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: SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018)

Denis Villeneuve’s SICARIO was one of the best films of 2015 and one of my favorites that year. It was well received by many movie critics, but it wasn’t a huge box office hit, so I didn’t expect or wanted to see a sequel. But these days Hollywood studios will try to turn ANY movie into a franchise and now part 2 of the hit man saga has been unleash to multiplexes.

The story kicks off with terrorist bombings, including one at a major convenient store in the heartland of America. Special agent Matt Gravers (Josh Brolin) has been summon by his boss Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) to find out who’s responsible for the bombings. With the blessing from the Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine), Gravers was given a mission to do whatever it takes to get a payback for the bombings.

After interrogating a Somalian pirate, he found out that the drug cartels in Mexico are smuggling terrorists through southern border of Texas. With a help of his trusted assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), they devised a plan to kidnap a daughter of one of the big drug cartels and made it look like it’s another cartel who did it. Their goal is to start a war between the cartels, hoping they would all kill each other and wouldn’t be able to smuggle people to the United States. The victim is teenager named Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), whose father happens to be the biggest drug lord in Mexico. Once Graves and his men took Isabel, things went south fast and Alejandro must use skills to protect Isabel from danger.

With Villeneuve being busy with other projects, stepping into the director’s chair this time is Stefano Sollima, whose previous projects were mostly TV shows in Italy. I thought he did a decent job by following Villeneuve’s template, in fact I think most people would think this film was directed by Villeneuve if they didn’t know a new director was hired for the job. The look and feel were no different from the last film. There’s nothing wrong with following the previous director’s style but for me, if a new director takes over a franchise, I expect to see that person to bring in their own creative vision. Sollima did stage a pretty impressive action sequence in a desert where Graves and his men got ambushed.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is solid but not as good as the first one. Here he tackled several political subjects that are relevant to our real-world issues such as immigration debate, terrorism and politics bickering. But I thought with all those complex ideas he came up with, they just masked a very thin plot. If you’ve seen the trailers of this film, you pretty much know the whole story and that’s pretty disappointing to me. There were opportunities to make this one even compelling than the first film, but the story ended way too fast. I understand they’re planning a trilogy, so hopefully the third film will give us better story.

Performances were pretty decent all around, Brolin and Del Toro looked very comfortable in their respective roles and some of the young actors were pretty good. I thought Keener’s and Modine’s character were kind of wasted, they didn’t really have much to do and could’ve been played by unknown actors.

I was looking forward to this sequel and was a disappointed, mostly with the script. I think they missed an opportunity to make this one as good or better than the last film. Still a solid thriller and fans of the first film should check it out.

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So have you seen Sicario: Day of the Soldado? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

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When I first saw the trailer of Hell or High Water a couple of months ago, I thought for sure it’s going to be one of those late summer action films that would be shown at theaters one weekend and disappeared the next. Well as it turns out, it is one of the best reviewed films of the year, maybe the best so far. According to Rottentomatoes.com, out 134 critics who reviewed it, only 2 gave it a negative review. As of this writing, it’s currently sitting at an unbelievable 99% fresh rating on the site.

Set in West Texas, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are bank robbers and as the film opens, we see their acts right away. They’re amateurs but desperate for money, especially Toby who wants to keep his family land from being foreclosed on by the evil banks. Texas Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Parker (Gil Birmingham) are on the hunt to stop these two brothers from committing any more robberies. These four characters are the center of the picture and it’s the chess match between the brothers and Rangers that’s fun to watch. This film can be described as buddy/western/road/action/thriller, it’s quite a lot to describe a film but that’s best way to explain it to anyone.

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For a film that doesn’t have a complex plot, the actors need to carry the picture and the performances by the main leads were pretty great. Jeff Bridges gets my vote for best performance of the year so far; no doubt he’ll get nominated again comes awards season for his performance here. He pretty much reprised his role from True Grit and it’s quite fun to watch. His character is on the verge of retirement and he wants to catch these thieves so he can ride out into the sunset as a hero. His constant insults on his partner Parker is hilarious and we audience know he didn’t mean what he said.

Birmingham also stood out as the partner who has to endured Hamilton’s insults but he give as much insults back to Hamilton as well. Watching these two rangers bickers gave the picture more comedic tone than you’d expect in a film like this. Pine, who probably realized he can’t rely on the Star Trek pictures to keep him relevant in Hollywood, wisely accepts this role in a smaller film. He’s very good here as a desperate man who wants his kids to have a better life than his. He also worries about his reckless brother who only decided to rob the banks just for fun. I was never a fan of Foster but he’s effective here as the reckless brother who enjoys violence and knows that his life is over once they’re done with the robberies.

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The script by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is pretty great. Even though it’s a simple story, he was able inject some dark humor, great dialogs and some surprises here and there. I do wish he’d toned down some of the hate directed at the evil banks; yeah we get it, many people suffered because of these greedy bankers. Some of the dialogs tend to get a bit too preachy for my liking, especially when Toby and Hamilton had their confrontation.

Director David Mackenzie also did a good job of setting moving the film along as a brisk pace. It’s obvious that he took inspirations from films of Sam Peckinpah and The Coen Brothers. Some even compare this film to No Country For Old Men. While I agree there are similarities, I still think the Coen Brothers’ picture is superior to this.

Even though it sounds like I love this film, I only liked it. I thought Mackenzie did a good job of bringing a great script to the big screen, I think had it been directed by a more polished directors like David Fincher or Alfonso Cuaron, this would’ve been a near perfect film. I didn’t see any originality from Mackenzie so I can’t call a great film, just a very good one. But it does have a great script and fine performances.

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So have you seen Hell or High Water? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: SICARIO (2015)

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Director Denis Villeneuve loves to make films about dark subjects, in his latest one he decides to tackle the dark world of war on drugs here in United States.

After a raid that’s gone terribly wrong on a home that belongs to a very powerful drug cartel, young FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) decides to volunteer to be part of a secret mission that’s being lead by a mysterious agent named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). She’s on a need-to-know basis on this mission, she also meets another mysterious agent named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro); who tells her that they’re going to find the biggest drug dealer in the world and take him down. Their first task was to transfer a prisoner from Mexico back to the States but some thugs decided to attempt the break the prisoner free.

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This lead to a shootout that killed all of the thugs in the middle of the highway and Macer was not too happy about it. She’s a by the book type of an agent and thought what happened during the shootout was illegal. But both Graver and Alejandro told her this is how it’s done in the real world and she has to deal with it. As the movie progresses, Macer starts to wonder if she’s in over her head and not sure if she could trust either of the men she thought had her back.

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I can’t say that I’m a fan of Emily Blunt since I haven’t seen many of her work. But she’s very good here as the ambitious young agent who thinks she can make a difference. Basically she represents us the audience, she’s seeing this ugly world of drug war for the first time, there are no rules and innocent people gets kill in the middle of it. Brolin is his usual self; he’s a mysterious character that you don’t really know which side he’s on. Del Toro on the other hand, really shines in this movie. His character is a cross between James Bond and Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. He’s a cold blooded killer that can’t stop, but there’s a reason behind his madness.

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Director Denis Villeneuve did a great job of setting up the tension of every intense scenes but chose not to show the graphic violence you’d expect in this kind of film. The script by Taylor Sheridan is very well-written and full of twists and turns. For example, there’s a potential love story that I thought would derail the movie but then it turned ugly real fast. You think you figured something out, but he threw a curve ball at you.

Last but certainly not least is Roger Deakins‘ excellent cinematography, just like his other famous work, the shots in this film were all jaw dropping. There were a lot of wide shots of landscape and city that you have to see on the big screen to appreciate his beautiful work; maybe the Oscar voters will finally give him the golden statue this year.

With great performances, tight direction, well-written script and superlative cinematography, this is one of the year’s best films and I can’t wait to see it again. It’s very highly recommended.

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So have you seen SICARIO? Well, what did you think?