Monday, February 23, 2009

The Dead Girl

The Dead Girl struck me as odd from the very first frame. The imagery used in this film immediately stood out from the onset. I noticed the subtle soundtrack which helped create the somber mood the images were leading up to. A lonely woman in a vineyard filled with strangely twisted trees, a crow flying overhead, a coldness. In an area of a vineyard where only stumps stand where once life flourished...our lady notices something in the grass. The something being a dead girl. The dead girl. An absence of words allows the images to tell the story. It is a concept that lingers throughout the film.

The woman’s name is Arden (Toni Collette). Her sorrow follows her into the house, where we find that Arden cares for her recalcitrant mother (Piper Laurie). The mother is angry Arden has reported the body, bringing Police into her yard. The overbearing mother sheds some light on the source of Arden ’s brooding. We follow Arden ’s character for a short while, experiencing her darkness (with some help from Giovani Ribisi) before moving on to the family of a missing girl. They are a family dysfunctional from their loss and inability to heal. The daughter Leah (Rose Byrne) examines the body found by Arden , noticing a birthmark that leads her to believe it is her missing sister. The opportunity to have release from the bondage of a “missing” sister brings Leah out of her shell, before she learns that the girl is not her sister. Her shadows close back in on her as we depart.

Carl (Nick Searcy) is a serial killer. He lives with his bitter wife Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt), a woman weary of Carl’s constant wanderings. It seems Ruth lives to fix Carl’s dinner, wash his clothes and run his storage unit business while he is off “galavanting around.” Ruth mistakenly finds Carl’s trophies, memoires of the girls he has killed, in one of the storage units. Ruth struggles with her decision at her discovery, acting in a seemingly illogical manner…but not necessarily unbelievable. Ruth walks off into the darkness as we meet the mother of the dead girl, Melora (Marcia Gay Harden). After speaking with Detectives, Melora sets off to find the place where her daughter lived. We meet the dead girl’s girlfriend Rosetta (Kerry Washington) in a seedy motel where prostitutes ply their trade. Rosetta helps Melora understand why her daughter left, and ends up introducing Melora to a granddaughter she never knew she had. Although dramatic elements exist in this segment of the story, it ends with more promise than the others…

…moving back through time, we are introduced to the dead girl. She had a name. Krista (Brittany Murphy). Krista wants to bring her daughter a gift for her third birthday. Krista is a vibrant likable character with an outer joy that covers her tough interior. She has an intensity that seems to flare from her. Her intensity is both good and sometimes bad. She has a John named Tarlow (Josh Brolin) that seems to be sweet on her. But there are limits in any relationship. Tarlow reneges on a promise to take Krista to see her daughter for her birthday. Krista ends up on a broken down motorcycle looking for a ride. She seems so full of life during her conversation with Carl. And then the credits roll.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Uninvited

The Uninvited takes place at the gorgeous seaside residence of a Maine writer. I was thinking Stephen King as soon as I saw the setting. Yet, The Uninvited does not have it's origins in any of King's many books. The Maine location was simply the locale selected for this remake of the 2003 Korean film Janghwa, Hangryeon. The stunning location sets an excellent backdrop for a psychological thriller.

Anna (Emily Browning) returns to her ocean side home after a ten month sting in a mental hospital. Anna has been working through the loss of her mother (Maya Massar) who died in a fire. Anna's wrists still show the scars revealing her downward spiral following her mother's death. Anna's father Steven (David Strathairn) picks her up from the hospital. On the trip home, Steven presents Anna with his latest book, dedicated to Anna and her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel). We also find that Rachael (Elizabeth Banks) has moved into the house while Anna has been away.

Rachael was the nurse who cared for Anna's mother who was very ill before she dies in a fire in the boathouse. Rachael and Stephen have gotten very close, and we learn that they intend to get married. A concept that Anna obviously doesn't embrace. Anna was dreaming heavily during the time she was in the hospital, but the events that transpired the night her mother was killed seem to escape her memory. Upon her return to the house, strange things begin to happen. Anna begins seeing things that can't be there. It is a downward spiral that seems destined to be a problem.

The Uninvited sort of grows on you. The film begins strong and then gets a bit choppy. The boisterous soundtrack near the beginning of the film is more of a distraction than it's intended purpose to build suspense. The music seemed to make the scenes feel contrived. The interactions between the characters are sometimes predictable, but the overall plot had a major twist that I was not expecting. The thought had crossed my mind, but the diversionary tactics written into the script did a good job of steering my attention in the wrong direction. When the twist happened, I realized I had been fooled. In retrospect, there were obvious signs...which I won't reveal since the plot twist was the best part of the story.

Following the plot twist, we are given scenes that have been recreated in order to solidify the twist. These scenes were a bit condescending. I got it. When the plot twist happened, I recognized it for what it was worth. The ensuing scenes were a bit insulting, as if the writers wanted to make sure you understood the twist. The plot twist wasn't the end of the film, either. There was one last detail to clear up, which made sense when it was addressed. It was sort of an amusing journey that ended where it began. Although it took a circuitous route, I enjoyed the trip. The writers (Craig Rosenbeg, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard) did an excellent job of holding the storyline together without compromising the twist. Directors Charles and Thomas Guard managed the script well, keeping the interactions between the characters believable, while creating a gap that should have been noticeable, but never crossed any lines. That required careful choreography...which was done exceptionally well to maintain the illusion. Although the film felt hackneyed and predictable at times, the overall story was not.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Mighty Heart

I have a confession to make. I don't know what possessed me to do it...but I watched the Daniel Pearl video on an Arabic website immediately following his murder. It was singularlyTHE most disturbing thing I have ever witnessed. If I had it to do over again, I would undo watching that video. Although it stoked the fire inside of me, bringing home the brutality of the terrorists who mean our country harm, it contained imagery that will be forever seared on my brain. As a young Marine, we were shown all of the Faces of Death episodes to numb us to this sort of thing...Faces of Death doesn't come close to that video.

In that frame of mind, I brought myself to watch A Mighty Heartwith a heavy heart at the inhumane destruction of Daniel Pearl's life. When I hear people talk about Abu Graib or Guantanamo Bay with words like inhumane, I want to force those people to watch the Pearl video. A senseless killing that brings new meaning to malice. I watched A Mighty Heart with interest...watching events unfold that are not far removed from current events.

For the uninitiated, Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) was a reporterworking in Pakistan. He was seeking an interview with a terrorist leader known as Sheikh Gilani (played by Ikram Bhatti). Another terrorist organization, looking to kidnap an American, set up an alleged meeting between Pearl and Sheikh Gilani. The Sheikh was a lure who had no prior knowledge of the plot. Pearl is lured away from a meet spot with promises of an interview, ending up at the mercy of this terrorist group. When his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) realizes that Pearl is missing, she begins a frantic search for her husband.

A Might Heartexamines the Daniel Pearl abduction and murder through the eyes of his wife. The ensuing search for Pearl becomes quagmired in the normal bureaucracy, but this film does a good job of avoiding excess in this area. There are some conversations between the FBI and the Pakistani head of Criminal Intelligence where some turf protecting tension seems to surface. There is also a meeting between Mariane Pearl and a Pakistani Official who blames agent from India on the abduction, with the intent of making Pakistan look bad. These small details help set the framework for the difficulties in pursuing this type of investigation in a foreign country handling a sensitive international incident. No foreign leader likes to be embarrassed on the world stage. These issues were delicately covered by the writer, John Orloff (based on Mariane Pearl's book). The story avoids any temptation to get bogged down in details.

What A Mighty Heart delivers in lieu of cliched government bureaucracy is a tightly woven story of intrigue. The investigation into the disappearance of Pearl takes up a major portion of the film. The head of Criminal Intelligence employs every asset at his disposal to track down the last individuals Pearl was in contact with as the story unravels. IP Addresses, phone calls and informants are all employed in the search, as well as investigative techniques you would not find in the United States. Tough but effective. Unfortunately, the story was already written so I knew the ending was not good. But that did not stop Director Michael Winterbottom from inserting some excellent heart pounding action sequences into this film.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

Sometimes it is the subtle things in a movie that strike me. Simple things like the hardness Kristen Scott Thomas brings to her character, Juliette Fontaine, early in I've Loved You So Long. Some might call it a coldness, either way, it is a combination of her eerie silence combined with excellent make-up. As her experiences change, she softens. Her hair is more vibrant, her make up brings out her features and her overall appearance shed years of trouble.

Other times, it is the broader themes that leave an impression upon me. Strong characters that interact with plausibility generally make a good film. I've Loved You So Long provides characters that generate interest. Things are not always what they seem in this film, either. Without using dramatic plot twists, the film slowly provides details about the different characters, connecting with the audience along the way. The darkness that sometimes dwells in people may not always be visible...a concept that this film explores. The resulting effect of the writing is a script that reaches into the heart of the audience, often squeezing emotion with it's grip. Philip Claudel created an excellent story which he brought to life as both writer and director.

I've Loved You So Long combines the subtle with an excellent broader theme. It is a delicate balancing act, but this film manages to pay close attention to detail, weaving in a healthy dose of subtle imagery and supporting concepts. Meanwhile, the major theme of the story never gets lost in the details. The minutiae provides depth to the story but remains a supporting factor. I have seen plenty of films that get so wrapped up in delivering the existential that I get lost in the flurry of details, missing major plot concepts. I applaud I've Loved You So Long for managing these two issues exceptionally well. I was captivated.

I've Loved You So Long begins with two sisters reuniting after a lengthy separation. As the story progresses, we learn that Juliette has been in prison for fifteen years for committing an unthinkable crime. Her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) has invited Juliette to stay with her while she get stabilized. An unusual situation compounded by the fact that Elsa was young when Juliette went to prison, and was not allowed to visit. Lea's one visit in fifteen years was invite Juliette to stay with her.

The relationship between these two characters develops slowly, with childhood memories cloudy. It is almost like Lea has forgotten Juliette. Lea's husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) seems uneasy about the situation, but makes adjustments over time. Juliette finds potential love interest in Lea's co-worker Michel (Laurent Grevill) as well as the Police Captain who she must check in with bi-weekly, Captain Faure (Frederic Pierrot). Juliette is exposed to Lea's circle of friends who are curious regarding the sudden appearance of a sister they did not know existed. The tension of trying to keep her past a secret creates another level of anxiety for both sisters. As the relationships evolve, we learn that those who appear dark may really contain light, while those with light contain a simmering darkness. A juxtaposition of sorts. The story is touching and powerful.

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Sunday, February 8, 2009


When I saw the trailers for Push, I saw some similarities to my favorite televisions series Heroes. Being a fan of superhero films like X-Men, I figured that this was going to be a fun ride. Although some of aspects of this film presented new ideas, it was basically a rehashed formula movie that missed it's potential. It reminded me more of Jumper than any of the other films I mentioned. Well, maybe it wasn't quite as bad as Jumper.

Following World War II, several Nations began expanding on experimentation done by the Nazi's to develop people with pyschic abilities into military weapons. The National programs are designated as "Divisions." An aggressive program by Division in the United States involves an experimental drug that will enhance the abilities of these psychics. The only problem being that the drug has killed every one of the test subjects.

The drug succeeds in working on a test subject named Kira Hudson (Camilla Belle). Through a carefully orchestrated psychic plan, Kira manages to escape the Division test facility ending up in Hong Kong with her memories erased. She is being pursued by the architect of the enhancement tests, Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou). In Hong Kong, Kira meets another two second generation psychics whose parents were both renowned for their abilities. A young seer (known in Division terminology as a "watcher") called Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) and her former boyfriend Nick Gant (Chris Evans) whose ability is called "Pushing." Pushers can move matter through telepathy as well as an odd ability to create force fields. Together, they must combat a Chinese crime syndicate made up of psychics as well as evading Division. A suitcase containing the enhancement drug was stolen by Kira during her escape. This suitcase becomes the focal point of the plot. Everyone wants that case.

There were a few plot holes in this film that bothered me a bit. First and foremost, why would Division only have a single syringe of this powerful drug that kills every test subject? If you suspend belief and assume that they just don't want the drug to fall into someone else's hands then the goal would be to destroy it rather than recover it. Something that was in their ability to do but wasn't done. If the drug did fall into enemy hands it would likely kill the test subject anyway. Another thing that bothered me was Carver's detailed knowledge of the side effects caused by the drug. If there had never been a test subject to survive administration of the drug, then how would one know what side effects it causes? There was also an excessive amount of gun play for a movie about psychic abilities. After guns fail, the psychic stuff kicks in. Why not just come out the gate with the psychic stuff? I know would require some careful consideration of the various powers (rock, paper, scissors if you will). They would have to orchestrate carefully considered battle scenes employing a variety of powers and the interactions of various psychic abilities. This is undertaken from time to time, but not to the degree you would imagine from a movie about psychic abilities. Anyone who watches Heroes knows that the majority of the script deals with the interaction of various powers. That is because they put a great deal of thought into the script. Push seemed to take the easy way out. This film was intellectually lazy.

Push was written by David Bourla. I am not familiar with Bourla's screenplays. What I gathered from this film was that Bourla has a creative mind, but either rushed this project or simply didn't spend enough time developing the fight scenes. It might have been a good idea to employ another writer on the script to present ideas to play off of. The overall theme was formulaic, but several of the elements of the film were good. The psychic abilities were examined a bit. No all seers are created equal. Do you see the future or do you see someones intentions? These are ideas that I thought made the characters more interesting. The characters were very diverse with varying motives, backgrounds and abilities. I thought that this provided the foundation for an exceptional film. The dialogue wasn't all that bad, either. Some of it was predictable, but it was fresh enough to make it interesting. As a whole, the writing lacked. Especially when dealing with the interaction of various abilities.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Max Payne

I should have known better. I like Mark Wahlberg and I like comic book-like films. But the trailers for Max Payne seemed to lack something. Following my instincts would have been a good idea on this one. I found Max Payne to be a poorly thought out exercise in futility. The plot was predictable, the concept was weak and the action sequences often made no sense. In a nutshell, this film was a major disappointment. The pain was all mine.

Max Payne was not without some redeeming qualities. There were some decent special effects, some big action scenes and some interesting camera angles with the comic book flash effect being used at times. However, good qualities in a fatally flawed film don't amount to much in the greater scheme of things. It was a wasted effort.

Detective Max Payne (Wahlberg) lost his wife in an unsolved homicide three years ago. As a Police Officer, he could have been there to save her had he gotten home ten minutes earlier. Instead, he has been left alone to hunt down the one killer that got away. The wing tattoos on the two bad guys he killed are his only clue to solving the murder of his wife and child. He has been reassigned to the cold case desk because of his obsession with the case. Most of the officers in his circle do not like or trust him.

Payne spends his time off-duty hunting down people he believes are associated with his wife's murder. He is chasing the wrong shadows. The evil lurks closer than he realizes. Payne's wife was not murdered in a botched robbery gone bad as the official report is a massive government cover-up of a military program gone wrong. Payne expends his energy in a scorched earth campaign to uncover the truth. His efforts eventually lead him to the source of his pain.

There are major plots holes in Max Payne. The entire concept seems flawed from the start. We are to believe that a manufactured drug has created bad guys with an uncanny ability to survive. Yet the supernatural forces at work are weakly explained away through Norse mythology. Maybe understanding the video game might help the plot make sense, but the movie fails to tie together the two concepts in any credible manner. The plot attempts to give us twists, but you can see them coming well in advance. There were no surprises in this film...just big action. Action can only go so far to cover for bad writing. Sam Lake created the video game concept, which might make sense from a gamer standpoint. The adapted screenplay was written by Beau Thorne, apparently to capitalize on the popularity of the game. The characters were predictable and flat, the dialogue hackneyed and the themes confusing. I am surprised that anyone cut loose 35 million dollars to create this nonsense. But then again...this is what the movie-going public wants...or probably a specific target audience...likely teenagers...the film did well at the box office.

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