Archive for August, 2010

Mesrine: Killer Instinct: And kill it does!—Movie

August 26, 2010

Courtesy of France (with subtitles) comes Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a mesmerizing film about infamous French gangster of the 1960s and 70s, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel). The first of two parts, Mesrine:  Killer Instinct, is based on Mesrine’s autobiography, “L’instinct de mort,” and is directed by Jean-François Richet with screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri.

Not well-known, if known at all in the US, Mesrine is legendary in France—on a par with John Dillinger. It’s not clear exactly why he embarked on a life of crime, but after serving with the military in Algeria, Mesrine returned to France and his career in crime began shortly thereafter.

Cassel’s portrayal of Mesrine is utterly fascinating and from this portrayal we can see why the French public was so captivated by him. Mesrine’s personality could change on a dime. Suffering from anger management issues, he could be sexy, charming, funny—but one wrong look, word or perceived slight could turn him instantly into a brutish pig and even worse—killer.

Mesrine’s crime sprees spanned continents, even bringing him to the US, but he seemed to save his worse exploits for Canada and France. Robberies, kidnappings, murder…he committed them all. And his claim that no prison could hold him was absolutely right. Mesrine’s prison breaks were legendary and unbelievable in their daring. Richet brilliantly captures all of this action, and the prison escape scenes are particularly well shot.

Do I sound admiring? In the middle of the movie, I suddenly realized that this man had absolutely no redeeming qualities, other than loyalty to friends (God forbid they crossed him; the consequences were quick and severe), but somehow I was almost cheering for him. I didn’t feel good about it, but I couldn’t help myself. You find yourself unwittingly on Mesrine’s side thanks to a great script, non-stop action, and absolutely fabulous acting.

Cassel won César Awards (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for Parts 1 and 2. It’s not hard to see why. Put simply: he is great. Cassel is supported by a brilliant cast. Gérard Depardieu, (nearly unrecognizable from the neck down, he’s gotten that fat) is terrifyingly wonderful as Guido, Mesrine’s “mentor” and crime lord. Elena Anaya as Mesrine’s naïve wife, Sofia, is heartbreaking in her innocence.   Especially terrific is Cécile De France as Jeanne Schneider, the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde. Their first “job“ together is nothing short of spectacular.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is nearly two hours long, but it feels like just an hour. Paced to perfection with not one dull moment, you will be on the edge of your seat throughout. Part 2 cannot come soon enough.

4 nuggets out of 4

The Switch: Good news about the boys—Movie

August 21, 2010

Sometimes it’s good to set your expectations low and be pleasantly surprised. Such is the case with The Switch, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman.

 Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story, Baster, and directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck, with screenplay by Allan Loeb, The Switch is the somewhat farfetched story of New York City television producer Kassie (Aniston) who decides to be artificially inseminated rather than waiting for Mr. Right to come along and let nature take its course. Instead of going the sperm bank route, she picks the donor, Roland (Patrick Wilson), from the Internet and holds a “Get Pregnant” party where the insemination will take place. Her neurotic best friend, Wally (Bateman), finds the whole idea repugnant (partly because he hasn’t been chosen as the donor), but comes to her party, and during the festivities drunkenly substitutes his specimen for Roland’s. Kassie becomes pregnant and moves home to Minnesota. Seven years later she’s back in New York with son Sebastian, who’s now 6 and resumes her friendship with Wally while pursuing a relationship with Roland. After mentally replaying the night of the party and noticing the unmistakable personality characteristics they share, Wally realizes that Sebastian is his son, but has a hard time deciding how to handle this information.

Aniston is fine, but this movie really belongs to Bateman. He’s likeable in a sometimes unlikable role. Bateman is one of Hollywood’s most reliable and underrated actors, but when given a chance to shine, he always comes through. His chemistry with Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) is terrific. Robinson isn’t the usual adorable child actor, but he is so very good, (although regardless of the ramblings of the woman on the bus, looks absolutely nothing like Bateman) there are times when you want to go through the screen and give him a hug. And singled out for praise must be Jeff Goldblum as Wally’s friend and colleague. After his unwatchable turn in this past season’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Goldblum seems to have his mojo back, and The Switch comes alive every time he’s on screen.

The Switch is fun and worth seeing for the performances of Bateman, Robinson and Goldblum.

3 nuggets out of 4

The Other Guys: They disappoint—Movie

August 21, 2010

Despite the best efforts of Will Farrell, Mark Wahlberg and the rest of the talent assembled for this comedic look at cop movies, The Other Guys ultimately disappoints.

 Directed by Adam McKay and written by McKay and Chris Henchy, The Other Guys tells the story of two New York City mismatched, underused detectives—gung-ho Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) and pencil-pusher Allen Gamble ( Will Ferrell).  By virtue of their own tenacity, they are forced into action and find themselves hot on the trail of some high stake financial crimes.

The Other Guys’ cast turns in excellent performances. The unlikely pairing of Ferrell and Wahlberg is genius as the two work surprisingly well together. Michael Keaton as the police captain who moonlights at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Eva Mendes as Allen’s unbelievably gorgeous, sexy wife and Steve Coogan as the Bernie Madoff/Gordon Gecko-type criminal– are all very good. The brief scenes with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson as cocky, hero cops are funny and the narration by Ice-T in full Law and Order mode is especially amusing.

The problem? There isn’t enough funny and the blame falls on the script. The premise is a great one, but the full script falls really short in fleshing it out.  For a comedy, the material is very confusing. Sometimes it feels as if you’re watching several different movies. When you find yourself wondering why Mendes and Farrell, portraying a New York City couple, are so suntanned, you know something is very wrong. And for the most part, when Jackson and Johnson exit the screen, most of the guffaws go with them.

Sure, there are laughs here and there. But with this cast, the laughter should be non-stop and that is not the case. In fact, it’s criminal.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

Mao’s Last Dancer: Bravo!—Movie

August 20, 2010

Mao’s Last Dancer is a celebration of the arts, of the human spirit and the desire to live life to its fullest. Directed by Bruce Beresford and based on the autobiography of Chinese ballet dancer, Li Cunxin, with screenplay by Jan Sardi, Mao’s Last Dancer is riveting from beginning to end.

Beresford does an amazing job in bringing Li’s life to the screen.  In 1972, Li was plucked from his elementary school and poverty stricken life in China’s Shandong Province to learn ballet in the Beijing Dance Academy. With no dance background, he struggled at first, but with sheer grit, determination, and a heretofore untapped natural gift, began to excel. In 1980 Li caught the eye of the Houston Ballet artistic director, Ben Stevenson, whose company had come to Beijing as part of an exchange program. Under Stevenson’s mentorship, Li leaves his family, country and language behind and comes to Houston to study ballet. In Houston Li flourishes, falls in love with and marries an American (immediately before he is due to return to China). He decides he wants to remain in the U.S., so with his attorney he goes to the Chinese consulate to inform officials of his decision. The repercussions are quick and severe. The Chinese government actually holds him hostage in the consulate. Eventually he is released, but it is years before his family is able to see him dance in the U.S. and years before he is able to return to China.

Three actors play Li and they are wonderful– Wen Bin Huang is Li as a child, Chengwu Guo  portrays the teenage Li and Chi Cao is the adult Li. Chengwu Guo  and Chi Cao are both ballet dancers and they are amazing. They literally fly through the air.

Canadian Bruce Greenwood is an unusual choice as the flamboyant director Stevenson, but he is spot on in his performance. This underrated, hard-working actor has the moves of a former dancer and is just a great surprise. Kyle MacLachlan, as Li’s Houston attorney, Charles Foster and Joan Chen as Li’s mother are very good in their roles and the film is buoyed by the dancers who play Li’s wives, fellow students, and members of the ballet company.

Mao’s Last Dancer’s final scenes are extremely moving and powerful. Don’t be surprised if at movie’s end you find yourself jumping to your feet, shouting “Bravo!”

3 1/2 nuggets out of 4

The Girl Who Played with Fire: It lights up the screen—Movie

August 20, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire is very much a successful follow-up to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Directed by Daniel Alfredson, with screenplay by Jonas Frykberg, based on the second in the series of  Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire is a taut thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.

The Girl Who Played with Fire initially finds Millennium journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) home in Sweden working with a young reporter on a sex-ring story. Computer-hacker expert Elisabeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has recently returned to Sweden after spending a year abroad. New confrontations with her court-appointed guardian bring her unwittingly right into the cross hairs of the story Millennium is pursuing.  To their surprise, Lisbeth and Mikael find themselves working together on the same story, albeit from a distance.

In Dragon we saw much of Lisbeth’s back-story as it unfolded and that gave the film much of its heart. Fire has less heart, but the story is still a compelling one, and a little easier to follow. What is disappointing about Fire is the lack of back and forth banter between Lisbeth and Mikael that we loved in Dragon (although maybe it’s more back and back banter since Lisbeth didn’t speak all that much). However, there is more interaction with Mikael’s associates and that gives the film a chance to lighten up a bit.

Larsson’s novel translates beautiful and easily to the screen. The Girl Who Played with Fire is so brilliantly executed that you’ll find you’re not even reading the subtitles.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Get Low: Well done—Movie

August 19, 2010

In the beginning of the movie, the term, “get low” is defined as “down to business” and that is what I’ll do. Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider and written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, is one of the richest movies on the screen today. Brilliant performances, great script, terrific photography and fabulous music, Get Low has it all.

Robert Duvall turns in a spectacular multi-dimensional performance as the mysterious hermit, Felix Bush, but his performance is matched by every person who utters a line in Get Low, including the baby (who may not speak, but has been coaxed to provide the perfect expressions).

In brief, Get Low is the story of Felix’s desire to hold his funeral before he actually dies so he can hear what people have to say about him. His request is spurned by the local minister (Gerald McRaney), but resonates with Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the town’s undertaker and his ambitious assistant, Buddy Crane (Lucas Black). They turn his idea into a funeral party, where folks come to tell tales they’ve heard over the years about Felix. Not only does the “party” invigorate the town, but ironically, preparing for his funeral seems to give Felix a reason to live. The new spring in his step is also helped by the re-emergence of Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek ), a friend and possibly more, into his life.

This brief synopsis doesn’t do justice to this wonderful film. Scenes with Felix and his long-time friend, Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobb) are amazing and Murray, Black and Spacek are absolutely magnificent. They all have key scenes with Duvall, and boy, do they rise to his level of excellence. In an interview on Live with Regis and Kelly, Duvall remarked that Bill Murray was one of the few actors coming from Saturday Night Live who was a really good actor. That is evidenced in Murray’s wry, restrained performance.

Filmed primarily in Georgia, the state has never looked better. The original music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, with additional music composed by Jerry Douglas, adds immeasurably to the film.

Come Oscar time, Get Low is sure to be recognized in several categories and justifiably so.

4 nuggets out of 4

Norman Rockwell: The Force is With Us

August 11, 2010

Did Norman Rockwell’s America ever exist? Other than in his paintings and drawings and Frank Capra movies, probably not. However, thanks to the generosity of filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who have made their Rockwell collections available to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, we have time to bask in the joys of his world. 

Once you see Rockwell’s work large and up close, you realize that the Saturday Evening Post covers didn’t do him justice. His colors are bold and beautiful and his attention to little details is phenomenal.

The exhibit gives you the chance to see many of Rockwell’s works in charcoal or pencil on paper first as a sketch, before he did the actual paintings. It’s really fascinating to notice the refinements made when completed as an oil painting. What I discovered from the exhibit is that there was often a long period of time between his sketch and the final painting. “First Trip to a Beauty Shop” was begun in 1961 and in the sketch features a little girl and a picture of Jackie Kennedy. The painting was completed in 1972 and Jackie Kennedy is no longer in the picture and the focus is on the girl.

I particularly enjoyed “Freedom of Speech,” done in 1943. The oil painting is beautiful and looks like it stepped right out of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Another favorite was the ad done for Underwood (1923), called “And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Portable.” It’s very imaginative and clever.

If you have time, the exhibit features a short film on Rockwell, narrated by Lucas and Spielberg. It helps put Rockwell’s work in context and definitely enriches your experience.

Norman Rockwell from the collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg
Through January 2, 2011
Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th and F Streets, NW, Washington DC
Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Inception: It’s Dreamy—Movie

August 2, 2010

Leap of faith. This phrase is repeated frequently throughout Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The same phrase applies to Nolan and his work. You never know what you’re going to get when you enter his world…from his earliest films…Following and Memento to the Batman films and now Inception. You take a leap of faith and you’re ultimately rewarded…even if you don’t always get it or disagree about endings or what it all means.

Inception is entertaining from the first frame to the very last. Not only are you stimulated visually, but you are stimulated intellectually as well. Inception’s production qualities are fabulous and the entire film is abetted by Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score.

Without giving anything away, Inception is the story of a group of brainiac thieves headed by Cobb ( Leonardo DiCaprio) who are able to extract information from people when they are at their most vulnerable…while dreaming. The group is asked by wealthy Japanese businessman, Saito, (Ken Watanabe) to do the seemingly impossible—plant an idea into a young rival’s dream–the heir apparent to a conglomerate, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy).

DiCaprio turns in another fantastic, understated performance as the brilliant, but troubled Cobb. He is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast– Joseph Gordon-Levitt,  Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao as members of his team; Michael Caine, in a small but important role as his father-in-law; and most especially, Watanabe, Murphy and Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s wife, Mal. Since her Oscar-winning role as Edith Piaf, Cotillard has amazed in every subsequent film and she gives a hauntingly beautiful performance here. She and DiCaprio are very good together.

Did I understand every minute of the film? No. Am I sure my conclusion is the correct one? No. Was I challenged and thoroughly entertained on every level? YES!

4 nuggets out of 4

Dinner for Schmucks: Table Scraps for Us—Movie

August 2, 2010

Move over Hot Tub Time Machine. You no longer have the title, “Worse Movie in 2010.” Dinner for Schmucks wins in a landslide.

There are no words to describe the sheer awfulness that is Dinner for Schmucks, but I will try. NOT FUNNY are two words that come to mind immediately.

Dinner for Schmucks, directed by Jay Roach and written by David Guion and Michael Handelman) and based on Francis Veber’s “Le Diner de Cons” (which must be better; how can it be worse?), is the story of office politics run amok. In order to secure a promotion, Tim (Paul Rudd) is invited by his boss, Lance Fender (Bruce Greenwood), to a semi-secret dinner at his home where the invitees must bring some unsuspecting soul, who is an idiot on some level. Initially appalled by the idea, Tim’s misgivings go out the window when he literally runs into Barry (Steve Carell). Aside from being obnoxious, Barry’s talent is creating art out of “taxidermed” mice. A fairly unfunny movie at this point, the introduction of this character renders the remaining movie “comedy-less.” Also in the mix of least funny characters ever is Zach Galifianakis as Therman, Barry’s boss, and Jemaine Clement as Kieran, a stereotypical pretentious artist who may or may not be putting the moves on Tim’s girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak).

It’s hard to tell if Steve Carell is a horrible actor or just someone who needs better directing. He has the potential to be better… I think. Zach Galifianakis is the new “it boy.” I do not know why. He is either a terrible actor or he needs better material and most definitely a better director ( I think it’s all three). So far Galifianakis has proven to be a one-trick pony. He’s next appearing in a movie with Robert Downey, Jr. Maybe he will pick up some acting tips from him.

Does the movie have any redeeming factors? Yes. Paul Rudd. He’s a real actor and it shows. How he manages to turn in an actual performance is beyond me. This man deserves so much better. Also not embarrassing themselves are Greenwood and Ron Livingston as Tim’s nemesis at work. These three don’t rely on mugging or tired schtick (this means you, Zach). The office scenes are the only truly funny scenes in the movie.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how creative the mice are. Whoever is responsible for them is a genius. These art forms are truly amazing.

One can only hope that Dinner for Schmucks fades away quickly. I’m trying very hard to erase it from my memory bank.

½ nugget out of 4

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