beings still look clearly animated, but the scenery in the film, and the background props -- bookshelves, tables, lamps, etc. -- look genuinely real. Welta Studios, Jackson's company who created the animation, have also done the effects for other visually-stunning films, such as the three Lord of the Rings films, King Kong and Avatar. But this may be the best animation yet.

Anyway, the film wastes no time jumping into the action. We meet Tintin, who is voiced by Jamie Bell, accompanied by his faithful dog, Snowy. He is at an outdoor fair somewhere in Europe, and his eyes immediately become attracted to a model ship, called the Unicorn, that is being sold at a booth. Tintin makes the purchase, and immediately is confronted by a man named Ivan Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig), who wishes to buy the ship from Tintin for an outstanding price. Using his keen sense of intuition and adventure, Tintin refuses to sell it. He's immediately warned by Sakharine that the ship will only bring him trouble, but knowing Tintin, that only fuels his interest.

Haddock, Tintin and Snowy in The Adventures of Tintin
Shortly thereafter, Tintin's apartment is ransacked and the ship is stolen. Being the astute reporter he is, Tintin immediately embarks for the local public library, where he looks into the history of the actual ship, the Unicorn, only to learn that there is, of course, a story behind it. Many years ago, the ship set sail on a voyage, only to never return.

Tintin's continued digging puts him right in the heart of the adventure. He teams up with a ship captain, named Haddock (voiced by Andy Serkis), who has his own motives towards the adventure, to discover what happened to the Unicorn on its fateful voyage many years ago.

The Adventures of Tintin is for the the young-at-heart, enthusiastic adventurists who have always dreamed of embarking on their own journeys to solve an epic mystery. I wouldn't necessarily say that Tintin is a a kids' movie, but there's no doubt that children are one of the target audiences, and therefore you must bear with the film a little when the action becomes a bit outlandish and unrealistic. When that happens, just absorb the amazing visuals that Spielberg and Jackson present to us. Also, the dialogue is funny and endearing enough to appeal to all ages.

Of course, as the plot thickens, mysteries will untangle , formidable foes will step in Tintin's way, and unexpected allies will come to his aid when he needs them most. That is what adventures are all about, and this story has them in spades.
Tintin holding a cartoon depiction of himself, as
he is portrayed in Georges Remi's original comics

Spielberg of course pays homage to the original writer, Georges Remi, who went by his pen name, Hergé. In the opening scene of the film, Tintin is being drawn by a cartoonist, who is meant to be the actual Georges Remi, and the resultant drawing is a depiction of the original cartoon Tintin. Additionally, other characters who were staples in Remi's popular books make appearances, like the incompetent detectives, Thomson and Thompson (voiced by Nick frost and Simon Pegg, respectively.)

With The Adventures of Tintin, you will see the world. You'll watch as Tintin and Snowy sail across oceans, walk through deserts, run through cities, and fly through the skies. From start to finish, the animation will amaze you, and Tintin's wide-eyed hopefulness will inspire you. No doubt, Georges Remi did indeed pick the ideal filmmaker to bring his timeless stories to life.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

We all know about Woody Allen's first passion, which is film making. The man has over 45 directorial credits to his name. But not as many are familiar with his second passion -- jazz. Allen himself performs regularly in a New Orleans jazz band. So what a joy it must have been for him to combine his two passions and create a film that is devoted entirely to jazz music.

In Sweet and Lowdown, Sean Penn plays fictional 1930s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, who according to himself, is the best jazz guitarist in the world, with the exception of a "french gypsy" who goes by the name of Django Reinhardt. The movie, in a sense, is a biopic about Ray, who may be fictional, but Allen at least gives the viewer the impression that he may be real; throughout the narrative, "musical experts," including Allen himself, chime in and give their thoughts on Ray's life and career, as if the movie was a VH1 "Where are they now?" documentary.

Django Reinhardt, meanwhile, is very real -- though probably unknown to anyone outside of jazz circles. Born in 1910, Reinhardt is considered a pioneer for the genre, and is credited for inventing a new type of jazz during his heyday. Undoubtedly, Reinhardt is one of Allen's heroes, and Sweet and Lowdown is his tribute to the musician, who died in 1957 of a brain hemorrhage.

As Emmet Ray, Sean Penn is selfish, egotistical, rude, unkempt and misogynistic -- but man, can he strum the guitar. Rarely without a drink or a woman by his side, his attitude, along with his laissez-faire lifestyle, often gets him in trouble with his employers. However, with his talent, he never takes long finding work, even if it involves a brief stint as a pimp, or as he calls it, a "manager."

Though as narcissistic as they come, Ray loses all ability to function properly just at the mere mention of the name Django Reinhardt -- who represents more of a concept in the film than a character. He's never met Reinhardt, but openly admits that every time he listens to his music, he has fainted. Plain and simple, he knows he'll never be as good as him, and it kills him.

Sean Penn as Emmet Ray in Sweet and Lowdown
In the beginning of the film, Ray is amid a fling with a women (Molly Price), who tells him, "You keep your feelings all locked up and you can't feel nothing for anybody else," to which Ray unabashedly acknowledges, responding that, as an artist, he "lets all of his feelings out in his music."

Ray's next two relationships could not be more different. He and his band's drummer (Brian Markinson), while prowling for women, befriend two women with the soul intention of seducing them. As luck will have it, the women Ray hones in on, Hattie (Samantha Morton) is a mute, and is unable to speak. Uncomfortable at first with the situation, Ray ends up developing a relationship with her, probably because she's the first women who doesn't criticize him, because, well, she can't.

It's with Hattie when Ray is finally able to let out his feelings, somewhat, but like he treats all women who enter his life, he warns her not to fall in love with him. His other relationship is with Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is the polar opposite of Hattie. She is very outspoken, and often poses Freudian psychological questions to Ray, wondering -- like his first fling -- why he holds in all of his feelings.

Samantha Morton as Hattie
Despite his repulsiveness, Ray is actually a hysterical character, thanks in large part to Woody Allen's great writing. His favorite hobbies include watching trains and going to the garbage dump to shoot rats. Additionally, his exchanges with the mute Hattie are nothing short of hilarious. And though she doesn't say a word, Samantha Morton delivers one of the more pleasant performances as Hattie, excelling in her facial features and expressions.

Like all Woody Allen movies, the story embraces its theme and setting -- in this case, jazz and the 1930s. The music will entertain, the wardrobes will captivate, and the dialogue will enchant. But Sweet and Lowdown is a story of fulfillment, and how a selfish man with an impeccable talent can't identify the important things in life, even when it's staring at him right in the eye. When it's all said and done, Emmet Ray finally makes that bittersweet discovery.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

For cinephiles, Anatomy of a Murder may be the film equivalent of what "The Fight of the Century" was to sports fans. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the two giants of the sport, going to-to-toe for 15 epic rounds in Madison Square Garden. It was a spoil of riches for sports fans, and something that I, having been born 17 years after the fight, never got to witness.

And in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, a courtroom drama, you have Jimmy Stewart, the defense attorney, sitting behind one bench, and George C. Scott, the prosecutor, behind the other. These two men are colossal figures in the world of cinema, and could easily be found atop many lists that rank the greatest actors of all time. Watching these two men go toe-to-toe, albeit in a much different sense than Ali-Frazier, is nothing short of brilliant. Not only are they coexisting on the same set, but they are actually going against each other, in a courtroom setting, working directly off one another.

The film, made over 50 years ago, is directed by Preminger (who also directed the classic 1944 film noir, Laura), and features a screenplay by Wendell Mayes, which is based on a novel of the same name by John D. Voelker. Voelker, who once worked as supreme court justice in Michigan, based the novel on a 1952 murder trial, in which he was the defense attorney. As a result, Anatomy of a Murder is authentic as they come.

The film takes place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and Jimmy Stewart plays small-town lawyer Paul Biegler. Bear in mind that this is an older Stewart, and not the "aww shucks" variety from his days of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. This is the elder, grizzled Stewart who had already teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock to make Rear Window and Vertigo.

Biegler may be small-town, but he's got the experience. The man he is defending is army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, played by the recently deceased Ben Gazzara, who has just killed a man named Barney Quill. Manion, who openly admits that he killed Quill, says he did it because Quill had raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick), hours earlier. Laura backs the story, and Biegler agrees to take the case, recruiting the help of his friend and colleague, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), an old has-been lawyer who has a penchant for the drink.

Like all courtroom dramas, one of Anatomy of a Murder's primary themes is legal ethics. Is murder justified if it is in retaliation of rape? Legally, it isn't, but it is when the suspect suffered from temporary insanity while he committed it, which is the story that Manion goes with. Biegler never questions the authenticity of Manion's story,  that's not his job -- his job is to get him acquitted. But Biegler isn't devoid of ethics or morals, proven when he warns the Manions right before the trial, "Now when you get up on that stand, I want you to tell the truth. I don't want you to tell anything but the truth, don't try and lie, don't try and conceal anything, or you'll get skinned alive."
Jimmy Stewart, right, arguing with Brooks West, with
George C. Scott observing in between.

Twists, turns and surprises will abound in any good courtroom drama, and Biegler's first surprise comes at the start of the trial, when the local D.A. Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) announces that he will be assisted in the case by hotshot assistant Attorney General (Scott), who came all the way up from Lansing due to the "peculiar nature" of the case, according to Lodwick.

The trial starts, and as witness after witness is sworn, questioned and occasionally bullied, we watch Stewart and Scott go to work. They play off each other extremely well, with Stewart's witty, passionate bordering on temperamental demeanor versus Scott's even-keeled, efficient, yet equally as witty demeanor. Both actors give the utmost credibility to their characters, which in turn makes the viewer eager to see the strategies that both men employ and improvise throughout the case.

The prosecution tries its hardest to keep the motive of the murder, which was the alleged rape, away from the murder trial, but Biegler argues that his temporary insanity plea is contingent on the rape, and thus, its involvement is necessary. After deliberation, the judge, played affably by Joseph Welch, agrees, which helps muddle things up even more. From there, more twists and turns develop, which culminate in the final verdict.

I said earlier that Stewart plays his character with a little more grit than we may be accustomed to, but the Stewart of old is still there, and he still posseses that warm twinkle of amiability as his character occasionally goes off on dull but humorous tangents, like, for example, his love for fishing.

Ben Gazzara as Lt. Frederick Manion.
But it isn't just the Stewart and Scott show. Gazzara plays his part coolly, portraying Manion as a hotheaded yet collected tough guy who could lose it at any minute, and Remick plays Laura, the vulnerable seductress, with just the right amount of promiscuity. Welch is surprisingly one of the more enjoyable characters, eloquently and deliberately reciting his lines with the right blend of ardor and austerity. And finally, Arthur O'Connell embraces his role as the alcoholic sidekick in search of redemption. The film garnered seven Academy Award nominations in 1960, three of which were acting nominations, for Stewart, Scott and O'Connell, respectively.

There are no protagonists or antagonists in Anatomy of a Murder. Each character has their own shades of black and white, but like the color of the film itself, each lies within the shade of grey in the moral color spectrum. In the trial, each character has their own job and agenda, and each do it admirably. At two hours and forty minutes, the film is long, but one should expect it to be, for to dissect the anatomy of a murder is surely no quick task.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin throws away all social etiquette and explores a regrettable, yet real, aspect of our world: school shootings. As touchy a subject you can get, the film sensitively explores how such evil can eventually come to be, and how it is derived.

The film's first five minutes, which are a prelude to the actual story arch, aim to set the mood of the film. The main subject of the film, Eva Khatchadourian, portrayed by an excellent Tilda Swinton, is standing amongst a sea of people, drenched in a red substance we can only presume is blood. It is a very tribal scene, with crowds chanting, and Eva submitting to the chaos, as she is lifted and passed around by the group of people surrounding her.

And then the story begins. The movie does not draw on any real-life occurrences, and is actually based on a 2003 book by Lionel Shriver, and adapted to the screen by director Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear.

The first fifteen minutes fiddle around with time a bit, as the story weaves in and out of two time periods: before the killing spree, and after. Naturally, everything is different in the two scenes. Eva's demeanor, haircut, and even her house represent drastic differences, and it's our job to wait and see how point A gets to point B.

The story does revolve around a high-school killing spree, but I did not misspeak when I said that the main subject of the film is Eva. It is her son, Kevin (portrayed by three actors, Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and then Ezra Miller), who does the evil deed, but the purpose of the movie is about the mother who raised him, and how her life is thrown into a tailspin upon such evil.

It is a rarely explored subject, because high-school shootings are so villainous, so incorrigible that our minds can't even fathom such maliciousness. It's only human to think that individuals who undertake such a deed must have spawned straight from Hell. However, it's not the case. Not at all.

Tidla Swinton with young Kevin, played by Rock Duer.
Eva is married to Franklin (John C. Reilly), who for lack of a better word, are lovely people. The couple have their first child, Kevin, and devote themselves to him, as any good parents would. But right away, we are made aware of the fact that something isn't quite right with Kevin; he's just a little bit off. However, in the age of social disorders, his abnormalities are constantly dismissed.

We follow the family, and since we know the outcome, we are ever so observant of Kevin's behavior. We watch everything; what he says, his facial expressions, his actions, as we try to look for some type of foreshadowing for what we know the final outcome will be.

The couple has one more child along the way, Celia, played by Ashley Gerasimovich, who is perfectly pleasant, leading us even more to believe that Kevin is an anomaly in this all-American family. Celia, who is cute and friendly, is the child that Eva and Franklin always wanted.

But let's talk about Kevin. I said earlier that we look for the signs of inherent evil within Kevin. But instead, he's the opposite. To put it eloquently, Kevin is simply cool. Good-looking, smart, eloquent; on paper, Kevin seems like a parent's dream. However, he still possesses that air throughout that tells us that something is a little off, and that is a tribute to the acting of Miller. He plays the part pretentiously (in a good way), with just the right blend of coolness and malevolence.

Tidla Swinton, meanwhile, is phenomenal, as she goes beyond the realms that any parent would ever wish to go. One can't even begin to imagine what it must feel like to have your own offspring commit such a heinous crime, but Swinton's acting certainly gives us a little bit of insight. Franklin may adore his son, but Eva is the only one who actually fears Kevin, and has the intuitive sense that he may actually be capable of doing terrible things.

Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
At one point, she discovered a compact disc in Kevin's room. Curious, she loads it onto her computer, only to discover that the disc contains a virus that, when inserted, will wipe out your entire hard drive. Why do you possess such a thing, she asks. "What's the point?" The camera then zooms in directly on Kevin's eyes, and he recites a response that gives us as much insight into his character than any other dialogue in the entire film:

"There is no point. That's the point."

Even though we know how the movie will end, the characters become so compelling that we almost will ourselves to think that the ending will be different. We hope that Kevin will change his mind, but deep down, we know he won't. And when the deed finally does occur, the faint-of-heart and easily-saddened need not worry. Nearly all of the violence takes place of the screen, and is implied rather than shown. But it does happen.

Although the plot is drawn out for us right from the get-go, the movie explores the psychological nature behind the people who commit one of the most unspeakable actions one could imagine, and shows us how the events come to be. It is a character study through and through, and there's no doubt, when the film ends, you know exactly which character you will be talking about.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Stranger (1946)

Directed and starred in by Orson Welles, The Stranger is a flick straight out of the film noir era, yet drastically unique as only Welles would have it.  Its Oscar-nominated screenplay written by Victor Trivas makes for an at times thrilling cat-and-mouse game between the aforementioned Welles and Edward G. Robinson.  Though its overall story is simple enough, its intricate dialogue, imperious directional cues and final culmination make it an entertaining and ever-poignant film.

The first scene starts rather abruptly with a fuming Mr. Wilson (Robinson) pacing behind the doors of the Allied War Crimes Commission, pipe in hand. The camera is angled up and slowly zooming toward him tangentially so as to put Wilson's brief soliloquy in the "god angle" - a trademark of Welles's - making it no secret as to who the authority figure is here.  This "obscenity must be destroyed" we hear but just as quickly are redirected to a maritime set where a nervous twitchy German named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) is in some sort of frenzied state.  Deploying from a boat in which Welles treats us to a signature long take filled with pans and crane-guided camera angles, Konrad meets an informant who leads him to one Franz Kindler in the Main Street, USA town of Harper, Connecticut.

It also leads Wilson to Harper who not long into his attempt at surreptitiously trailing Konrad reveals himself resulting in a foot chase through a school.  Some exaggerated angles, dark lighting and provocative score later Wilson takes a blow to the head resulting in the loss of both Konrad and his consciousness.  Well, Konrad finally rendezvous with his sought for Kindler (Welles) only he appears as no German countryman but rather an innocuous constituent of Harper named Charles Rankin who works as a Professor and is to be married that very day to a judge's daughter, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).

The majority of the film involves Wilson's struggle to prove and convince the Longstreets that Rankin is in fact Kindler, the mastermind of the Nazi death camps, who escaped when the War went sour for the Germans.  No photo existed of the top-of-the list war criminal so it falls on Wilson to confirm that the man Konrad lead him to is indeed him.  In the face of this challenge the script shines.  There are tidbits of conversation that the cunning Wilson picks up on such as Rankin's referral to Karl Marx as a Jew not a German at a dinner party. (Wilson reasons: " Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?).  It's at that same event that Rankin states "I can't believe that people can be reformed except from within," equally as telling.

Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and
Orson Welles pose in front of the clock tower.
Another theme that sort of crescendos into the conclusion of the film is clockwork.  Rankin has a sick obsession with fixing clocks and Wilson uses this as one of the identifying factors of his culprit.  In the most distressing scenes viewers will note Rankin darting for a nearby clock to make adjustments; that, or they take place in Harper's clock tower to which Rankin voluntarily spends his time repairing.  And yes, in the spirit of such films as 2011's Hugo or 1985's Back to the Future, the clock tower provides the perfect setting for some of the The Stranger's most tantalizing moments, in its conclusion.

There is something to be said about the building psychological tension that Orson Welles crafts in his two-faced villain.  Whether it be through askance glares or timely tremors, as sly as Kindler is, Rankin has trouble holding on.  The shift from gentlemanly understatement to dramatic insanity in Rankin piloted by Welles is remarkable.  His composed monologues and angry rants might range in degree of intensity but waver none in their ability to haunt the audience.  His hysteria is foreseen earlier in the film as he tells his wife: " Murder can be a chain, Mary, one link leading to another until it circles your neck. "

At points in the film Wilson even tosses around bits of Freudian psychological lingo in regards to Mary and Charles.  These do feel somewhat out of place and forced in the script, but only because Welles and Young do such a superb job of acting it out - to spell it out for us feels redundant and too forward.

Finally, a bit of trivia: The Stranger was the first feature film to show footage of the concentration camps in World War II.  It comes in a scene when Wilson tries to appeal to a denying Mary that her husband is in fact a high ranking Nazi criminal.  It is surreal to see this dose of reality pop up in a genre of Hollywood film so famous for its fictionalized drama and stereotypical characters.  Director Orson Welles, who publicized his disgust of Fascism and the Nazi's systematic genocide at the time, appeals to the humanity in all of us.  Once again it is an unlikely juxtaposition but an incredibly effective one.  When Rankin pleads to Wilson during the film's finale as all is but lost he cites the well-exhausted argument that he was just following his given orders.  And like that, light has been shed on a bit of clockwork of Orson Welles's manufacturing.  How can the audience do anything but knee-jerkingly recall those vile and real archival shots Welles sagaciously chose to illuminate earlier in the film?  As a tiny tribute to the power of film (in this case, even within a film), but even more so as a testament to humanity, there is no forgiveness to be had from Wilson, or in that case from society - then, now and hopefully for eternity - for such a monster as Franz Kindler.

--Review by Mike Dorfman

Thursday, February 9, 2012

How I Ended This Summer (2010)

When checking the cast list for the Russian, film, How I Ended This Summer, directed by Aleksey Popogrebskiy, you may be startled to discover that the entire movie comprises of two actors. However, it is perfectly appropriate, as the film's main theme is isolation, and the effects that it can have on a man. Or in this case,  two men.

The story centers around two meteorologists who are based on a vaguely defined Arctic island, working at a desolate meteorological station. It is their job to collect weather data, and relay it back to their superiors through a two-way radio. The voices we hear on the radio are the only other evidence we have of other human existence throughout the entire film.

The movie was shot in Chukcki peninsula, located on the northernmost tip of Asia, and just a short swim through freezing cold waters away from Alaska. The filmmakers spent three months there shooting the film, and just like the characters in the story, were subjected to an isolated landscape full of of snowy mountains, dense fog and the occasional polar bear.

The characters include Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young meteorologist who is new in the field. With his wavy, bleached hair and pierced ears, he looks like someone you'd expect to see stalking out females at club, rather than a meteorological station. His partner, meanwhile, is Sergey (Sergey Pusekaplis), the seasoned veteran who has been doing it for years.

The two represent complete foils. One young, one old, one with with experience, one not, and one with a family, the other single. It's a match you may expect to see in an NBC sitcom, but, in this case, alone on a desolate island, the mismatched relationship is a deep cause for tension. To get an idea, just imagine yourself stuck on an island with somebody who you have absolutely nothing in common with.

Grigoriy Dobrygin and Sergey Puskepalis.
At first, the movie lets us witness the every doldrums that meteorologists must endure; checking data, copying numbers, measuring wind currents, etc. We are also subjected to such words as telemetry, Geiger counters, isotope beacons, roentgens and heliographs. But never mind the meteorological jargon, it's all just a way of subtlety easing us into the lifestyle. It's not meant to be riveting.

Sergey, the seasoned veteran, is tough on Pavel. Often yelling and scolding him, he expects perfection, which only adds to the dissension between the two. But after about half-an-hour, however, something happens to break the monotony. While Sergey is out fishing, Pavel receives an urgent radio message, relaying urgent personal news that Sergey must be made aware of immediately. It is up to Pavel to break the news to the man that he hardly knows, and who, in a way, scares him. Even when Sergey returns shortly later, Pavel just can't find the right time to tell him.

From then on, How I Ended This Summer becomes a psychological study. We begin to enter the minds of the characters, wondering what exactly we would do if we were in their situations. The extended isolation undoubtedly has taken its toll on the character's decision-making, and the effects unravel throughout the course of the film. And before we know it, How I Ended This Summer becomes a story of survival.

Very little is said during the film, but it doesn't need to be. The looks and facial expressions of Dobygrin and Puskepalis give us more than words could ever do. The characters are alone, with no one to talk to, so it only serves the viewer right that we should be devoid of communication as well.

Isolation prevails in How I Ended This Summer.
The film isn't short, sitting at a little over two hours. Extended scenes are devoted simply towards shots of the wilderness. Popogrebskiy, with the aid of cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov chooses to linger on these shots, sometimes holding it for 10, 15, even 20 seconds at a time. But it's worth it, as the arctic scenery is nothing short of stunning. And even with characters on screen, we are still exposed to lengthy silence. Some may find it dull, but for others, it'll prove that you don't need eerie music or flashy effects to create suspense.

It's the complete antithesis of paradise, but How I Ended This Summer will take you places that you never intended to go, and will make you simultaneously wish that you spend your own summer in a much warmer, integrated location.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Rum Diary (2011)

Bruce Robinson's The Rum Diary is a story about a man trying to find his voice, even if nobody wants to hear it. The film, starring Johnny Depp, is based on a 1998 Hunter S. Thompson novel, which he actually wrote in the 1960s while working for a sports newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thompson, who died in 2005, a journalist and author (he also wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- a movie adaptation which Depp also starred in), battled alcoholism and drug addiction his entire life. His novel, "The Rum Diary," while fictional, is heavily influenced by his life experiences, including his journalistic outlook and the time he spent as a writer in Puerto Rico.

In the film, Depp plays Paul Kemp, a roving journalist who moves from the states to Puerto Rico in the 1950s to write for the San Juan Star, an English-language newspaper. We meet his editor, Edward Lotterman, played by Richard Jenkins, who assigns Kemp to write horoscopes, the most mundane of tasks for the new employee. One might expect Kemp to show some journalistic integrity, and demand a more ambitious task, but instead, he simply nods and contently accepts the role. In short, he just doesn't care.

The newspaper doesn't exactly scream competence, either. Lotterman warns Kemp right away that the last thing he needs is another drunk, since the newspaper is already chock-full of them, and warns Kemp to keep the drinking to a minimum. One of those employees who is partial to the booze is Bob Sala, played by Michael Rispoli, a photographer at the newspaper who takes Kemp under his wing, even lets him stay at his apartment, and more prominently, becomes his drinking buddy.

In Puerto Rico, Kemp is a fish out the water. Unable to even speak a lick of Spanish, he experiences a major culture clash upon his arrival. Though he left the states to escape the overwhelming presence of greed and corruption -- something as a journalist, he is undoubtedly exposed to -- , he soon discovers that Puerto Rico is not much different.

While temporarily staying in a small, grimy apartment with Sala, the two spend what little income they have on benders and booze. However, Kemp receives a opportunity to better his situation when he meets Hal Sandersson (Aaron Eckhart), an extremely wealthy businessman who doesn't exactly conduct his business in the most moral, or even legal ways.

Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart and Amber Heard
Sandersson, and his associates, recently learned through inside information that a private island, currently owned by the U.S., government, is going to be put up for lease. He wishes to purchase, what his associates call, "32 miles of untouched real estate" to build hotels and other mega tourist attractions. They want Kemp, as a writer, to sway public opinion through some carefully placed articles.

Sanderssonn, in a way, is living the American dream, only in Puerto Rico. Living in an illustrious beach side villa, with his gorgeous girlfriend, Chenault (Amber Heard), expensive cars and an endless flow of money. He is an expatriate, and has no qualms in tampering with land that he has no right to, which, only naturally, would place him in ill-favor with the natives. That is why he needs Kemp, who he is easily able to lure with the help of Chenault, some charm, and a nice car.

From then, we follow Kemp's escapades, which sometimes are ludicrous -- including him breathing fire into a policeman's face, and orally inducing "the most powerful drug in the history of narcotics," --, and at other times, the script, written by Robinson, is impressively profound and intelligent, with Oscar Wilde quotes, and deep philosophical statements about the state of journalism.

We learn the base of Kemp's need for drink; it's his lack of self-worth. He knows he has a voice, but he just can't find it. "I’ve been dragging a typewriter around with me for 10 years. I’ve written nothing," he tells Chenault. "I don’t know how to write like me.” But somewhere along the narrative, Kemp does find his voice, only to become discouraged when he can't find the proper outlet to voice it.

Michael Rispoli as Bob Sala in The Rum Diary
The wild, bizarre, and oddly endearing ride that Kemp finds himself in during The Rum Diary makes him a very fun character to live through vicariously for a couple of hours. Depp plays the part slyly and eloquently, although Rispoli may be the most memorable character of the bunch, portraying the raggedy, abrasive Bob Sala, at times even reminding you of a young Eli Wallach. But if Rispoli is abrasive, then Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the newspaper's religious correspondent, Moberg, is flat-out repugnant. Amber Heard meanwhile, simply exists to wave her hair and look pretty, which she does very, very well.

I think it's fair to say that Hunter S. Thompson's stint in Puerto Rico played an integral role in his life and career, and represented an eye-opening experience for him as a journalist. In a foreign land, he learns that nobody really wants to hear the truth. The Rum Diary conveys such, as Kemp learns the harsh reality of his profession, and it's harsh enough that the only way he could respond to it is with a swig of rum.

~ Review by Ddubbs

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Elling (2001)

In 2002 a modest film made in Norway managed to snag an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category.  This film was Elling directed by Petter Næss based on the novel written by Ingvar Ambjørnsen.  It's a simple story of two men, both eccentrics, each mentally disturbed in his own ways, who are given the chance to live normal lives (without any institutional care) as roommates in an Oslo apartment.  Their interactions with each other, a fatherly social worker, and the world around them make for a delightful and heartwarming movie.
The film begins with the protagonist's voice over, explaining his sheltered life as a "momma's boy".  Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) is a small fidgety spritely fellow who has never been able to leave home without his two greatest enemies tagging along "anxiety and dizziness".  It is after his mother dies that the agoraphobic Elling is brought to live at an institution.  There he rooms with Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) who is his complete opposite in both physical stature and personality.  Naturally, the lumbering, sex-obsessed, dull-witted and kind-hearted Kjell hits it off wonderfully with Elling.  It is no more than ten minutes into the film when the country of Norway dismisses the middle-aged duo from the nationalized institution in order to go make lives for themselves as roommates in Oslo.
Sven Bordin as Kjell Bjarne on left;
Per Christian Ellefsen as Elling on right.
After the train ride we see a terrified Elling pop his head out from under the passenger window and they rendezvous with their social worker, Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle), who shows them the ropes and settles them in at their new place.  Our Lenny and George-like pair immediately take to apartment life, but only apartment life.  While Kjell is somewhat receptive to the idea of going out (for something as little as picking up groceries around the corner) Elling won't have any of it.  Sparks fly when Frank is forced to check on the two because neither would pick up the phone (at Elling's command, of course).  As a result, one of many hilarious sequences takes place: Elling is forced to incur a forceful answering of the phone lesson given by Frank who plays the part of a likeable sort of life coach throughout the film.  It is in scenes like this where Næss achieves just the right balance of comedy and empathy when making light of the characters' vulnerabilities.  Not once as viewers do we feel like the everlasting smiles on our faces throughout the film derive from a malicious outsider sort of humor.  On the contrary, we are at all times rooting for Elling and Kjell, and when they meet adversity in their own ways, we chuckle to ourselves much like the parent of a struggling-to-walk toddler might when their child takes a tumble.
Really, before we know it, the plot begins to take on those twists and turns to which we are accustomed in the cinema.  Kjell meets a female neighbor (Marit Pia Jacobsen) who he becomes serious with.  Elling finds his inner-voice as a poet and befriends a famous intellectual named Alfons Jørgensen (Per Christensen) who he can relate to on an academic level.  In other words their lives develop.  They each have gained a foothold in society.  Mission accomplished.  The film wraps up with a series of comically endearing scenes at Alfons' cabin and an effervescent celebration at a lounge between Elling and Kjell.
And that's it.  What Elling excels at is serving up a story that entertains to the fullest without a single unrealistic premise or event.  By establishing oddball yet palpable characters and allowing the audience to witness their development all while steadily pacing the plot, writers Axel Hellstenius and Larry Stuckey were able to put together a successful adaptive screenplay.  The rest fell on the shoulders of actors Ellefsen and Nordin to deliver, and deliver they do.  Perhaps it was the amped up Americanized moviegoer in me that had my heartrate going at every wind of the corner in the storyline, but neither momentous tragedy nor unexpected achievement ever strike.  It's precisely this dearth of unseemly dramatics that makes for an exceptional viewing experience and even more importantly, imbues celluloid with a soul.
~ Review by Mike Dorfman