Thursday, March 1, 2012



The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo is a mesmerizing film that depicts a bleak and chilling world that contains brief moments of loyalty within a narrative full of deceit, evil, and betrayal. The film is anchored by the stunning and riveting  performance of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. She plays a genius hacker-investigator with a dark past, which is manifested by her punk-goth identity. She moves through the film with a silent anger, but can stand up and take charge when necessary, and by the end of the film, a touch of tenderness evolves in her character. The film also features Daniel Craig as a tainted journalist who is trying to solve a mystery from the past, and he enlists Lisbeth to help him find the truth. Christopher Plummer, Stellen Skarsgard, and Robin Wright also have memorable performances, and the excellent soundtrack is by Trent Reznor and Attica Ross. The film is directed masterfully by David Fincher and is based on the first novel of the trilogy by Stieg Larsson. All three books were made into films in Sweden and they are very good, but this version goes beyond and uses image, editing, and sound to create a work of cinematic excellence. 


The Baader Meinhof Complex was directed by Uli Edel and charts the birth of The Red Army Faction (RAF), a radical left-wing terrorist group that emerged in West Germany in the late 60s and early 70s. They staged a series of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, in what they saw as a war against fascism, with a direct assault on the powers of West German capitalism and American imperialism. The film is a fascinating study of a group of idealistic (some would say deluded) individuals who think they can make change by using violence, which they see as a last resort in creating a revolution. The film depicts how the RAF, later known as Baader Meinhof, evolved by detailing the lives of the three founders Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Gundrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Ulrike Meinhof was the most interesting as she was a successful journalist who makes the choice to leave her family and children to go underground and commit herself to the RAF's cause. Gundrun Ensslin father was a pastor, and she also left her common law husband and child, and became Baader's lover, and became the intellectual head of the group. Baader is portrayed as being less politically savvy, while being caught up in the anarchy and romanticism of being a terrorist. They are captured early on, and the film documents their prison time, court preparation, trials, and controversial deaths while incarcerated. The film also features a performance by Bruno Ganz who displays the German government's point of view, and also depicts the rise of second-generation RAF members and their attempt to free their comrades. The Baader Meinhof Complex is an excellent document and strong piece of cinema that covers an interesting time in the world when people took extreme actions in an attempt to change society.


Vicki Christina Barcelona is Woody Allen's strongest film since the turn of the century, and one of his finest ever. The plot centers around two American women, Vicki (Rebecca Hall), and Cristina (Scarlett Johannson), who spend a summer in Barcelona where they meet an artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who is attracted to both of them, while still being caught up with his mentally and emotionally unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). The film has a beautiful warm glow and is filmed in Barcelona, Aviles, and Oviedo, in Spain. The film is a commentary on the dissatisfactions of love and life, and the transitory nature of love itself. The American women are tempted by the romantic world of Barcelona. Vicki tries to fight her desires, because she is engaged, but does have an experience with JA that she can't get out of her mind. Cristina is open to something new and different and does form a relationship with Juan Antonio, that becomes more interesting and complex when Maria Elena enters the picture. Penelope Cruz's performance is excellent as the passionate yet disturbed Maria Elena, and even though the film has its comic moments, her character adds a realistic element of sadness and melancholy to the film. Vicki Cristina Barcelona is a beautiful and interesting rumination on love, desire, and distinguishing between what is real and what is fantasy.


No Country For Old Men was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. The film follows Vietnam Vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) living on the Texas/Mexico border, who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad, while hunting in the desert, and finds 2 million dollars. He is then pursued by the law and the drug dealers. Tommy Lee Jones plays an older philosophical sheriff who is trying to figure out what is going on, and Javier Bardem steals the show as the bizarre hitman Anton Chigurh. No Country is part western and part  film-noir and contrasts the way the world is today and the way the world was in the past. No Country has all of the elements that mark the work of the Coen Brothers, including references to genre movies, in this case westerns, film noir, and horror, plot twists layered over a simple story, dark humor, and a distinctive visual style with great lighting, composition, and atmosphere. No Country has a measured pace, and creates tension with quiet sequences, followed by detailed, choreographed action scenes, even though key plot points sometimes happen off screen. The film also features memorable performances by Woody Harrelson as an investigator trying to find Moss, and Kelly Macdonald as Moss' wife.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was directed by Andrew Dominik and is constructed as a psychoanalytical historical epic. The film details James' deteriorating psyche during his final months of life as he slowly succumbs to paranoia, and develops a strange relationship with his eventual assassin, Robert Ford. Brad Pitt plays Jesse James as a man who desires a simpler life, but projects a scary personality because he can't escape the fear that those around him can't be trusted. Casey Affleck does a masterful job as Robert Ford, portraying him as quirky, awkward, and obsessive. The film has long takes of exquisite beauty and moves at a measured pace, and is full of period dialogue and detail, and is photographed by the Roger Deakins. The film has a similar quality to the works of Terence Malick. There is voice-over narration and an excellent soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. There are also memorable performances by Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, and Zoe Daschenel. The film takes an interesting turn after James is killed, with its use of early photography and theater to reenact the story and depict the eventual demise of Ford. The film is part literary treatise, part mournful ballad, and a poetic saga of an American legendary criminal, as well as a meditative deconstruction of our culture's obsession with crime, fame, myth, and celebrity.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (2007)

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a Romanian film directed by Cristian Mungiu, and is set in the 80s during the Ceausescu Communist era. It tells the story of two students played by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, roommates in the university dorm, who arrange an illegal abortion. The film chronicles the steps and details they must take to make the abortion happen, while displaying the mutual care and support the girls have for one another. The film uses a minimalist esthetic of long takes, a controlled camera with beautiful compositions and light, excellent naturalistic acting, and an astonishing ear for dialogue. 4 Months is suspenseful because of the risks the young women are taking, even though it has a documentary quality. The characters never discuss politics directly, but we sense the paranoia of the times and the government control. Whatever your feelings are about abortion, the film will probably not change your mind, as it depicts the horrible process of attaining an illegal abortion, while also displaying the hard choice and cold reality of it as well. 4 Months is a bleak, tragic, real, and beautiful work of cinema.


Children of Men is based on the novel by PD James and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The film is set in 2027, and depicts a world that is in total chaos. War, terrorism, and pollution have rendered most of the world uninhabitable. New York has been nuked. England is the one place where society soldiers on, but it is a police state, where illegal immigrants are put into refugee camps where they are held until deportation or death. State television advertises a suicide drug that you are encouraged to take when you feel the time is right. The film centers around a cynical common man played by Clive Owen who is drawn into a web by a terrorist group to help move a young woman into a position that will give the world a chance to survive. The film has a visual style that is visceral and kinetic and plunges the viewer into the chaos that the characters are inhabiting. Although the film is set in the future, it comments on the present. There are references to the Iraq War and the torture at Abu Ghraib, as well as allusions to the atrocities of the 20th century. The terrorists are not painted in a positive light either as they are corrupted as well. The film also features Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Clare-Hope Ashitey. Children of Men is a powerful film that examines a world of fear and chaos and a possible endgame for mankind, yet it presents a hope, that somehow, we will find a way to continue.

BABEL (2006)

Babel was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga and completes Inarritu's death trilogy following Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Babel, like the other films in the trilogy, has multiple intersecting narratives edited into a non-linear structure where certain elements come together or reflect from one story to another. Babel has three stories taking place in Morocco, Japan, and the third in the US and Mexico. In the Moroccan sequence Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a couple on vacation who are trying to overcome the death of their youngest child. Their other two children are at home in California with their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Two young Moroccan boys living in the mountains test out a rifle that their father has given them while they are watching their father's goats. A stray bullet accidentally hits Blanchett as she is riding in the tour bus, which leads to chaos and a huge misunderstanding. Blanchett's life is threatened and Pitt fights to save her, while the media turns the event into an act of terrorism and the Moroccan authorities come down on boys and their family. In Japan, the story centers around a rebellious, deaf Japanese school girl named Cheiko (Rinko Kikuchi), who has been traumatized by her mother's recent suicide, and has a strained relationship with her father. She is also trying to figure out her evolving sexual desires and frustrations. Eventually, something from this story connects to the Moroccan story. Meanwhile, Amelia needs to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, but because Pitt and Blanchett are delayed in Morocco, she has to take the children with her to Mexico. All goes well at first, but when returning to the US with her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) things get out of hand when crossing back into America. There are parallels running through all of the stories about human connectivity, the causality of individual actions, and the miscommunication and misunderstanding between individuals, families, and cultures. Babel is an ambitious, interesting, and emotionally powerful film.

CACHE (2005)

Cache (Hidden) was directed by Austrian-French director Michael Haneke, and features the great French actors Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. The quiet life of a Paris family is disturbed when they receive a series of surveillance tapes of their own residence. At first the videos seem passive and harmless, yet creepy, but overtime they become more threatening and lead to divisions and paranoia within the family. Cache is a perplexing film and shows how comfortable lives can be disrupted by the simple fact that someone is watching. The film unravels a nearly forgotten secret in the self-satisfied life of an upper-middle class Frenchman. As the film evolves we find out of an incident from childhood between Auteuil and an Algerian man (who was a child at the time), whose parents had worked for Auteuil's family. By the end of the film, some of the questions of the mystery are answered, but others are left unresolved. The film contains a shocking and tragic climactic scene that will stay with Auteuil's character forever. Cache is a disturbing and interesting film that probes deeply into issues of guilt, communication, and willful amnesia, and shows how a comfortable existence can be shattered by a secret from the past.


A History of Violence was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a seemingly mild-mannered owner of a diner, who kills two thugs in self-defense. This leads to him being thrust into the spotlight which will put his family into a dangerous situation. Soon thereafter, he is visited by scarred gangster Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris), who alleges that Tom is actually a gangster named Joey Cusack, who was part of the Irish Mob in Philadelphia. Tom denies that he is Joey, but Fogerty wants Tom to return with him to Philadelphia, and continues to stalk his family, which puts a strain on Tom's wife and children. It all comes to a head, and another act of violence happens that shakes the family to its core. Tom tells his wife Edie (Maria Bello) that he is in fact, Joey Cusack, which blows her mind, because she now sees their marriage as a lie. After Tom receives a call from his brother Richie (William Hurt), he decides to return to Philadelphia and try to make things right. All does not go well when Tom returns, and the screen explodes with even more violence. The relationship between all of the characters is intense, especially between Tom and Edie, where every look and glance has meaning, and they have a graphic fighting and fucking scene. Cronenberg knows violence is wired to our DNA, and that violence can invade our mundane existence at any time. He creates a film that is a multi-layered investigation of violence, and is unique, shocking, and explosive. A History of Violence has a brilliant ending, which I won't reveal, but lets just say Cronenberg takes a quieter approach to show Tom's reintegration back into his family.

MUNICH (2005)

Munich was directed by Steven Spielberg and is about the Israeli government's secret retaliation attacks against the Black September terrorist group, who were responsible for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The film has standout performances by Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Omar Metwally, Mathieu Kassovitz, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Lonsdale, and Mathieu Amalric. Bana plays the former Mossad agent Avner, who is the leader of a team of assassins, who track down and kill the suspected perpetrators of the massacre. The early part of the film depicts the horrifying event in Munich and is an emotionally powerful sequence. While the film is told from the Israeli perspective, it does attempt to dissect the Israeli-Palestinian situation and show the mindset of both sides. Sometimes innocents are drawn into the crossfire, and as the film evolves the Israeli assassins start to question whether what they are doing is right and if it is really helping the situation. This made the film controversial, and the film questions whether short-sighted tit-for-tat can produce a kind of insanity, both individual and collective. By the end of the film Avner is burned out and disillusioned and reunites with his wife and child in their new home in Brooklyn. He becomes extremely paranoid that is family is in danger because of his past. Munich is a beautifully made, thought-provoking, and powerful film that investigates terrorism and its effect on the individual and society. 


Grizzly Man is directed by Werner Herzog, and is a documentary that chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. The film consists of Treadwell's own video footage of his interactions with grizzly bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by one of them in 2003. There are also interviews with his friends and people from the area, as well as Herzog's commentary. Treadwell spent 13 summers at Katmai National Park and Preserve, and over time believed he had become trusted by the bears, and felt he had become one of them. He had names for them and got extremely close to them, even touching them at times. But many felt he was deluding himself and was putting himself and others in danger, which later proved to be true. He interviews himself periodically and his mental state is cleary fragile at times. Herzog saw him as a disturbed individual who may have had a death wish. Herzog's characters are often eccentric individuals and there is often dark humor in the dialogue or narration. Like many other Herzog films, Grizzly Man is about an obsessive individual who struggles with his place within society and nature. Herzog has made several excellent documentaries since the turn of the century including Wheel of Time, The White Diamond, Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

HEAD-ON (2004)

Gigen die Wand (Head-On) is a German film written and directed by Fatih Akin. It explores the problems that the Turkish immigrant community face in Germany, and examines the issues of displacement and adapting to a new culture. The film has a rough edge and is hard to watch at times, but is extremely powerful. Cahit (Birol Unel) is a lost soul, drinking and snorting himself into oblivion over the loss of his wife. He lives in a dump and spends his days in sleazy bars getting into fights. One night he drives into a wall and ends up in the hospital, where he meets Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) who has attempted suicide in response to the repression of her strict family. She suggest that they marry, as her family will accept Cahit because he is Turkish. They agree to an open marriage, but eventually they start to love one another. Both actors performances are powerful and moving, and they deliver disturbing portraits of self-destructiveness. After a violent incident, Cahit ends up in prison and Sibel moves to Istanbul in shame, where she spirals out of control and comes close to being murdered. Cahit, without her presence, realizes she is his path to salvation, and after being released from jail, heads to Turkey to find her. Sibel's life has changed for the better as she now has a husband and daughter, but she has a passionate reunion with Cahit. Cahit wants to take Sibel and her daughter to the town of his birth to live, but after some reflection she decides to remain in her new life. They are driven to the extremes of behavior, but survive because they now know love exist, and the reconnection to their roots provides them a path and a measure of personal identity and integrity. Head-On is a disturbing, satisfying, and beautiful work of cinema.


The Pianist was directed by Roman Polanski and has a monumental performance by Adrian Brody as the Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII. The film opens with Szpilman playing his piano at a radio station. His performance is interrupted by a bombing as the Germans invade Poland in 1939. The early part of the film details his family and their fear and uncertainty about what is to come. Eventually, they are rounded up and deported to Treblinka, but Szpilman is saved and after helping smuggle weapons into the Warsaw Ghetto for the coming uprising, he escapes and goes into hiding with the help of a non-Jewish friend and his wife. From the window in his room he watches the uprising against the Nazis. He moves to another location and as the years pass, his lack of food and being alone, lead to deteriorating physical and mental health. The film and the performance of Brody express the suffering that isolation can have on a human being in the face of war and chaos. After Warsaw is abandoned Szpilman, entirely alone, searches desperately for supplies and eventually takes refuge in an abandoned home. There is one scene of amazing emotional power where Brody emerges onto the streets of Warsaw and is surrounded by the rubble of the destroyed city. Szpilman is helped by a Nazi officer who is moved by his playing and the German is instrumental in helping him survive. Eventually, after other dangerous events, Szpilman finds his way to freedom. The film ends with him performing Chopin to a large audience. The Pianist is a beautiful and emotionally powerful film and an amazing story of survival.


Mulholland Drive was directed by David Lynch and is a surrealistic dreamscape in the form of a Hollywood film-noir. Like all of Lynch's work, the film is full of beautiful and strange images, sounds, and music, and uses an open-ended narrative where various interpretations can be made. Lynch is interested in the dark underbelly that lies beneath the happy facade. The film tells the story of an upbeat aspiring actress named Betty who encounters an amnesiac woman named Rita, and forges a relationship with her in which they try to solve the mystery of Rita's past. Along the way they have a passionate affair. Some would consider the film's plot to lack order and clarity, but the images are intoxicating and the film seems to emerge from the hazy night world of the unconscious. The film features excellent performances by Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, and Justin Theroux, as they move through the threads of parallel narratives. One reality depicts Betty as an idealistic upcoming actress full of hope and positivity, but at a certain point the film moves into another reality where Watt's character is someone else who is insecure and unsuccessful. There are images of deceit, horror, and murder, and other scenes of bizarre characters who seem to controlling what is happening. What is dream, and what is reality? Or is the entire film a dream? In the end does it really matter, as Mulholland Drive, like Lynch's other films such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, is a work of strange beauty that reflects the enigma of our existence.

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