The Wolf of Wall Street – Film Review


Once again we find Martin Scorsese taking serious inspiration from his lifelong muse, New York. So much has happened in this Metropolis and continues to happen, and the material just never seems to run out. He returns to the underworld but not gangsters. This time he delves beneath the underworld; Wall Street, Mean Streets, what’s the difference? Perhaps less violence on Wall Street or is it just another category of violence? I must admit when I saw the trailer for this film over the summer I was quite surprised to see that it was a Martin Scorsese picture. The film is large format all around. The running time is three hours and it’s laced with foul language, morbid use of drugs and alcohol, is degrading to women, and props money up on the highest pedestal at any cost to anyone.

It’s Goodfellas meets Glengarry Glen Ross, meets Wall Street. Process that for a minute.

I approached this film with mixed feelings, as it deals with financial crimes and unethical goings on by stockbrokers and so called investment managers. A lot of people lost their retirement believing the frauds over the last few years. So why make this film? Scorsese has said he made it out of “frustration and a kind of anger.” In a recent Los Angeles Times interview Scorsese states.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich. I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.

Jordan Belfort was hooked on becoming a Master of the Universe on his first day on Wall Street. He was seduced by a greed that would permeate every aspect of his personal and professional life. Based on a real character and the book by Belfort, screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) hits the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up.

Leo DiCaprio plays Belfort and let’s animal persona off the leash. All he wants is more, and not just of money. His performance makes us laugh, gasp, shake our head and even cheer. But we are never afraid. Nor do we feel sorry for him even though he loses much more than he ever gained.

Black Monday was Belfort’s first day  as a bonafide stockbroker having passed his Series 7 exam. It was October 19, 1987 and the worldwide stock markets crashed along with the firm that gave him his first chance. This first lesson was not lost on Belfort.

He cobbled together a typical Scorsese band of characters who would eventually pledge their undying allegiance and yearn to unlock his secrets and live like Belfort. The group successfully traded Penny stocks from pink sheets to the middle class. He made money, but Belfort had higher aspirations. He created Stratton Oakmont, Inc. selected a lion as the firm’s symbol and wrote this mission statement; Stability, Integrity, Pride. They began targeting the top 1% of the population, sold them blue chips to get them comfortable, then make 50% commission on the crap. They made more money than they knew what to do with. It was brilliant, in a tragic sort of way.

From the screenplay The Wolf of Wall Street.

Script 1

Script 2

It’s one continuous party. The lines between the office and strip clubs or beach houses are blurred so badly no one knows if they are working or partying. Sex, drugs, drinking. Nothing was too much or off limits. Eventually Belfort meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) and his first marriage dissolves like a quaalude in bourbon. The wedding in Vegas cost Belfort $2 million and he didn’t bat an eye. From there things just get even more amped up as they take the women’s shoemaker, Steve Madden public in a very unorthodox and illegal manner.

Scorsese turns the camera directly on DiCaprio who addresses the audience first person. It’s fitting. We need someone to remind us we are not looking at a dream, but real life and the people who are acting it out know it’s wrong but can no longer tell right from wrong. Only rich from poor.

As the FBI closes in Belfort gets a bit more serious. He hatches a plan to move cash to a Swiss bank and turns his attention to blocking the investigation. No matter how much the heat gets turned up, nothing can stop Belfort and his lieutenant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) from getting messed up. Donnie comes across a long lost bottle of Lemmon 714 quaalude pills give to him by a pharmacist client. The Lemmon 714 is the mother the Quaaludes. The scene that follows their taking of several of these potent pills is hysterical. I have not laughed that hard in the theatre since Three Weddings and a Funeral.

We need to be careful not to forget that activities of Stratton Oakmont are not victimless crimes. We don’t see the victims, and in fact almost never hear the voices on the other end of the telephones. But they are real and the damage done is serious and life-destroying in some instances. Belfort crashed so many things. A helicopter, expensive car, 170 foot yacht and countless lives. He never gets a scratch and always falls up, landing on his feet.


DiCaprio also played Gatsby in Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel released earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Belfort came from humble, poor beginnings. Both had aspirations and through a quirk of fate were able to gainfully apply their individual gifts to achieve great wealth. Gatsby built his empire out of the love for Daisy. Belfort accumulated his fortune out of the love for greed. Gatsby had an unfulfilled heart and Nick Carraway as his compass of good. Belfort lacked a heart and had Donnie Azoff as his enabler. Someone always willing to open the next door to excess.

Americans spend less that 20 minutes per year really studying their finances. I’m not talking bills, but real finances. College funds, retirement, real estate. Don’t be taken in. Do more work on your own financial state. Scorsese reminds us that finance underpins so much of our daily life and it can vanish in an instant.

Photo Credits:  Paramount Pictures

Download the The Wolf of Wall Street script legally here.

Inside Llewyn Davis – Film Review

Davis 2The Coen’s never make it easy on the audience. They weave their stories from the inside out. The very inner circle is deep with details and rich in emotion and meaning. As the circles swirl outward the fidelity of the details is dialed back. Occasionally they circle back to the inside but then come right back up, continuing to draw the circles but with dashed lines as they approach the surface of the film. That surface is what we see and hear on the screen. Their process is unique and always fascinating.

Inside Llewyn Davis is textbook Coen. Joel and Ethan leave it to us to color in meaning while they present us with one staggering scene after another. Most films today are cut, cut, cut; never allowing the camera to linger long enough to see everything in the frame. The Coens have perfected the exact opposite approach. They cut when the emotion of the scene says to cut.

Llewyn (Lou-in) played with solid pitch by Oscar Isaac is a wanna be folk singer now on his own after a break-up with his partner. He’s pretty much a despicable, irresponsible person that we have trouble drumming up even a smidgen of sympathy for. Llewyn does not have a home, or even a winter coat. He crashes at a different place every night, carrying his guitar and one bag of belongings. He sleeps on the floor, but on a good night he gets a couch.

He bounces from one bad experience to the next like the silver sphere in a pinball machine. The time is 1962 in the Greenwich Village poet/art scene. He rings the buzzer of Jean (Carey Mulligan) clutching a yellow cat with no where else to go. Ms. Mulligan has one of the sweetest smiles on the screen but can never show it off in this part. She constantly rails against Llewyn but has her own demons to wrestle with. Jean is with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who is connected to the record industry in a more orthodox fashion.

The story is a big circle, starting and ending in the Gaslight Poetry Cafe where folk singers take the stage in a dark, smoke-filled cellar space to perform. In between the bookends of the opening and closing scenes, the Coens take us through a truly realistic early 1960’s landscape. The clothes, cars, settings. All of it transports us back to the time of vinyl albums and big steel sedans, without the political statements. They are masters at conjuring up past worlds.

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Without a clear explanation, Llewyn gets into a car on its way to Chicago driven by Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and a burned-out jazz performer named Roland Turner (John Goodman). The exchanges between Llewyn and Roland are rich and hilarious. It’s a stranger’s perspective designed to provide Llewyn with validation that everything everyone is telling him is truth. There is a very large gap between the functioning world and Llewyn’s world, but he cannot see it. He is completely disconnected while being completely connected. Look for Goodman to get an Academy Award nomination for this small but powerful performance.

The film is beautifully crafted from top to bottom. Most of the technical aspects, despite being solid, take a back seat, overwhelmed by the acting and scene choice. The soundtrack was produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett who previously collaborated on Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The music is the heart and soul of the film and if you listen closely and often enough, including dissecting the lyrics which were included by the filmmakers, you can fill in all those missing details.

Llewyn says, “If it’s not new and never get’s old, it’s a folk song.”

Davis Song List

Reviews of other Coen Brothers Films.

True Grit

Burn After Reading

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men Essay

A Serious Man

Photo Credits: Mike Zoss Productions

Parkland – Film Review

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If you’ve studied the Kennedy assassination or even had a passing fascination with the events of that fateful day, you will instantly know what the subject matter of this film is by the title alone. Parkland refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital of Dallas. On November 22, 1963 the trauma team at this facility received a wounded President Kennedy, having been struck down by assassin’s bullets in Dealey Plaza minutes before. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the slaying of President Kennedy. Every year around this time books, magazines, TV specials and movies about Kennedy and the assassination spring up. Most of them are not worth our time and are produced to cash in on a seminal historic moment and a public yearning for closure. But Parkland feels different. It’s ernest and when the final images fade to black we feel we’ve seen a genuine attempt to help us understand just a little bit more.

Parkland is at its best in depicting the utter chaos experienced by the entire country, and world on that tragic day. No one was expecting this, and I mean no one. Kennedy was beloved and soared to celebrity, almost godlike status His demise was not even in anyone’s consideration set. He represented a turning point in modern American life.

Writer turned filmmaker Peter Landesman makes his directorial debut with Parkland. It’s an apt choice. Who better to take us through four of the most horrifying days in recent American history than a journalist. He is a stickler for details on every level. Landesman flawlessly directs the keen lens of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93) to deliver a shrewd mix of documentary style camera movement skillfully contained inside the framework of a taught drama. The film is based on the book Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi who shares the screenplay authorship with Mr. Landesman. There is no plot, only story. It lacks structure because all structure collapsed during those days. In other words. They nailed it.

The final product with a few exceptions is fine craft. Parkland strives to take a new approach on a topic that has been researched and debated beyond any single event in human history. Most of us think we know most of what transpired, but this film is told in a visual manner that makes us feel as if we are seeing it with fresh eyes. As the title foreshadows, we spend a lot of time inside Parkland’s trauma rooms. Most of the time they are a complete and utter mess. Residents, nurses, doctors, and a confused group of government workers struggle to do their individual jobs, all working for the same goal. To change what they know inside of them is going to be the inevitable outcome. No one summons superhero powers, and a modern day President is lost.

The cast consists of a collection of accomplished actors; Billy Bob Thornton, Paul GIamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, alongside some very strong players. Mr. Thornton (below, third from left) plays Forrest Sorrels, a veteran of the Secret Service and the guy in charge of protecting Kennedy. He is tough and experienced but must now make the transition from being a protection officer for the ultimate chief executive to an investigator of his murder. Sorrels works independently after the assassination, finding Zapruder and striking a bargain to ensure the precious film becomes evidence. Sorrels obviously feels a great sense of responsibility but only shows us once. While viewing the freshly developed footage someone in the room turns to him and says, “You blew it.” Sorrels explodes.

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Mr. Giamatti (above, left) plays Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Giamatti’s portrayal is deeply emotional and in some ways feels he is being used, but cannot put his finger on who or what. Zapruder was like any of the hundreds of citizens that day. There to get a glimpse of the President. The only difference was he had a camera and therefore instantly became the nation’s memory in this unthinkable shakespearean tragedy. He didn’t ask for that part, but he accepted it and reacted thoughtfully and respectfully.

Marcia Gay Harden (below right) is Doris Nelson, head trauma nurse in Parkland’s emergency room. She’s a rock and goes about her business strictly by the book. Despite this tough veneer she makes the emotional rounds of her colleagues, taking careful interest in their well being. Her presence in the trauma room while attending to a gravely wounded President Kennedy demonstrates her strength and devotion to her trade. When Oswald arrives after having been shot by Jack Ruby two days after Kennedy, she redirects the speeding gurney away from Trauma Room 1 and proclaims, “No. He is not living or dying in there.” Oswald dies in Trauma Room 5, the same room Jack Ruby passed away in four years later. Clearly Parkland has some deep karma.

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Zac Efron (above left) takes the part of Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico, who drew the short straw that day by being the resident in the room. Carrico starts off the morning carefree, but the gravity of the day causes him to mature in record time. Essentially he is the leader of the treatment team and after a brief “oh shit” moment, he springs into action. He becomes the collective conscience of the entire country by refusing to give up on a flat lined Presidential heart.

The filmmakers liberally sprinkle subtle visual clues that punctuate the enormous pressure everyone was under. The trauma room scenes are filmed in super realistic style and are gritty and gruesome. When the doctors and nurses work on Kennedy they aren’t wearing gowns or masks. In fact the doctors take off their pristine white coats. When Oswald is delivered, everyone is in full mask, head coverings and surgical scrubs. It’s a disguise, not wanting to be recognized trying to save Oswald’s life.

The Secret Service team suddenly find themselves having to care for a deceased President Kennedy. All of their training has been devoted to keeping him alive, not what to do once he’s dead. They don’t panic, but they become more human and less robotic. As they wait for the President’s body on the plane they suddenly realize they don’t know where to put the casket. Hastily they remove two rows of seats so they don’t have to fly the President back to Washington in the cargo hold with the baggage. In removing the casket from the hearse they fumble it and break off one of the handles. While struggling to carry the coffin up the metal gangway to Air Force One they must turn the coffin sideways to fit through the passage way. When the turn is obviously too tight, a saw is used to cut the bulkhead. They are all in shock but remain focused on “taking care” of the President. This more than any other aspect of the film illustrates just how surreal that day was.

The film pays particular attention to the Owsald family. Jeremy Strong gives it a go as Lee Harvey Oswald, but we will never be able to accept any other portrayal except Gary Oldman’s gripping channeling of the real Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK. Not in a million years. But Lee’s brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), turns in a fine performance. He has an unhinged mother and an obviously confused brother, but he is successful in balancing out the overwhelming insanity. The filmmakers give extra screen time to Oswald’s funeral that requires the enlistment of the press as pall bearers. Everyone else has turned their back.

All of the technical aspects of this film are strong. This is an independent film which typically gets shorter shrift in some areas. The producers, which includes Tom Hanks, were able to secure top talent in key skill sets that matter most. Ackroyd’s handheld camera as mentioned above, plays it raw and in the moment. Interiors are rich and focused, while outdoor scenes are tight but well layered. The era choices are solid and believably transport the viewer back fifty years. James Newton Howard’s score uses percussion, drum beats, pianos and a somber cadence that rightfully fits the mood.

Highly recommended.


Photo Credit: Exclusive Media, The American Film Company and Playtone

Rush – Film Review


Rush, Ron Howard’s latest film, explores the intense rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, two go for broke Formula 1 race car drivers who competed in the mid 1970’s. The filmmakers go to great lengths to seamlessly transport us back four decades, with careful crafting of  locations, costumes and hairstyles. There is attention paid to every detail right down to the period logos of the iconic sponsor brands. Making period films (sorry, but the ’70’s now qualify as a period) requires a unique eye and keen observation for the vibe of the time. Howard has had considerable practice. Apollo 13, probably his crown jewel, forced him back even further in time. Frost/Nixon, another of my favorite Howard films was also about two vastly different personalities playing a cat and mouse game with extremely high personal stakes.

Hunt is British and played by Chris Hemsworth (Thor). Hemsworth sculpts his portrayal of Hunt as a playboy who lives in the moment and that moment is always about one thing and one thing only; driving. His reputation makes it difficult for him to “find a ride” after his primary backer makes a major miscalculation in his initial foray into F1. Eventually Hunt is taken on by the McLaren racing team. We are only allowed a glimpse or two into Hunt’s more introspective side. While preparing for a race he holds the wheel while lying on his back beside his car and visualizes each turn, how he will shift and when to dart through a fresh opening.

Niki Lauda is played by Daniel Brühl, a seasoned actor from Germany. If Hunt is the playboy, Lauda is the perfectionist and deeply analytical. Serious drivers are married to their cars and in Luada’s case it’s beyond an obsession. He knows engineering, physics and the composition of raw materials that make up a quicker machine. During a scene where Lauda hitches a ride with his future bride he critiques her car. He is able to to observe the fan belt is loose and one of the tire is low on air. How? Through his butt. God gave him an ok mind and a brilliant butt. He can feel a car. For Niki, the car is a living organism.

To bring the cars to life, Howard hired cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to go deep inside the back story. Mantle uses the equivalent of an electron microscope to penetrate the inner workings of an F1 car. Pistons flexing, torque bars shifting and tires blistering. He gives us an exploded view of the car being pushed to it’s limits.

Lauda’s superior car set-up and carefully calculated driving skills are rewarded with the most points on the F1 circuit. Hunt’s marriage dissolves but his desire to become world champion is emboldened. Lauda played the percentages. He was comfortable with a 20% risk, but no more. Hunt had no such scale and felt more risk mean higher reward. Not fame or money, but personal reward. More fuel for his hi-ocatane lifestyle.

Archive photo of Niki Lauda’s 1976 crash

On August 1, 1976 in Germany, Lauda’s Ferrari was into the second lap when it hit the wall, drifted back into the center of the track and was struck by another driver. His Formula car burst into flames, exposing him to searing heat for over eight seconds. His injuries were serious. A singed right ear and eyelids. Loss of hair and scorched lungs. His motivation to return to the driver’s seat was provided by a successful Hunt  on the track. Hunt closed the points spread at an amazing pace, and so, Lauda made clear recovery decisions to get back to his ride. Repair my eyelids, yes. The scars on my head, I can wear a hat. And so he was back on the circuit well before anyone had expected.

My personal roots to cars and racing can be  traced back to my childhood. A close uncle drove on the high-banked, dirt oval circuit and my father and I followed him around  the midwest tracks until a crash ended his racing career. Another of my uncles was his mechanic and my father taught me how to perform nearly every maintenance necessary at that time to keep a car in tip top shape. Howard captures the primal aspects of speed, racing and competition.

The mid seventies was a time when sex was safe, but driving was dangerous. On the first day of my classroom driver’s education class my instructor proclaimed  following. “I want everyone to look at the person next to them. One of you will die in a car crash.” In those days you were shown the crash films like “Mechanized Death.” Real footage of the aftermath of a serious vehicular accident. There were no simulators then and you were taught driving game theory. Most roads were two lanes and you had to pass the Sunday drivers or it would take you all day to go anywhere.

When you’re passing someone and you see an unexpected oncoming car stick to this plan. Do not veer. The car coming toward you will steer to the right. The car next to you will steer to the right as well, opening up a window to move back into your lane. If for some reason that oncoming car doesn’t veer, then hit the accelerator. The slowest car loses.

Production is top notch all around. Special nod to Hans Zimmer and his soundtrack. It’s hard to compete with the roar of a gang of highly tuned race cars. But he moves past his  orchestration comfort zone and accepts the challenge to go hi-ocatane.

The official web site is basic. Surprise, surprise.

Photo Credits: Universal Studios

World War Z – Film Review

WWZ 2Before I went to see World War Z, I asked a number of people what they thought of the picture. The replies varied greatly from, “It’s not a real Zombie movie, they move too fast,” to the standard, “Read the book, it’ s much better.”  The trailer intrigued me but what really did the trick was the word world. I absolutely love films that involve the entirety of the planet. And so I went, alone.

Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a retired special investigator for the United Nations. He now lives a quiet life in Philadelphia making pancakes for his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters. Suddenly and without warning a typical big city traffic snarl is rocked with sirens, crashing trucks and people running madly around. From there things go downhill quickly and before you know it, Gerry’s old boss Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) is on the phone begging for him to get back in the game.

Some horrible virus or bacteria of some unknown origin causes humans to become the “undead.” Once turned, which only takes a handful of seconds after being bitten, they blindly take up their mission to bite non infected humans. turning them into “Zeaks.” A term used by a soldier who enjoys mowing them down. These Zombies are fast. No I mean really fast. The filmmakers deliver a jolt to your pulse as you watch the power of millions of human bodies united in a single purpose. It caused me to think what the human race could actually accomplish if we were many in body and one in mind. But despite being world class sprinters, they are really stupid. They can’t even open a door. Instead they try to smash through it with their heads. They stop at nothing and it’s become a real problem for the planet, quickly spreading throughout the world thanks to the over 70,000 commercial airline flights each day.

After some close calls, Lane and family are extracted to a U.N. ship in the north Atlantic. He is persuaded to accompany a doctor to South Korea to follow up on a lead that has come across in an email. On the plane the doctor gives what is the single best instance of dialog in the entire film. It’s a powerful foreshadowing that sticks with Lane. However, the mission doesn’t work out. While planning what to do next, Lane comes in contact with an ex-CIA agent (David Morse) who is behind bars for selling guns to North Korea. Somehow this man knows lots about the Zeak problem and points Lane to Jerusalem, where they seem to have a better handle on things. Or at least we think they do.

Massive scale pictures like this one usually rely on the zoom, cut and hand-held camera work. Images, usually CGI created, wash over us like a raging waterfall. The hero or superhero shows a human side but always summons the special power in the end to take down the bad guys. Not so in WWZ. Pitt is not a superhero. Actually he’s not even a hero. He plays the part of  a regular guy with some experience and a knack for knowing what to do when things go off book. He’s tough, but not powerful. I found his acting choice to be refreshing and added some measure of believability to an otherwise unbelievable story.


Nearly all of the technical aspects of this picture are amazing. The visual effects, editing, special effects and make-up work together beautifully to make what we are watching seem real. Marc Forster’s direction is tight throughout. He is a master of pacing which in this film is no easy feat. The cinematography by Ben Seresin and an uncredited Robert Richardson is crisp and appropriately moody. Marco Beltrami’s score fits nicely into both the action and the more calmer scenes. The fast-moving Zombies make this more of a horror movie than the slow motion ones we have come to know and love. At least you could out run those guys. With the new and improved models we see here, no one stands a chance.

The film is pulled down considerably by the screenplay. A single person, Max Brooks, authored the book, but it took five people to write the script for WWZ and it shows. There are lot of things that don’t tie together from the very beginning and the ending is a failure. We are left with some hope, but completely adrift.

Photos: Paramount Pictures

Iron Man 3 – (3D) Film Review

StarkExactly when did we enter the film season of “Bleak House?” There’s Oblivion, White House Down, World War Z and even the latest Start Trek installment, Into Darkness which is well, dark. Apparently the screenwriters and studio heads in Hollywood need to double their anxiety meds. I know things are challenging in the real world, but really, we used to go to the movies to escape. Dystopia is the new black.

Which brings me to Iron Man 3. Tony Stark is back and he’s in serious mental transition. Pepper has officially  moved in and they live in a cliff hanging spaceship of a mansion. She’s running Stark Enterprises, while he tinkers to create the next breakthrough suit. The picture gets off to a slow start allowing Robert Downey Jr. to chew the scenery.

Stark is bored and has developed a case of insomnia. Nothing really exciting is going on, but fortunately something that Stark has done in the past comes back to bite him. He snubbed a geek at a December 31, 1999 party and decided to spend time instead with a beautiful scientist of a brunette. Note to Stark, “Geeks have long memories and hold deep grudges.”

In this case the geek is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). He has managed to reprogram human genetic code and turn humans into bombs. The ultimate drone. He partners with a not shy terrorist known to all as The Mandarin. Together they plan to take over the world. Yes I know, again. I wonder if one day that fool’s errand of a plan will actually be pulled off. Stark vows to stop him. Finally, something to do.

Although the picture is entertaining and is full of action, it was just too much Tony Downing, Jr. for me. The Avengers approach gave us Tony in more digestible chunks as opposed to having the Iron Man in nearly every frame. It’s tiring and despite all the effort of the filmmakers to give us something else to think about and watch, ultimately it fell well short.

There are some bright spots. Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes, the fully sanctioned government Iron Man who hilariously flies around the world to foil plots based on wrong CIA evidence, and Ben Kingsley, playing an over the top role within a role as The Mandarin. Even Gwneyth Paltrow’s Pepper moves from behind the desk to field work.

It’s hard to argue against a Hollywood formula that takes in $337 million dollars in three weeks. There are more Iron Man films in the works, but I’d be happier if they put him in with the others more often.

The 3D choice was obviously produced and released to increase the ticket price. Nothing outstanding or unique in that effort. In fact I wished I’d seen it in the traditional experience. The film score was forgettable.

Official web site is an improvement to what we usually see. A single landing page with a nice, clear set of choices along the bottom that load quickly and keep you interested. Worth exploring.

Photo credit: Marvel and Paramount Pictures

Remembering Roger Ebert

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsAny lover of film my age was heavily influenced by what Roger Ebert wrote about the movies. He was not trained in film theory and started out his career as a journalist. You might say he was in the right place at the right time as the Chicago Sun-Times decided to anoint their first film critic. Ebert was already an accomplished individual and writer and in a way entrepreneur. He was more than up to the task and in no time developed his unique style of looking at and writing about movies. He played several roles; guide, interpreter, analyst and industry watchdog. No matter your education level or understanding of film as an art form, you could easily access his reviews and find something interesting, even unique. Oh yeah, one more, teacher.

His output was nothing short of amazing, watching movies everyday, most days more than one. He reviewed nearly 250 films per year for decades and despite being stricken with cancer, continued to be a film sponge. He was probably the best friend the movies ever had because he connected them to our society through the lens of culture. When you are that deep and long involved in an industry you become a historian as well. He connected the dots across decades, genres, actors, directors, even themes. If I was forced to select one word to describe him, I’d say, rare.

Like so many people, I followed him on Twitter and read his blog to ensure I kept my film mind sharp.

In 1984 he published the  first of his fifteen books called, A Kiss is Still a Kiss. It was s chronicle of the film beat with stories of stars and filmmakers up close and personal. You got to see how near industry people let him get to them and it no doubt helped shape his personal view of the business. It was a business/industry/art form he loved and because of that special relationship he freely criticized it when he felt it was needed.

Ebert Signature
Ebert personalized his first book for me

The 1980’s was the decade I ran a bookstore chain and we had a store in Champaign, IL. Ebert grew up in the neighboring town of Urbana and attended the University of Illinois. I read in Publisher’s Weekly that he was publishing his first book and immediately contacted his publicist and arranged for a book signing event in that store during one of his trips back to Champaign. In he came with no sense of entitlement or conceit. It wasn’t that long before that he won the Pulitzer Prize, but you’d never know it. He was jovial, relaxed and engaging. We spent a good half hour before the signing time in the stockroom of the store talking movies. His all time favorite was Citizen Kane, which I was a huge fan of as well. It was such a pleasure to have had that time with him and my mind and heart will sorely miss him.

Thank you Roger for allowing me to share decades of your life at the movies and I’m so happy that I can go back and pull any of your books off my shelf and indulge in my ongoing quest to learn more about the movies.

Audio Podcast of this post: 

Kiss Ebert book

Book dust jacket scan

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From Roger Ebert’s Facebook Page. Interviewing Senator Estes Kefauver, Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1956 for his Urbana, Illinois high school paper.

Photo of Ebert from The Chicago Sun-Times

Scan of A Kiss is still a Kiss from the collection of Steve A Furman

Side Effects – Film Review

The release of the psychological thriller Side Effects brings with it good news and bad news. First the bad news. Director Steven Soderbergh has announced this is will be his last feature film. He’s retiring from moviemaking (I don’t believe it, or just refuse to believe it). Now the good news, we get the chance to see Rooney Mara in a more normal role, meaning someone (anyone) other than Lisbeth Salander. Yes she was in The Social Network but that one doesn’t really count.

All 3 Cast Members

I’ve looked forward to Mr. Soderbergh’s films ever since he gave us the provocative Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989. He has been prolific although sometimes uneven in quality. There are flashes of brilliance; King of the Hill, Out of Sight, The Limey and a sordid examination of the drug trade and the failed war against it in Traffic. Other outings have been great fun, the Oceans movies. One film that I feel is underrated is the slowly disturbing Solaris. In Side Effects he turns out a polished mind game that keeps you interested although you have every reason not to be.

Rooney Mara plays the quiet but obviously complicated Emily Taylor. A beautiful woman who had everything she ever wanted in life only to watch it vanish in a moment’s time as her husband (Channing Tatum) is convicted of insider trading. Ms. Mara plays a human puzzle without a compass. She gives us numerous physical looks and matches, or to be exact, surpasses them with a wider range of emotional dexterity. Once in a while you hear Lisbeth in her voice, but I must give her credit for successfully moving behind The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This woman has a bright future as an actress. Emily carves out a new life the best she can, trying her hand in a graphics design shop while fighting off depression. Her husband Martin is finally released and they try to reconnect and rebuild their lives.

Emily has trouble holding it together and purposely crashes her car into a concrete wall. This causes her to encounter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) in the emergency room after the incident. Out of professional concern, he wants to hospitalize her but is talked out of it. Actually Emily doesn’t say much. She just kind of stares and wiggles her way out of being admitted more so by what she doesn’t say. He prescribes pills and sets regular therapy sessions in his office. She has unpleasant reactions to the drugs and begins a disquieting bout of sleepwalking. During a session Dr. Banks learns of Emily’s prior therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and seeks her out at an ADHD convention. They discuss Emily and Dr. Siebert recommends he try a new (fictional) drug, Ablixa.

Ms. Zeta-Jones is all business. Jet black hair pulled back tightly behind her ears. Large black, non-designer glasses frame her classic face. The encounters between her and Mr. Law are quite good. I wish there had been more of them. Mr. Law has matured nicely from his younger days of Gattaca and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He has always been subtle, but in Side Effects he takes it to a new level.

What ensues is a series of carefully crafted scenes by Mr. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns in a manner aspiring to be Film Noir. It doesn’t get there but one has to admire the effort. They weave a tapestry of clues and lies, wrapping it all up in a complicated legal technicality. Each of the three characters have made decisions that cannot be undone. They become deeply entangled in each other’s fate all for very different reasons. Alliances are formed but no one expects the other one to keep their end of the bargain. It’s every man for himself in a high stakes game.

Thomas Newman’s soundtrack nails the mood of the film. You get the feeling that the characters are hearing that same music in their minds all throughout the picture, just like you. Another stellar outing for Mr. Newman who has collaborated with Mr. Soderbergh on prior films.  Technical credits are solid but modest. Soderbergh’s camera is as fluid as always, gliding along but able to stop long enough to shape strong compositions amid the muted lighting which puts the audience in the proper visual mood.

The official film web site tries to break out of the boring template we usually see. It’s a vertical experience. Simple and interesting. Not particularly informative, but it has an excellent diversion. Be sure and click on the Ablixa link at the top of the site. If you follow the links far enough you can take a simple mental test administered by no other than Dr. Jonathan Banks who will ultimately recommend you take Ablixa. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Good fun.

Don’t go Steven!

Podcast Version of Side Effects

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Review of the American version.


Photo Credit: Open Road

Skyfall – Film Review

Bond 1As someone who has seen probably 90% of the Bond films in the theater, I’ve had a front row seat at the evolution of the character and series. I do not engage in the “Who’s the best Bond” discussions or even which is the “Best Bond film.” This franchise has been running almost continuously for 41 years. Cultures, generations passing and the ever evolving world of filmmaking make comparisons pointless.

For quite some time now I’ve been focused on each film as primarily “stand alone.” There is no way one can’t allow their mind to drift back to other installments, but when that occurs I try to confine my thoughts to either themes that continue to present themselves or aspects that signal change.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, checks most of the Bond boxes for a devoted audience. Action, women, explosions, smug humor and a wonderfully evil villain. The film provides the credits for three writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan. When I see more than two writers I try and pick out which writer wrote which scenes or dialogue. I must admit they stumped me. I couldn’t do it reliably. So let’s just say each one got 47 minutes worth of screen time, leading to another unusually long running time of 2 hours 23 minutes. More on long movies and why I like them can be found on my Podcast stream here.

Picture begins with a supercharged chase scene. First in cars, then on motorcycles atop a market and concluding on the roof of a moving train. Yes there are tunnels involved. Bond is trying to recover a hard drive that contains the identities of friendly operatives operating undercover against terrorists. Another reason we should not use excel.

The hard drive was delivered to Silva, played by Javier Bardem. It’s easy to spot Bardem as a bad guy because he always has a weird, psychopathic hair style. Yes I’m referring to his portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. This time his hair is long, straight, slicked-back and blonde. He is a former MI6 agent that was left to fend for himself in the field and harbors quite a grudge. He’s brilliant in a scary way and it turns out he is a meticulous planner.

Bond 2

This installment examines an aging Bond. Physically he is not what he used to be which impacts his performance as well as mental state. He suddenly finds himself in a younger man’s game and the opening scene gives him a solid out, which he doesn’t take. So we have our mental model of Bond, never aging, always winning and the on-screen Bond who is been rung out after years of stress and near misses. Craig handles the transition wonderfully with wit, experience, and the call of duty as the MI6 headquarters is bombed.

M (Judi Dench) is also on the verge of the third stage of life. An in the moment call to an agent with a rifle raises questions about her fitness for duty. She has lost a step or two in the mind of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). He hands M her walking papers but she refuses. Bond rakes her over the coals for not trusting him. Still she moves on.

The film’s climax takes place at Bond’s boyhood home in the middle of nowhere and with Albert Finney no less, as Kincade the groundskeeper, still in residence. Bond has baited the hook with M to finish the mission. In the meantime Silva assembles a small army and swarms the mini-castle with maximum firepower. These final scenes attempt to bring closure to too many issues to track. This is the one major flaw but it is forgiven because we have affection for the characters.

The technical aspects of the film are outstanding. Sound design and camera are executed in stellar fashion and the atmosphere created by the filmmakers is impressive and immersive. Thomas Newman provides a professional but entirely expected soundtrack. I will say he provides more variety than most. He had to fill those 143 minutes somehow and was up to it. Adele was tasked with the signature song and nailed it.

The Skyfall official web site is standard fare. Recommended for the film’s action, nostalgia value and to spur thought about what might be next.

Photo Credits: MGM, Columbia Pictures

Silver Linings Playbook – Film Review

silver_linings_playbook_2As with so many films that examine mental illness through the lens of their characters, Silver Linings Playbook ends up like most, with the crazies saner than the non-crazies. I was hoping David O. Russell would push the envelope a bit and give us a fresh look, but the film plays it safe. Bradley Cooper is Pat (Sr.) doing eight months time in a Baltimore mental health facility. He severely beat the man he found in the shower with his wife after coming home early one day. Pat has many OCD related issues and we’re led to believe this event was the trigger to going over the edge.

Quirky people abound in this picture. Robert DeNiro plays Pat Solatano, senior to Pat Jr. The senior is a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic and was banned from the stadium years ago for beating people up. He now runs a bookie business out of his home and is uber-supersticious on game day. Pat Jr. is released into the custody of his parents and trots around the neighborhood bumping into the people he knew prior to the event. Pat Jr. is still obsessed with his wife Nikki and is convinced they are still madly in love. If only he could demonstrate to her his is now stable, all would be fine.

Enter Tiffany played with intrigue by Jennifer Lawrence. They are introduced at a dinner party by Pat Jr.’s friend who is TIffany’s brother. They make an instant connection. Tiffany’s husband was tragically killed and she has been unable to cope. The rest of the story has Pat Jr. and Tiffany jogging around the streets of their neighborhood trying to connect. It’s strangely comedic, but you get the feeling you really shouldn’t be laughing.


Pat Jr. wants to get a letter to Nikki, but dog gone it there’s that annoying restraining order in the way. Tiffany claims she can pass Nikki the letter and will do it if he agrees to be her dance partner and enter a contest at a local hotel. He agrees and the dance begins. The rehearsal scenes are really interesting as it requires the actors to do as much physically as mentally. Those hours become their real therapy sessions (minus the bill). The crazy becomes the therapists.

I swear that everyday is Sunday in this movie, and Eagles game day Sunday at that. Pat Sr. pleads with Pat Jr. to sit and watch the game. He never does. Despite all that attention on football we never actually see a play, not on television and not even when Pat Jr. goes to the Eagles stadium with his loser brother. Of course Pat gets in a fight during the pre-game tailgate.

The film is at its best when it slows down and examines the strangling consequences of mental illness. People really get lost and live life in an alternate reality and they are frequently helpless to get better. Many of these suffering people don’t know what normal (word used loosely) is, but they are keenly aware that they are not that.

Bradley Cooper is the billed star, but the movie ultimately belongs to Jennifer Lawrence. She sets the tone with her ability to manipulate the moment. When you look into her expression you absolutely know there is so much more going on beneath that face and it’s probably conniving in nature.

This film has terrible timing. It came out during a rush of serious and important film projects and when you compare them to this picture, it just can’t hold up. The soundtrack combines some excellent original work from Danny Elfman sprinkled with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Rare Earth (look it up).

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Zero Dark Thirty – Film Review

Zero Dark Thirty Poster2012 will be remembered as the year the movies took back their time slot. The year the industry remembered they have a super power; making big, ambitious, thought-provoking pictures and damn the running time or who might be protesting. Six major feature films released in the fall/winter season topped the two hour twenty minute mark. That’s right, cinema is for adults again, serious filmgoers, and it’s about time.

Kathryn Bigelow gave us The Hurt Locker, now she revisits the post 9/11 world on the ground again. Her mission, to tell an even more complex and messy story. The decade long manhunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The film has come under significant criticism from many about the graphic nature of the scenes depicting prisoner interrogations. The complaints state that the intelligence the CIA uncovered to kill UBL was not linked to information gathered during these types of sessions. We will never know for sure.

This is another fascinating aspect of this past year’s film season that really excites me. Filmmakers with a purpose. Willing to take a risk because it matters. All of a sudden if feels like movies are re-determined to push the envelope. Argo used declassified documents and first hand accounts to weave a dramatic account of the Iran prisoner episode. Lincoln was unabashed about telling the story of slavery and the Civil War and most importantly what really goes on inside the capitol dome with all those politicians. Oliver Stone was the pioneer in this arena and others have come forward to update it and shape it for today.

Bigelow partners once again with her writer colleague Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) who has given us an on the “edge of your seat” script. He has a variety of factions to write for and a daunting task to pull the thousands of details together in a way that is interesting, dramatic and clear. He succeeds.

Maya 5

Jessica Chastain plays Maya an obsessed and driven (aren’t they all) CIA operative recruited into the intelligence machine directly out of high school. At first Ms.Chastain seems an unlikely choice for this role with her glowing reddish hair, porcelain skin and slight build. But this is Ms. Bigelow’s world and it’s chocked full of powerful women. Maya’s first in country experience places her in an interrogation session run by Dan (Jason Clarke). It gets ugly fast and Maya is clearly uncomfortable. She cringes at some of Dan’s tactics, but very quickly reloads her nerve endings for a second go. This is an important moment for her. She now knows what it will take.

At first it was an assignment to track down UBL. But after a suicide bomber kills several of her fellow operatives at a military camp, a clear set-up, her purpose is transformed into a  personal vendetta. Like anyone who is singularly focused, everything becomes heightened. Yes, I thought about Carrie Mathison from Homeland, but without the bi-polar issue. Maya wears t-shirts when everyone else in the CIA station comes to work in business attire. She never backs down and it’s her insistence that gets her what she needs to discover the compound in Abbottabad. Maya is 100% convinced UBL is living there. There is no question in her mind.

We know what’s coming in the end but Bigelow and Boal unpack the story so skillfully that we are in no hurry to get there.The picture spans more than a decade of events so the filmmakers make liberal use of onscreen way markers, displaying dates and places so we can more easily follow the narrative. We are kept unhinged, helpless, as we watch one explosion after another. Some we know are coming, like the London bombings. Others are more of a surprise, the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan bombing, because they are in the deeper recesses of our memory. As a result we become hyper-sensitized, expecting a bomb to go off at any moment, bringing us closer to what things were really like for these operatives.

Maya reminded me of an updated Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the first two Terminator films. Involved at a young age. Didn’t really ask for the assignment, but was more than up to the task. Maya is Sarah in so many ways but without the muscles or military training. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day Connor is sitting in a room of doctors who are trying to pin a diagnosis on her when she explains what’s about to happen. “Anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a really bad day, get it?” Maya’s parallel is her daily storming to the office window of her boss and scribbling the number of days that nothing has happened since they found the compound.

Maya and Sarah

Maya and Sarah Connor

Ms. Bigelow employs actors we don’t easily recognize. It’s a crafty move to keep the audience focused on the scent of information the players so desperately need to keep alive in order to capture their target. If these parts were played by movie stars it would be distracting and less effective. There is one actor that stands out, James Gandolfini plays the CIA Director.

At the two hour mark we arrive at the mission scene. Cinematographer Greig Fraser gives us breathtaking shots of the choppers weaving through narrow canyons toward the compound and the target. The sequences are skillfully executed and align with the military precision used by the Navy Seals to execute the operation. Most of these scenes are filmed through night goggles, tuning everything an unpleasant green. The film crew shot the mission sequences twice to be sure the got every angle necessary for the editors. The Navy Seals got one chance, the filmmakers had the luxury of being able to go to take two.

Alexandre Desplat’s score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is moody and at times electronic. The sound design for the film is spectacular and the dialogue is so important the filmmakers use the music sparingly. When it does take the spotlight it is eerie how well it meshes with the visuals. We sometimes hear a middle-eastern influence, but mostly it’s written to increase the suspense. It does. Mr. Desplat also wrote the score for Argo, which means he’s responsible for the music in 20% of the Oscar nominated pictures of 2012. Impressive. He has a deep respect for what’s on screen and does not overpower, simply support. He works in the background, almost inconspicuously, to prop up the narrative and make a point.

Highly recommended. The official film web site is yet another attempt to be interactive. I found it lacking in additional, interesting information. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Jessica Chastain won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama.

Photo credits: Columbia Pictures

Arbitrage – Film Review

GereEver since Bernie Madoff and the financial meltdown it’s fashionable to dislike the Wall Street uber-rich. In Arbitrage, Richard Gere’s portrayal of hedge-fund manager Robert Miller ushers in the next level; despising them. As the picture opens Miller is reflecting on his third stage of life and is looking to get out of business and “spend more time with his family.” The big problem is he’s spent 60 years getting himself in too deep to make a graceful exit.

I originally put Arbitrage on my must see list of films for the season based on what I had read about the picture, Gere’s performance, and the subject matter. It was a bet on an independent film by a director (Nicholas Jarecki) who was on his first feature film. I was half right. The film tries to be a thriller and a social statement but ends up as an interesting story about the bad things people do.

This is Gere’s film and he owns it. He occupies 75% of the frames, speaks at least half the lines in the screenplay and carries it off wonderfully on his slight frame and gray mane. Miller always expects the world to bend to his will, mostly because it has. He strikes grand bargains and usually wins. But now he has made a tragic miscalculation by investing in a copper mine in Russia where unpredictable politics has frozen his money. He still wants out of the day to day so he has to do some creative clerical work to pass an audit in order to be acquired by an ailing Standard Bank.

Miller has a large family around him as often as he can. A daughter and son, both who work for him, grandchildren and naturally his wife, Ellen Miller (Susan Sarandon). It seems well balanced but that’s only a skin deep illusion. Miller is constantly telling everyone that people count on him. That if doesn’t do what he knows he must do people will get hurt. He’s completely blind to the fact that he causes casualties on a daily basis. Of course he has a mistress on the side, Julie Côte (Laetitia Casta) a French art student that has aspirations of starting her own gallery. Miller sets her up with an apartment and buys lots of paintings and spends evenings with her. His excessiveness and age suddenly catch up with him.

It’s a long set-up before we get to the crucial events that propel the film forward into a thriller involving crooked Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) investigating a death he doesn’t really care about. Detective Bryer has had it with these rich types always beating justice and so Mr. Jarecki brings him down to Miller’s level. No high roads here. Miller keeps his cool and enlists trusted advisors to help him brainstorm himself out of some serious trouble.

No we don’t like Robert Miller and are rooting for him to be locked under the jail. But Gere keeps us on his side throughout the picture. We secretly hope he gets out of trouble because we love to see that look on his face when he knows he has the answer. It’s success and power and we all want to understand what that feels like.

So many victims, suffering, betrayal and blackmail (pardon me, negotiating). I believe that’s why the film doesn’t have an ending. Mr. Jarecki simply turns off the camera. We all avert our eyes to the things we can’t control and don’t want to see.

Technical aspects are professional but not extraordinary. Score by Cliff Martinez is moody and electronic. At first I thought it wasn’t a fit, but repeated listenings got me more comfortable. We also get to hear Bjork sing I See Who You Are. Yes we do.

The official web site for the film is not worth visiting.

Nomination: Golden Globes: Richard Gere, Best performance by an actor in a drama

Winner: National Board of Review, USA: Top Ten Independent Films

Photo Credit: LionsGate plus all the others.

Les Miserables Close-up

JackmanLes Misérables has been told countless times since Victor Hugo gave us his enormous novel. I uncovered over 50 small and large screen versions with only modest effort. Even Orson Welles tackled it on radio in 1937. Les Misérables is probably best known in contemporary times as a musical that began onstage in Paris in 1978. Within two years it opened in London and then became a fixture of the American musical where it still plays over two decades later. I saw it in 1987 in New York.

It was written as a novel, not a musical. So how did it transform into a musical? The soaring score of Claude-Michel Schönberg and powerful lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer — with contributions by James Fenton — sealed the fate of Les Misérables as a musical possibly forever. And so Tom Hooper the Director of The King’s Speech has taken up the challenge; again as a musical.

I will not recount the details of the story involving Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the diligent Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) set during the French Revolution. All I’ll say is take my advice and never steal from a French bakery.

For me the most interesting aspects of this year’s Les Misérables is how the filmmakers and cast went about making it and how the studios marketed it. The script contains hardly twenty lines of spoken dialogue. The rest is all to be sung, no matter what character opens their mouth. This introduced new challenges for the actors as well as the film crew. Mr. Hooper wanted to combine singing with acting and so had the actors sing their parts live as they were being filmed. They wore invisible earbuds during their performance, listening to a pianist playing their musical pieces. Usually musicals are recorded ahead of time then the actors are filmed on set, lip-synching to their previous recording. The process used here is much more powerful and personal. It’s particularly effective during dialogue exchanges or when three actors sing their own parts individually and are cut into a weave of narrative by the editors. The sword fight, actually a sword and a long stick, between Javert and Valjean in the hospital after Fantine’s death is amazing. Two Australian stars singing snark talk as Frenchmen in Paris while doing bitter battle.


All actors turn in smashing performances with the most tears being shed during Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) solo I Dreamed a Dream. Not a dry eye in the house as they say. Hugh Jackman puts his musical talents on display tackling the most difficult part as Valjean, while Russell Crowe, who played in the stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Australia is the determined Javert, who has a very specific way of looking at the world. Evil is one thing and good is another and they are fixed that way forever. Oh, a couple more observations about Javert. He has the best costumes and has a thing for walking on the edge of buildings many stories above the streets of Paris.

The camera takes wide sweeping runs at the massive sets, but when it comes to the songs, the camera moves right in on top of the actor’s faces. Extreme close-up. I believe they were so wrapped up in how they were filming, the overwhelming material and terrific interpretation by the stars, that they just couldn’t help themselves. Be prepared to see everyone’s face thirty feet tall most of the time. Despite the 2 hour and 38 minute running time I frequently felt the pacing was a bit jagged. When I wanted the images to slow down so I could take them in, they were cut off. When I was ready to move along to the next frame, the camera lingered.

The studios knew they had a challenge getting American audiences out to see their epic. The musical genre is always a risk for studios when it comes to box office take. The number one grossing musical since 1974 earned only $188 Million and was released in 1978 (Grease). Even Chicago is well behind that in second place. At the writing of this blog Les Misérables places eleventh with $66.7 Million. It should get a Golden Globe and Oscar bump in a few weeks.

The studios began their marketing in May with a teaser trailer which was upgraded to an extended version in September. They focused on the star talent and on the way in which the film would be made using live singing. They of course leveraged Social Media with Facebook, You Tube and Twitter, and placed one to two minute clips on cable operators networks like Comcast/Xfinity on demand for free.

Fans of the musical will likely flock to the cinema to see this and be very satisfied. Probably moved. Not everyone lives a few miles from quality live musical theater and can’t get to or can’t afford that experience. This film makes this amazing story accessible to millions more people.

Will the future ever arrive? … Should we continue to look upwards? Is the light we can see in the sky one of those which will presently be extinguished? The ideal is terrifying to behold, lost as it is in the depths, small isolated, a pin-point, brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it; nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds. — Victor Hugo

Front and back of Original Playbill, Broadway Theatre, 1987 (Steve A Furman Archives)

Les Mis Ticket Stub

Ticket stub from the musical  Les Misérables (Steve A Furman Archives)

Interesting Fact:

Colm Wilkinson who made his mark as the original Jean Valjean in London and New York (He was the Valjean I saw) returns to this picture to play the empathetic Bishop who gives Jackman’s Valjean a second chance.

Official Web Site:

The official movie web site is more interesting than most. Cast, crew, story, gallery of course. And they don’t launch music when you hit the site. Thank you. If you want details on the background of how the film came together read the Production Notes. There are also links to the free Companion Movie Book for iPad, similar to what was done with Lincoln. I don’t have the numbers on these companion book downloads, but I believe publishing them and making them free for iPads and tablets is a much better way to promote a film. Web sites of these pictures are so uninspired these days. Of course they link to the soundtrack. It’s billed as “highlights” because the entire film is the soundtrack. Some of my favorites were on their in their complete form, but others were truncated. A bit disappointed at that. They have some cool wallpapers and icons formatted for desktop and iPad.

Infographic Les Miz

Excellent use of  info graphics telling the broader story of  Les Misérables

Photo credit unless otherwise noted: Courtesy of Universal Studios, Working Title Films and Cameron Mackintosh Limited.

Lincoln – Film Review


Lincoln reminds us that there have always been troubling times and politics is a dirty business. Politics is about compromises struck by people with violently clashing differences. If there can be no compromise then we have the gridlock of nothingness. People suffer and die outside Washington everyday while inside the dome, maddening brinksmanship takes place. Imagine the country consumed by a civil war that produces nearly six hundred casualties per day and has an active slave trade of millions of men, women and children. Six hundred twenty-five thousand souls lost their lives in the war between the North and the South, fought on the brink of expanding war technology such as ironclads and repeating guns. The art critic Robert Hughes while writing his history of American art, said, “The Civil War was America’s Iliad and its Holocaust as well.” This was Lincoln’s world. Steven Spielberg’s masterly film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Lincoln are spellbinding. In the end it’s about one thing; leadership.

The picture opens with a grinding battle full of complexities and powers raging in pools of mud. Despite the advancement of weaponry, the fighting was still largely hand to hand, which was the main reason for the high casualty rate. It’s late in the year 1864 and President Lincoln has just won a second term. He has set two objectives. Pass the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery and turn war into peace while preserving the United States as one country. Obviously an over achiever.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) spent five years crafting Lincoln. His inspiration and source was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. In that work she closely examined Lincoln as a man, a father and a president. Mr. Kushner delivered an exhaustive five hundred page script to Spielberg with a note of apology for the length. It was eventually filtered down to cover only a few months of Lincoln’s life. It’s an amazing piece of writing that evokes Shakespeare for it’s elegance of language and refusal to lower itself to any specific audience. It feels like it was written for the stage and stays true to the story and the challenges of the times. Every actor is given even weight regardless of the role, and aside from the scenes in the chaotic House of Representatives, the actors don’t talk over each other. They speak and listen. Pause and speak again. There is terrific use of silence which draws us even further into the setting. It’s an amazingly quiet film.

Mr. Spielberg gives us another exquisitely crafted effort in a style that started with Schindler’s List and continued in Saving Private Ryan. Realism shot through the lens of drama and compassion. This film was not made by the adult-child Spielberg we enjoyed in E.T. and Indiana Jones, but the serious man who points his camera at history and conjures it to the screen. Spielberg shows us what life is like in the White House but it’s Daniel Day-Lewis who brings us into the mind of Lincoln.

Lincoln WorkingMr. Day-Lewis is beyond superb. He inhabits Lincoln in an almost ghostly manner. A soft voice that demands to be heard and his tall, thin frame draped in blankets and cloaks cuts a significant physical presence. Stovepipe hat worn, held and used as storage for speeches adds to his height. Lincoln didn’t really care about clothing, he wanted to be a man of the people. I was never aware Day-Lewis was playing Lincoln. His performance, surely to be an Oscar winner, is mesmerizing. He shapes a Lincoln that is witty, smart and a seasoned politician who loves to tell rambling stories, driven to solve two of the biggest problems that have ever faced this nation. We see a tortured, torn man who endured much personal pain but was loved by the people in a way not often found in presidential history.

The filmmakers successfully surround Lincoln with a lively group of characters. Sally Field as Mary Todd delivers a tempered performance of the frequently overwrought First Lady, but rises to the occasion when required. She brings us the strong woman behind the man and does not back down from disagreeable politicians despite the fact she frequently finds herself on the emotional brink. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward reminds Lincoln that what he is trying to do is impossible. That in no way dissuades Lincoln. Strathairn as Seward knows the President intimately, having lost the nomination to Lincoln much to the surprise of many. They constantly challenge each other. Tommy Lee Jones relishes his role as Thaddeus Stevens who is the Ted Kennedy of the day, working an entire career to accomplish one very large thing. Both of these actors bring to life their characters and are the oxygen for the thirteenth amendment. The rest of the performances, and there are lots of them, are all top shelf.

There is much to take in. The filmmakers know this and design everything around simple and subtle. The sets are classic and interesting, but the lighting is reserved for the characters. Inside scenes, particularly the White House, are dark at the frame’s edges to match the mood of the nation. When the camera is outside the mood is divided between civilian and soldier. The Capitol building is bathed in bright sunlight and appears as brilliant marble white. A stark contrast to the scrim draped blue that fogs the screen as Lincoln meanders through a battlefield on horseback littered with dead soldiers. Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer) keeps his camera on straight, smooth lines. If feels more akin to photography than filming, evoking Matthew Brady. No shocking movements or radical palette changes.

“I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure these votes.” — Abraham Lincoln

The majority of the screen time is spent inside the White House. It’s Lincoln’s home and we see how he lives and interacts with his family. Being president means you will get unexpected visitors from little ones. Spielberg effectively weaves both of Lincoln’s living sons, Tad and Robert, into the story, bringing the father/president Lincoln dynamic into an already complex setting.

Lincoln was a master strategist and tactician, always looking forward to the future. He took very specific actions to set the stage and cause others to reconsider. His voice does the heavy lifting but from time to time he uses touch as an exclamation point. When he wants something he gets in your physical space. Sits on a table, pours you a drink or slaps your shoulders. Lyndon Johnson had that style of physical persuasion. So too did Bill Clinton. Irresistible forces of nature sealing the deal with a clutch of the arm or a double handshake.

The score by John Williams is quiet, like most everything else in the film, except of course for the Congressmen. Mr. Williams recalls, “The dramatic and atmospheric needs of the film required very separate pieces that I realize I’d have to compose anew.” He created a number of different themes to deliver the greatest impact. Outside the film I don’t believe anyone will recognize what he has written, but inside the film, it advances our emotional connection.

John Rawls, an American political philosopher states it best.

“The politician thinks about the next election; the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

The film’s official web site is and is interesting, but a bit of an afterthought. There is however an excellent free iBook available through the iTunes store, Lincoln: Discover the Story. It is full of interesting facts and video interviews of the cast and filmmakers. If you get a chance I highly recommend you visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It’s amazing and suitable for all ages. I grew up in Springfield and thus have a deep connection with Mr. Lincoln. His home is there as well as his grave site. I have visited each many times as well as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Highly recommended.

Photo credits: Dreamworks Pictures – Twentieth Century Fox – Participant Media

Life of Pi – Film Review

Life of Pi is an exquisite cinematic experience based on the immensely popular novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The director, Ang Lee, is arguably the most courageous and underrated contemporary director we have. He keeps two important regions found in the director’s mind active; versatility and boldness. Many directors stay in their comfort zone but Mr. Lee will have none of that. He has traversed the arrow of time from Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility to the Nixon-era gem The Ice Age to filming a compassionate interpretation of Hulk. When selecting story themes Mr. Lee is fearless. The magical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龍) was based on the Crane-Iron book series and captivated a worldwide audience. And of course Brokeback Mountain, a work that solidified his natural talent for capturing the deepest aspects of human relationships and won him an Oscar.

Life of Pi is another challenge for Mr. Lee on several fronts. There was a large gap between the cinematic potential of Life of Pi and what would need to be pulled off to bring it to life. They decided to work in all digital 3D, to change the storytelling structure by inserting an adult Pi, to use live tigers in as many sequences as possible, obviously deferring to digital for safety. Then who do you cast as Pi? The choice was an unknown sixteen year old (Suraj Sharma). It was not enough for Mr. Lee to just tell a story of a boy stranded at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Timing is everything in life and the film technology time was right for Life of Pi.

The story is told by an older Pi, now well beyond his at sea odyssey. He is at home with a writer when the story comes to life over lunch. Mr. Lee shapes the narrative by crosscutting between Pi’s tranquil home setting and the fight for life that becomes the main story. Over time the back and forth recedes, the stage is set and we find ourselves adrift in the lifeboat with Pi and the tiger Robert Parker

Pi Patel lives with his brother and parents in India. They are zookeepers and beyond that seem to be quite ordinary. The children attend school, the father works the zoo while the mother tends to the household duties. Pi is short for Piscine which in grammar school is a disaster. He tries to shorten his name to Pi and demonstrates his seriousness by taking the mathematical string of Pi and writing it across multiple blackboards in math class. He is deeply curious about many things and is drawn to one religion after another. His parents tolerate Pi’s bouncing about spiritually, but finally his father tells him that one needs to choose a path. Pi struggles with that concept, as he likes to keep his options open.

The parents decide to leave India and move to Canada. Selling the animals to other zoos in North America will fund their new life, so everyone is crated and caged and loaded onto a Japanese cargo ship. Life aboard ship is challenging for everyone. Sea sickness sets in and the galley isn’t prepared for vegetarians. Gérard Depardieu emerges from nowhere to play the nasty cook and the foreshadowing continues. A violent storm overtakes the freighter Tsimtsum and it sinks into the deep abyss of the Mariana Trench. There appear to be no other human survivors.

What follows is a spectacular series of encounters between Pi and Richard Parker as they struggle to survive. They are from completely different worlds but know that finding a way to connect is critical to mutual survival. Each have advantages and disadvantages and the story in the middle reels is largely about how they deploy their individual strategies. Pi studies a survival at sea manual found on board and keeps a detailed diary in the margins. He returns to the page that offers encouragement, particularly the line that says, never give up hope.

Mr. Lee lulls us into a new normal with calm seas then subjects us to the power of nature, almost an assault, as a reminder of who is in control. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography plays digital tricks on the eye. He suspends Pi and Richard Parker in time and space. Sometimes they appear to be on the water while other times they are floating in a star-flooded night sky. Water and sky become one, as that’s all they can see besides each other.

They find themselves run aground on a mysterious island overrun by banyan trees and meerkats. The island serves to remind our friends that hope is alive. The island serves to connect Pi to his native land through familiar landscape. Although a brief stop, it’s restorative.

Time has taken it’s toll and both are exhausted. Richard Parker’s power is spent and Pi is able to cradle the tiger’s head on his lap. The one moment of physical contact between them. Pi strokes his bleached pale coat and gazes skyward, “We’re dying, Richard Parker.”

Eventually they wash up on a Mexican shore. Pi collapses on the warm sand and Richard Parker makes his way to the beckoning forest. As Pi is carried to a hospital he is overcome with emotion, heart broken that his companion of 227 days saunters away without so much as a glance back. The owners of the cargo ship dispatch two investigators to interview Pi in hopes of gaining some clues as to why the vessel sank. Pi tells them his story. The investigators are not equipped to take that story back so they plead for a more believable one. In his retelling Pi swaps out animals for people.

Which story do you prefer? The one with animals or people? The meaning of this story rests with the viewer. In the book The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, A Journey, Mr. Martel states:

Are you directed by the flat edicts of rationality, or open to more marvelous possibilities? Do you need to know for certain, are you limited by that necessity, or are you willing to make leaps of faith?

The choice to make the picture all digital resulted in razor sharp images which made it more difficult for the viewer to separate reality from dream. The crew went to heroic lengths in every category to pull this off successfully. After the credits I completely forgot it was in 3D. Technical Oscar nominations are inevitable. Mychael Danna, a Canadian film composer, created the melodic framework for the film. He composed twenty-eight tracks, each written for a specific moment in the film with only subtle differences between them. There are no obvious clues in the score to point us one way or the other. The tracks provide subtle support for the overwhelming visuals of the pictue. You can listen on Soundcloud here.  Life of Pi reminded me a little of Slumdog Millionaire. Unknown actors, unfamiliar surroundings, for a Western audience, and a study of relationships. Highly recommended.

The official Life of Pi web site is here.

Photo Credits: Twenty Century Fox Studios

P.S. Interested in tigers? Read about the National Tiger Sanctuary.

Flight – Film Review

Screenwriter John Gatins made an inspired choice when he settled on Flight as the title of his film. He has written a story that traces the flight path of its main character Whip Whitaker, played superbly by Denzel Washington. Flight is not about airplanes and only mildly touches on the airline business. Instead it’s a rich personality study of Whitaker’s deeply troubled persona. Whip is an alcoholic. An alcoholic by choice as he reminds us several times during the film.

Picture opens with Whip in an airport hotel room with a young woman. He is awakened by a phone call from his ex-wife asking for tuition money for their son. While talking he suddenly realizes he has just two hours before he’s scheduled to captain a jetliner to Atlanta. The couple take the time to drink and snort cocaine before starting what they expect will be an ordinary day.

A severe thunderstorm engulfs the airport while Whip makes his safety walk around the outside the plane. External inspection, check. We’re introduced to two more crew members, the co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), and the purser Margaret Thompson (Tamara Tunie). Flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), the young woman Whip partied with the night before, is also assigned to SouthJet flight 227. The co-pilot, Evans is making his first flight with Whip, and he’s skittish of the storm. Upon departure the aircraft is violently tossed around by the severe turbulence. Whip makes an unorthodox maneuver to reach clear skies. It works. Evans is amazed. Whip goes to sleep.

Flight is Robert Zemeckis’ first time at the helm of a film since Cast Away with Tom Hanks. He hasn’t lost his touch, particularly when it comes to filming airplane crashes. The one staged in Flight is exceedingly more frightening than the FedEx jet that went down in Cast Away (fasten your seat belt low and tight across your waist). Zemeckis is a storyteller and uses special effects sparingly and only if it helps him supercharge the story. I think of his use of SFX as if it were a carefully placed exclamation point. Once we move past the crash, Don Burgess’s camera calms down and shifts into drama gear. We get Whip’s story through an interesting lens; straightforward and honest. It is directly in tune with Whip’s character, in control on the outside, in turmoil on the inside. It works beautifully.

It’s a new world now as Whip faces a crucial life moment. Suddenly all the choices he has made in the past come crashing down on him all at once. His childhood, a failed marriage, being estranged from his only son and now the death of six souls from Flight 227. Whip was able to land that broken plane, averting complete tragedy. He clings tightly to his belief that if he’s not the pilot of that plane, it goes down. The fact that he was drunk and high is completely beside the point.

The pilot’s association hires a criminal lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to help protect the reputation of Whip but ultimately the association. Lang is all business and quite proud of his record. Whip is dismissive and difficult, but eventually learns to listen and accept his help. It’s yet another person trying an on the fly intervention.

There’s a chance meeting in a hospital stairwell that includes Whip, a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), we never learn her last name, and a terminal cancer patient. They share a smoke and talk. It’s a convenient way for the filmmakers to bring Nicole and Whip together. A little too convenient. Whip helps Nicole out of a jam, but as with everything else in his life, he loses her, choosing instead the same unbreakable habit. Their meeting is important, but the way they meet struck me as forcing the story.

Every addict has their dark muse. Whip’s was Harling Mays (John Goodman). Mays has an extensive knowledge of drugs as well as an endless supply. He’s in the film for one reason and one reason only. To be the red herring in the next to last reel. We sit on the edge of our seat waiting to hear Whip’s testimony at the NTSB hearing. It’s another chance for him to make a choice.

Top notch production all around, with strategic use of music. The filming of the crash required special equipment and techniques. Portions of the plane’s fuselage were attached to a rig that turned the plane upside down. The actors were trained and tested to be sure they could handle the stress. Safety advisors said that the actors could only be inverted for 60 seconds at a time, then the aircraft had to be righted. After a while, the plane turned and filming began. The footage was stitched together by the special effects team and the outcome is thrilling.

Whip was in possession of a rare gift. The opportunity to get paid for what one naturally does and innately loves. He was able to show up for work and let his brightest skill shine through the clouds. His actions made him a hero, his choices trapped him in a downward spiral. Whip was born in flight. We never learn why he became an alcoholic and we really don’t need that data point. Flight is not about a second chance, or even a third. It’s about having the courage to change the flight plan of one’s life.

Not destined to take Oscar season by storm, but a solid effort. A nice departure from the CGI laced blockbusters. Official Flight web site is nothing special, but at least it’s easy to navigate.

Argo – Film Review

Ben Afflack’s Argo gives us a window into a time not frequently explored by filmmakers these days, The 1970’S. Which I find interesting because so many great films were products of that decade. Mostly we get films set in the future (way in the future), or the present, or hundreds of years in the past. Infrequently do we get pictures exploring the more recent past. Argo is that rare film. Set in 1979 during the transition of the Carter to Reagan administrations, it tells the true story of how the CIA with the help of the Canadian government, try a daring mission to get six American citizens out of Tehran.

The American Embassy in Iran was breeched by thousands of protesters on November 4, 1979 and all of the American citizens at the embassy that day were captured. Or so we thought. In the turmoil of that afternoon, shot expertly by Affleck, six Americans slipped out the back and knocked on doors up and down embassy row before being taken in by the Canadian ambassador. It is here the story of Argo begins.

Making a film that takes place in the ’70’s provides a fascinating reminder of the modern world before it became “today’s modern.” It was a time before cell phones or the internet. There were only telephones, telegraphs, telex and personal couriers to communicate one’s message. Although this was prime time for my young adult life, I was shocked to be reminded how far we have come as a planet of technology.

The picture opens with a brief history lesson on Iran and reminds the audience that the U.S. installed the puppet Shah of Iran to protect American interests. Over the years he became ill and was squired to asylum in the United States. Many events related to the Shah’s power and then protection enraged the Iranians and was the catalyst for the embassy takeover.

Next we are transported to the American political and intelligence machine, who are working on how to cope with the event. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) a specialist at getting people out of tough jams is brought in at first to be a CYA, as the State Department was trying to gain control of the situation over the CIA. But it was very apparent that all the ideas put forth to rescue the six hostages were doomed or completely not plausible. Mendez had an idea. He would fly in as a film producer scouting locations for a film and fly out with the six Americans as if they were Canadian members of the film crew.

Here is where the film takes a much appreciated detour to Hollywood. Despite the famous hillside sign being in disrepair, Mendez has a connection with John Chambers (John Goodman) an award winning make-up artist. From there we meet Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) a producer on the other end of his prime. They set-up Studio Six and with it a convincing front for a science fiction film, Argo.

With the cover in place Mendez proceeds to carry out the plan. We see the usual movie conflict and tension, but we can forgive it for we know so many lives hang in the balance. The film is shot in a more muted style, appropriate to the time and makes liberal use of the newscasts of the day, going to great lengths to show it’s really 1979. It’s history so we know the outcome, so the filmmakers make it more entertaining. Affleck injects some dramatic tension and draws us to the edge of our seats, especially at the end.

Terrific soundtrack composed by Alexandre Desplat combines middle east influence in a dramatic way.

In some ways I thought I was watching an Oliver Stone picture, as the film’s coda broke into real life stream showing the real survivors and the voice of Jimmy Carter.

Highly recommended. The official web site is standard fare.

The 1979 Warner on screen logo which introduces Argo.

From The New York Times. Behind the Sets of Argo.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

The Master – Film Review

There’s no mistaking a P.T. Anderson film when you see one. Vivid, sonic, provocative, weird and frequently unsatisfying. The Master is his latest foray into the deep regions of culture and individual human behavior. The picture opens on an active beach with Freddie Quell (Jauquin Phoenix) lying on freshly raked sand opening coconuts with a machete and obviously deep in thought. It’s the end of WWII and Freddie, a seaman, takes one more pass by the Navy doctors who are trying to figure out if they should let Freddie back into the wilds of society. A Rorschach test administered early on in the film gives us more information then we care to know about how his mind works. They let him go, but in my opinion he’s so not ready. Perhaps he was never ready for anything.

Mr. Anderson brings great dramatic courage to his script and direction of The Master. Our introduction to Freddie Quell in the first two reels is required. An eccentric young man who makes it through the war and begins his civilian career as a portrait maker in a department store. There he coverts with the help and picks fights with the patrons. His darkroom is as much about mixing home made hooch as it is developing film. Eventually he moves on to work in the vast fields of California. Beheading orbs of cabbage and getting drunk on paint thinner mixed with who knows what. Mr. Phoenix carries himself in a physically awkward manner, which perfectly matches his delivery of the lines he’s given by Mr. Anderson. Left arm bent and perched on his hip and high wasted pants. He’s in search of something but seems so completely lost you get the feeling he’ll never find it.

By an act of fate he boards a ship exiting the harbor and heading out to sea. The vessel was leased by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the venue for his daughter’s wedding and a trip through the Suez Canal to the east cost of the United States. Dodd catches the stowaway Quell and invites him into his cult-like lair. The scenes between Phoenix and Hoffman are nearly worth the ticket price. The appear to be completely opposed, but surprisingly alike. Dodd comments on how familiar Freddie looks. Dodd is the founder of The Cause, a philosophy positing that humans today are asleep. The only way to wake them is to use processing methods and applications to reveal derailed past lives and get back on a new path stabilizing the current existence leading one to happiness.

Above all I am a man, A hopelessly inquisitive man. —Lancaster Dodd

Throughout the picture we hear Johnny Greenwood’s (Radiohead fame) score punctuating the atmosphere and driving the mood even further into the corners of reality, as if we needed more help in that department. The music often overlaps with the dialogue adding another element one has to decode.

So… The Cause. Dodd has captivated a group of people across the United States with his methods and promises of happiness. But is The Cause a religion or a parlor trick? As he traverses the country he is at once welcomed by believers and challenged by skeptics, even arrested by the Philadelphia police. Dodd has written a book detailing his Cause and is looking to publish a second volume, hoping to catapult him into the legion of great thinkers.

The Master arrives at an interesting time. Certainly America has had our share of cults and splinter-religion groups. Some have connected The Master to Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952. I have no idea if Mr. Anderson was thinking about this when he wrote the script or not. Nor do I think it matters. This picture stands squarely at the corner of interesting and fascinating, but in the end it doesn’t really give us much to relate to.

The strength of the film lies in its art. Bold writing is the hero here with virtuoso performances by Phoenix and Hoffman. Phoenix combines his personal delivery with physical quirks to create an off balance and somewhat frightening character. Hoffman broods and poses and is the perfect blend of professor and orator. HIs voice calms, but his singing needs some work. Amy Adams turns in good work as Dodd’s wife who we learn is a very strong woman behind The Cause.

The official web site is a very different execution for a feature film. Once you get past the commercials for Dustin Stanton’s posters and such, there are simply six videos to watch. It seems fitting.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Prometheus – Film Review

There’s no question that Ridley Scott likes strong women in his films. Thelma and Louise, G. I. Jane and of course Ripley in Alien. Mr. Scott moves through the rich tapestry of the female mind and places them, physically, at the epicenter of danger and discovery. I have always loved Ripley’s spunk, but I gotta tell you Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus could outlast her in any situation. Noomi Rapace portrays Shaw brilliantly. A face of wonder, a mind of a scientist and a woman with, as was put in the film, “extradorinary survival skills.” Ms. Rapace played Lisbeth Salandar in the Sweedish Dragon Girl films, so I guess that makes her ready for anything. She doesn’t disappoint.

H.R. Giger’s imagination is given yet another life in Prometheus. This time however, his illustrations come alive, not as hideous monsters, but as hideous <human> beings. Prometheus is the story of a space expedition in search of answers to the biggest questions mankind could ask. That is not what makes this film thought provoking, as we are always looking for answers. This work hints that we will never know all the secrets because they are not knowable in a single time or space. Nor are humans smart enough to divine them alone. If we go looking and are serious about finding them, we must be prepared to go all the way. But that usually leads to premature death and that doesn’t aid the objective.

This film completely changes the strategy.

It’s the year 2093 and the crew of the Prometheus lands on a moon orbiting a planet far from earth. Ancient drawings found on earth generations and continents apart point to this planet. Two scientists, Dr. Shaw and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) piece together the puzzle and convince Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the aging CEO of Weyland Industries to fund the project. One trillion dollars later we have the space craft Prometheus. Weyland is a businessman but is facing mortality and is also curious about the drawings. He leverages Shaw to provide the single-minded belief system he doesn’t possess. There is of course a replicant on board ship. David is played with scary precision by Michael Fassbender, who is just as useful and mischievous as Ash was in Alien. Scott rounds out the crew in familiar ragtag fashion with experts and skeptics and nincompoops.

Overseeing the project for Weyland is Meredith Vickers, played with a gigantic chip on her shoulder by Charlize Theron. Vickers is sleek and cold, wears cool uniforms and knows a thing or two about hairstyles. One gets the sense that she’s there under duress. She has her own personal lifeboat with all the necessary creature comforts, just in case. Or in her mind, when the inevitable occurs.

The team discovers what they are looking for immediately upon landing and it’s not good. People die and Dr. Shaw becomes impregnated although she is biologically unable to have children. The gestation period for this creature is more like nine hours instead of nine months. Before we get the burst, Shaw is able to drag herself to a robotic surgery table and programs it to perform  a caesarean while she is awake. The machine extracts the alien and staples her up, no worse of the wear. Take that Ripley.

Before the crew was awakened from sleep state, David has put those two and a half years to good use studying all living and dead languages to their roots. This allows him to decipher the markings on the rounded pyramid walls and open secret rooms that reveal the darkest mysteries of the “engineers.” Soon the grand plot to destroy earth is unwittingly put into motion by David. I mean really, if we just stayed home we wouldn’t be reminding these life forms they need to destroy us. Certainly they have better things to do with their superior intelligence.

But alas, the sequence of events is impossible to stop. Prometheus’ Captain Janek (Idris Elba) launches a kamikaze mission on the alien craft to save all mankind. Alls well that ends well, right? Well, not exactly. Dr. Shaw is the lone survivor, along with a now decapitated but still operational David. He tells her there are other ships and he believes he can control one. She has lost everything she has loved and gone to hell and back. You’d think she would want to go back to earth. Here is where Prometheus changes the game. It’s not about going back home, it’s about going forward to confront potential “makers” and discover the secrets of the future that has cast the fate of the past.

Technical aspects are top shelf from cinematography to sound design. Mr. Scott’s standards are very high and he keeps them that way with this stellar production. Highly recommended for science fiction fans.

Don’t bother with the official Prometheus web site. It’s dripping with ad banners. It does however have lots of images. Instead go here. It’s the official web site of Weyland Industries. Clever and creative.

Images: 20th Century Fox and Scott-Free Productions

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Film Review

It took me until about the third reel to fully appreciate Rooney Mara’s acidic portrayal of Lisbeth Salander. Ms. Mara inhabits the character with fearsome angst, throwing herself into the darkness of Lisbeth’s world. Literally, she has peered into the precipice to manifest this character. I hope she comes back. Mara has mastered the physical appearance; the way she moves and her expressions (mostly empty). It is frequently difficult to watch, but impossible to avert your eyes. Over time Ms. Mara does allow new emotions to visit Lisbeth’s face but they are oh so brief. This is a very difficult part to play and she does it with courage and amazing stamina.

David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on Stieg Larsson’s widely read novel, is an emotional feast for the eyes and ears. The opening credits send a clear message that this is not going to be a passive experience for the filmgoer. Fincher is known for creating chilling credit sequences (Se7en), and this one is no exception. It features a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song which at first thought may seem an odd choice, but over time I’ve come to believe it to be an inspired choice. It’s a powerful, pounding song and it’s amped up even more under Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s arrangement. It does not match the style of the film, but perhaps Fincher was thinking about bridging across the trilogy of works by Larsson. It says, “Strap in and hold on.”

The picture is always calculating and at times brutal; just ike the Vanger family. It’s a stunning piece of cinema craftsmanship. Extremely high production values across the board. Acting is top rated and the characters move around in a labyrinth of mind and body games, all effectively captured by Fincher and his crew. I found it fascinating how Larsson blended modern crime detective technology methods, with procedures used four decades earlier, largely photographs, interviews and handwritten notes. Fincher took it one step further and pushed it to ultra high-tech, while keeping the film’s look basic; even organic. I will be interested to see how the Academy reacts next month when they vote for the Oscar nominations.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium-trilogy leads with Dragon Tattoo. Larsson’s work is a tour-de-force of modern literature and right in Mr. Fincher’s wheelhouse. If you haven’t read this book go buy it now and read it. I don’t believe it makes any difference whether you read the book or see the film first. They work wonderfully as stand alone achievements and complement each other in a way that is rare, which is a testament to Steven Zaillian’s (Schindler’s List) adaptation for the screen. Of course he leaves out some things from the novel, but he stays true to the work. The book is a strict chronology of the events, by day or string of days. It transitions from one character to another within the same time series chapter. Mr. Zaillian and Mr. Fincher need to unpack the story a bit differently to keep the pace moving and tell the story for the medium. The way they have structured the shots and scenes gives the film it’s power.

Many of the audience members in the showing I attended had read the book and were chatting about it before and after the screening. People seemed more than satisfied with the adaptation.

As a ward of the state for most of her life, Lisbeth Salander never really had much of a chance to engage with normal society, but she may not have wanted to. She has a brilliant, near photographic mind and is a sorcerer of technology, not to mention well connected to the hacker underworld. Employed by a security firm as a researcher, her talents are reserved for more “delicate” projects. Her reports are impeccably curated and full of details that no one else could get at.

Fincher tries to help us keep track of the various members of the Vanger family, which is quite difficult as there so many of them spanning 60+ years. An aging Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of the family, hires Mikael Blomkvist, (Daniel Craig) to try for one last time to solve the case of the sudden disappearance of Harriet Vanger at the age of 16. It was 40 years ago and mostly everyone has given up hope that she would ever be found. Harriet was the granddaughter of Henrik’s brother Richard. Vanger was heartbroken over the loss and is sure she was murdered by someone in the family.

Mr. Craig is solid in his portrayal of Mikael Blomkvist. Once confident, now reeling from a blow to his career. He is vulnerable but smart, and this explains how he is able to strike up a productive partnership with Lisbeth who assists him in trying to solve the case. Mr. Plummer is always a pleasure to watch as the aging head of a family that once dominated many aspects of commerce and industry in Sweden. You get the feeling that he is keeping a lot of skeletons in the closet. Oh, and of course secrets. Everyone is keeping secrets. The deep, dark variety. The remaining actors are well cast, engaging and suited to their characters. Particularly Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger. Mr. Skarsgård is a native of Sweden, which may account for his ability to fit in not only with the geography but the culture of the country. His performance perfectly captures the darkness that can exist among some Vangers. Also Steven Berkoff who plays Henrik’s private attorney Dirch Frode, a protector, keeper and handler of many things Vanger.

This is less about the film than the book, but Lisbeth is a fascinating character and I wish I could know more about what was going on in her mind. It’s overshadowed by her appearance and inability to connect with society. Her small, slender stature causes her to be underestimated by most people, especially Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), Lizsbeth’s social worker. What happened to him was… Well, let’s just say it’s not a good idea to upset Ms. Salander without a strong Plan B.

The soundtrack is as somber as the story, with powerful punctuations during the film’s emotional scenes, and there are many of them. Reznor and Ross worked for nearly fourteen months on the score, and it adds to the picture’s drama and intensity. It converges seamlessly with the sound design on several occasions. Watch their music video release of the opening credits, a cover of Immigrant Song. Oh, one more thing about music in the picture. I nominate Dragon for the most creative use of an Enya song, ever!

The official Dragon web site is pretty standard fare for film sites. But do take a moment and explore the links in the upper right hand corner of the main site. These are sister sites and are much more interesting. Visit Mouth-Taped-Shut, which uses tumblr to promote the film and provide interesting graphics, What’s Hidden in the Snow and Comes Forth in the Thaw. A tip on the last one. Click the main page and then refresh the pop-up window several times. I also recommend you delve even deeper into the minds of the filmmakers. Click through How to Assemble a ‘Dragon‘ from the New York Times.

Images from the film courtesy of Sony Pictures. Vanger family tree from the novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.