Saturday, March 31, 2012

100 Movies - No. 92: Wall Street

92. Wall Street (1987)
Crime, Drama, 126 minutes
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen

It must be interesting to work in the financial world, but it's certainly not a topic that attracts the attention of most moviegoers. Whenever we see stockbrokers depicted on the screen, it appears to be utter chaos. Screens show numbers, people shout and make frantic phone calls, and we discern from their reactions whether they made money or not.

Wall Street overcomes some of the limitations of the subject matter by giving us well-acted characters that we care about. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) begins the story as a struggling broker who hopes to one day make a phone call that will change his life. Most of his potential clients aren't in a position to do that, but one is.

Gordon Gekko (Douglas) doesn't waste a second of his time when he's working, and he's usually working. After calling for 59 days straight, Bud delivers a box of Cuban cigars on Gekko's birthday and is given five minutes to convince him that he can help the man make money. He doesn't really hold Gekko's attention, but uses a desperate ploy before he is thrown out. Bud's father, Carl (Martin Sheen), works for Bluestar Airlines and has given Bud information about the company which will result in the price of the stock rising. Gekko decides to take a chance and Bud is hired.

It soon becomes clear to Gekko that Bud had inside information. He tells him that he doesn't like to lose and he'll need similar information in the future if he's to keep him around. Bud has a decision to make. Does he try to work ethically and within the law, or take a chance and do what Gekko asks? This is a story of greed and corruption and we see Bud take the latter option. He follows around another investor in an attempt to find out what company the man might be trying to buy. The information is useful to Gekko and he makes a fortune.

Bud's life will never be the same. He's finally on a path that will result in him becoming a major player. He begins spending money on a new apartment and artwork which reflects his success. He also starts a relationship with a woman who would normally have been beyond his reach. We see what money and success can do to a person. Previous relationships are harmed or completely abandoned. His father is an ethical man and is particularly hurt by Bud's actions. Despite warnings from some of his colleagues, Bud ruthlessly pursues success.

Will Bud achieve his dream and stay one step ahead of the law? Can he continue to provide Gekko with enough relevant information? Will he prove his father and work colleagues wrong?

Charlie Sheen is convincing as Bud, but the real highlight of the film is the Oscar-winning performance from Michael Douglas. He exudes power and gives the impression that he doesn't tolerate failure in any form. He's a brilliant public speaker and easily wins the support of companies he's taking over, even if he means to destroy them.

It's very strange seeing images of the twin towers in older films and it's a little sobering to see them here. There are a few other things which date the film and the funniest change has to be the differences in technology. Take a look at the computer screens without laughing or at cell phones the size of a brick.

I always take note when a film holds my interest with subject matter that I usually find boring. Wall Street is one such film and it's a gripping drama.

If you like Wall Street:

Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. It was given a mixed reception, but I enjoyed it. If you like the character, it's worth seeing what happens to him.

If you're a fan of Michael Douglas, take a look at Falling Down.

I'm also reminded of Glengarry Glen Ross. Although it doesn't take place on Wall Street, the desperation of the salesmen is similar. It's easily the best movie I have seen about the sales industry. Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin were all involved.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Friday, March 30, 2012

100 Movies - No. 91: Vertigo

91. Vertigo (1958)
Mystery, Romance, Thriller, 128 minutes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes

If you ask movie fans to name their favorite Hitchcock titles, you'll get a lot of different answers. Some would mention Psycho or Rear Window, while others might mention Dial M for Murder, The Birds, Notorious or The 39 Steps. There are probably at least 20 strong candidates. My own favorite is Vertigo because the mystery element appeals to me and James Stewart is involved.

Mulholland Dr. is my favorite film and David Lynch has mentioned how much he likes Vertigo and Rear Window because of the mood each creates. I can see why. Vertigo's mood never reaches the darker depths that Lynch's work inhabits, but there are similarities.

Vertigo begins with a rooftop chase in which Scottie Ferguson is left clinging to the guttering. When a cop tries to save him, Ferguson sees him slip and fall to his death. The traumatic experience leaves Ferguson mentally scarred and he quits his job as a detective. He's hired as a private detective by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who claims that his wife, Madeleine (Novak), wanders off at random and doesn't remember where she's been. He thinks she might be possessed.

While that sounds unlikely, Hitchcock gives us reason to think that Madeleine really might be possessed as her husband suggests. Ferguson follows her all day. She takes flowers to a gravestone and stares at it as if she is somewhere else. The name on the grave is Carlotta Valdes. Madeleine also spends time in an art gallery staring at a picture, Portrait of Carlotta. The woman in the painting wears the same necklace and has the same hairstyle as Madeleine.

The following day, Ferguson follows Madeleine again. This time she drives to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumps into the bay. Ferguson manages to save her and ask her about her behavior. She doesn't even remember jumping into the bay. We find out that she's the same age Carlotta was when the woman committed suicide. Is the spirit of Carlotta making Madeleine do these things? Is it safe to leave her on her own?

That's the setup and I hope that I've managed to describe the unsettling atmosphere that Hitchcock creates. The plot is more complex than most of his films. Some of the twists are so surprising that I can't bring myself to reveal them here. If you haven't seen Vertigo, you deserve to discover those things for yourself.

The film uses a lot of red and green filters and you'll see the color green featured throughout. Whether it's Madeleine's dress, her car, or a neon sign, you won't be permitted to forget that color. There's an impressive effect created every time Ferguson looks down from a great height. It was achieved by zooming in and moving the camera away from the image at the same time.

Vertigo is sometimes criticized for being boring. I understand why some people might think that, but it's not a view I share. Ferguson spends a lot of time following Madeleine and most of those scenes require us to watch the events unfolding without the use of dialogue. Yes, this is a film that allows you to form your own opinion about what you are seeing. That said, the resolution reveals all of the mysteries. You won't be left to figure out what just happened. The beauty of the film is the way in which the revelations make sense of all the events which preceded them.

I'm always impressed when I look at the list of actors that Hitchcock worked with. James Stewart teamed up with Hitchcock in Rope, Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much and all of those are worth your time. Stewart was very effective as Ferguson, particularly in the final 30 minutes of the film when he confronted his fear and obsession. Kim Novak also did a good job in a demanding role.

I've mentioned David Lynch, Madeleine and Ferguson in this review. I finally understand why Lynch named a character Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks.

The film was restored in 1996. I have seen the recent Blu-ray release and the film looks so much better than it ever has. Some titles in the Masterpiece Collection have not been restored well, but Vertigo looks good throughout. The most problematic part is the dream sequence, but it doesn't look too bad. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is another important addition, and everything sounds great. I would definitely look to upgrade when the titles are released on Blu-ray individually, unless you already own the full collection.

If you enjoy Hitchcock, or mysteries in general, Vertigo is a must-see.

If you like Vertigo:

Two of Hitchcock's best films were omitted from this 100 movies series. Not because they weren't worthy of inclusion, but because I wanted to avoid listing films that were too similar to others. I would urge any fan of Vertigo or Hitchcock to make a point of seeing Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. The tension slowly builds throughout both films and the payoff is worth it.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

100 Movies - No. 90: Up in the Air

90. Up in the Air (2009)
Drama, Romance, 109 minutes
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick

Jason Reitman has directed four full-length films and I love them all. Thank You for Smoking and Young Adult are very good, while Juno and Up in the Air are close to perfect. All are a combination of drama and comedy, but Up in the Air has more dramatic elements than the other three.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) spends most of his life traveling. He flies from one city to another to fire people on behalf of companies who don't want to perform the task. We are told that he spent 322 days on the road the previous year. Although that kind of life would be detested by most people, Bingham likes it. He lives in hotels and his apartment is just an extension of that environment.

The rest of Bingham's time is taken up by giving motivational speeches. His philosophy states that our lives are filled with meaningless possessions, so he asks us to imagine starting over. He also believes that people are weighed down by the relationships in their lives. Whether it's friends, work colleagues, family members or romantic partners, they can be the most significant burdens we face. As a result, Bingham doesn't allow himself to get close to anybody in any type of relationship.

Does that sound depressing? Many of the people who dislike the film cite that as the main reason. I find it poignant, charming, intelligent and very funny.

Bingham's existence is threatened when a potential innovation is considered by his company. Instead of sending representatives all over America, the company may switch to firing people remotely using an Internet connection. The scheme is suggested by Natalie (Kendrick), who is young, eager and ambitious. Bingham insists that she doesn't have a clue about the reality of his job and he's given the task of showing her how it works.

The other major character is Alex (Farmiga). Bingham meets her by chance at an airport terminal and the two discover that they have a lot in common. Their initial meeting is very amusing.

The main strength of the film is its script. Reitman injects humor into serious situations and lightens the mood. I do appreciate that losing your job can be a traumatic event, but Up in the Air doesn't take itself entirely seriously. Another strength is the acting. Clooney is magnificent at delivering humorous lines in dramatic situations and Farmiga gives the best performance of her career to date as Alex.

My favorite scene - and there are many candidates - is probably the first meeting between Bingham, Alex and Natalie. The dialogue is fast-paced and witty and it's here that I know I'm in for an enjoyable ride. The way Natalie is completely oblivious to the fact that she's insulting Alex and Bingham makes me laugh every time. All three actors were nominated for their performances and I can see why.

One of the best moments perfectly blends drama, humor and reality. Bingham shows Natalie how to fire people and one of the unlucky candidates is Bob (J. K. Simmons). Although he's only on the screen for a few minutes, Simmons delivers a memorable performance. He's initially unconvinced by Bingham's words and Natalie's attempts to intervene, but Bingham says something that reaches him. It's such a believable exchange. A potentially explosive situation is avoided and Bob walks away feeling positive about his future.

I won't reveal any more of the plot, but I look forward to every scene when I watch Up in the Air. Bingham is the most intriguing character and it's interesting to see how his relationships and philosophy evolve during the film.

I'm sure that people like Bingham exist. Many have observed that Up in the Air reflects the times in which we live. It focuses on loyalty and the uncertainty present in today's economy. I don't particularly care about its relevance. I watch it every few weeks because I love visiting that world. The final shot takes us into the air once more and there's a moment of silence. It's a perfect way to end the story and suggests peace and solitude. That's exactly what Bingham likes about his job when we first meet him.

If you like Up in the Air:

I heartily recommend all of Jason Reitman's other films; Juno, Thank You for Smoking and Young Adult. Clooney's performance was Oscar-worthy, but he missed out. The same happened this year for The Descendants. The two performances are similar in some ways and benefit from Clooney's ability to deliver comedic lines in dramatic situations. I never thought I would say it, but Clooney's performance in The Descendants may be even better than his excellent work in Up in the Air.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

100 Movies - No. 89: Three Colors Red

89. Three Colors Red (1994)
Drama, Mystery, Romance, 99 minutes, French Language
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean-Pierre Lorit

There's a scene in the closing minutes of Three Colors Red which unites the whole trilogy. It's possible to view Red without seeing Blue and White, but the impact of that breathtaking scene will be lessened if you don't understand its full significance. Red is such an interesting film and I would like to discuss it in detail. This review contains major spoilers so please consider watching the entire 288-minute trilogy in order before you read the remainder of my thoughts.

I remember being happy that Forrest Gump won the Best Picture Oscar in 1994, but I have since realized that there were at least three better films that year. The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction were two of them, and the other was Three Colors Red. The film was nominated for three Oscars; Best Director, Cinematography and Original Screenplay. It was never likely that a foreign language film would win in those categories, but the nominations were significant.

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski first teamed up with actress Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique and the two films are thematically similar. Both stories reflect on destiny, life, love, opportunities, connections and cause and effect. They are thoughtful observations and you'll get the most out of them if you are the kind of person who likes to consider the meaning of life and our very existence.

Three Colors Red opens with a phone call and we see a depiction of the call being connected. The camera takes us inside the telephone wires and rushes us through pipes and across water. Valentine (Jacob) lives in Geneva and is talking to her boyfriend who is working in England. We never see his face, but his voice tells us what we need to know. He's deeply insecure and suspicious and it's clear that Valentine deserves someone more trusting and loving.

Another man (Lorit) is shown hurrying across a street. We will later discover that his name is Auguste and that he's studying to become a judge. When he drops his books, one falls open. The text on that page includes the information required to answer a question on his upcoming examination. Has Fate intervened in his life, or is it just a coincidence?

Valentine is distracted by the radio while she is driving and hears a bump. She's horrified to find that she's hit a dog. The collar has the name of the dog, Rita, and an address tag, so she carefully puts Rita in her car and drives to the owner's house. His name is Joseph (Trintignant) and he appears indifferent to the plight of Rita, so Valentine takes her to a vet. For any animal lovers out there, Rita makes a full recovery.

Valentine works as a model and we are shown her being photographed for a chewing gum ad. The campaign is entitled a breath of life. After choosing between dozens of possible photos, she chooses the one that will be placed on a giant billboard.

Rita runs away the first time Valentine walks her and leads her back to Joseph. Was Fate involved once again? Valentine talks to Joseph and we learn that he's a retired judge. He spends his time eavesdropping on his neighbors, using all kinds of electrical equipment. Who is the judge? Why is he listening? What made him retire? He's a complicated man, but Valentine's initial reaction is one of disgust. She tells him to stop listening. He informs her that he's been listening his entire life.

There's a big difference between Valentine and Joseph. She is almost unbelievably good. All of her actions suggest that she believes other people are basically good. Watch how she helps an old woman place a bottle in a recycling bin to appreciate how Valentine's first instinct is always to help others. Joseph is extremely bitter and cynical. He believes that the majority of people are bad. However, he can see Valentine for what she truly is.

As the plot unfolds, Joseph is seen in court. This time it's as a defendant and we learn that he wrote letters to all of his neighbors and the police informing them of his illegal surveillance. Valentine sees the story in a newspaper and visits Joseph again. He informs her that her words had prompted him to write the letters. Why would he do that? When she asks whether she would find a judge like him if she were ever in court, he replies:

"You'll never be taken to court. The courts don't deal with the innocent."

That's exactly what Valentine is - an innocent. Does she represent something else? She continues to develop her relationship with Joseph by inviting him to attend a fashion show. It's clear that he doesn't leave the house often. It's as if Valentine is giving him the opportunity to start his life all over again. After the show, the two have a long conversation.

In this long conversation, it becomes clear why Joseph is so bitter. He was jilted as a young man and eventually found himself in the position of having to rule on a trial involving his girlfriend's lover. He found the man guilty, and believes it was the correct decision, but he still asked for early retirement. He's never really recovered from that incident and never found love again.

Remember Auguste, the young aspiring judge I mentioned earlier? His life appears to be on the same path that Joseph's followed. He's been jilted and has become bitter. He also doesn't seem to care much about his dog. It's as if he is afraid of even getting close to an animal in case he is betrayed. Joseph clearly regrets not meeting someone like Valentine earlier in his life. Romance isn't possible between them now, but does Joseph try to place Valentine and Auguste in a position to discover each other? When she decides to travel to England, he suggests taking the ferry. Auguste is on the same ferry. Is Joseph a representation of Fate or even God?

The conclusion to the film, and to the whole trilogy, is simply stunning. If you have read this far, I'm hoping that you have already seen the trilogy. If you haven't, this is your final chance to avoid a major spoiler.

Joseph looks at his newspaper and discovers that Valentine's ferry has been involved in an accident. The television provides more information about the event. Only seven people have survived the accident and six are known to us. The first two are Julie and Olivier, who we met in Three Colors Blue. The next couple are Karol and Dominique from Three Colors White. The final survivors are Auguste and Valentine, who are apparently discovering each other for the first time despite living in the same street.

Perhaps even more haunting is the still of Valentine's face as she is rescued. A passing stranger is wearing a red jacket and the shot looks almost identical to the one taken for the chewing gum ad. This suggests all kinds of connections and possibilities so make of it what you will. Whatever you think, I believe it's a stroke of genius to end the film in such a way.

Director Krzysztof Kieslowski died in 1996 at the age of 54 and I often wonder what he would have gone on to achieve. Irene Jacob worked with him on just two films, but would we have been given a few more magical collaborations? We will never know. I can't recommend Kieslowski highly enough. His films are full of beauty and possibilities. Although this review focuses on Three Colors Red, the entire trilogy is a must-own if you enjoy pondering the mysteries of life. It's my favorite trilogy and that's saying a lot.

Criterion issued a Blu-ray version of the Three Colors Trilogy in November, 2011. Each film has newly-recorded special features and includes in-depth video essays exploring the themes. It's a fantastic package to own if you are a fan of Kieslowski or foreign language films in general.

If you like Three Colors Red:

As mentioned above, Kieslowski's Three Colors Blue and Three Colors White are a vital part of the trilogy and give added meaning to Three Colors Red. If you enjoyed Irene Jacob's performance, you'll almost certainly like The Double Life of Veronique.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

100 Movies - No. 88: There Will Be Blood

88. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Drama, 158 minutes
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano and Ciaran Hinds

If you ever explore threads asking people to list the movies they find the most boring, you'll see that There Will Be Blood is often mentioned. I can understand why. The opening 14-and-a-half minutes doesn't contain any dialogue unless you count the occasional grunt or cry of pain. The score is often unsettling and unlike anything you would expect to hear. The pacing is slow and the film has plenty of painful scenes.

The opening scene is set in 1898 and gives us immediate insight into the character of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis). We see him working alone, prospecting for oil. It's a physically demanding occupation which is full of danger. One small lapse can cause a severe injury or even death. Plainview falls down a well shaft and breaks his leg, but discovers oil in the process. We then see him crawl backwards as he slowly makes his way into town to register the find. He's one of the most stubborn and driven characters you will ever see portrayed on film.

In 1902, he's working with a group of men, and we are reminded again how dangerous the work is. A tiny mistake results in the death of a man and Plainview adopts his orphaned baby boy.

The story jumps forward several years and we see Plainview and his adopted son, HW, attending a town meeting. Plainview has discovered that the region contains oil and we see him making an offer to extract the oil. His argument is calm, reasonable, and logical. He's quite a salesman. He talks of other offers the town may receive and why his own proposal is the best solution for everyone. We are given the impression that he knows what he's talking about and it's difficult to resist his offer.

When Plainview is visited by Paul Sunday (Dano), the main part of the film begins. Paul offers to reveal the location of land rich in oil and he negotiates a price for the information. Plainview visits the town and finds that the information is accurate. He begins buying up all the available land.

The film contains a power struggle between Plainview and Eli Sunday (also played by Dano). Eli becomes Plainview's enemy immediately by negotiating a higher price for his father's ranch than Plainview expected to pay. Eli is also the town's priest and he seeks power and recognition at every available opportunity. Plainview sees him as a fake and doesn't seem to have any religious beliefs of his own, but he's forced to bow to Eli's wishes on several occasions.

I've barely touched on the plot, but I won't reveal any more. This is a sprawling story spanning several decades. It's one of the most intense character studies that I've ever seen. You'll see how Plainview relates to other people and his adopted son. He's a ruthless businessman and it's dangerous to cross him. In one scene, we hear his honest thoughts on society:

"I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people."

That last sentence is spoken with irony, but Plainview makes it clear that he understands his own true character. As the story progresses, we see what obsession and hatred can do to a man when it's maintained over a long period of time.

My knowledge of film isn't as deep as you would expect for someone of my age. It's a relatively new obsession in my life. However, I believe that Daniel Day-Lewis delivers the best acting performance I have ever seen. I didn't doubt for a moment that he was a bitter, obsessed, driven man, capable of doing anything to bring him closer to his goals. Day-Lewis is in every scene and the film wouldn't have had the same impact without his astonishing performance.

The technical aspects of the film are also superb. Jonny Greenwood's unusual score is particularly effective. One of my favorite moments happens during a drilling accident when the percussion increases in tempo as the scene unfolds. The cinematography is breathtaking at times. There's an early scene in which Plainview and HW approach the crest of a hill and the distant landscape is revealed. It's one of several moments of extreme beauty in the film.

If the film has a fault, I would say that the final 20 minutes don't quite match the quality of the rest of the story. This closing sequence still works, and contains a few memorable moments, but the first two hours are close to perfect.

If you enjoy character studies that aren't afraid to take the time to tell a story, There Will Be Blood might be your kind of film. If you need action and an upbeat conclusion, then it's probably not for you.

If you like There Will Be Blood:

Daniel Day-Lewis gave another fantastic performance in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. It's a brutal historical drama with strong characterization. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz also star.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Monday, March 26, 2012

100 Movies - No. 87: Taxi Driver

87. Taxi Driver (1976)
Drama, Thriller, 113 minutes
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd

Travis Bickle (DeNiro) is a former Marine and a veteran of the Vietnam war. He frequently has trouble sleeping and is plagued by headaches. The pills he takes don't seem to help at all. Because he's likely to be awake all night anyway, Bickle takes a job driving a cab. He prefers the night shift.

Scorsese's version of New York is gritty and realistic. Most of the film is shot at night and we see just how crazy some of the people are. It's a crime-ridden world populated by junkies and prostitutes. Bickle hates how much scum exists in the city, and he's referring to the people more than the dirty streets.

Bickle is looking for something to brighten up his seedy existence and a woman catches his eye. Betsy (Shepherd) works in a local office for a senator who is hoping to become the next president. After pestering her for a while, she eventually agrees to go on a date with him. He talks to her in a very straightforward way. It's not clear whether he lacks intelligence, or if he doesn't see any point in hiding the truth about himself. His approach works and leads to one of the funniest scenes in the film when he takes her to see a movie.

Other things attract Bickle's attention. He's particularly drawn to Iris (Foster), who is a 12-year-old prostitute. As his frustration mounts at the disgusting state of the city, he begins to devise a plan to clean up one small part. An incident on the street gives him the idea of saving Iris from her situation and giving her the opportunity to escape from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).

It's interesting watching Bickle trying to escape his miserable existence. He figures out how to buy and use weapons and starts working out to strengthen his body. All the while, there's mounting tension, and we sense that Bickle is close to losing touch with reality completely.

The supporting cast is strong, with Shepherd, Foster and Keitel all playing their parts well. You'll also see Peter Boyle and Albert Brooks. One of the most surprising scenes involves a cameo from Scorsese. His character might even be the catalyst for the change which eventually occurs in Bickle.

I have to mention Scorsese's decision to shoot most of the scenes at night. It was an inspired choice and adds so much atmosphere to the film. Bernard Herrmann's saxophone-heavy score is also an important part of the mix and helps helps transport us into Bickle's troubled world.

De Niro has produced some incredible performances over the past 40 years and Travis Bickle is probably my favorite De Niro character. There's so much going on beneath the surface and De Niro portrays much of it with his body language.

The meaning of the conclusion is open to debate, but if you take it purely at face value, it's quite uplifting.

If you like Taxi Driver:

One film definitely worth watching if you enjoy seeing how people can lose touch with reality is Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas.

Fight Club is perhaps a more extreme view of mental illness, but some of the settings feel similar to those in Taxi Driver. It has that same gritty quality.

Scorsese has made so many wonderful films about a world hidden just beneath the surface. The best examples are probably Casino and Goodfellas and De Niro stars in both. For a more recent example, consider The Departed, for which Scorsese was awarded his only Oscar to date.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

100 Movies - No. 86: Taken

86. Taken (2008)
Action, Crime, Thriller, 93 minutes
Directed by Pierre Morel
Starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Olivier Labourdin and Famke Janssen

I'm not a big fan of action movies. They tend to focus on violence and killing as many people as possible in the most original ways, but a select few have more depth. Taken falls into the latter category.

Why is it so good?

If you had told me that a 56-year-old actor would make one of the best action movies I've ever seen, I would have laughed and thought how bad Roger Moore's version of James Bond was in A View to a Kill and Octopussy. Action movies often feature actors who look the part, but who can't really act. Arnold Schwarzenegger springs to mind. Liam Neeson changes all that with this one performance. He doesn't look like he could take on the world, but his acting ability is so good that he convinces you that he's capable of everything he does in the movie.

Bryan Mills (Neeson) used to work for the government as a CIA operative. He still associates with friends from his previous job, but he's given up that career in an attempt to get closer to his daughter, Kim (Grace). She lives with his ex-wife, Lenore (Janssen), and her rich stepfather. When Mills takes Kim a thoughtful gift on her seventeenth birthday, her stepfather gives her a horse. Mills doesn't seem to have a chance of winning her respect. What's more, Lenore apparently hates him.

Mills is given another chance to make a connection with Kim when she asks him to sign a consent form so that she can leave the country for a vacation. As she's 17, she needs the permission of both parents. Mills isn't happy about the idea. He's seen a lot of criminal activity in his former line of work and understands the dangers involved. Is he just being paranoid? His dire warnings seem exaggerated, but we soon see that they are justified.

Kim goes to Paris with her 19-year-old friend and trusts everyone she meets. The day she arrives, an Albanian gang take her and her friend captive. We learn that they intend to control her through drugs and turn her into a prostitute, or perhaps even sell her to a willing buyer.

Perhaps the best moment in the movie is when Mills talks to Kim's captor on her phone:

"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."

He says it with absolute conviction.

I won't give away any more of the story. That setup takes around 25 minutes. If I have done a good job, perhaps you can understand why Taken is different. Mills is real. We understand his motives for giving up his job. When Kim is taken, we start to see some of the skills he claims to possess.

If she was your daughter, how would you react? What if you had the requisite skills to seek her out yourself? Is there anything you wouldn't do to save her?

Director Pierre Morel doesn't waste a single minute. At 93 minutes, the movie is lean and the action rarely allows us time to breathe once Mills kicks into action. He's a relentless killing machine, but, unlike most action heroes, his abilities seem authentic. To make things seem even more urgent, we experience everything from his point of view. Expect to see plenty of fast cuts during chase scenes, just as you would in The Bourne Trilogy.

It's easy to root for Mills because of the strong characterization. Neeson excels in this role and carries the movie throughout. I wonder if we'll start to see other good actors cast in action roles as a result? Taken is an enjoyable thrill ride with almost endless replay value.

If you like Taken:

Neeson reprises his role as Bryan Mills in Taken 2 and the writing team of Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen will again be involved. It's due to be released on October 5, 2012 in North America.

Neeson starred in Unknown in 2011. While it was marketed as an action movie, it's a more balanced mix of action and mystery. Although the pace is slower, Neeson fans will be happy with the story.

One final suggestion is Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington. He plays an ex-CIA operative and takes on the task of protecting a young girl. Does that sound familiar? The pacing is much slower than that found in Taken, but Washington gives an excellent performance.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

100 Movies - No. 85: Sunshine Cleaning

85. Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
Comedy, Drama, 91 minutes
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin

Sunshine Cleaning has a lot of amusing moments, but it's not the kind of comedy that tries to make you laugh with every line of dialogue or in every situation. Indeed, some of the subject matter is quite dark.

Rose Lorkowski (Adams) is a single mother. She's good at getting men to want her, but most don't want to date her or enter into any kind of permanent relationship. She's having an affair with a local cop, Mac (Steve Zahn), but it's clear to us that he has no intention of leaving his pregnant wife. Rose is nothing more than a diversion for him and he's not emotionally invested in the relationship.

Rose makes ends meet by working as a maid, but she's hoping to better herself. Mac finds himself investigating a suicide and discovers that it costs around $3,000 to clear up the mess. He suggests to Rose that it would be a lucrative line of work so she decides to give it a try. Rose recruits her sister, Norah (Blunt), and the two buy a van and open a business. Unfortunately, they don't have the required knowledge to do their job safely and within the law. They also don't have any kind of insurance.

The two quickly learn and are helped by the owner of a local store who explains what equipment to buy and how to become certified. Rose's life starts to improve.

The other main character is Joe (Arkin), the girls' father. He means well and is always promising his grandson trips and presents, but he rarely delivers. He reminds me of my grandfather in some ways and is always looking for some kind of scheme to earn money. One such scheme involves selling shrimp to local restaurants, but he's stuck with them when the restaurant owners refuse to buy for health reasons.

This is a quiet film with some good observations on life. One sequence shows Rose desperately trying to fit in with women she knew in school. Why is it important to her that she looks good in front of them? The film doesn't try to make Rose and Norah glamorous. They are portrayed as normal people with flaws and problems to overcome. Both actresses are likable and their relationship feels authentic. Rose has been looking after Norah since their mother died.

There's quite a lot of depth to the film at times. Rose realizes that the job sometimes involves becoming a part of people's lives for a brief period. There's a particularly touching scene in which she comforts a confused old woman who has just found out that her husband is dead. This is the kind of film that can make you reflect on sad situations and then make you laugh a minute later.

The casting is an important ingredient. Adams and Blunt have good chemistry and Arkin holds everything together. While his character often seems clueless, there's a lot more to him. He clearly cares about his daughters and does his best to be a positive force in their lives.

The film also challenges our definition of success. Is career success more important than family or romantic relationships? Does it matter how you make a living if you take care of yourself and the people who are close to you? Should we try and conform to society's definition of success?

Adams sometimes accepts questionable roles, but she is talented and can shine in the right part. I was particularly impressed with her supporting role in Doubt, and she shows here that she has a lot to offer as a dramatic actress as well as in lighter roles.

If you like Sunshine Cleaning:

This kind of quirky comedy appeals to me. If it's your kind of thing, consider Little Miss Sunshine. Arkin is involved once more and won an Oscar for his performance. It also stars Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Toni Collette. Although the word "sunshine" is present in both titles, the two films are not otherwise related.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Friday, March 23, 2012

100 Movies - No. 84: Stop Making Sense

84. Stop Making Sense (1984)
Documentary, Music, 88 minutes
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Talking Heads

Concert films are something that I rarely watch because they demand my full attention and I often listen to music while I'm writing or doing something else. But some concerts demand that you remove all possible distractions and immerse yourself in the experience. Stop Making Sense does just that. My Top 100 wouldn't be complete by something from this genre.

I acquired the concert on Blu-ray last year and was blown away by the sound quality. There are three lossless mixes. The audience mix (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1), the studio mix (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) and a PCM stereo mix. This is the only way to experience Stop Making Sense if you're a fan. The video quality is acceptable, but nothing special.

I was passionate about music long before I became passionate about film. It began when my neighbor played Hunky Dory to me, and became stronger through school as I discovered the likes of Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Joy Division, The Fall and too many punk bands to mention. We shared albums on cassette and I started listening to the John Peel show on the radio. He broadened my appreciation for obscure music. I mention this because Talking Heads were a big part of my musical education. I remember playing Fear of Music to death when it came out.

David Byrne is not a conventional singer. In fact, very few of the bands I love have people who can really sing. It's just not a requirement for me. I prefer vocalists who obviously feel what they are performing, even if their vocal ability is limited. A list of my favorites would include:

Ian Curtis - Joy Division
Neil Young
Stephen Malkmus - Pavement (can change key several times during a line)
Black Francis - Pixies
Tom Verlaine - Television
David Bowie
Kristin Hersh - Throwing Muses
Polly Harvey
Nick Cave
Thurston Moore/Kim Gordon/Lee Ranaldo - Sonic Youth
Kurt Cobain - Nirvana
Jonathan Richman - The Modern Lovers
Mark E. Smith - The Fall

Byrne whines, growls, yelps and screams. It works...for me. It may not work for everyone. The same goes for most people on the above list. That's why all those bands, and Talking Heads, don't sound like anyone else. They have their own identity. It amazes me that bands like Television don't get more recognition. Marquee Moon (arguably the best album of the 70s) is an absolute masterpiece of guitar sound, but they were labeled as punk/new wave and never got the recognition they deserved. I'm one of their 17 fans across the world.

Talking Heads deserve a special place in music history and the band was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Their sound isn't exactly rock, but what is it? There's a huge funk influence as well as world music.

The rhythm section was superb with Chris Frantz (drums), Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboards) and Tina Weymouth (bass) all vital to the mix. For the purposes of this film, the band was joined by Bernie Worrell (keyboards), Steve Scales (percussion), Alex Weir (guitar), Edna Holt (backing vocals) and Lynn Mabry (backing vocals). The result was an intricate fusion of styles with multiple layers of sound. This complicated layering is prevalent among bands I have grown to love over the years.

The movie doesn't look like a movie at all, it looks like a live concert. It was filmed over several nights with cameras being positioned in different places each time. As a result, you won't see cameras cluttering the performance. It explains how we were given views of the audience from behind the drums without any other cameras in view. The shooting style is somewhat similar to that used in the dance scenes in Black Swan. You'll find yourself on stage with the band, right among the action.

The concert begins with David Byrne walking out carrying a boom box. He wants to play us a tape. It consists of the pounding backing beat of Psycho Killer and he performs it solo with his guitar. Tina Weymouth joins him for a rendition of Heaven, with Chris Frantz entering for Thank You For Sending Me An Angel and Jerry Harrison completing the foursome on Found A Job. The guest performers all add something to the sound and all nine performers are on stage for the start of the seventh song. I have seen Byrne use this formula for solo shows and it works well. I think it highlights what each musician adds to the sound and helps you appreciate exactly how much is going on in that rhythm section.

Byrne was a ball of energy, running on the spot, doing laps around the stage, leaping up beside the drums and performing a variety of patented moves. When the ensemble plays the Tom Tom Club's Genius of Love, Byrne leaves the stage. When it ends, he returns wearing the big suit. He wanted to make his head look smaller so he decided to make the rest of his body appear bigger. I think Byrne was one of the best front men in music history. Looking like a cross between a manic bird and Norman Bates, he was never still.

One of the gripes I have about popular music is that it's too manufactured. The record labels want a product that can be marketed and exploited. As long as those involved look the part, the music is secondary. That wasn't the case with Talking Heads. This was real. Look at their faces and how much they enjoyed the performance. Look at the effort involved.

The music is full of emotion.

There are 16 songs included in the 88 minutes:

1. Psycho Killer
2. Heaven
3. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel
4. Found A Job
5. Slippery People
6. Burning Down The House
7. Life During Wartime
8. Making Flippy Floppy
9. Swamp
10. What A Day That Was
11. This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)
12. Once In A Lifetime
13. Genius Of Love
14. Girlfriend Is Better
15. Take Me To The River
16. Crosseyed And Painless

No weak tracks there. It's not quite the perfect set, but it's close. Don't Worry About the Government would have been a nice addition. The bonus features do include Cities and Big Business/I Zimbra, adding another 11 minutes or so of music.

Talking of special features, there's also a 65-minute press conference of the band at a 1999 film festival where the movie was shown for its 15th anniversary.

Can I recommend this to everyone? No, definitely not. It depends what kind of music you like. If all you have ever listened to is classic rock and AOR, the jump might be too much for you. If you are familiar with Talking Heads and appreciate what they do, the Blu-ray is an essential purchase.

If you like Stop Making Sense:

Jonathan Demme will always be remembered for The Silence of the Lambs, but he does a great job of showing what it was like to be in the audience at a Talking Heads concert.

It's hard to recommend concert films because it largely depends on your taste. My favorites would include Pink Floyd: Pulse and loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

100 Movies - No. 83: Spirited Away

83. Spirited Away (2001)
Animation, Adventure, Family, 125 minutes
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring the voices of Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette and David Ogden Stiers (US dub)

My Neighbor Totoro is my favorite Hayao Miyazaki film most days, but Spirited Away is on the same level. It's the best animated film ever to win an Oscar.

So what elevates it from other great animation such as Pixar? It's a combination of many things.

Miyazaki's animation feels different to anything else that I've experienced. It's detailed and complex, with well-developed characters, and it has heart. He creates lovable characters, but some have human flaws and they are more real than characters found in most animated fare.

Spirited Away tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro (Chase). Her parents are driving her to their new home and she's upset about leaving her friends behind. In fact, she's bratty and whines a lot. Her father drives down the wrong road and they end up in an abandoned amusement park. Although it's deserted, they can smell food. Chihiro's parents decide to take advantage of a free meal, but Chihiro doesn't. She's horrified to see them transform into pigs.

While she is deciding what to do, a boy named Haku (Marsden) shows up and urges her to leave before it gets dark. She refuses to leave her parents so he decides to help her. Darkness brings a few changes and spirits appear. An area which appeared to be deserted is suddenly alive with light and chatter. Haku explains to Chihiro that she will never be allowed to leave unless she earns her place in the town. To do so, she must seek employment at the bath house.

The bath house is run by Yubaba (Pleshette) and she's a formidable witch. But, with the help of Kamaji (Stiers), who takes care of the boiler, Chihiro is given a chance to find a job. She's assigned to Lin, who shows her what to do. Lin also tries to toughen Chihiro up and teach her to improve her sullen attitude and learn some manners. Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story in which Chihiro eventually becomes a happy, confident girl, capable of facing anything.

The story is vast and quite complex for an animated film. Miyazaki doesn't rush things and takes a little over two hours to show Chihiro's story. It's aimed at an older audience than films such as Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro, but it contains some of the beauty and innocence that's present in all Studio Ghibli films.

Miyazaki's imagination is almost limitless. You'll meet witches, soot sprites, dragons, spirits, weird animals and a giant baby. I've sometimes heard people complain that they don't understand the story. If you just accept it as a fantasy where magic exists, it's really pretty easy to follow.

The style of animation may be different from anything that you are used to. The image is two-dimensional and each frame looks like a watercolor painting. But take note of the amount of detail present in each frame. Some of it doesn't need to be there for the story to work, but it's a richer experience because it is present. When Chihiro nervously edges down a steep flight of stairs, look at the detail in the individual steps. When she puts her shoes on, there's a very human gesture that most animators wouldn't bother with. Spirited Away is clearly a labor of love and a work of art.

If you give the film a try, you might find yourself hooked after about two minutes as I was. The look of the film and Joe Hisaishi's score set a mood immediately and draw you in. It's a slightly darker and more dangerous world than many Studio Ghibli settings, but you'll be reluctant to leave.

If you like Spirited Away:

I would confidently recommend all of Hayao Miyazaki's films, but Spirited Away is aimed at an older audience than some. I would suggest Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service for fans of Spirited Away. If you like those, why not check out all of Studio Ghibli's offerings? Its weakest films are still better than all but the very best animated titles.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

100 Movies - No. 82: The Silence of the Lambs

82. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Crime, Thriller, 118 minutes
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Scott Glenn

It's rare for a film to win Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars, but The Silence of the Lambs did just that. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) is often regarded at the top villain in cinema history and he's probably the first character that springs to mind when you think about the movie. It's hard to believe that Hopkins was only on the screen for about 16 minutes.

The story begins with Agent Clarice Starling (Foster). We see her tackling an obstacle course at the FBI's Quantico training center. Her boss, Jack Crawford, (Glenn), calls her in and asks her to visit Lecter. He's in a secure cell and the warnings she receives appear excessive, but they seem justified by the end of the movie.

Lecter is intelligent, polite and eloquent. Although he's a monster capable of eating people, he has a twisted sense of honor. It's clear that he likes Starling and he rewards some of her honest revelations with help and insight into how she might track down serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).

It's curious that the movie is often placed in the horror genre. I watched David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo recently, and compared the two films. Both are essentially investigations into murders as the protagonists attempt to track a serial killer. Each includes a colorful character, although one is a hero and the other a villain. If Lisbeth Salander and Hannibal Lecter were more conventional characters, the two movies would lose a lot of their power. I think it's wrong to label The Silence of the Lambs as a horror movie, but I understand why that's often the case.

The movie works because we love how monstrous Lecter is and how human Starling can be. Foster's performance made Starling seem incredibly vulnerable. She's a young cadet finding her way in the FBI and this is her first big break. Then we see that she has to contend with Lecter, who is ruthlessly insightful and able to read her easily. Much of the story is seen from Starling's point of view and it's easy to identify with her fears as she tries to catch the killer.

The final showdown is extremely effective. You can sense the evil in Buffalo Bill and Starling's fear is audible and visible. The song playing during this sequence (Hip Priest, by The Fall) holds special meaning for me as it was played at the first concert I ever attended.

Scott Glenn can be very likable and I enjoyed his performance as Crawford. The movie drew considerable praise from the FBI for it's realism and it was easy to imagine Glenn as a member of the organization.

Hopkins is a versatile actor capable of playing just about any role. I would rank him among the top tier of my favorite actors. Maybe it's because of the characters he plays, but he strikes me as a very intelligent man.

The Silence of the Lambs is constructed simply, but the acting and the ominous mood elevate it to the level of greatness.

If you like The Silence of the Lambs:

Director Jonathan Demme has never created a better movie, but he was also responsible for Stop Making Sense and Something Wild. The former documents a Talking Heads concert and is easily one of the best concerts captured on film. The latter is a quirky road movie of sorts and stars Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta.

Anthony Hopkins also plays Lecter in Red Dragon and Hannibal, although he's not the focus of the story in either. Red Dragon is comfortably the better of the two and isn't far below the level of The Silence of the Lambs. Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes head a strong cast.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

100 Movies - No. 81: The Shining

81. The Shining (1980)
Drama, Horror, 142 minutes
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd

When I listed my Top 10 horror movies, The Shining took the top spot. I'm not a fan of campy comedy-horror, so the list is dominated by psychological horror. The Shining is that and a whole lot more. It begins like a drama and takes plenty of time to establish its world, and the majority of the film takes place in the Overlook Hotel.

The opening shots are incredible and set the mood. We are shown a car driving along a mountain road. Kubrick sweeps across the countryside so we can see how isolated the Overlook Hotel would be if the only access road was blocked by snow.

Jack Torrance (Nicholson) is a recovering alcoholic and he's applying for a winter job as caretaker of the hotel. He'll live there for six months with his wife, Wendy (Duvall), and their young son, Danny (Lloyd).

What is shining? It appears to be a form of extrasensory perception. We learn that Danny has the ability and so does the hotel's cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). They can communicate without words. Danny's parents know that he talks to Tony, his imaginary friend, but they aren't aware that he has the shining.

I mentioned that the film takes time setting things up. We are shown the hotel in great detail. They live in an apartment inside the hotel and Wendy spends most of her time there. Jack uses one of the large rooms to work on his novel and Danny explores by driving around the halls in his toy car.

The film is 32 years old, so spoilers won't be a problem for most people, but stop reading now if you are about to see it for the first time.

The hotel appears to be populated by ghosts. All three people see them while they are alone, so that suggests that the ghosts really do exist. Another explanation would be that all the events are happening inside the mind of one of the characters, or that the hotel itself is 'alive' and remembering some of the events that occurred within its walls. I tend to believe that the ghosts and everything we see is real. That would explain all of the events, including how Jack escapes from a locked room and why Danny has marks on his neck.

Time is another factor. Some of the occurrences involve one of the characters visiting the past. Wendy sees guests at a party and Jack interacts with Grady and Lloyd. Sometimes the ballroom is filled with people from the past.

Danny's gift is extremely powerful and attracts the attention of Dick when he is 2,000 miles away. Dick's attempts to intervene are significantly different from the story told in Stephen King's book, and Kubrick makes a lot of other changes. I like both versions of the story, but I have to admit that Kubrick's changes played out well on the screen.

The dialogue is sparse, but very satisfying at times. I particularly enjoy the exchanges when Jack is talking to Lloyd and Grady. Nicholson is convincing when he acts crazy and the final act shows him at his crazy best. Is his transformation some kind of mental illness, or possession by the spirits that occupy the hotel?

The black and white photograph near the end of the film shows Jack attending a 1921 party at the hotel. Grady says at one point that Jack is the caretaker and has always been the caretaker. Is this some kind of living hell? Suppose Jack has had a number of families throughout some kind of supernatural existence and he's been bringing them to the hotel without any previous knowledge of those he has brought there before? He mentions at the start that he's experiencing déjà vu and knows what is around every corner.

One shot shows him looking rather demonic. Is he in fact a demon or Satan?

What's your take on The Shining? What's your version of the truth?

If you like The Shining:

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Kubrick effectively builds tension in The Shining. I would recommend two of Hitchcock's movies to horror fans and anyone who enjoyed The Shining. Psycho deals with mental illness and is among the best psychological horror that I have seen. The Birds takes a snapshot of an unexplained phenomenon and puts us right in the middle of the action.

Kubrick's career saw him explore many different genres. My other favorites are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, The Killing and Dr. Strangelove.

Return to index of 100 movies to see before you die.

Return to index of every review on the site.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Crime, Drama, Mystery, 158 minutes
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara and Christopher Plummer

I remember the hype when Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy first became popular, so I was a bit surprised to see David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo perform somewhat badly in theaters. Did it underperform because the 2009 Swedish version satisfied people's desire to see the series on the big screen, or are people just tired of the whole thing?

Before I talk about the movie, I have to mention the opening title sequence. It's just stunning. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adapt Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song and give it a more modern feel. It perfectly sets the mood for what is to come.

The story initially focuses on journalist Michael Blomkvist (Craig). We see him lose a libel case and most of his money in the process. He receives an offer from Henrik Vanger (Plummer) who offers to double his salary if he'll investigate who killed his granddaughter, Harriet. Blomkvist feels that he can't do the work alone and so he enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander (Mara), who was hired by one of Vanger's employees to investigate Blomkvist before the offer was made.

It's here that the movie differs from the usual offerings within the crime investigation genre. The reason is Salander. She's easily the most interesting character in the story and is highly unconventional. She's considered unstable and perhaps insane and is monitored by a legal guardian. She's covered in piercings and tattoos and refuses to display any social skills whatsoever. Salander is deeply troubled and extremely hard to like when we first meet her.

The movie isn't for everyone. It features a rape scene and another in which Salander is forced to perform sexual favors. Other scenes show torture, a dismembered animal and unpleasant photographs of murdered women.

The story itself is a fairly straightforward search for the person who killed Harriet. We quickly learn that she wasn't the only victim. Salander has an eidetic memory and a gift for hacking into people's computers, while Blomkvist investigates in a more conventional way. They actually make a good team.

The suspects are the other members of Henrik Vanger's extended family, so that's where the investigation begins. The running time is a little over two-and-a-half hours and it does lack momentum at times, but it was gripping enough to hold my interest throughout. Don't expect a huge amount of action, although the final act does include a few thrills.

Many will compare Fincher's version to the Swedish version released in 2009. I own both and the difference between the two is minimal. There's slightly more urgency to the original version and it seems raw in comparison to Fincher's polished version. It's tricky buying into certain characters when the actor is known for other roles, and Craig's presence will remind most viewers of his role as James Bond. Indeed, he takes some events in stride as though they happen to him every day.

The movie's appearance is somewhat bleak. The wintry scenes consist of a muted color palette with blacks, whites and grays dominating. The Blu-ray looks and sounds wonderful, and it's apparent that this version had a much bigger budget than the Swedish version.

If you are a fan of the books, you'll likely be very happy with Fincher's adaptation. Mara was convincing as Salander and it's good to see how her character develops throughout the movie. She's slow to trust anyone, and that's understandable given what we know about her life and recent experiences. When someone does earn her trust, she's loyal and is somebody that you would want to be on your side.

I enjoyed this first installment of the Millennium Trilogy, but it could have been better. Although box office numbers were mediocre at best, I think we'll eventually see the other two installments. Will Fincher direct? That remains to be seen.

Overall score 4/5

Return to index of every review on the site.