Mini Reviews: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) + Wind River (2017)

Happy Monday everyone! It’s been a pretty hectic week last week with freelance gigs, script updates, etc. There’s a hint of Spring (finally!) after such a long and pretty miserable Winter, in fact, we pretty much hibernated most weekends the past couple of months. Well, that gave us a chance to catch up on a bunch of new-to-me movies. Today I’ve got a pair of excellent, moody crime thrillers that both took place in the Winter months.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is aided in his search for a woman who has been missing for forty years by Lisbeth Salander, a young computer hacker.

Directed by: David Fincher
Screenplay by: Steven Zaillian

For a while I sort of avoided this adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s crime novel (part of the Millennium trilogy), both the Swedish version and this English language version. I just thought it’d be too violent and that I wouldn’t enjoy it. But well, my hubby and I were in the mood for a good crime noir, and since we both liked Gone Girl, we thought we’d give this one a shot. Well, I wasn’t disappointed.

David Fincher is a master in building suspense even with relatively little action. I quite like Daniel Craig as the disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who’s hired by a retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his grandniece Harriet. Vanger exposed some really strange family dynamics which lives up to his descriptions, and then some. The film took its time before Mikael and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) meets, as their story runs in parallel until their eventual meet-up.

I knew going into this that this is a violent film, especially dealing with brutal sexual assault and rape, but still, it’s quite harrowing to watch. The way Lisbeth retaliates for this brutality has that ‘wish fulfillment’ fantasy, as the wicked assailant has no idea who he’s dealing with. Mara’s transformation as Lisbeth is astounding and she completely lost herself in the role as the brilliant but antisocial hacker. I thought Mara’s a bit of an unusual choice to play her, but she pulled it off. Lisbeth is quite a mesmerizing and intimidating character, an undoubtedly challenging-but-flashy role every prominent actress would want to portray.

What I like most about this movie is the way the story unfolds. I actually like the deliberate, almost unhurried pace, but every moment is never without a sense of dread. Fincher’s direction is superb, using the setting (in Sweden and various Nordic countries) to great effect in conveying the perfect mood for the film. It’s the kind of mystery thriller that fully immerses you in the story and rewards your patience. Stellan Skarsgård is pretty memorable here as well in a quiet, but sinister role as Harriet’s brother.

I have to say though, the scenes towards the end with Lisbeth inhabiting a completely different persona as a femme fatale is feels a bit off from the rest of the film. The hurried pacing and more glamorous setting makes it feel like a Bond movie (with Lisbeth playing ‘Jane’ Bond) which is amusing given Craig’s casting. Honestly, it took me out of the movie a bit. I enjoyed watching the scenes, it’s just that the whole thing feels incredulous. Perhaps that is the point, Lisbeth going way out of her comfort zone to help someone she cares about.

Despite the gruesome scenes, I actually like this film enough that I might even rewatch it at some point. There are SO much details during the investigation that I likely missed a few things. It also got me intrigued to see the original Swedish versions starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth.

WIND RIVER (2017)

A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.

Written & Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

After seeing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, my hubby and I are craving for more mystery thrillers. I was impressed by Taylor Sheridan‘s impressive writing in Sicario, but haven’t seen anything else he’s done since. Well, he’s definitely no ‘one hit wonder.’

The film opens with a card that says “inspired by true events,” which makes the scene that follows all the more excruciating to watch. A panic-stricken young woman is running in a vast snowy land on the Wind River Indian Reservation with barely enough clothing to survive the harsh climate. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an expert tracker working for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agency, discovered her frozen body and alerted the FBI. The Feds sent a rookie agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who arrived from Las Vegas and soon realized this case is way in over her head.

The unlikely partnership between Lambert and Banner is the core of the story and it’s intriguing to watch. The fact that Renner and Olsen worked together in Avengers: Age of Ultron two years prior is amusing, but it’s a testament to their acting that I quickly forgot about that fact as the film progressed. I love that Sheridan’s just as concerned with his characters as he is with solving a murder case, putting this film far and above a typical CSI or Law & Order’s ‘whodunnit’ episode. Soon we learn about Lambert’s past and why this case is so hugely personal to him. Sheridan also toys with our expectations, in a good way, in the way he presents the murder suspects. I’m also impressed by the skilled use of flashback to tell a crucial detail, without spoon-feeding the audience too much details. I also appreciate that the film is not gratuitously violent nor gory.

Renner is particularly strong here in a soulful, emotionally-grounded performance as a man who’ve been through hell and back. Lambert offers a nice contrast to the inexperienced Banner, teaching her the ropes without being condescending. Veteran character actor Graham Greene as the Tribal Police chief Ben plays a crucial role here. “This is the land of you’re on your own.” Ben sheds lights into how the Native American community like Wind River is marginalized and barely gets the attention they deserve, as evidenced by the lack of federal support Banner gets to solve this case. I like Jon Bernthal‘s casting as well which again toys with our expectations given the tough guy roles he often plays.

The desolate setting here is a character in itself, in which the location is pivotal to the story. It’s a bleak film to be sure, but a deeply engrossing one and it’s not without hope. That scene towards the end of Lambert and his friend Martin (Gil Birmingham) is a powerful one that ties well with an earlier scene after the girl’s body’s just discovered. I find myself engrossed in this slow-burn mystery, which also rewards your patience with a satisfying ending. I’d say it’s a pretty strong directorial debut from Sheridan, though it made me curious to see how the film would look like under someone like David Fincher. In any case, Sheridan is definitely a gifted writer and a promising director, I’m definitely keen on seeing more of his work in the future!


So have you seen either one of these films? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: Kubo And The Two Strings (2016)

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Directed by Travis Knight | Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Featuring the voices of: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Brenda Vaccaro and George Takei.

This latest film from Laika is a 3D stop-motion animated film. It tells the story of Kubo, a boy who comes across the ocean as a baby, adrift with his mother, fleeing some sort of great danger – one that has left him with only one eye. In hiding, he grows into a young boy and demonstrates a magical affinity for storytelling and origami. He uses this gift to mesmerize the townsfolk with tales of great warriors and monsters for a bit of money. Meanwhile, his mother, also possessing magical powers, is slipping away in a deep melancholia and fading memories. She forbids him to stay out after dark for they are being hunted by those responsible for taking his eye. As the story progresses, this inevitability comes to pass and those forces catch up to him.

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Kubo and the Two Strings is a gorgeous film. Laika, which builds on its resume of Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, has slowly and meticulously been perfecting it’s craft in the genre. 4.3 seconds of animation was produced in a day – the film taking 5 years to complete. Its look is stylish and impressive, fooling this reviewer’s eye into thinking it was done completely in the CGI domain.

Even more impressive are the themes the film tackles: love, life, death, rebirth, grief, the idea of memory as sacred and divine, and the power of storytelling. In this sense, “Kubo” strives for Studio Ghibli territory and is much closer to Miyazaki than any Dreamworks/Pixar/Disney offerings of late. It is appropriate to describe “Kubo” as a Samurai film as it has elements reminiscent of Kurosawa especially in its depiction of evil and the supernatural, as well as the hero’s journey.


While the film doesn’t completely succeed in its efforts to address all of these themes, it doesn’t fail either. Kubo should be lauded for not dumbing down its ideas to cater to the lowest common denominator. There is a darkness and melancholia added on to the film’s optimism and humor – and this seems fitting to its execution: simple with a dash of complexity. I also found its un-sentimentality refreshing in the era dominated by the Frozens and the Finding Dorys.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not perfect but it makes a valiant effort in a mature way. The filmmakers should be commended for that.

Note: the film has some scary images and sequences and not recommended for kids under 10.

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So what do you think of Kubo and The Two Strings? Let us know what you think!

FlixChatter Review: PAN (2015)

PAN2015Hollywood’s obsession with origin stories continue with this latest reimagining of Peter Pan story. The story is set during the WW II Blitz era London and centers on the 12-year-old orphan Peter (Levi Miller) who lives in cheerless orphanage run by heartless and cunning nuns. But of course we know he won’t stay there for long as he will soon be whisked way to the magical world of Neverland to fulfill his destiny [yawn].

Pardon my dread there, but really, there have been a plethora of ‘chosen one’ storyline done in the past, and this one doesn’t really add nothing new. One of my pet peeves is whenever I hear ‘it’s your destiny’ or something along that line, I just can’t help to roll my eyes as it’s just so darn clichéd. Well, despite all the pixie dust we see in this movie, it lacks a certain kind of magic that would fill me with wonder.

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Don’t get me wrong, I think Joe Wright has a way with creating unique spectacle on screen. The 3D looks bright, colorful and panoramic, and feature some stunning camera work, especially the moment we get to Neverland and introduced to its flamboyant pirate leader Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Here we’ll see how Blackbeard’s plucked a bunch of kids from orphanages all over the world to work as slaves in his mine. So yeah, this movie is VERY loosely based on J. M. Barrie’s classic story, but that’s what you get from a reimagining adaptation. The quarry visual is reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road and the rousing rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rather amusing as it’s so unexpected.

In Neverland, Peter also encountered James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) who’s still working as one of Blackbeard pixie dust mine minions. Hedlund‘s basically channeling John Wayne-style cowboy and though he’s fun in parts, he’s rather devoid of real charm. There’s all the teasing that Peter and the would-be Captain Hook would not be friends later on, and there’s deliberate *suspense* over when Hook would lose his hand to a crocodile. There’s even a giant CGI croc leaping across your screen, just one of a plethora of sound and sight oddities throughout. Did I mention Cara Delevingne also makes a cameo as a mermaid triplets?

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The relentless CGI-fest will no doubt engulf your senses. At times the effect felt like a huge sugar rush overload. There is only so much eye-popping effects your eyes can handle, I actually had to close my eyes a few times just to recharge my senses. But no amount of visual spectacle can replace a heartfelt story and I think that’s what’s lacking here. There are moments later in the film between Peter and his long-lost mother that’s quite moving, but that emotional resonance is so few and far between.

I think one of the worst moments is between Hook and Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) which is just so awkward and pointless. In fact, the entire sequence in the island of the tribe that protect the fairy kingdom feels haphazard with garish colors and absurd battle action. Not to mention the fact that the casting of Mara as a Native American princess is just egregious. I read one reviewer who said ‘…Rooney Mara was crushed by a United Colours of Benetton ad’ Ouch! Ok so there is one character played by a non-white actor Adeel Akhtar, but he’s relegated to comic relief purpose and not much else.

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You won’t expect any subtlety in this movie and I don’t think Wright even tried. What’s also not-so-subtle is the fact that the film seems to be made to launch a franchise. Yet the script by Jason Fuchs is already stretched so thin, with minimal character development. It doesn’t help that it gets lost in the extravagant, noisy special effects. The film’s already a massive box office flop as it’d be a struggle to even make up the $150 million budget. But hopefully this means Wright will return to making intriguing dramas like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.

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As far as performances go, I have to say that Jackman’s theatrical background is put to good use as Blackbeard. I know the role likely begets over-the-top performance, but all the scenery chewing gets irritating fast. Just like the movie, all the makeup/costume is so showy and circus-y but the character itself isn’t all that interesting. I do like Levi Miller as Peter though, I think he has that expressive face that reminds me of the young girl in the first Jurassic Park movie. Apparently Wright traveled to the UK, the United States, Canada, and Australia and looked at thousands of kids before he found Miller.

Overall, all the well intention of the filmmakers involved is swallowed up by overwhelming action and CGI spectacle. It also went on for far too long at nearly 2-hours, but too short on humor and whimsy. Like a rollercoaster in an amusement park, there are up and down moments, if only there were more ups than downs.

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Did you see PAN? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Spike Jonze’s HER

Once in a while, a film you hadn’t heard much about suddenly sneaked in and took your breath away. In 2013, that film for me was HER.

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In its simplistic terms, Spike Jonze‘s sci-fi drama is about a guy who falls in love with an Operating System. Yes, that alone is downright bizarre, which at first glance reminds me of Al Pacino’s S1m0ne from 2002 but it actually couldn’t be more different from each other. No, there’s so much more to HER than meets the eye… and I have to admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I was about to witness.

The story takes place in Los Angeles some time in the future (the year is not specified), but it’s a futuristic time where we can still very much identify with. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) makes a living as a writer who writes love letters for people who can’t quite express their feelings. That alone is an interesting occupation as Theodore is very good at what he does, yet he lives a lonely existence, you could even say he’s crestfallen. Having just separated from his wife, he internalizes everything and barely has any social life. One day, he purchased a talking operating system with artificial intelligence, designed to adapt and evolve like a human being. Little did he know that the OS in question, who names herself Samantha, would change his life in ways he’d never imagine.

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I have to admit that as I was watching the film, I too was quite taken by Samantha, voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson. As advertised, the OS’ ability to evolve psychologically and adapting to Theodore’s cerebral as well as emotional needs is astounding. She looks at the world through his eyes and learns at a rapid speed. It’s as if Samantha had known Theodore forever and that she’s the only *person* who could understand him. Samantha soon becomes a dominant part of Theodore’s life, seemingly rescuing him out of his gloom. She even sets him up on a blind date with a long time friend that his neighbor Amy has been trying to set him up with. It’s from a date snafu that Theodore and Samantha starts to talk about relationship and begins to really ask the question we as people take for granted.

This is the kind of thought-provoking science fiction story that I wish Hollywood would make more of. Sci-fi is not always about aliens or cool-looking futuristic equipments or cars or what have you, but a good sci-fi should actually makes us ponder about our own humanity. In this case, it explores how technology affects us humans in terms of our way of connecting with each other. In this day an age, with increasing number of people having far more connection with their digital devices than their living soul counterparts, the idea of dating an OS might not be so implausible after all. Fortunately, Jonze didn’t set up the whole idea as a mere gimmick. As Conor’s mentioned in his thought-provoking post, this is a great example of a true sci-fi , instead of those that are *dressed* as one.

As Theodore becomes more smitten with Samantha and vice versa, the only thing missing was the physical connection… and that is perhaps one of the most bizarre yet essential exploration of the film. I’m not going to spoil the details for you but the keyword here is surrogate. If you think the idea is downright outlandish, well wait until you see it on film. I have to admit I was squirming in my seat watching the scene unfold, but I think the scene is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Jonze tackled the issue of sexuality in the digital age and its peculiarity in a matter-of-fact way which makes you squirm and laugh at the same time. Yet it’s also one of the most emotionally absorbing film I’ve seen in a long time.

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When I saw the film, the theater was quite empty with barely twenty people in it. So it was almost having the whole place to myself which is a good thing as I was almost sobbing a few times. The heartbreak that Theodore is experiencing isn’t any less miserable because Samantha wasn’t human. In fact, there’s a scene towards the end that was utterly heart-wrenching, I’d just imagine how I would feel when I fear losing the one person I love most as that’s what Theodore must be feeling.

Now, though the film doesn’t explore the spiritual aspect of the premise, it certainly makes me think about it quite a bit as I’m watching it and long afterwards. I remember watching Blade Runner a while back, which was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel more aptly-titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It prompted me to write this post about how droids want to be human but some humans would rather keep their feelings out of the way in their relationships. Samantha could’ve been the best girlfriend Theodore could ever have, he even comes to accepts the lack of a physical form, but how does he reconcile fact that she is without soul? It seems that Samantha experiences pain as much as Theodore does when their relationship flounder. But is it real? How could he ever know? The revelation towards the end that Theodore learns from Samantha throws him off balance… I mean, it was as much a shock to me the viewer, as I’ve come to identify and empathize with him.

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The key strength of the film is the stellar performances. Joaquin Phoenix is nothing short of astounding in his soulful performance as Theodore. As the camera follows his physiognomy in various close-ups, many times he’s not saying anything at all for a long period of time, but his face and eyes convey so much. His character goes through an emotional roller coaster here and Phoenix was more than up for the task. Scarlett Johansson delivers one of the best voice performances I’ve ever listened to. Samantha is described as super intelligent and extremely confident, as an OS wouldn’t have any of the insecurities and fear that a real woman would have. Johansson seems the natural choice for the role which is odd considering she was brought in at the last minute after Samantha Morton did the original voice work. Whatever it was that made Jonze change her mind about Morton, the switch worked amazingly well as I can’t imagine anyone else in the role besides Johansson. She’s playful, charming, sexy, but also emotionally convincing when the role requires. I really think that voice work should be recognized come award season, as I’ve mentioned in this post. In terms of supporting cast, Amy Adams is terrific as Theodore’s neighbor. It proves how versatile she is considering how far apart this role is from the one in American Hustle, definitely a lot more clothes on and a lot less make-up. Remarkably, her small here might even be more profound than her performance as Lois Lane in Man of Steel. Olivia Wilde and Rooney Mara both have bit parts as Theodore’s date and ex-wife, respectively. They’re both ok, but there’s nothing to write home about. Oh, I quite like Chris Pratt as Theodore’s colleague as well. At first I thought he was an odd casting choice but it worked somehow.

The look and sound complements the mood of the film perfectly, down to the rather melancholic music. Some of my faves are Arcade Fire’s Supersymmetry and The Moon Song. The latter is co-written by by Jonze and performed by both Johansson and Phoenix. I also love the futuristic setting that Jonze created, it feels familiar yet different. The luminous cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema creates a rather sterile-looking L.A. that feels strangely retro even though it’s set in the future. Even the clothes that Theodore wears have a retro look to them with the high-waisted slacks.

Final Thoughts: This has become one of my favorite films of 2013, and perhaps of all time. There are so many rich nuances in this film that I could mull over and contemplate with, it’s definitely one of those films that I’d like to watch more than once just to absorb it all again. Thanks to a meticulously sharp script by Jonze, his intimate directing style and terrific performances, her is a fascinating journey that’s as intriguing as it is heartfelt.

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Thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

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This supposedly Steven Soderbergh‘s last feature film wasn’t even on my radar, in fact I just saw the trailer the day of the screening a couple of weeks ago. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about this movie and I think the less you read or watch about it the better. In fact, when I went to the screening, the press associate said the studio won’t allow anyone to be admitted to the theater once the film has begun, saying that the opening scene is so key to the plot that showing up late would surely lessen the viewing experience for the viewer.

The opening scene takes place in what looks to be a luxury apartment in Manhattan, belonging to a well-to-do couple Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum). Emily’s husband has just gotten out of jail where he spent a four-year term for insider trading. She should be overjoyed, right? But instead she’s afflicted with recurring bout of depression and suicidal behavior. The doctor who ends up treating her, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), proceeds to prescribe her an anti-depressant. But when a regular drug isn’t enough, he gives her a new one that just came out in the market called Ablixa, suggested by Emily’s former shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug perks Emily up for a while — much to the delight of her husband – but then the drug’s supposed side effect ends up creating more problems than its worth.

At least that’s what Soderbergh wants you to think. When people first saw the trailer or even reading the premise involving a pharmaceutical corporation, they might immediately think of Contagion (which was also written by Scott Z. Burns). Other than the medical-related theme, it can’t be more dissimilar. Soderbergh is known for experimenting on his projects and this one is no different.

As the story progresses, we realize more and more that everyone and everything are not who/what they seem. The character focus alternates between Emily and Dr. Banks, who apparently has some issues on his own and a past incident that catches up with him. The narrative pretty much shifts from being a character study to a whodunnit Hitchcockian thriller laden with plot twists. I find the first act to be much more intriguing, but its um, potency kind of wears off in the second act, recovered slightly in the third though the lurid twist is a bit eye-roll inducing.

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I think Side Effects is a deftly-constructed thriller, it’s packed with clever camera work, shrewd acting and appropriately moody atmosphere (thanks largely to Thomas Newman‘s ominous score). Yet somehow the film fails to engage me. Not to mention the lack of emotional connection with any of the characters, made worse by the decidedly morose and unsettling tone of the entire film. A few commenters in the Five for the Fifth post pointed out how some Soderbergh’s films are emotionally-cold, and this one is a perfect example. There is not a single character that I can truly empathize with, maybe Banks’ wife (played by the underrated Vinessa Shaw), who has to put up with her husband’s antics. By the end I feel that they get what they deserve, if only they happen much sooner.

We’ve got another killer heroine from Soderbergh. Instead of the bad-ass action hero in Haywire, this time we’ve got a slightly more rounded character — and more unhinged – but still equally detached. Performance-wise, I think Mara was given the most material to work with and she’s able to tackle the contrasting personalities her character requires. I’ve only seen her in The Social Network, which was brief but memorable. She’s definitely a gifted performer and her glacial aura is put to good use here. Her blank expression suggest there’s something lurking, enhancing the chilling effect. At the same time, her lack of warmth makes it impossible to root for her. Jude Law is pretty good here as he’s the co-lead of the film, a much more sympathetic character despite his flaws. I must say that Law doesn’t have quite have that star quality so when the narrative is focused on him, he doesn’t exactly lights up the screen. All I could say for Zeta-Jones is that perhaps she’s inspired by her husband’s choice of role in his next film when she signed up for this role.

Final Thoughts: Unpredictable? Perhaps. Absorbing? Not really.

Despite the roller-coaster ride that Soderbergh set up for the viewers, this film left me rather underwhelmed. I glanced at my watch a few times as I was watching it, which is never a good sign. I didn’t see some of the twists coming but yet when it happened, I wasn’t all that surprised either. The revelation itself seemed a little too neat that it doesn’t quite pack a punch. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a decent thriller, but it doesn’t leave a level of greatness I expect from Burns and Soderbergh pairing.

Judging from the reaction about his pending retirement, I know a lot of people are disappointed by that and wish the director would stay around. Well pardon me for being indifferent.

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As Tyson has eloquently put in his A Call To Arms post, would you be so kind as to use one of the share buttons below to share my post? I’d sincerely appreciate it. Share… it’s what makes the blogs go around 😀


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.