The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

•January 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very much a perfect addition to the American filmmaker’s already illustrious career and at the very same time a refreshing departure. It’s a film of narrative and technical ambition, which is right down Fincher’s alley, but it’s also a film in which the characters are far more important than the plot.

The internet has fueled much pre-release debate on whether or not this film could be better than the Swedish original, which was an international hit, or that such an effort was necessary. I would have been skeptical, too, had Fincher not been the one behind the camera. While this version is similar in some respects, it’s a wholly original vision and take on Steig Larsson’s bestselling novel.

The film centers on Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish journalist who has just been accused of libel by a crooked billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Right after having to leave the magazine he works for Blomkvist is invited to the lavish, family-owned island of Henrik Vanger who wants him to help him solve the 40-year old mystery involving the murder of his niece, Harriet. Through the years of investigating Henrik has concluded that the killer was someone in his family and wants Blomkvist to find out who it is. Vanger agrees to pay well and also give Blomkvist information about Wennerstrom that would help salvage the writer’s career. Blomkvist agrees to take on the near impossible task.

During this time we also follow the story of Lisbeth Salander, a young researcher for a security company who was the investigator that compiled a background check on Blomkvist for Vanger. She is in custody of the state after her guardian suffered a stroke. Her finances are then controlled by lawyer Nils Bjurman. He uses this advantageous position to sexual abuse Salander multiple times. During one of their visits, though, Salander tapes Bjurman’s rape and blackmails him to give her money and give great reports about her behavior to the state.

One of the great elements of the book and film is that we get to know these two characters in their own elements. We come to identify and like both in very different ways and, knowing it’s only a matter of time before their tales converge, wait with anticipation for their meeting. The film engineers an extreme wanting in the audience for their first meeting to occur. And when Blomkvist seeks help with the case and asks about Salander, it delivers. And from their the story takes off because we have no need for exposition. We’ve already grown with these characters and understand them.

The great structure of the story is very much the work of Larsson’s source material, but Zaillian weaves it together quite nicely. At 158 minutes the film should seem long, but it flies by mainly because of this structure. It is a murder mystery, sure, but it’s also a film that, at its heart, is about the relationship of these two characters.

Daniel Craig is great as Blomkvist, but it’s Rooney Mara, and her performance as Lisbeth, who steal the show. Her take is much more vulnerable and emotional than Noomi Rapace’s in the Swedish version. During the first half of the film, she is, above all things, human; something that was lacking with Rapace. Her Lisbeth was a superhero of sorts from the start. Mara instead injects a lot of disappointment, whether its from her guardian’s stroke or Blomkvist’s lack of reciprocal feelings. Even in a role that demands a stand-out, no-holds-barred, look-at-me aspect it’s the nuances and subtleties of Mara that really make it the best female performance I’ve seen this year.

Now we’re back to Fincher, who is so assured in his filmmaking here. From the brilliantly designed opening credits to the cold, heartbreaking final scene he shows the control, precision, and attention that can only be reserved for the very best behind the camera. Working from a great script by Zaillian doesn’t hurt, but Fincher makes every scene, every shot, every look count. He is truly a master of his craft. And when you want to adapt something as bold and ambitious as Larsson’s book, you shouldn’t have it any other way.

Rating: **** (out of ****)

Cavs @ Raptors Preview (1/4/12)

•January 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Cavs are riding a two-game winning streak heading into Toronto tonight. There has been a lot to like about this team in the very early season including the play of its two rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson.

Irving is averaging 14.6 points and 5.6 assists per game and has shown a good command of the offense and playmaking ability while protecting the ball. Speaking of playmaking ability, I thought Tristan Thompson was explosive, but not this explosive. He’s put up the stats, but watching the 20-year old play is the only way to see his total worth. He and Varejao give the Cavs a ton of energy in the front court, and that usually leads to good things. Also, Antawn Jamison has not only decided to play defense most of the time he actually looks like he cares about winning and losing, and his stroke looks like he’s back in his late 20’s.

Here are some things to think about heading into tonight’s game:

-The Cavs have not been outscored in the fourth quarter this season and are +32 in the final frame through five games. Byron Scott is great at utilizing young energy and this stat shows it’s paying off.

-The Cavs are shooting just under 60% from downtown in their last two games. Look for this to slow down a bit, but not by much. The Cavs are building their identity on a team that runs, so that leads to open threes and they have at least 7 guys who can knock them down, so the transition 3 could be huge.

-As a team the Cavs are shooting a dismal 65% from the charity stripe. You won’t win close games that way.

While I mentioned close games it could become a trend that the Cavs can blow out teams (they are winning by an average of 14.6), but not beat them in close games. So lets hope Kyrie can show the Raptors what they missed opening night. Tristan can keep dropping jaws in the stands and the Cavaliers can win a tight game in Toronto.

p.s. And please don’t let Andrea Bargnani go off again…PLEASE!!

Cavs 98, Pacers 91: Cavs Making Steps in the Right Direction

•December 31, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Another step forward for this young squad as they take a very good Indiana Pacer team to overtime, but come up short in a 98-91 loss on the road. After a good first half, the third quarter was the Cavaliers undoing as they were outscored by 11, looked out-of-sorts on offense, turned over the ball, and couldn’t get a rebound to save their life. They gutted it out with a gritty fourth quarter, only allowing 14 points to the Pacers, to force OT. While the game didn’t go in the Cavs favor this time there are some good things they can take away from this effort:

First off, Kyrie Irving is looking more and more like the #1 pick. He gets into the lane effectively and consistently and has a pretty decent jump shot, which should only get better. His passing, as expected, is great for a rookie PG. This was his best game yet, netting 20 points and dishing out 5 dimes and a half-dozen other good passes. Even though he missed the game-winning layup in regulation his aggressiveness to take it to the rim was nice to see. The only part of his game that needs vast improvement is FT shooting.

Fellow rookie Tristan Thompson didn’t have the same productive night Irving had, but again showed his athleticism, length, and energy. He’s still raw and will only get better.

Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker still do what they do well: hit open shots. I thought getting AP back in the offseason was a very good thing and it looks like I was right. Boobie forced two jumpballs (he lost both) and is given Byron Scott toughness and effort.

I think Alonzo Gee is a keeper and if he can consistently knock down the 3 that would be huge for this offense.

On the negative side, there is still a lot to improve:

Besides Andy the Cavs frontcourt was it’s undoing. He had a solid 14 and 12, but the team got outrebounded 60-49, allowed 17 offensive boards, and weren’t as physical as the Pacers in a matchup where you have to be against guys like Roy Hibbert, David West, and Tyler Hansborough. Instead Samardo Samuels had a forgettable game and fouled-out early in the fourth. Antawn Jamison was 4-14 from the floor, play terrible defense, and consistently shows me he needs to be traded.

I think as the session goes on the Cavs need to get Jamison out of the starting lineup and try to split his minutes between Samuels and Thompson. Both, of course need to get better before that happens.

Razor Ramon had his worst game so far this season. Most of the time he was in, however, he was playing the 2 while Gibson was handling the ball. I don’t know why this was, but it wasn’t working.

Omri Casspi has been terrible so far, but I have a sneaking suspicion that once the season gets going he will get in rhythm, hit shots, and be a good piece for this offense. Just a hunch.

As a team the Cavs shot 25 three-pointers. And only made 5. That’s unacceptable. If the ball’s going in, shoot it. But if it’s not you gotta look for better shots, plain and simple.

After putting a hurting on their opponents with the fast break the Cavs only had a 13-10 advantage in this one. They also had only 13 assists to 18 turnovers.

So a lot of good and bad to take away from this game, which is a good thing to say for such a young team. This is a fun team to watch and things are looking up, Cavs fans, take notice.

Young Cavs Look Just Fine After Two Games

•December 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

After two games into the Cavs 2011-2012 rebuilding year fans should feel good about the steps GM Chris Grant and Co. have taken in trying to get the Cavs back into relevancy. Not a ton can be taken from games against the Raptors and Pistons, but there are little things.

First, the Cavs point guard play should be consistent and effective all season. It looks like Kyrie Irving will be just fine, and probably as good as advertised. After a dismal debut Irving found his groove in Detroit and did a great job mixing up his offensive arsenals hitting floaters, driving, and delivering some very good passes. Ramon Sessions has been the best Cav in the early going and his defense has improved, which is a huge plus.

Second, Anderson Varejao has set the tone for the Cavs in the paint. He’s been fantastic and active as always, especially against Detroit, but his play looks to have brushed off on others. Samardo Samuels and rookie Tristan Thompson have also been great at keeping possessions alive with offensive rebounds and finishing at the rim, which is key for a young team like Cleveland to thrive.

There are still huge problems with perimeter defense and turnovers and hopefully this can get cleared up throughout the year, but right now the Cavs are exactly where they should be. Rookies Thompson and Irving look like NBA players, the team is slowly starting to find an identity with a physical mentality, and their conditioning (thanks to Byron Scott) has allowed them to play strong 4th quarters. Like I said before, two games is a small sample, but this team looks like it could be really exciting and entertaining to watch grow and mature throughout this season. Even though I don’t think they will get a playoff spot they will get a lottery pick or two in a very deep draft next summer.

The Descendants

•December 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, which moves the writer/director’s focus far away from his cinematic beginnings in the Midwest to tropical Hawaii, is easily the American filmmaker’s most heartfelt, sappy, yet miraculously genuine film to date.

The film is told from the point-of-view of Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer who happens, through familial lineage, to be the sole trustee of over 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land. This fact, however, is not the focus of Payne’s film. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after a boating accident. Matt has to deal with the situation as well as begin solely raising his two daughters, Scottie (10) and Alex (17).

Apparently Matt and Elizabeth’s marriage wasn’t ak=lways great, he was always cooped up behind a desk at his law firm, so Elizabeth looked for pleasures and thrills outside the relationship. This included an affair with a local real estate agent. Matt never knew, but his older daughter Alex breaks the news to him. This is traumatic for Matt not only because of infidelity, but he has just been told Elizabeth will never break out of the coma and, according to her will, has to be taken off life support.

This type of complicated, highly emotional family plot could become a soap opera in the wrong hands. Payne takes a decidedly different route as he submerges his film in the nuances of both dark comedy and human drama to find a great tonal balance that allows the comedy and emotion to work brilliantly. More than that the plot unfolds masterfully as small incidents, like Matt and Alex going to Elizabeth’s father to break the news, bring out character traits and story arcs so naturally you know you are watching a first-rate storyteller at work. Just like in Sideways and About Schmidt the film’s heart is in the story, but more in the characters.

The two stories; Matt dealing with Elizabeth’s affair (both emotionally and trying to track down the fellow adulterer) and Matt’s family selling the last of their inherited land, intertwine in ways both plot-driven and, more importantly, thematically. I won’t give away too much, but I will discuss a scene in which Matt takes his daughters to view the land for the last time before they sell. It’s a beautifully shot scene and its place in the film makes us understand, in a very efficient and effective manner, that Matt lost his relationship with his family when he lost his relationship with the land.

The script by Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is full of scenes like these that both give us a sense of the beauty of Hawaii and the heavy emotions of the characters. And like Payne’s other films, it’s also very funny. Take, for instance, the scene where Matt both yells at Elizabeth’s best friend because she knew about the earlier affair while simultaneously telling her that Elizabeth is dying. It’s a tough scene, but Payne finds the comedy surrounding the confrontation. And when the her husband (Rob Huebel) finally, shyly exclaims with deadpan delivery, “C’mon Matt, that’s a little harsh,” you can’t help but laugh.

It’s these touches, as well as great set of performances anchored by a career-best turn for George Clooney and a star-making role for Shaileen Woodley, that make The Descendants Payne’s best film and one of the very best of the year.

Moneyball

•December 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Moneyball, the film as well as its subject, was a definite underdog. A story showing baseball from a perspective of numbers, statistics, and logical patterns should never work as a feature film. As a book Michael Lewis’ brilliant prose and ability to cohesively tell the story of how Billy Beane used sabremetrics. the approach innovated by Bill James that uses statistical data to evaluate baseball players, to lead the 2002 Oakland Athletics to 103 wins had no business being translated for the screen.

Sure, the elements are there. The A’s had one of the lowest payrolls in the majors, making them an easy-to-sell underdog. Yes, Billy had a hard time making the rest of the organization believe in his philosophy, but he made it work anyway. This should be the stuff of sports movie heaven. But how he accomplished the goal is so…well…uncinematic. Steven Soderbergh, the first director hired to adapt Lewis’ book to the screen wanted to turn it into a film that was half-fiction, half-documentary in an attempt to explain just how Beane made it all work. Working from a script by Steve Zallian, he was eventually pulled from the project. The reigns were given to director Bennett Miller (Capote) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) was brought on to give the screenplay a re-write. The result is not only one of the most entertaining and intelligent films of the year, but maybe the most original sports film of all-time.

The setup is simple. Beane, played to absolute perfection by Brad Pitt, has lost three of his best players to free agency. His owner won’t give him any more money to find replacements. Despite what old-school scouts and baseball history have embedded into his mind he realizes that he can’t compete with high-market teams unless he starts to find a different way of doing business. Enter Peter Brand, a beautifully deft turn by Jonah Hill, an economic major from Yale, who envisions that the evaluation of baseball players should be based on specific statistical analysis very different than the kind that is currently implementing throughout the league. Beane sees something in Brand’s ideas and hires the kid.

Before anyone can agree or disagree with Beane he has aggressively put all his chips in Brand’s philosophy, even though it outrages some of his veteran scouts and perplexes almost everyone analyst of the game. He utilizes the specific statistic of on-base percentage to sign a former catcher who can’t throw the ball anymore after elbow surgery. Beane decides he can learn and play first base, even if his fielding coach thinks that’s a nearly impossible feat. By the time Beane and Brand are done they have constructed a team of what Brand refers to as an equivalent of an “island of misfits toys.” This only makes his manager Art Howe, an affective Philip Seymour Hoffman, irritated and confused as he tries to field a winning team.

The arc of the film is the A’s 2002 season, but the heart of the film lies in Beane and Brand’s new understanding of the game that is lost by almost everyone in the business. And that conflict, between the old and the new, the romance of sports and the truth of it as a business, makes Moneyball soar. The film isn’t cynical, far from it. The beauty of the A’s system is that flawed players can find a home because they do one thing exceptionally well. And system works…for the most part.

I won’t give anything else away, but will instead just praise those involved. This may be the best performance of Pitt’s career as he gives Beane a blend of great charisma and vulnerability. Hill is a standout as his counterpart. Miller directs his film with intensity, great pacing, brilliant comedy, and wonderfully muted emotion.

His film is a beautiful example of how a film can totally subvert and embrace a genre’s conventions. This is a film about an underdog team, full of castoff players, and a general manager who is criticized throughout by his professional colleagues. However, there is no payoff, no big game, no championship and flowing champagne. Because, at its heart, this is a story about ideas. Beane also gets an excellent subplot involving his daughter from a failed marriage, but still the focus centers on the new direction of his GM duties.

Zallian and Sorkin know this and make the script almost solely about that, but the film is brilliant in its ability to interweave the personal with the professional, the philosophical with the practical. Even though this movie is about the 2002 Athletics I felt that it engaged with something more important that commented about the world outside its story and contained a universal truth that felt timely, most likely because of the country’s current economic climate and, at the same moment, timeless because its underdog themes are truly universal. Maybe there’s a reason baseball will forever be America’s pastime.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

•December 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In a summer filled with explosions and alien robots and alien monsters and superheroes and more aliens (changing their tune by fighting cowboys) Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes as a complete antithesis to this year’s summer blockbusters and is easily the best action movie of the summer.

The setup is quite simple, Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) has developed a new drug that he believes might be able to cure Alzheimer’s. As the film opens the drug is being tested on chimpanzees and has been proven to increase the animal’s brain function substantially. But when the tests main chimp, Bright Eyes, barrels out of control during testing the operation is shut down and orders are given for the primates to be killed.

It turns out, unbeknownst to anyone in the lab, that Bright Eyes was pregnant and was hiding a son. Will takes him home until a sanctuary can be found. After one day he notices the chimp’s intelligence and decides to keep him for scientific purposes. In a brilliant sequence we go through the growing of Will’s relationship with the ape, now called Caesar. He was named by Will’s father (John Lithgow), who suffers from Alzheimer’s, making Will’s drug research all the more understandable.

It’s during this time that director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver move their film away from the conventional summer blockbuster formula that has plagued most of this year’s crop of action extravaganzas. The focus is on the characters and their relationship. We get a heartbreakingly touching subplot involving Will administering the drug to his father to cure him of his disease, only to watch him revert back to his old self when the drug is not strong enough to sustain. All of these scenes are efficient and moving and help the movie’s second half become that much more affective.

As Caesar gets older he becomes much smarter, and can fluently speak to Will through sign language. As the years go by he is filled with more questions and more aggression. This all culminates when he attacks a neighbor who physically berates the Alzheimer’s-riddled Lithgow for accidentally crashing his car.

He is taking to a run-down sanctuary run by a terrible loathsome director (Brian Cox) and his son (Tom Felton). The jail is filled with other apes and Caesar, and they, realize early on he is different. I won’t give too much more away, because, as you’ve seen in the trailers the film is headed for a Caesar-led revolution.

This half of the film almost entirely centers on Caesar, which showcases some of the best special effects ever (by Weta Digital) put on film as well as one of the best performances of the year. Andy Serkis has played CGI characters before (Lord of the Rings’s Gollum and the title ape in King Kong) but this time is work is a revelation. Caesar not only houses our sympathy, but Serkis allows us, without any dialogue, to understand the emotions and thoughts of the character. It’s a performance of unbelievable importance because if it doesn’t work the film would have fallen flat on its face.

It’s these touches that set Apes apart from its summer counterparts. It’s very much a stand-alone film in the series (only reverting back to the original in homage-laced dialogue that’s eye-rolling at best) and a stand-alone film for the summer. The film has a complete two acts of character-driven storytelling that makes the action in the third act truly mean something emotionally for the audience. It’s a juxtaposition of sorts for two reasons: first, because it’s a fast-paced film willing to slow down to allow moments to breathe and Caesar to grow emotionally. Second, the half of the film that doesn’t involve Caesar has very B-movie qualities including very direct, archetypal performances by Franco and company and the contrived plot of a somewhat mad scientist and the money-grubbing corporation that employs him. On the other side is Caesar’s story, which is classic in nature and emotionally rich.

The first aspect allows the film to called a summer blockbuster, and it does have brilliant action sequences and amazing special effects, but it’s in the smaller moments, ones usually not reserved for these kinds of films, where the film not only becomes the best action film of the summer, but one of the year’s best.

 
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