Thursday, December 30, 2010


I wonder how many ideas were hatched deep within the confines of a basement.

Dear readers, I have reached a personal milestone. Today marks the official 1st anniversary of Savage Cinema and I wish that I could effectively share the happiness I feel for reaching this peak. With the publishing of this post, I will have crossed a personal "Finish Line" in a year long marathon that has consisted of 158 postings that hold an ocean's worth of words, memories, impressions and musings. And it all began in the exact spot that I am currently sitting in: my parent's basement during a holiday visit.

I have had the idea for something like Savage Cinema for many, many years but was not exactly certain of what it could be. Frankly, I just did not have the bravery to share my views in a written form, convincing myself that either I just did not have the talent to pull something of this nature off very successfully and also knowing for certain that the world really didn't need one more person in cyberspace rattling on and on about an art form he did not have hand in creating himself. What could I possibly add to the process of art and artistry by being on the sidelines, so to speak?

Well...I wanted to try and make it artful and through a lifetime of reading film criticism, especially the continuing odyssey of Roger Ebert, I knew that my vision could have a certain potential. In many ways, I have been writing reviews since childhood as they have all been in my head after viewing one film after another and through utilizing the tools given to me by Ebert and Gene Siskel, I could engage in heavy duty conversations with friends and family as well. Now, it was just the act of stringing together those thoughts and words into a written form that could be enjoyable to read.

I have considered myself a "writer" for much of my life and I really became engaged with that piece of my spirit during my teenage years when I began writing screenplays, which culminated with the high school success of writing and directing a fun movie entitled "Life In One Day" for my Senior Year Arts Week. Between college and my mid-twenties, I wrote two deeply personal screenplays of epic length, each depicting bookends to the college experience. Some time after that, and profoundly inspired by the works of John Irving, I jumped into writing in the prose style and while I am still occasionally hacking away at this mythical book inside of my head and soul, that process has also been incredibly rewarding. But, throughout it all, there has been one tremendous obstacle: myself.

Barely anybody has read anything I have ever written as my courage just is not strong enough. Yet, again, I knew that I needed to try something so why not dip my toes into the waters of the public arena with film reviews?

I began my journey by writing film reviews and publishing them upon my Facebook page, allowing friends to read what I had composed. Thankfully, the response was positive and the encouragement I continued to receive throughout that process gave me the proper push to extend myself into the larger world of cyberspace. So, one year ago, as I sat in my parent's basement during a holiday visit, I created this space, named it, wrote my welcome and mission statement, began to archive previously written reviews and shortly thereafter, began to compose and publish reviews solely in this space.

I really wish that I could effectively tell you how rewarding this process has been for me. I just don't think there is a way to express it with the proper magnitude but I have a strong feeling that I think you will all understand. I truly hope this has been an enjoyable time for you as I have designed this site to be inclusionary, literary, informative and entertaining.

Yes, the reviews are lengthy and I do realize that in our accelerated times that it is not always easy to take the time to read something so seemingly mountainous. But, the length is purposeful.

First of all, it's just the only way I know how to do it and for that, you can all thank or criticize my Mother. During childhood, she would drill into me the process of being thorough, as far as my education was concerned. She scoffed at all shortcuts and demanded excellence at all times. She would often say to me, "Any person off the street should be able to pick up anything you've written and know exactly what you are talking about!" So, that demand is an integral part of my writing process. I want to make the reviews as complete as possible and fully worth the time you have taken to give them a read or even a glance.

Secondly, the reviews are so long because in my own way, I do want to almost force people to slow down, in our accelerated times, and READ! I have no desire to contribute to the overly abbreviated and substance lacking style that is rampant these days. If a person just wants to get a star rating and a few choice punchy words, then Savage Cinema is just not the place for you. I desire for you, dear readers, to savor what I have written. The reviews are fashioned to be read before or after you have seen a certain film, giving you an opening to engage in a discussion with me about it afterwards. As I stated from the beginning, I am NO EXPERT. I am just an enthusiast, so eager to share that enthusiasm with you.

Finally, to justify the length, I have to make the reviews personal and actually, it could only be this way as movies are dreams and dreams are uniquely personal and emotional. If I want you to feel anything at all with these things is that emotional connection I have with the art, which in turn is a connective tissue between you and me. I am giving you a window into my world with the inclusion of myself within the context of a particular review and isn't that how we all experience a movie, or a book or a song? It is always through the filter of our personal experiences.

To let you into my process, I do not take notes during a film. I just sit and watch and let myself open to just enjoy the experience placed in front of me. It's just like you. It's no different. The story either works or it doesn't. I either like it or I don't. All I am doing is putting it all into words, which I try to do as soon after I see a film as possible. Sometimes, the words just arrive. Sometimes, I really have to force them out. Sometimes, I honestly have absolutely NO IDEA of what I have to say and I'll just cobble down some key words and see if they trigger something internally. But, when they are completed, they are all ready for you and your potential enjoyment.

I would never and could never have enough words to express the gratitude I feel for absolutely every single person who has read anything that I have written. All of the praise you have given to me has not been lost on me in the least and believe me, it NEVER gets old or loses a certain luster. it is because of you that I keep trying and keep placing myself "out there." Thank you for being there to catch me.

I have to take this time to give special thanks to Margaret Pattison, for her persistent encouragement to get outside of my comfort zone and allow more people to see what I have been up to and also, for feeling that these reviews are worthy of other people's time and energy. I have to also give special thanks to Stephanie Werhane for being the person who quickly gave me all of the tools and info I needed to create this space in the first place. I am not terribly computer literate or that technically savvy but, in under ten minutes after receiving her instructions, Savage Cinema was born and I will always be indebted to her.

Of course, my greatest thanks has to be given to my wife, Hollister as she has been quietly supportive of this venture by allowing me the space to write and compose and be as obsessive about this process as I need to be. Without that support being there, it would be too difficult to continue this at all.

Again, I sincerely and warmly thank ALL OF YOU for joining me on this ride. It would be worthless without you and I appreciate, without end, the grace of your presence. As I head into Year Two, expect more of the same: more reviews, more installments of my special series and most of all, the same passion that I hope has been evident from the beginning.


Long may it run!!!

Monday, December 27, 2010


Based upon the original novel by Avery Corman
Written for the Screen and Directed by Robert Benton

To say that I hated this movie when I first saw it would be an understatement.

I was 10 years old and well on my way through my life long cinematic journeys, utilizing the words and wisdom of the late, great Gene Siskel and the still great Roger Ebert as guiding sages in regards to discovering new film experiences top try and discover. There had to be more than Spielberg and Lucas and I was more than eager to learn. One evening, my parents and I took in a showing of Director Robert Benton’s family/divorce/legal drama “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” due to Siskel and Ebert’s glowing recommendations plus my strong desire to witness a film that was decidedly more provocative than my usual science fiction, action-adventure driven fare. And as I stated at the outset of this revisiting, I hated, hated, hated this movie more than I thought that I could possibly hate a movie.

Yes, it was an adult feature. Yes, I guess you could say that it was provocative, that is if “provocative” meant “boring.” But, what irritated me endlessly was the amount of crying on display, seemingly from one end of the film to another. The mother was crying. The father was crying. The neighbor lady was crying and for God’s sakes, that damn kid was constantly crying. Yes it was a sad movie with sad things occurring to sad people but for some reason, I could not wrestle one ounce of sympathy for these characters with all of their carrying on. It just made me sick and once it was all over, I was beside myself with disbelief that Siskel and Ebert could ever love such a thing.

Since I had become fairly astute with Awards seasons along with critical praise and rejection by this point in my life, I was more than aware that “Kramer Vs. Kramer” was receiving not only more than its fair share of endorsements but there almost seemed to be some sort of cultural significance attached to the experience that I could not understand (definitely due to my age, of course). When the film swept the Academy Awards that year by winning statuettes for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and yes, Best Picture, I wanted to throw everything I owned at the television. I just didn’t get it and I didn’t want to get it. In fact, all I wanted to do was to forget it and move onwards into a new movie year with the cleanest of slates.

I began with that anecdote because over the past week, I found myself reacquainted with “Kramer Vs. Kramer” one very late night on a cable movie channel. As I sat there, I was surprised to find myself becoming deeply involved with what I was watching, especially as my initial feelings concerning the film in 1979 were as present as anything that I had experienced that day in 2010. I tried to resist it but I couldn’t. Due to the lateness of the hour, I found myself unable to say awake long enough to see the entire film, So, feeling curious, I rented it from my video store the following day and began to watch it from start to finish for the first time since my childhood.

For the uninitiated, as well as for those who may need a reminder, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” begins with the disintegrating marriage between Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), a housewife and Mother and Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), an advertising executive. As the film opens, Joanna, shortly after tucking her six year old son Billy (Justin Henry) to bed for the evening, abruptly informs Ted of her departure and quickly exits from his life, also leaving behind their son, who is essentially a stranger to the workaholic Ted, thus forcing him to raise Billy alone.

Over the course of an 18 month period, Ted is confronted exactly with what it means to be a single Father as he and Billy slowly, painfully and eventually forge a strong relationship that is then threatened by the return of Joanna, now gainfully employed and armed with the full intent of reclaiming her son.

The cultural significance that was lost on me as a child was blindingly clear this time around, as "Kramer Vs. Kramer" takes place during the continued sexual revolution, where women's and men's roles where being drastically redefined. In the case of Joanna and Ted Kramer, we are given a woman unable to survive within certain sexual boundaries and Ted, being forced to re-examine his own boundaries and expectations he has set for himself and his family. Ted Kramer is a man who feels the most at home while at work and "Kramer Vs. Kramer" charts the course of his growth in discovering the exact same, and eventually, an even greater passion for his life as a nurturing caregiver for his son.

Beyond the cultural critique, as I viewed this film, what amazed me was the sense of compassion I felt for all of the characters, especially when I had none to begin with when I was 10. It was the level of compassion that comes simply from living life, and the building of personal experiences and connections with others. Life at 41 is obviously quite different than life at 10 and that very life experience informed my reaction and newfound appreciation of this film tremendously.

What could essentially be a melodramatic, inauthentic “movie-of-the-week” weepie, is actually an acutely perceptive and empathetic drama about people attempting to restructure their lives after a seismic emotional upheaval. In fact, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is not really a smoothly driven narrative at all. It is actually more of a collection of vignettes, all demonstrating each step in the evolution of Ted Kramer from being a distant, impatient and unengaged Father to one who is nurturing, attentive, supportive and wholly loving. What made this enterprise work so successfully for me on this viewing was to notice exactly how Benton and his cast worked every aspect of the beautiful screenplay (which allowed for many moments of key improvisation) to discover every nugget of truth to each situation.

Concerning the relationship between Ted and Joanna, we are witnessing a love story, despite the nature of the film’s title and many of the film’s sequences, most notably the climactic courtroom sequence where layers exist to simply talk to each other and character assassination is par for the course. Underneath all of the anguish, rage, and sorrow, the love that initially brought them together remains and underlies every single moment in the film, even after the two have become divorced and moved on with their respective lives. What Ted and Joanna realize over and again is that their shared history doesn’t evaporate once the actual marriage is dissolved and the deepness of the reality continues to surprise and even upend them.

The short sequence when Joanna returns to share a glass of wine with Ted in a restaurant and alert him of her intentions to reclaim Billy oscillates effortlessly between longing, anxiousness, attraction and even violence. Yet, moments of contrition between the two exist as well. When Joanna is being cross examined on the witness stand and questioned whether she was a failure at the longest and most significant relationship in her life, she tearfully and somewhat absently glances at Ted, who silently mouths the word, “No.” And the film’s final words of dialogue between Ted and Joanna possess a fragility that suggest healing and resolution for this particular act of their intertwined lives.

But, if there is a love story in the film that carries greater weight and is even more powerful than the one between Ted and Joanna, it is the one between Ted and Billy. Forming the urgently beating heart of this film, the journey of Ted and Billy is a tumultuous road from tentative to committed is presented without a stitch of artifice or contrivance and I believe would be recognizable to any parent or person who has ever created a bond with a child.

Again, this relationship is presented as a series of snapshots moments which function as the building blocks of a growing union. There is the initial “French Toast sequence,” set the morning after Joanna’s departure, where a disheveled Ted attempts to cook breakfast for himself and his son. Benton pivots the sequences on a knife’s edge as it teeters from comedy to rage in a heartbeat, and all filtered through Hoffman’s completely assured performance which never lets up in intensity. A silent sequence in which Ted and Billy wordlessly sit and mirror each other’s confusion and anger while reading the morning newspaper is a graceful study of resentment.. The classic “ice cream sequence,” where Billy purposefully tests the resolve and patience of Ted is an explosive moment familiar to any adult who has been at their wit’s end with a child. And of course, there is the sequence where Billy falls from a playground jungle gym wile holding onto a model airplane. The safety of his eye is threatened and we are given a stunning unbroken shot of Ted, carrying Billy in his arms, racing on foot through traffic over an area of several blocks from the playground to the Emergency Room. It is an elegant and urgent depiction of a parent’s devotion to their child and mostly without copious amounts of dialogue.

Dustin Hoffman delivers a sensationally soulful performance that feels undeniably authentic, heartfelt and real. Watch his body language throughout the film, whether he is being dressed down by his superior at work, valiantly attempting to find new employment after a devastating lay off, how he smoothes the child’s hair or ties his shoe and try to not see the truth in all of those seemingly innocuous moments. Especially in several playground scenes with his friend and neighbor Margaret (Jane Alexander), watch how his body (and manner of clothing) gradually relaxes over the course of the film, reflecting a new state of mind and comfort with is new role as the primary emotional provider for Billy.

In the space of a mere 15 minutes of screen time Meryl Steep, in one of her earlier performances, presents the level of completeness that would become her trademark. It was fascinating to view exactly how no stone had been left unturned by Streep when it came to bringing this character to vibrant life and always elevating Joanna from simply being a monster for abandoning her child at the film’s start. In a way that seems obvious to me as an adult, and no way would I have eve picked up on this trait as a child, Joanna is mentally unstable and quite possibly, near suicidal at the beginning of the film. This aspect to the character makes the decision to leave Ted and Billy a heroic act, which places the needs of the child front and center. Her final decision at the film’s conclusion could also be seen as heroic as well and for the same reasons. Like Hoffman, Streep finds the truth in all of her brief scenes, making a character who resonates as we are all trying to piece together her motives.

Without maligning Mothers, “Kramer Vs. Kramer” is a cinematic rarity as it is a celebratory film about Fathers, a group that typically receives short shrift and ridicule in the movies. And furthermore, it is a film celebrating parents who try to do the right thing by their children.

As I watched, I could not help but to be reminded of a family I once worked with years ago. My student was a happily flamboyant four year old girl. So flamboyant that she was the type who would always arrive to school in some sort of costume, typically something with multi-colored wings. She also possessed a hysterical subversive side that captured my spirit as well, most notably on Halloween, when she arrived to school in regular clothes! This girl’s parents were divorced, and by the beginning of that school year, emotions between the two were still so brutally raw that they were barely able to speak with each other. But, the two somehow, someway devised a plan to keep the interests, security and happiness of their daughter placed ahead of their wounds and that plan involved a large black bag.

The black bag was to be placed in the girl’s cubby every day and it was to contain all of the pertinent school and life information the other parent needed to know upon pick up, therefore keeping both parents in the loop and fully informed. As this child’s teacher, I saw first hand that this girl wanted for nothing and both parents, regardless of who I happened to see on a given day, was completely up to date with the events and needs of the classroom.

The girl’s Father was a lawyer. Sadly, he happened to work for a legal firm that was highly unsympathetic to his parental responsibilities. Since the Mother had primary custody of the girl, the Father would often arrive to school to spend lunch time with his daughter—albeit lying to his firm in order to do so. He not only doted upon his child but made time for every child in the classroom that wanted to talk or play with him. My gut feelings informed me that this was no prefabricated presentation for my benefit. It was a real display of a Father needing to be present for is child, no matter what the cost to his livelihood.

By school year’s end, and in time for our second round of Parent/Teacher conferences, both Mother and Father, surprisingly—even to themselves—arrived together to discuss their daughter’s progress. The black bag still existed but at this stage, they were able to speak, and not through lawyers at that. The baby steps of healing had begun as well as the realization that they will remain in each other lives for the remainder of their lives just because they created a child and that they did once love each other. (Granted, I have not seen hide nor hair of this family since that school year but I am hoping that they have all advanced together as well as humanely possible.)

“Kramer Vs. Kramer” was defiantly in tune with all of those realities and it is the definition of a film that is emotionally honest. It understands the hard, necessary choices needed in order to effectively raise one’s child and even to raise oneself and how in the world could I have even grasped anything like that at the age of 10?!

Revisiting “Kramer Vs. Kramer” was a deeply enlightening, eye-opening, and entertaining experience for me that was actually as provocative, adult and artful as I wished for in 1979.

I just wasn’t ready for it.


At the end of the year, a new series is born.

Dear readers, as I am about to head into a new year of cinematic musings for you, I came across an idea for a new series that would occasionally make its presence known. It is something that I have had in mind for quite some time but I just was not sure exactly what it could be or what identity it could have that would differentiate it from the main reviews, “Savage Cinema’s Buried Treasure” and “The Ones That Nearly Got Away.” (Now that my film archives are nearly depleted, it means the end of “Savage Cinema’s Short Takes“is near.)

This past week, while watching the film I am gearing up to write about, the idea finally arrived fully formed.

“Savage Cinema Revisits” is a new series where I will explore movies I have seen throughout my life that have taken on a new sort of significance. It may be a film I was initially confused by or even hated upon first viewing but now have grown to understand, appreciate and even love.

Or it may just be a film I have already loved and its artistry has grown with me and I want to share it with you and hopefully prompt you to check it out again or perhaps, even for the first time.

The premiere installment of this new series for you is a highly celebrated drama from the 1970s that I did happen to see during its original release but loathed. Now, that very film and my reaction to it is the inspiration for this new cinematic/literary adventure.

My dearest readers, I hope you enjoy it and I hope you join in the discussion.

It's no fun without you!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

HIGH RISE DANCE WITH THE DEVIL: a review of "The Night Chronicles: Devil"

Story by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay Written by Brian Nelson
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
** (two stars)

While cloying to some viewers, the spiritual themes and layers that exist inside of the films of M. Night Shyamalan have typically proven fruitful to me as they have broadened his work beyond simple thrills and chills into films that bear a stamp that is decidedly personal and individualized. While I will not go through the litany of his films and themes again as they have been housed elsewhere on Savage Cinema, I will say that I have enjoyed figuring out what Shyamalan has been attempting to communicate about himself and the way he sees the world through his work, which proudly wears its genre stylings on its proverbial sleeves.

In the tradition of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” M. Night Shyamalan has now begun to carve out his own anthology series entitled “The Night Chronicles” of which “Devil” is the premiere installment. Yet, this time, Shyamalan has not written or directed this material as this series is designed for him to farm out his original story ideas to other filmmakers to full realize. As an opening into a new cinematic world presented by Shyamalan, “Devil” is a creative and decent enough first try but ultimately disappointing through a certain preachiness that undercuts the spiritual tension. And when we all know full well that Shyamalan can truly deliver the goods with the scares and the themes, .

Set in Philadelphia, as with nearly all of Shyamalan’s films, “Devil” takes place at a high-rise office building at which Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is investigating a suicide that has occurred at this site that very morning. As Bowden pieces together certain clues and evidence, five characters enter an elevator simply preparing to go about their respective days. Our cast includes an obnoxious mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a claustrophobic security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a late middle-aged woman (Jenny O’Hara), a wealthy, sexy young woman (Bojana Novakovic), and a young Marine Corps veteran (Logan Marshall-Green).

After a few moments, the elevator ceases to move, thus trapping the five inside. The elevator inhabitants are on constant surveillance by the security team, which includes the religiously devout Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), who also occasionally narrates the film. And then…the lights go out inside of the elevator and the young woman is revealed to have been attacked by someone or…something! As the story continues, and the connections between the Detective and the elevator inhabitants are exposed, it has become more than likely that one of the people in the elevator is actually Satan and he has hungrily come to claim more damaged souls for his possession.

Now, I do have to say that this is an intriguing premise with an equally intriguing set-up. I really liked the idea of trapping five people inside of a cramped location for most of the film’s scant 80 minute running time. It allows the story to maintain a certain rigid focus and intensity while also potentially allowing the actors to have a grand time playing off of each other as they collectively raise the emotional stakes for the audience.

Much like Director Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) or even Director John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” (1982), “Devil” is a haunted house type of film with characters meeting their respective ends one by one. And while Shyamalan did not write or direct this film with his own hand, his influence and sensibilities are all over the screen, especially through the themes of forgiveness and damnation on display. Dowdle keeps the film moving along briskly while Nelson’s screenplay effectively expresses Shyamalan’s other key theme of having others, either actual beings or forces, walking around the Earth with us.

Yet, somehow, “Devil” is surprisingly not very scary at all. Granted, as I have previously written, I am not typically a fan of horror films as I tend to enjoy pursuits that are more psychological and suspenseful. The scares are not gore driven and I did like how much of the tension existed in the very things that cannot be seen as well as through sudden sound effects and quick glimpses at previously unseen terrors. But, that said, it never burrowed under my skin in the least and considering that the threat is nothing less than the Prince Of Darkness himself, “Devil” was highly disappointing.

Perhaps since Shyamalan did not write the actual screenplay himself, it lacked a certain subtlety that is usually present in his work and does tend to sneak its way into some of our primal fears. Like the concepts of communication in “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and interconnectivity in “Signs” (2002), nearly all of the film’s characters share certain connections, like the damaged souls from “Lost” who find each other in a location that defies escape. And while those connections are fully revealed by the film’s climax, I found the film’s narration to be a bit too “connect the dots” for my tastes. Also, the religious allegory is a bit too heavy handed as well as I would have preferred the parable to have, again, a tad more subtlety, which I think would have made the film much more frightening. And then, there’s the identity of the titular devil, of course I will not spoil here, but I will admit that it is a revelation that is also a little too easy to spot.

But, most of all, “Devil” is yet another case where the film’s coming attractions trailer made for a better motion picture experience than the full length film. Like the trailers for F. Gary Gray’s “The Italian Job”(2003), Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (2009) and Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” (2009), the powers that be who create those particular coming attractions seemed to obtain a grasp and presentation of the material that eclipsed the main filmmakers in charge. And beyond that, those people told those film’s respective stories in almost their entirety, in a mere fraction of the time as well, which unfortunately undercuts the main event severely. In the case of “Devil,” which is short enough, it certainly didn’t need to have the proverbial carpet swept out from under it by a trailer but I think that it did. Oh well…

2010 has not been a good year for M. Night Shyamalan as he has weathered the creative storms of his noble and ambitious misfire “The Last Airbender” and now this somewhat lackluster debut entry into a potentially new anthology series. As I stated this past summer, I remain a fan of Shyamalan and will not board the train of those who exist to bash him. He tells stories in a way that appeals greatly to my sensibilities and I will continue to root for his grand return.

But, he had better rebound quickly and the dark forces of Hollywood may soon resist any stories he may wish to share.


The following is a newly extended version of a review that was originally written December 2007 and was inspired by my recent viewing/review of "Exit Through The Gift Shop."

Written, Produced and Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

To paraphrase the most insightful words of a cautious journalist in the film, this is NOT a movie about a child, but one about grownups.

For eleven years, I taught at a preschool which utilized an unorthodox Italian educational curriculum that essentially functioned as child directed, inquiry based learning. It was a teaching philosophy that I thoroughly enjoyed as it opened up the concept of education in ways I had not previously been able to comprehend. No two years were ever the same. Nothing was rote. Every experience was unique to each individual class of children, making every experience a journey as well as shared between the children and the teachers. In cinematic terms, it was like watching every movie in my life on a television and then I went into a movie theater. In my mind, there was no going back to solely experiencing education in the traditional American ways.

That said and despite my love for this teaching philosophy, I understood completely that this method was exactly what it said it was: a philosophy, i.e. something designed to be examined, discussed and interpreted.

In the latter section of those 11 years, I found myself becoming increasingly troubled at how this philosophy was asked to be utilized by the school’s administration. Teachers were being demanded to have some sort of child-directed project occurring within their classrooms frequently ad seemingly for the purpose of said project to be properly documented and detailed for public presentation in the school hallways. These presentations were then used as selling points for prospective families searching for a high quality, forward thinking preschool experience. Some teachers, like myself, felt pressured and uncomfortable with having to essentially to force children to produce a product when the goal of the philosophy was to celebrate the process.

By the end of my tenure, the entire proceedings just felt wrong to me. It felt dishonest. In fact, to me, it felt worse than dishonest. It felt like a commercial of the most disingenuous kind because what is the point of having this philosophy at your disposal if you are not allowed the opportunity for it to be organic, meaningful and real?

In December 2007, less than one year before I eventually departed this school, I took in a screening of “My Kid Could Paint That,” an excellent documentary by filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, which illustrated those feelings I was having so perfectly, while also being a stimulating and challenging mystery.

The film revolves around 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, who lives in upstate New York with her parents, Mark and Laura, and younger brother Zane. Mark is an amateur painter with failed ambitions of being a working artist. Noticing his daughter’s interest with his art materials and tools, he gives her a canvas and paints to work with and discovers that Marla is a natural talent. Things progress innocently enough as a family friend who owns a coffeehouse offers to hang one of Marla’s paintings inside the shop. The painting catches the inquiring eye of a customer, who unexpectedly offers to buy the painting for a large sum of money. Meanwhile, another family friend, who happens to own an art gallery, offers to promote and debut a collection of Marla’s artwork. The story of Marla and her natural talent catches the attention of a local news reporter whose subsequent article is then picked up by the New York Times which then alerts a much wider audience to Marla’s paintings.

Marla’s celebrity status begins to rise astronomically with greater art shows, global media attention and customers worldwide, enraptured with the work of a small child, willing to pay upwards of $300,000 per painting.

And then, Charlie Rose and the crew of "60 Minutes II" comes calling.

Arriving with the intent to create a profile on Marla Olmstead and her work, it is through their their patented investigative journalism that a questionable hole is poked through the balloon of Marla’s fame and fortune. Were her paintings in fact doctored by her ambitious Father, thus nullifying the purity of the work? Is Marla Olmstead a fraud? Was she utilized as a puppet by the adults in her life? And even deeper, can the paintings even be considered art if she didn’t create them herself, by her own little hands and supposedly innate talent and skill?

"My Kid Could Paint That" is a completely absorbing documentary that not only debates the nature of modern art and our societal desire for something of untainted value, it also is a prime example of our "build-it-up-tear-it-down" culture with a 4-year-old child at the center of the vortex. While much about the validity of the child's art has come into question (and it is covered heavily within this film) for me, the film was less about the validity of the artist but about the validity of the adult's intentions that surround her.

Bar-Lev creates his own investigative canvas, which sometimes includes himself, to explore portraits of two men, Marla’s Father and the gallery owner/family friend, who are most likely living their respective dreams of fame and fortune through this unsuspecting child. Additionally, for the gallery owner, Marla’s art and fame offers him the chance to gain access into the larger world of modern art, a world in which he was previously denied access through his own artworks. A stunning sequence late in the film works almost as a moment of confession as the gallery owner not only exhibits his contempt for the exclusionary modern art world but explains that through Marla, he has found his linchpin to gain entry for himself while also flicking his middle finger in its face.

But for me, the most compelling persona in the film happens to be Marla’s Mother, Laura Olmstead. Throughout he film, Laura possesses the sole voice of reason, skepticism and caution concerning the level of attention Marla is receiving, the enormous amounts of money being lavished upon the family, and the potential adverse effects this experience would have upon Marla and even, the younger child Zane, who appears to be all but ignored within the context of this film. Yet, do Laura’s actions belie her concerns?

Yes, from the moment Marla’s first painting was hung in the coffeeshop through the “60 Minutes II” interview, I can concede that these events moved at the velocity of a freight train. Protective concerns or not, situations and opportunities seemed to be too advantageous and arose too quickly to be debated that much, let alone seriously considered deeply enough. But, look at Laura’s decision making process after the “60 Minutes II” interview, when it seemed that the whirlwind media adventures had, at last, ceased…something she had secretly been hoping for in the first place. While I will not spoil as I really, really want for you to see this film for yourselves, Laura Olmstead drew me in the deepest and the film’s final moments even led me to even larger issues for Marla.

I could no help but to wonder as I watched is how they will explain this time to this child as she ages. What happens to you when, ion some ways, you have peaked at the age of 4? What happens when she is 12? 15? 20? Perhaps she will turn out just fine but early fame has derailed more than its share of individuals, especially younger individuals and as Laura tearfully wonders what she has done to her family by allowing this unique adventure to occur, I wondered the exact same thing.

"My Kid Could Paint That," with its easily accessible 80 minute running time, is as involving and as complex as a tightly wound thriller. This film is highly recommended and it is well worth seeking out.

Friday, December 24, 2010

POP ART WILL EAT ITSELF: a review of "Exit Through The Gift Shop"

Directed by Banksy
**** (four stars)

The subjectivity of art is labyrinthine, cyclical, confounding, perplexing, and bottomless. To paraphrase the classic saying regarding one’s response to art, one person’s perception of trash is another person’s perception of the most glorious art to grace his or her eyes. In “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” the exuberant and exhilarating new documentary, supposedly directed by the elusive and unseen street artist known simply as “Banksy” (more on that later), we are graced with a film that is as labyrinthine, cyclical, confounding, perplexing, and bottomless about its subjects as it is about the nature of art itself. It is not only and easily one of the year’s best films, it is an astoundingly entertaining and fascinating trip through the wires of a man, with desires of being a filmmaker who ultimately becomes a famous street artist but actually may simply be a delusional, manipulative fraud.

“Exit Through The Gift Shop” opens upon the shrouded and electronically voice altered figure of Banksy, who confesses to the audience that the film we are about to view was originally intended to be about him but in turn, it has become about an individual who just may be a much more interesting subject. After that admonition, we are quickly introduced to eccentric French immigrant and Los Angeles resident Thierry Guetta, husband, Father, vintage clothing shop owner and compulsive videographer who possesses obsessive notions of actually being a filmmaker as he documents every single aspect of his life onto videotapes he never, ever watches after he completes them.

Throughout his cinematic pursuits while jaunting through France, he eventually decides to capture the work of his cousin, a street artist known as Space Invader (due to his artwork of recreating tile art versions of the classic video game characters), a choice which then leads Thierry into the expansive underground nighttime world of graffiti artists. Thierry’s enthusiasm and eagerness to document the work of artists whose endeavors are demolished as quickly as they are created, ingratiates him to this unique collective. Soon, doors are opened to for Thierry to document the work of more recognized talents for a proposed documentary about street artists, most notably Shepherd Fairey (known for his Andre the Giant inspired “OBEY” artwork plus the now iconic pop art image of the President Barack Obama “HOPE” poster).

As Thierry compiles tape after tape after tape of more footage, knowing fully well that he does not intend or have the wherewithal to ever create the finished product of something such as a documentary, he cannot help himself but to attempt to locate and interview the most mysterious figure within the world of street artists, the internationally known Banksy. This secretive artist, who has been known to inject his own subversive artwork directly in between the paintings at world famous museums, like the Museum Of Modern Art, is Thierry’s “golden goose.” Through a series of events, the two men meet, form a tentative friendship and partnership where for the first time, Banksy has allowed someone outside of his formal circle to document his process.

From this point, we are shown the premiere of Banksy’s Los Angeles Skid Row debut of his art show, “Barely Legal,” the reveal of Thierry’s undisciplined, headache inducing documentary "Life Remote Control," and his subsequent reinvention as a street artist known as Mr. Brainwash. Throughout the proceedings, and through Banksy's cinematic eye, we are able to view precisely how the cyclical nature of art continuously redefines itself and how the ones who were once artistically ignored suddenly rise up to become the gatekeepers who then artistically ignore the new breed.

In its scant 87 minute running time, “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” covers a mammoth amount of conceptual ground which I think will and should encourage equally mammoth discussions and debates about art. First, it is a film that explores the legitimization of an art form that is, by its nature, designed to be illegitimate. If the gatekeepers of the modern art world look upon street artists as nothing more than mere vandals, it fascinated me tremendously to see how this collective of so-called vandals, these “ghosts” in the art world, strongly desired that their work was not only seen by the public but that they would also desire a level of recognition and notoriety for themselves as well.

With the arrival of Thierry and his eventual transformation into Mr. Brainwash, it became equally fascinating to witness the street artist community’s own transformation from the ridiculed to the new gatekeepers. Ones who now get to determine the legitimacy, nature and rules for others. To see how their acceptance of Thierry when he was a fan changes to levels of disdain, irritation, rejection and disgust once he becomes a contemporary in the eyes of the public but also within Thierry’s own mind was spellbinding to me.

Continuing with the cyclical theme is the film’s central relationship between Thierry and Banksy, two compulsively watchable characters who are also engaging storytellers. Yes, we hear tales about their exploits, as if they are artistic partners in crime, especially a great anecdote set at Disneyland where Banksy deposited a Guantanamo Bay themed piece of three-dimensional art inside one of the rides while Thierry silently filmed. But, how the twosome eventually switch their respective artistic roles provided the film with extra and almost exciting narrative juice. Thierry is the would-be filmmaker who metamorphoses into a would-be artist while Banksy the artist becomes the filmmaker, all the way to directing this film and both transformation are essentially through means of artistic robbery. Thierry’s somewhat completed documentary is usurped by Banksy, who deems it a failure, but then Thierry usurps Banksy’s entire career by utilizing every single technique Banksy taught to him. “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is a tale of two thieves, compellingly and smartly told.

Above all of the colorful personalities lies the grandest questions of all: What is art and can anyone make art? This notion of who is able to create art combined with the themes of theft raced through my head as I watched and it made me think about all forms of artistic expression and how there is always a bit of thievery and pilfering involved. If you take a side step into the world of music for instance, what would Elvis Presley or The Rolling Stones be without the blues? Frankly, neither would have ever recorded a single note, in my opinion. What about hip-hop culture with its usage of samples and creating works that are built from pre-existing material that was composed from thin air by others? Is that art? When I listen to Public Enemy's "Fear Of A Black Planet" (1990), De La Soul's "3 FT High and Rising" (1989) or DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing..." (1996), it is a resounding "YES!" But, with Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or whatever he is calling himself, uh....nope!

In the world of “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” when Banksy takes a pre-existing image and manipulates it to infuse his own sensibilities and Thierry does the same thing, (albeit through a team of people he hires to do the work for him while claiming the credit for himself a la the mythical Tom Sawyer), why is Bansky’s work considered art and Thierry’s not? And what of the people who know nothing of either men and see the work freshly? How do their perceptions inform and validate the work of both men? The amount of money spectators spend to possess the work also increases the value of the art in question but why? If mass sums of money make that large of a difference concerning artistic value, then what makes a prefabricated piece from Mr. Brainwash any different than a Picasso?

And what of Thierry? Is he a manic fool, living through the lives of other’s work like a sycophant or is he some sort of a savant?

Take the name of “Mr. Brainwash.” Is that identity Thierry’s entire position to pull one over on the public and the street artists? Is Thierry literally brainwashing us all or is it just dumb luck that he even had one show in the first place? Then, there is the matter “Life Remote Control,” the 90 minute feature delivered to Banksy for viewing. The film itself, of which 14 minutes can be seen as a special feature on the DVD, is an audio/visual disaster. To my eyes, it was an aimless collage of sights and sounds but at the same time, the first thought that came to my mind when I saw the footage was The Beatles’ sound collage “Revolution #9” from “The White Album” (1968). I remember first hearing that song as a child and hating every moment of it because there was absolute nothing within the nearly nine minute piece that resembled a song in the least. Every time I listened to the album, I would get up and move the record needle past the song or back to the beginning of side four, avoiding it altogether. But then, several adults in my life, from relatives to teachers would profess the high artistic value of “Revolution #9,” a belief that would force me to revisit it every so often and now it has reached the point where I agree with those people and could not, in any way imagine that album without that piece. Certainly I have changed over the years but did the song change? When did this change, from trash to art and why?

With Thierry’s movie, it seemed obvious to me that “Life Remote Control” was a voyage through his ADD addled mind and since the film represented himself, is that not a real representation of art even if it is terrible?

And even beyond everything I have written about, there are questions hovering around this film that suggests that perhaps the whole thing is some sort of elaborate hoax. That perhaps Thierry and the unseen Banksy just may be one and the same or that the film itself is one grandly designed piece of art and not a documentary at all. I don’t know and in some respects, I really don’t care terribly much because what we do have with “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is something that forces us all to question and explore the inherent truth and lies about art and the ones who create. In many ways, this film reminded me of Director Amir Bar-Lev’s extraordinary 2007 documentary “My Kid Could Paint That,” which explored the controversy surrounding the validity and fame of then four-year-old artistic prodigy Marla Olmstead. Both films are about the intentions that revolve around the work itself and how our perceptions inform artistic value.

As far as I am concerned, whether this film was truthful or a complete farce, “Exit Through The Gift Shop” and the wheel of art it examined was an experience unlike any I have had with the movies this year and I implore you to race to your local video store to check it out.

I am anxiously awaiting the discussions we can have about it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

THE YAWN OF THE CHASE: a review of "Salt"

Written by Kurt Wimmer
Directed by Philip Noyce
** (two stars)

Every now and again, I wonder, or even fear that I either have outgrown or even worse, have become too old to enjoy an action movie. I find myself growing increasingly weary at the sight of yet another car chase, shoot-out, and cavalcade of explosions all the while growing increasingly troubled that the sights and spectacle of so many movies has now lost its cinematic luster. But then, celluloid lightning will strike again, giving me a film going experience top cherish and treasure.

In the case of this year, which had more than its amount of brain dead big budget action movies, the top prize for me is easily awarded to Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which showed exactly how well art, skill, craftsmanship, vision and commerce can join hands in creating a cinematic experience that stands as untouchable and even encourages and rewards several subsequent viewings.

Furthermore and even beyond that figurative lightning, the pleasure of seeing a great movie reveals to me that my increasing boredom has nothing to do with advancing age but everything to do with exactly how many movies I have seen throughout my life. I simply know more than ever what works for me, what doesn’t and I always have to allow myself to remain open for surprise, especially when there just doesn’t seem to be any reason to be surprised anymore.

I mention these particular musings as I have just finished viewing “Salt,” the latest politically themed action thriller from Director Phillip Noyce who most famously helmed two entries in the adventures of author Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character, “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Clear And Present Danger” (1994), both starring Harrison Ford. Yes, “Salt” is a more than competent action movie, executed with the skill and tension we would expect from a director of Noyce’s stature. And while there is more than enough gunpowder to satisfy audiences, this was precisely the type of action movie where I felt so decidedly underwhelmed as it had the sheet music with all of the necessary notes to play but it just could not make the material sing.

Angelina Jolie stars as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent, happily married to Mike Krause (August Diehl), a German arachnologist (yuch!). On the day of her wedding anniversary, Salt is fingered by an aging Russian defector as being not only a Russian spy, but a “sleeper agent” now “awakened” with the purpose of assassinating the visiting Russian president to incite a war between Russia and the United States. Salt quickly goes on the run to prove her innocence, all the while being doggedly pursued by Agent Peabody (the great Chiwetel Ejiofor) and subtlety aided by Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), her CIA partner. As Salt continues to run and effectively mow down absolutely anyone who even thinks of standing in her way, her pursuers and the audience are forced to question her motives, her allegiances and the validity of her identity.

Essentially “Salt” is nothing more than a chase movie. There’s nothing wrong with that but as I yawned through this particular chase movie, I found myself wondering about why some chase films work better than others. I could not help but to immediately remember Director Andrew Davis’ superlative “The Fugitive” (1993) with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, which was the quintessential “edge-of-your-seat” action thriller. Yet, it transcended its genre trappings not only through the tightly wound screenplay but also with Davis’ top flight and gritty direction and the crackerjack performances from the cast that made me completely buy the fantasy on display.

While I have not been a fan of the three Jason Bourne films, I have to concede that even those hyperkinetic films have also transcended their genre trappings through creating its own cinematic universe where even the most feverishly outrageous situations are firmly grounded by the gravity of the cast and with Matt Damon as the strongest of anchors.

Which leads me to what I think is the greatest problem with “Salt” and that is the film’s star, Angelina Jolie. In my positive review of Clint Eastwood’s ”Changeling”(2008), I remarked that while I felt that Jolie definitely commanded screen presence, I didn’t think she was very skilled as an actress (although I thought she did a very good job in Eastwood’s film). For an unexplained reason, I just have a natural aversion to Angelina Jolie. For many years now, I have become ever so drowsy at the sight of Jolie, carrying around another big gun in one more equally loud and drowsy film after another. I am just not a fan of Angelina Jolie’s at all. She is just one of those actresses whose popularity eludes me and the sight of her in new films tends to make my heart sink.

So, what was wrong with Angelina Jolie in this film, especially she has been in more than her fair share of action films over the years? Frankly, to my eyes, she looked absolutely terrible. She looked frail. She looked underweight, underfed and borderline anorexic. She looked like she just didn’t even have the body strength to run a few feet or yards, let alone hurl herself from the tops of one semi-truck to another, toss herself from speeding trains, mercilessly take down one “twice her size” adversary after another and so on. Every battle, and there are a lot of them, made me think that I would soon hear the terrifying sounds of Ms. Jolie’s brittle bones cracking and popping as if they were the crashing sounds of a falling Yahtzee game.

In order for a chase movie this propulsive to work at its best, I have to be able to buy the fantasy the filmmakers are feverishly selling. Part of that particular sales pitch is the act of giving me an action hero or heroine that I can believe is able to sail and survive throughout these wild adventures. Going back to “The Fugitive” and the Jason Bourne movies for a moment, the fact that those films had the likes of Harrison Ford and Matt Damon, in full fighting weight combined with the peak of their acting talents on board, made it essential to the overall experience of buying the fantasy.

Taking the aspects of male/female capability in these types of films into account and making the playing field a bit more equal, take Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s extraordinary “Kill Bill” films (2003/2004). Thurman is tall, thin and not muscle bound in the least. But, what she had to do in her role as The Bride was to convince the audience instantly that she was an assassin with bottomless rage enacting revenge upon the ones who placed a bullet in her brain on her wedding day. And in the very first major sequence of the first film, Thurman had me convinced completely. Aside from the sheer physicality of the role, Tarantino gave her an internal acting role that elicited the performance of her life. I bought the fantasy and believed, without a shadow of a doubt that Uma Thurman could endure the grueling training sequences, wield a sword and eviscerate 88 assailants, and even spring forth from the depths of a grave.

With “Salt” and Angelina Jolie in particular, I could not buy the fantasy she and Noyce were selling and since the action is essentially all there is to “Salt”, I was unfortunately disconnected with the experience as a whole. Perhaps if she were in her much healthier Lara Croft physique, it would have been much more convincing but for this film, it looked as if she would faint if she even broke a sweat. Not the image I think Noyce was looking for when needing someone to fill the role of a potential Russian double secret agent with extremely lethal fighting skills.

Dear readers, “Salt” is not a bad movie by any means at all. I am certain that many of you will see it and thoroughly enjoy the thrills and spills, if you have not already done so and that is great. I would not discourage you from seeing it. It just didn't work for me. I wasn’t convinced or that entertained with what I was watching to begin with. And despite how well made of a film it is, I wasn’t properly excited or exhilarated to the point that a white knuckle action movie needs to be. Like Tony Scott's "Unstoppable," I didn’t think that it had that je ne sais quoi, that certain something, to push it over the top into an experience more than memorable and actually, it all ultimately seemed to be more than a little silly.

None moreseo than the film’s final scenes, which were obviously setting up the inevitable sequel, with Jolie vowing unrepentant revenge and Ejiofor, as the only one knowing her true identity.

Perhaps they could call the next installment “Salt and Pepper.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

A CARTON OF EGGSHELLS: a review of "Cyrus"

Written and Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)

What a strange, sad little movie this is.

Maybe “strange” and “sad” are not quite the right adjectives to utilize for a film that approximates aspects of our ever shifting and fragile human nature so precisely and effectively. Yet, once the final credits began to roll, those were the very first words to enter my mind. As I ruminate and write this latest review for you, dear readers, I will be happy to leave myself open for any potential emerging impressions as it is a film simple in nature yet deeply complex internally. “Cyrus,” written and directed by The Duplass Brothers, possesses exactly the sort of ever shifting and fragile nature that seems as if the film will fly off the rails at any moment, yet it somehow keeps its footing firmly in place. The film keeps you off guard and anxious just enough to keep the somewhat predictable storyline of “Cyrus” consistently unpredictable and always emotionally honest.

While I do not ever want to claim sides in the cinematic war between mainstream Hollywood features and independent films, as both arenas have their respective peaks and valleys, I would have to say that for 2010, some key independent releases have shown more successful and artistically greater representations of modern life in the 21st century, especially in regards to families and interpersonal relationships. Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” has repeatedly received high praise from me and recently, I also gave high marks to Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give.” “Cyrus” is yet another smaller film of high quality that did not receive the highest audience during its theatrical run. Now that it is available on DVD, I am so happy to point you in its direction and I sincerely hope that you will take me up on the recommendation.

John C. Reilly stars as John, a depressed and lonely film editor, stuck in an emotional rut seven years after his divorce from Jamie (the great Catherine Keener), with whom he has remained close friends. At the film’s opening, John has painfully learned that Jamie is planning to remarry, yet Jamie is unwilling to leave him in such an emotionally dilapidated state. She coerces him to attend a party where many available women will attend. John reluctantly agrees and immediately begins to regret his decision due to his social awkwardness and blunt honesty about himself, his life and his needs. After drinking copious amounts of alcohol and striking out again and again in one conversation after another, he is surprised by the arrival of Molly (Marisa Tomei), just as he is urinating into a bush. During these initial moments, Molly is revealed to be quite possibly the woman John has been searching for due to their instant chemistry. And surprisingly, during John’s excited and drunken dance to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” his romantic suspicions are confirmed when she happily joins him and subsequently returns to his home and makes love with him.

After a successful second date with Molly where John’s feelings are tenderly and graciously reciprocated, he is understandably unnerved to find Molly slipping out of his apartment in the middle of the night once again. Upon discovering her home, John soon meets the other man in Molly’s life--Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a polite and inviting 21-year-old New Age musician who also happens to be Molly’s son. Cyrus and Molly are best friends and share an openly unconventional parent/child relationship (Cyrus rarely addresses Molly as “Mom,” she continues to soothe him at night during anxiety attacks, they playfully wrestle as if he is still a young child, he has open knowledge of her sexual nature, etc), which does indeed perplex John, but not so much where he would depart the first relationship in many years that potentially could be life changing. Unfortunately and despite his inviting demeanor, Cyrus is not at all ready to share Molly with anyone, a desire that threatens to dismantle the budding romance for good.

While “Cyrus” does work extremely well as a darkly comic, 21st century “Oedipus,” it never descends into an experience of uncomfortable creepiness, vile absurdity or even the pathetically lazy style of a “Meet The Parents” farce. Yet, the film does precariously straddle all of those aforementioned elements, an aspect that does give the film its undeniable edge. But what Jay and Mark Duplass have ultimately created so wonderfully is a film about the collective arrested development of a series of characters as they tentatively navigate through their lives. Like “The Kids Are All Right,” “Please Give,” Director Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low" and Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger,” “Cyrus” is a minutely and meticulously observed character study.

And also like those aforementioned films, it is also a movie without villains. While some characters do questionable things here and there, all of the characters are trying to face their choices and consequences as honestly and as gently as they are able. The emotional eggshells they tread throughout the film in regards to each other are instantly and undeniably palpable, thus giving “Cyrus” a communal, empathetic spirit that I think audiences would easily recognize within their own interpersonal relationships. There is not one mean bone in its body.

Speaking of eggshells, the film’s characters are ones that I would like to think of as people engaged in various states of emergence, as if they were all newborn chicks forcing themselves from eggs. John, Molly, Jaime and especially Cyrus are all on the cusp of profound transformations into newer and improved selves and their struggle against that inevitable transformation lies at the heart of the story. They are all uncomfortably tethered to their long established roles while attempting to break free of them.

In fact, Cyrus himself, with his closely cropped hairstyle, which accentuates his oval shaped head, actually suggests an actual living, breathing egg, is painfully confronted with the act of becoming. This quality gives a character, which could have only existed as a freakish antagonist, a deeply human soul. Cyrus’ power is unquestionable as his arrested development hinders the necessary growth of all around him, from the budding relationship between John and his mother, Molly, but also Molly’s inner growth as an adult sexual being and even Jaime’s ability to move onwards with her life and new marriage as she constantly serves as a source of consolation to John. Even further, John and Cyrus are essentially mirror versions of each other as they fall into a desperate and unhealthy attachments to the literal and figurative Mother figures in both of their lives. All of these details are sharply, humorously and gracefully observed and presented in the Duplass Brothers’ excellent screenplay.

Visually, the Duplass Brothers utilize that slightly overactive cinematography (yes, the dreaded shaky-cam) that suggests a docudrama, and which I generally abhor. However, it somehow works to the film’s advantage, as it seems to emphasize the emotional shakiness and instability experienced by all of the film’s primary characters. It is a directorial choice that could have been an irritant but thankfully, worked in support of the material. I must also give credit to musician Michael Andrews, who once composed and performed the beautiful score for Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks” television series, as he again contributes a mostly acoustic guitar driven score that signifies nothing less than bittersweetness.

Aside from the layers inherent within their story, the Duplass Brothers must be given tremendous credit for their excellent casting as not one member is out of place in any discernible way. John C. Reilly, after a spell of working within the Judd Apatow repertoire, returns to the type of indie film role he would have performed in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. While the character of John is a sad sack, Reilly always lines the hurt, despair and confusion with dignity. His chemistry with the always luminous Marisa Tomei is a wonder as their love story is one of the most realistic and thoughtfully romantic pairings I have seen this year. John and Molly were truly a cinematic couple I rooted for and only wanted to witness their happiness.

Catherine Keener again delivers the emotional honestly that is her trademark in her crucial supporting role. But, Jonah Hill was the real surprise for me. While I have enjoyed him immensely as a member of Apatow’s band of merry men, whose skill with broad comedy and improvisation has contributed heavily to the success of films like “Superbad” (2007), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008) and this year’s ”Get Him To The Greek,” “Cyrus” gives Hill the opportunity to take on, what just may be, his first dramatic role. Not don’t get me wrong, this role does not require the “heaviest’ of lifting but what the role does require is the ability to be that provocative catalyst for all of the other actors/characters. Jonah Hill meets those requirements with seemingly effortless ease, while ensuring that he never falls into caricature. You are always unsure of where he stands from moment to moment yet you completely understand not only his motives but the aching needs for his duplicity.

As with several other strong features released this year, “Cyrus” is not the sort of film to set the world of cinema on fire. It is not designed to make $200 million at the box office and receive endless Academy awards and that is just fine as it does not need to be that type of movie. If anything, its success shows just how difficult it is to pull off a film this unassuming while being this emotionally complicated and decidedly adult.

At the start of this review, I originally used the words “strange” and “sad” to describe it. But, now at the close, I have arrived at better descriptive words for “Cyrus.”

What a wry, odd, wistful and poignant little movie this is.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

SOUL SICK IN THE CITY: a review of "Please Give"

Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
**** (four stars)

This movie nearly slipped under my radar.

This spring when Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, “Please Give” arrived at my local Sundance theater, I was more than aware of its presence and of the sheer talent behind the project as I have been a fan of Holofcener’s work for many years.

Holofcener’s debut film, “Walking and Talking” (1996), focused on a woman (Catherine Keener) dealing with the impending marriage of her best friend (Anne Heche). “Lovely and Amazing” (2001), her superlative second feature (and also starring Keener), dealt with themes of self-esteem and insecurity within a family of a matriarch and her three daughters. “Friends With Money” (2006) starred Jennifer Aniston in a highly (and appropriately) uncomfortable social comedy about a woman who quits her lucrative job only to find herself in increasingly unsteady waters with her collective of rich friends (played by Joan Cusack and again, Keener). All three films are deceptively unassuming as they are meticulously and minutely written, observed, and directed character/relationship/family studies to continuously reveal themselves and for some reason unbeknownst to me, I just didn’t make the time to check out her latest offering. It was my loss indeed because after having finally watched her latest effort I am happy to say that “Please Give” is Holofcener’s best film to date as its characters, relationships and situations are sometimes surprisingly laugh out loud funny, often prickly and painful and always piercingly real.

"Please Give" stars Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as Kate and Alex, a long married couple, parents of Abby, their 15-year-old daughter (Sarah Steele), and who own a trendy mid-century furniture store in New York City. They live in a neighboring apartment next to the cantankerous 91 year old Andra (Ann Guilbert), who is routinely cared for by her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) a kindly, lonely mammogram technician and Mary (Amanda Peet), her cruelly acerbic and perpetually tanned older sister. The characters intertwine as they all navigate the emptiness of their souls and try to discover ways to fill their respective emotional holes. Kate and Alex supply their inventory through the purchasing of furniture from the children of recently deceased parents. To alleviate her own sense of guilt, Kate routinely gives money, food and expensive items, like designer lipstick, away to the homeless, an act that constantly infuriates Abby, as she wants and deserves the same level of attention. Alex drifts into an unexpected affair. Mary continuously battles with her Grandmother and reluctantly assists her sister (when she hasn’t shirked her duties altogether). And Andra bides her remaining time, stewing, complaining, barking, and refusing to exit the world quietly.

Early in the film, Alex and Kate are described as “vultures” and yes, to a degree, “Please Give” is a film about a small collective of people waiting for a 91-year-old woman to die. And especially, for two of those characters, their wait is exclusively for the purpose of obtaining a bigger house and the opportunity to sell off her furniture for their own profit. Yet, as with all of Holofcener’s films, situations and emotions are never that facile. Her writing is as sharp as a knife’s edge and just as equally perceptive about human emotions, foibles, obsessions, frets, shortcomings and fears and throughout it all, Holofcener remains fearless and unblinking. It is more than fitting that she opens her film with a montage of close up shots of women’s breasts being placed upon a small tablet for a mammogram examination and Holofcener shows it all, up close and personal. Breasts of the young, middle aged, elderly, thin, heavy, curvy, misshapen and all in between. It recalled a stunning sequence from "Lovely and Amazing” where Emily Mortimer’s character stands completely naked in front of her boyfriend James LeGros as he picks apart all of Mortimer’s perceived body flaws. This is what Holofcener does best through her filmmaking. She lays everything out on the table and lets the viewer decide what to make of it all.

In “Please Give,” Holofcener’s New York City is a world where all of their characters exist in some form of spiritual crisis and decay where they anesthetize their pain through emotional band-aids like tanning, endless lifestyles of the rich and famous television programs and most notably and crucially, a $235 pair of jeans. All of these details are presented as matter of fact and never in a fashion that could be described as proselytizing. For a film this unassuming in comparison to all of the flashier material in our movie theaters, “Please Give” is deeply passionate and designed to elicit equally passionate responses from audiences. This is easily one of those films where you want to grab the first person you saw while viewing and head to the nearest coffeehouse and talk about it. It is a film meant to bring forth discussion, arguments and artful conversations. “Please Give” is not a passive experience as its characters and situations are too complex to be simply brushed away.

The characters and their relationships parallel each other beautifully. Mary’s harsh relationship with her Andra easily mirrors Abby’s harsh relationship with Kate, for instance. Like Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful “The Kids Are All Right” from earlier this summer, Holofcener is brilliantly and brutally in tune with the nature of family dynamics, the roles in which we inhabit and the ever shifting emotions that come with those roles and dynamics.

Mary and Andra are easily the harshest characters in the film and it would be quite easy to simply paint both of them as villains and walk away. But, Holofcener cares about her characters too much to just let them thoughtlessly twist in the wind. With Mary, Holofcener is asking us to ponder whether she simply a bitch or is her harsh veneer a shield based in past emotional wounds and designed to protect her from future ones.

Andra is a straight talker to a wickedly vicious degree, but is her meanness a reflection of her entire life’s history or her extreme discomfort with facing down her inevitable mortality? A telling sequence occurs in the middle of the film as Rebecca, a new suitor, his Grandmother and Andra take a trip to upstate New York to view the fall leaves in their colorful transition. As three of these characters marvel at this natural wonder, Andra faces in the entirely opposite direction and exclaims, “This is NOTHING!” In a sequence designed for the characters to step outside of their own private pains and take in a moment larger than themselves, Andra wants none of it yet why?

Most compelling, for me, was the character of teenaged Abby as she is character I understood but simultaneously wanted to comfort and slap silly. Is she simply an ungrateful, over-privileged, brat or is she a typical insecure 15-year-old girl, struggling with her acne and weight, and growing angrier and more confused that her Mother turns herself inside out over the plight in the world instead focusing upon her? Or does Abby exhibit both of those characterizes plus more? The film’s concluding moment between Kate and Abby and centered around that aforementioned $235 pair of blue jeans that has been a source of contention throughout the entire film may also cause a sense of debate between viewers as it could be seen as a moment of resolution or the first steps into a darker and more turbulent emotional world between Mother and daughter (I leaned towards the latter) and this is precisely what Holofcener accomplishes so brilliantly, with her clear, clean and complex storytelling.

All of the performances in”Please Give” are first rate. Catherine Keener, to me, is simply one of the most honest actors working today. She goes beyond the ability of never striking a false note or blurs any lines between the craft and act of performance. Keener, always delvers the truth.

Rebecca Hall is an actress that continues to impress me greatly. In films like Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” (2006), Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008), and Ben Affleck’s “The Town” from this fall among others, she has this uncanny ability to completely disappear within a role, embodying it entirely and leaving no trace of it behind when she is seen again in a new film. Her layers are deeply compelling and her seemingly unassuming nature makes her a perfect addition to Holofcener’s cinematic world.

Not long ago, I bemoaned the lack of female writers and directors working steadily in Hollywood today, a lack has only produced a lack of breadth of material for and about women. If I could wave my magic wand, Nicole Holofcener would be making films more frequently and gaining more notoriety as her work is highly entertaining and compelling in equal doses making for cinematic experiences that are memorable. I urge you, dear readers, to…ahem…please give this excellent film a try. Now that it is available at your local video store, there’s no excuse to miss it as I nearly did.

A filmmaker of Nicole Holofcener’s talents deserves to be at the top of the pack and it is up to us to place her there.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Written and Directed by Michael Epstein
**** (four stars)

"I was the dream weaver. But now, I'm reborn.
I was the Walrus. But now, I'm John."
John Lennon (1970)

In the early morning hours of December 9, 1980, my Father woke me to get ready for school and tenderly gave me some shocking information, he wisely withheld from telling me the night before. As he watched Monday Night Football, after I had long gone to bed, he heard the announcement from legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell that stopped the world cold. John Lennon had been assassinated in New York City by deranged fan Mark David Chapman, right outside of the Dakota, the apartment he shared with his wife Yoko Ono and son, Sean Ono Lennon. After hearing this news for myself, I remember silently getting out of bed, going to the bathroom to begin getting myself ready for school and immediately tuning the radio to WLS-AM for any and all information possible.

By the time I arrived at school, I was numb. My friends consoled me in classes yet, I was numb throughout the day and I couldn’t concentrate upon anything at all as I just wanted to go home, turn on the television and radio, continuously hoping to hear the news and reports to this unspeakable tragedy. Perhaps through listening to essentially the same news over and over, I could scrounge some meaning or sense from this horrific event. But, there is just no sense to be found in an act so senseless.

To any and all who have ever known me, The Beatles are, and will always be, my favorite musical band of all time as every single note they recorded is simultaneously intimate and majestic to my ears and soul. Collectively and individually, its four participants—Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon--have been heroes to me throughout the entirety of my life, quite possibly since my birth in 1969 when my father told me that for a time, I was soothed and settled to side two of the “Abbey Road” album. They are as much a part of my life as the air I breathe and I could not imagine exactly what my life would have been like if they had never joined together rand made music for the betterment of the world.

The story of their history as The Beatles has now become something akin to a classic fable or long treasured bedtime story to me, as the details of their union, musical journey and disbandment have become so deeply familiar and even comforting with its definitive beginning, middle and end. Yet, what has continued to remain unfamiliar to me are the details of their individual lives after The Beatles. Yes, these are subjects that have been long chronicled within the music press and book after book after book but aside from general details, it would surprise you that I actually do not know terribly much about their life and times after they conquered the world and changed it forever through their music.

In the beautiful new documentary, “LENNONYC,” which aired earlier this month on PBS and is now available on DVD, filmmaker Michael Epstein deftly traces the life and art of John Lennon after his 1971 immigration to New York City. The film is no dry, stately, self-important piece about an artistic figure so immensely recognizable to all of us. Epstein has brilliantly cut through all of the details and documented records to carve out an intimately and emotional travelogue into the life and evolution of a man. The film is a political story. It is a story of addiction, depression, recovery, family and an aching love story. It is the portrait of an artist set upon his own musical journey and the process contained within the music, which is so familiar to us all. Yet, what “LENNONYC” accomplishes at its very best, is to make an individual, who has reached a near mythic status, so undeniably relatible, understandable and human.

As “LENNONYC” opens, Epstein wisely skates completely over Lennon’s tenure as one of the Fab Four and immediately plunges us into the beginnings of his new life as an expatriate in New York City. I never knew how much the city that never slept had fascinated Lennon (much like my own lifelong obsessions as an anglophile) as well as his then mounting desire to escape the invasive and sometimes cruel media bubble environment of England. Marveling that he was relatively free to live his life with Yoko just as he pleased, and move around the city without much bother and pressure, Lennon was willingly adopted by members of the anti-war movement and soon became a figurehead in the struggle to promote world peace.

As plans to embark upon a nation wide tour, which would also function as a means to register 18 year olds to vote and encourage the defeat of President Nixon escalated, Lennon’s life and status in New York became placed in jeopardy. Led by J. Edgar Hoover and members of the Nixon administration, the United States Government, feeling ridiculously provoked by Lennon’s unquestionable influence with the nation’s young, threatened to have Lennon deported-an act that eventually became a four year legal battle.

This painful event, coupled with Nixon’s re-election and some painfully brutal critical assessments of his agitprop album release, “Some Time In New York City” (1972), eventually led to Lennon’s separation from Yoko Ono and his long fabled “Lost Weekend” in Los Angeles, where John Lennon became engulfed in a dangerously deep alcoholic haze and crippling loneliness without Yoko.

The remainder of the film charts Lennon’s creative rebirth upon his return to New York City in 1974, which included his triumphant appearance with Elton John at Madison Square Garden during which he received a 10-minute ovation from the crowd and finally reunited with Yoko Ono. The conclusion to his painful legal battles with the government occurred and he was profoundly blessed with the birth of their son Sean, which led to his self-imposed retirement between 1975-1980 to become a house husband and raise their son in a way he had not with his first child Julian Lennon from his first marriage. The film’s final section takes us behind the scenes of the sessions for John and Yoko’s return to music with “Double Fantasy” and sadly, his eventual murder on December 8, 1980. And throughout it all, those nine to ten years, there was the music that not only became the soundtrack of his life but also to anyone who listened and embraced it.

Epstein loads “LENNONYC” not only with John Lennon’s glorious music but he also graces us with several deeply insightful and informative interviews with key figures from Lennon’s life, including musicians with whom he collaborated (members of the band Elephant’s Memory, Elton John and “Double Fantasy” producer Jack Douglas), and close friends and associates. Additionally, we also blessed with tremendously open and self-aware archived video and audio interviews with Lennon and finally, brand new interview footage with Yoko Ono.

Ono has also graciously granted Epstein and this production access to a host of previously unreleased audio and video footage. Providing snapshot peeks through the windows of John Lennon’s creative process, we are now able to gaze into the creations of “Mind Games” (1973), “Walls and Bridges” (1974) and “Double Fantasy” through studio chatter from a host of recording sessions, including several freakishly frightening moments during the 1973 “Rock and Roll” album sessions with producer Phil Spector.

What amazed me during these sections of the film was to discover how even after The Beatles, John Lennon still continued to utilize the recording studio as another instrument through the process of really discovering the song through his musical collaborations with his studio musicians. Lennon never came off as the arrogant and elusive grand master bestowing his wisdom upon the meager session hands. He encouraged their efforts, and included anything and everything that made the song as best as it could possibly be.

I was even more amazed to learn about how intensely Lennon labored over his lyrics during his songwriting process as he strained to find the best words to fit the music and conceptual intent perfectly. His incredible economy of words became even more staggering to me as I watched because the film forced me to listen to these familiar songs anew, which illuminated deeper and sometimes coded meanings. For instance, throughout the entire “Double Fantasy” album, Lennon uses the seemingly innocuous word “Well” repeatedly. It turns out that one word and its usage was completely intentional and entirely designed to be a message to all listeners about his state of mind and being as he reached the beginnings of middle age. After five years away from the spotlight, ensconsed happily in domesticity and having reached the age of 40, John Lennon was feeling “well” and he wanted every listener to know it.

This particular aspect of his songwriting mastery allows his songs the flexibility to continue to grow, change and reveal themselves, even 30-40 years after they were first written. Think of how the song “Watching The Wheels” has changed for you over the years. When I was 11, it was “just” a great song. At the age of 41, just one year older than Lennon when he was killed, that same song contains a huge profundity that only could have been acquired through the act of growing older. John Lennon always sang of himself in his music but now, I realize that he was singing of us as well.

And then, one sequence arrived that made me choke back tears. It was a sequence of blissful audio footage of a four or five year old Sean with John at home. While I will not describe the sequence in full to you as I want for you to experience it for yourself, I can say that it is a moment that would contain an emotional familiarity to anyone who has ever spent ample time with a child. Yet, in this case, it is filtered through John Lennon’s unique history. For me, it was a moment so touching in its combined normalcy and wonder that it became the emotional highpoint of the film as it brought all of the threads together beautifully. John Lennon’s life, regardless of how fantastic it was, mirrored all of our lives and he communicate that fact into his songs. His songs were personal and generational. So simple, clear and intrinsic to his life and yet they were universal. His songs are our songs because at their core, and no matter how disturbing some of his subject matter tended to gravitate towards, these are songs of our collective humanity. No wonder the whole world and generation after generation have cherished them so.

Thankfully, “LENNONYC” does not spend much time on his murder, although it is given the proper reverence. This film is a celebration of his life, his work, and his determination to try and live it as honestly as possible, deep flaws and all. While not as expansive as Director Andrew Solt’s excellent documentary “Imagine: John Lennon” (1988), what Michael Epstein has accomplished so wonderfully is to create a lovingly helmed documentary that fans of John Lennon will treasure, savor and hopefully embrace as much as the music and life tha inspired it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

EMANCIPATION: a review of "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest"

Based upon the novel by Stieg Larsson
Screenplay Written by Ulf Rydberg and Jonas Frykberg
Directed by Daniel Alfredson

***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Noomi Rapace is a wonder!

As the lithe, moody, embattled computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Rapace has created, over the course of three films, an embodiment of a literary character that is nothing less than definitive. In “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” Director Daniel Alfredson’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s final installment of his “Millennium trilogy,” all of Lisbeth’s demons rise to the surface and threaten to swallow her completely as she is awaiting trial for the three murders for which she was framed in the previous film. It is a provocative cauldron that boils over into not only a highly effective and involving thriller, but “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” is a enormously sweeping conclusion to an excellent film series.

Beginning mere moments after Lisbeth Salander’s brutal physical and psychological pummeling in the devastating climax of “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” we find our anti-heroine being whisked by helicopter to a hospital for an extended convalescence under the caring, watchful eye of Dr. Jonasson (Askel Morisse), as she awaits the aforementioned trial. As she heals, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (again strongly portrayed by Michael Nyqvist), is intensely attempting to devote the entirety of Millennium, his political magazine, to the support and full release of Lisbeth by bringing down the newly dubbed “The Sector,” a secretive alliance within Sweden’s secret police who has controlled a political conspiracy for the past 40 plus years.

Of course, with the hornet’s nest of corruption effectively and deeply disturbed, these now elderly, ailing criminals will not rest easily. Lisbeth and Blomkvist’s adversaries include, but are not limited to, the repellently insidious Dr. Peter Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom), who “cared” for Lisbeth during her pre-adolescent imprisonment at St. Stephen’s mental institution. Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), the silent, hulking blond assassin who carries a special bond with Lisbeth and Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), the Russian defector who is recovering in the same hospital as Lisbeth and also carries an even greater bond to her. As Blomkvist grows closer to revealing the truth, the walls of Lisbeth’s tragic life converge even tighter, threatening not only her long deserved emancipation from the stranglehold of the dark forces that have surrounded her life since childhood, but also her very survival.

If “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” were both brooding, intense explorations of exposition and tension, then “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” is provides an even more intense and excellent release. Alfredson, who also helmed the excellent previous installment, keeps the story flowing grimly and thoroughly, that by film’s end, no stone has been left unturned, all plot threads have been effectively completed, and I left the theater wanting for nothing more as I had been deeply satisfied. In addition to being an expertly conceived and executed journalistic thriller, aided by some of the strongest and most realistic usages of computer technology I have seen in the movies, the film (and the series as a whole) functions greatly as a societal meditation on vengeance, imprisonment, freedom, survival, and the obsessions that compel and drive us. Yet, for this final chapter, what struck me was the film’s themes of fragility, empathy and one’s self-perceived sense of weakness that occurs when asking for and receiving help.

Over the course of two films, we have been given a front row seat into Lisbeth’s dark life and how she has been endlessly manipulated and controlled by one sinister guiding force after another. Her survival instincts have obviously remained strong as she has been forced to burrow deeply within herself to discover (and sometimes re-invent) levels of resiliency and resolve just to successfully circumvent her stream of tormentors. What has been most remarkable about Lisbeth Salander is her ability to retain a sense of morality and justice. Even when she is at her most unforgiving, she somehow possesses restraint and a certain unwillingness to cross certain boundaries.

In “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” Lisbeth is incapacitated, first in a hospital and secondly inside a prison cell, and forced to receive as much assistance as she is able, a situation she is understandably unaccustomed, and especially not the dogged determination of Blomkvist, her obvious soul mate within this saga. It may be an odd suggestion to say that for a film series this violent, sadistic and severe, “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest” also, and surprisingly, functions as a love story! Finally, there are others to rally around Lisbeth, to elicit protection and provide solace from her doctor, who consistently keeps the authorities at bay; Annika (Annika Hallin), her steadfast attorney, to Plague (Tomas Kohler), an underground computer hacker who receives and distributes crucial information to Blomkvist, and the staff of Millennium, with Blomkvist leading the crusade. All of these characters exist to provide Lisbeth with a societal counterpoint to the only life she has known. They all serve to open a window into a new world of tolerance, especially as Lisbeth (and the audience) has been given a window into a world where the cycle of abuse is not simply internal but institutionalized.

To save and to allow oneself to be saved is the lifeline between Lisbeth and Blomkvist and it has made for one of the most powerfully heartfelt screen duos in recent years. As I stated in my reviews of the previous films, for two actors who barely share any scenes together, the twosome strike a profoundly moving connection with each other. After seeing patches of her disturbing history in the previous two films, the full and complete arc of Lisbeth Slander is revealed in this act and Rapace’s performance is nothing short of remarkable. If she were eligible to receive an Oscar nomination for her work, it would be a highly deserved form of recognition and I cannot express my admiration for her enough. Rapace accomplishes a world of emotions by actually doing so very little! Remember, for most of “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” she is out of action, either tucked away for rehabilitation in a hospital or awaiting trial in a cell. That said, she is no passive hand-wringer either as her mind is blazingly clear and racing to figure out ways to keep her head above water, especially as her inner demons threaten to engulf her. Oh but when she arrives for the film’s courtroom sequence in the film’s final third, dressed to the hilt in full S&M leather garbed regalia, she is armed for the battle of her life and the sight is electrifying!

Yet for all of the attention Rapace is receiving for her work, I would hate for the performance of Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist to go unnoticed as it is indeed the less flashy role. Nyqvist coveys the absolute definition of “rock steady” as he embodies the type of hero I would think that any one of us would love to have in our corners on our respective behalves. He is thorough and obsessive in his pursuits to the point of being nearly devotional. And like Rapace, Nyqvist never overplays one moment. His silences and lack of histrionics draw you in, desiring to see the inner workings of this virtuous individual. Yes, Liam Neeson is a good choice for the American remakes being helmed by Director David Fincher, but for me, Michael Nyqvist has created a screen version of a literary character that is as equally definitive as Rapace’s. The two are beautifully symbiotic.

And now, the trilogy is complete and what a pleasure it was to have had the opportunity to see all three original films within the space of a few months. For fans of the original novels and for complete novices to this enterprise like myself, I strongly urge you to go out support this series. I do realize that there may be some of you who are just not interested in foreign films and reading subtitles. I do understand the extra attention that places upon viewers when they simply want to be entertained with a good story. But, as I have stated before, that while I feel confident that Fincher just may be able to craft a great movie from this material, I just do not see the point when we already have three excellent features ready for anyone who is willing to watch them.

Yes, the American version(s) will have more recognizable actors, a much larger budget and potentially no subtitles but none of those elements can erase the cinematic gold we have here.