‘Harry Potter Retrospective’ (Part 5): A Look at “Deathly Hallows”

This is the last mini-review in the ‘Harry Potter Retrospective,’ as contributing author William Buhagiar takes a personal & discerning look at last year’s Deathly Hallows: Part I. Of course the final installment of the mega-franchise is set to release in a few weeks (July 15th) – a bittersweet event for fans of the books and films, I am sure. I would bet my rent money that Mr. Buhagiar will be there to see it at the scheduled midnight screening — or any time on its first day of release — and he’s graciously committed to writing a full review for Magic Lantern that very weekend. In reading his very positive commentary on Part I, I can only hope that he is not severely let down with Part II as I fear that a squad of firemen may have to spend a few hours trying to talk him off a 10-story ledge. This special Retrospective will wrap up with Buhagiar’s astute analysis on many of the actors who have appeared in the Harry Potter films. A special “Thank You” to him for dedicating himself and writing such a thorough Series. Kudos to you William!!! — P.E.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part I

Director:                 David Yates
Writer:                     Steve Kloves
Released:              2010
I Saw It:                   Four Times
William’s Rating:  

I cannot stress enough how anxious I was entering the IMAX theater at midnight to see this film. Never before had I been as tense about a movie, silently hoping with the desperation of a true nerd that once the lights came up at the end, I would not be tempted to blow up the theater. Deathly Hallows: Part I is undoubtedly my favorite of the books, and I don’t believe I would have been able to tolerate a treatment of the material that did not do it justice.

When the film ended and the credits began to roll, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Of course, it is not the book, but it is by far the finest of the films yet. Audiences unfamiliar with the original material were also satisfied – the only complaint I have yet to hear is that, at times, the film is a bit slow. (This is not at all an issue with readers; of course, we eat up every miniscule detail they include.)

Very few events are cut, and those that did not make it into the film are essentially trivial, not nearly as vital to the story’s progression. This, the seventh installment, finally embraced the tone of the books properly; the film is very dark and violent, with a constant sense of danger and fear throughout. As this is the first of the movies that does not take place at Hogwarts, the three principles are (for the most part) alone, and the supporting adult characters have very little screen time. I believe that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint give their finest performances yet in this installment, and they did an admirable job of carrying the movie.

One scene in the film did infuriate me, however, and I’m sure if you’ve seen the film and read the book you know precisely what I’m referring to. There is a moment when Harry and Hermione are alone in the tent. The atmosphere is grim and Hermione is listening to a radio, looking morose. Harry, in an attempt to cheer her up, silently invites her to dance – and they very revoltingly do just that. I’m willing to overlook this, as this was the only maddening part of the film.

The Tale of the Three Brothers,” a sequence which I believed would be extremely difficult to adapt and explains the legend of the Deathly Hallows, was so ingeniously staged that I must admit, was even better than what I had envisioned in my head during the reading of the book, using a unique blend of computer animation and shadow puppetry. The destruction of the locket in the Forest of Dean, following the appearance of the mysterious silver doe, was another masterfully staged scene that far surpassed my expectations.

As in the book, the events that take place in Deathly Hallows: Part I are the most intense and severe. The film opens with a statement by Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour (played by Bill Nighy): “These are dark times…” The Dursleys pack up and leave Privet Drive to go into hiding, Hermione “obliviates” her parents to protect them from the Death Eaters, performing a spell that makes them forget their daughter and leave the country – and the tearful Hermione watches sadly as she disappears from the photographs on the walls. After this brief opening montage, we arrive at the home of the Malfoys, which Lord Voldemort has decided to use as his headquarters. He sits at the head of a long, ornate table, and is holding a meeting with his Death Eaters, and the scene explores the situation of the war: the Dark Lord has infiltrated the Ministry, he is getting stronger by the minute, but there is one last barrier he has yet to overcome: Harry Potter is still alive, and Voldemort himself must be the one to kill him. Throughout the scene, a bruised, bloody and tortured woman is suspended above the table; a Hogwarts professor passionately teaches students that Muggle-borns, witches and wizards with no magical relatives, are equal to “pure-bloods.” Lord Voldemort, obsessed with blood purity, begins his reign of terror (essentially genocide) in eliminating any witch or wizard born to Muggles. This very disturbing scene ends with the Dark Lord murdering the professor, and feeding her to his snake, ultimately setting the stage for the rest of the film.

Like the book, the film is suspenseful, dark and even harrowing at times. The heroes are truly pushed to the limit as the circumstances in the war against Voldemort reach astonishingly desperate levels. Nowhere is safe for Harry, Ron and Hermione, there is a Death Eater attack around every corner, and the body count far surpasses any of the previous entries. Voldemort is no longer featured solely in the climax, giving Ralph Fiennes a generous amount of screen time, and he appears much more often, sans-nose, than he has before. Helena Bonham-Carter boldly leaves her mark on the audience and provides a very different side to Bellatrix Lestrange than what we had seen in the previous films (in “Order of the Phoenix and “Half-Blood Prince,” despite being murderous and destructive, her insanity was entertaining in a more harmless, almost laughably crazy way). In Deathly Hallows: Part I, however, the diabolical witch’s sadism is brutal, disturbing and chillingly cruel – especially during a scene towards the climax, which she targets Hermione and mercilessly tortures her, and carves the unforgivable prejudiced term for Muggle-borns, “Mudblood,” into her skin.

As the film comes to an end, and we mourn the death of a beloved, heroic character, not only are we grieving for the tragedy, but also for the fact that we must patiently wait for the subsequent chapter of the story. After my first viewing of the movie in November, Part II was a frustratingly-tedious eight months away, and now it is less than one. As much as I cannot wait to see the final showdown between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, and watch the phenomenally gargantuan, epic battle between good and evil that will ensue (though I am bound to shed a few tears, as we lose so many beloved characters here), there is also the inevitable consequence of the series coming to a close that I’ll have to face. I sincerely hope that Part II is as satisfying as this film was, but considering the major events that are to take place towards the climax, I have my doubts, and fear that these scenes, some of which are my favorite of the entire series, will be radically under whelming. Hey, you never know, maybe my current cynicism will all be in vain, and Part II will pleasantly surprise me. I will simply expect the worst, but hope for the best.

Here’s a trailer for Deathly Hallows: Part II

Peter Eramo’s Film Review of the Terrible “Trash Humpers”

There are those movies that I think are just bad – but can at least see how others may enjoy and even appreciate them. Then there are those movies that are just plain awful – and the majority who claim to appreciate the filmmaking and absolutely love the film are simply lavishing their pretentious airs about, wanting to be different and one of the few to proclaim, “I get it.” Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers is a perfect example of such a catastrophic film. Despite what J. Hoberman (Village Voice) and other “artsy” critics might have you believe, this is one hopeless, boring, and futile project disguised as cinema vérité, but in reality is just plain crap.

Abstaining from any narrative structure at all, Korine, the self-proclaimed “mistakist artist,” gives us a small band of older troublemakers who run about their trailer trash towns creating all kinds of havoc. The painfully long 78-minute film (shot on video) has the look of a worn out VHS home video, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But what we are given are snippets of random, silly acts with no form or logic attached, that plays like disappointing freak show. We watch the costumed characters ride bikes with baby dolls attached to them, destroy TV’s and other gadgets in abandoned lots, drink plenty and, most of all, dry-hump trash bins with reckless abandon anywhere they can find. There is a scene where “Momma” (Rachel Korine) gives delightful advice to a young boy on how to properly insert a razor blade into an apple to offer to a friend; another where a chunky hooker in a thong is fondling one of the guy’s junk while singing “Silent Night.” On top of this is the incessant laughing/shrieking that manages to hit the bottom of your spine and make its way up to your throbbing head, as it grates on your very last nerve. And on and on the stupidity goes.

Korine has said that growing up in Nashville, he would see trash cans strewn about and an elderly group of boogeymen would come out at night, camouflage themselves with bushes, get covered in dirt and peep through other people’s windows. This, my friends, was the mighty inspiration for this poor excuse of a film. To give off the look of spontaneity, Korine cut the film on two VCR’s and shooting is said to have taken two weeks. No script was attached, but rather, just a collection of ideas. Perhaps they (and in turn, we) would have been better off with some semblance of a script.

Remember, Korine was one of the writers behind the fascinating and brilliant 1995 film Kids and has since succeeded in alienating his audience by making movies with the sole intention of making us feel uneasy. David Lynch does it well. Werner Herzog does it well. Lars von Trier also succeeds more often than not. Korine is none of these masters. Unlike some of his previous work that can be viewed (at least by a few) as thought-provoking, challenging or downright disturbing, Trash Humpers is a tedious mess with nothing at all to say.

Year:       2010
Director:  Harmony Korine

Movie Review of “Rabbit Hole” by Peter Eramo

They say that losing a child is the greatest grief a parent can endure. For whatever reason, there is the myth that the majority of married couples who experience the death of a child end up in divorce. However, a 2006 study showed that only 16% of these couples go down that unfortunate path and of that 16%, less than half felt that the child’s death actually had an impact on the marriage terminating. So there goes that theory!

Hollywood likes to over-dramatize this sensitive occurrence from time to time – perhaps never done more brilliantly than Robert Redford’s 1980 Ordinary People. Oddly enough, that film ends with a more-than-likely divorce. Lawrence Kasdan’s touching The Accidental Tourist and Todd Field’s outstanding In the Bedroom are other examples of terrific films that center on the loss of a young child.

Now Rabbit Hole attempts to tackle this very difficult subject matter which doesn’t scream “Box-Office Bucks” for people looking to escape reality and have a good time. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, the film is based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s award-winning 2005 play (he also, thankfully, wrote the screen adaptation) and produced by Nicole Kidman’s own production company. What Rabbit Hole gives us is an intriguing and, at times, fascinating exploration of a once happily married couple now struggling to survive in the wake of their young son’s death eight months prior.

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie Corbett – parents who are grieving in very different ways. Howie gets to go to work all day for a little escape, while Becca stays in the home, tormented by traces of her lost son that linger in every nook. Howie goes out and plays squash, he embraces group therapy sessions, while still secretly watching home videos of his son in his private time. In other words, Howie seems to be dealing with his tragedy about as well as anyone can be. He mourns the death of his son, but still manages to exist and go about his business from day-to-day. Eckhart handles the tricky role quite well. He is a rock…the “strong” one, but you can tell that he may break at any moment, which is a credit to Eckart’s work here.

Becca handles her loss quite differently. She doesn’t want to socialize at all. She hates group therapy and simply wants to be left alone. She can’t seem to move on sexually with her loving husband and she lashes out at her mother (Dianne Wiest) at inopportune moments. She desperately needs help, but will not allow herself to receive any. That is, until she accidentally spots young Jason (Miles Teller) on his school bus on the way home. Jason is a senior in high school and is the young man who was behind the wheel in the ill-fated accident that killed Becca’s only child. Becca is drawn to him, though she is not sure why. They meet in the park and talk. There is a connection between the two. The exchanges between Kidman and Teller, who has not been in a feature-film until this, are riveting. Teller is a true find and a sensation here. His gestures, reactions, mannerisms are wildly authentic and I am sure we will be seeing more of the young actor in the years to come. Kidman has played the “cold”/detached character many times before and she does fine here. Becca though is in deep mourning, despite her behavior, and I never felt that Kidman showed this in clear fashion – nor does she garner as much sympathy from us as she perhaps should.

Dianne Wiest is wonderful as Nat, which should come as a shock to no one. She is much stronger and much smarter than she looks and does her best to reach out to her daughter. She too has experienced the loss of a child – and though one would think this bond would bring the two women closer together – it sadly takes on the opposite effect. Sandra Oh is also a stand-out here as Gaby, another grieving parent who the Corbett’s meet at group therapy. When Becca decides to drop therapy altogether, Howie insists on going and his friendship with Gaby is the film’s only other interesting subplot.

Rabbit Hole is a tight film and tackles its rough material very delicately. It has a realistic look and feel to it and Lindsay-Abaire’s characters are intriguing to watch. Going “down the rabbit hole” is a metaphor for adventure into the unknown in Lewis Carroll’s masterful work. Here, it seems that once Becca spots Jason by happenstance, she in for her own personal journey of rediscovery. If the subject matter doesn’t turn you off, I’d certainly recommend seeing it.

Year:       2010
Director:  John Cameron Mitchell

Film Review: “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

I don’t think I’m breaking any news here by saying that American children are getting dumber every year. State test scores confirm this — and according to Davis Guggenheim‘s latest documentary Waiting for “Superman” — among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. This is only one of the many staggering statistics cited in Guggenheim’s frightening and thought-provoking film. Where did our once mighty country go wrong in a domain as essential as education? The film doesn’t explore this issue in as much depth as perhaps it should, but it does serve as a brilliant indictment of the public education system in America and an important wake-up call to those who have the power to begin to do something about it.

The film examines five promising young children (of the 40+ million sitting in public school classes today) and their families who are looking to get a better education and, in doing so, improve their lives. Most of the documentary centers on schools in poverty-stricken communities, but the filmmaker makes sure to cite that pointing the proverbial finger at such schools because they don’t have the economical means is not the primary reason for such failures. It surely makes for an easy “out,” but Guggenheim shows that it doesn’t matter what the socio-economic stats of a given community are — schools across the board are failing our students and what the film illustrates is that bureaucracy and the hypocritical teachers’ unions are the major obstacles from turning this nationwide epidemic around.

Two administrators prominently highlighted in the film are looking to better serve the educational needs of our children. Harlem Children’s Zone CEO, Geoffrey Canada is a true visionary in the educational field and has been fighting for reform for years and backing up his many theories with action…and promising results. Born in the South Bronx, Mr. Canada’s school takes full responsibility of a student’s academic progress, getting children through high school and college, in areas where far too many drop out in high school. Canada comes off as inspiring, prophetic, and relentless. Michelle A. Rhee (the seventh superintendent of the Washington, D.C. school system in the last ten years) is the other champion of the film, and has challenged the languid status quo with fierce determination since taking on the Sisyphus-like position. Ms. Rhee has tried to eliminate teachers who have proven to be ineffective by fighting the mighty unions who make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher who has been granted tenure. Along the way, Ms. Rhee has made many an enemy though her sole objective is a simple one — to provide the students of Washington, D.C. with a proper education. Everyone agrees that something is seriously wrong with the system, but no one has the gumption to do anything about it — this is what the film illustrates in magnificent fashion. Ms. Rhee knows that drastic measures are needed — but when the Washington Teachers’ Union refuse to vote on an act that would eliminate tenure, but grant teachers a much higher salary — you can see why the schools are failing and understand why the superintendents before her have failed.

The resistance to reform and the removal of poor teachers is exemplified in Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. The awarding of tenure in this country is remarkably easy (as shown in a recent CNN special on the subject) and once granted, it is next to impossible to fire an unproductive teacher. The film provides some eye-popping statistics on this issue and what is done with teachers who have proven to be failures to their students. The infamous New York Rubber Room (costing citizens over $100 million a year) where tenured teachers sit around all day and collect full salary and benefits, and the “Dancing of the Lemons” (where a district simply has schools swap one defective teacher for another) are sad realities and a waste of tax-payer money. Unlike most professions where one would be terminated for poor performance, a tenured teacher remains and receives an increase in pay each year. Weingarten fights for this as our students’ test scores drop lower and lower.

The most moving moments in the film come from the five children. Realizing that their children’s’ lives are in the hands of inadequate public schools, the parents of these children try to gain admittance into charter schools who are showing more promising results. But admission is done by lottery, as there are only so many slots available and the demand is high. The sequence of these separate lotteries is fascinating to watch and the look of devastation and hopelessness in a mother’s eyes when her child’s number is not called is hard to shake. Though she doesn’t say anything at all, you can just see her thinking to herself, “What do I do now?”

In the film, Mr. Canada states that watching an effective teacher is like watching “a work of art.” As a former high school teacher, I certainly agree with this comparison. It is a remarkably challenging job. I worked for two public schools and the difference between them was night-and-day. The first school was devoted to providing its students with an exceptional education. The English department that I was a part of was filled with dedicated and creative teachers who all excelled at their craft. We met on a regular basis to discuss departmental philosophies and our performance was monitored in proper fashion. In short, we were held accountable. Fast forward to the second school, which, like so many other negligent schools in our country, specialized in passing undeserving students through the system. I can vividly recall my first week of teaching there — I had a senior English class and had assigned them to read two short chapters of Of Mice and Men for homework over the weekend. My mentor — the man responsible for showing me the way at this particular school — looked at me, laughed, and said, “We don’t do that here.” I would say of the 20+ teachers who made up this particular English department, perhaps 3-5 of them are qualified to teach the subject. Most were concerned with hoarding departmental books in their closets, leaving school grounds faster than their pupils when the last bell rang, and telling their students not to submit essays longer than 1-page (because they didn’t want to do that much reading). It was a sad sight, and probably why Guggenheim’s film hit home to me. I saw first-hand how a successful school was run…and one that serves as one of our country’s failure factories. I can only imagine what is going on at other schools who refuse to take responsibility. To those who have children and for anyone interested in the state of our country’s educational system, this is a must-see film.

Year:       2010
Director: Davis Guggenheim

Film Review: DeNiro and Norton in “Stone”

Stone is a peculiar (and, at times, thought-provoking) movie that has the appearance and makings of a mainstream thriller, but plays out in much more of an independent fashion; a film that dares to challenge its audience to come up with their own answers to the many questions left unsolved. I normally chalk that up as a strength since having everything spoon-fed to me leaves me feeling insulted as a viewer. But it’s not clear what kind of film director John Curran is trying to make and the script (by Angus MacLachlan) doesn’t give us enough to come to our own conclusions by the time the movie abruptly ends.

It opens on a horrific and inexplicably evil act. Jack and Madylyn Mabry are a young, married couple who have a small daughter. Jack is fixated on watching golf on television, completely ignoring his wife in the process. When Madylyn decides to approach her husband with something that has obviously been weighing heavily on her mind, Jack commits the malevolent and unforgivable deed. Cut to many years later — Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Madylyn (Frances Conroy) are still married in the same modest home (much more worn) and Jack is just a few weeks away from retiring as a corrections officer. By now, the job has left Jack sickened and disillusioned and his marriage certainly seems to be a loveless one. Enter Stone (Edward Norton), a crude and tightly-wound criminal who is up for parole after serving eight years of a 10-15 year sentence for arson. His case — and his very freedom are put in the hands of Jack, a man who has done a good job of hiding his own personal demons over the years. Stone is so anxious to get out from behind prison walls that he talks his over-sexed wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) into approaching Jack and doing whatever she must to convince him to free her husband. An intriguing premise filled with great promise — and with the talent at hand, sure to make for an entertaining thriller. But alas, the film has loftier expectations and, though it does play out this tete-a-tete between Jack and Stone quite nicely, it goes a bit off course in places we are not expecting.

The four lead actors give solid, and at times, riveting performances. It is wonderfully refreshing to see DeNiro, after years of starring in silly comedies and subpar thrillers, play a character he can really sink his teeth into. If nothing else, this is a small reminder of how gifted he really is. His scenes behind the desk chatting with Norton crackle with tension and the back-and-forth between the two (as in 2001’s The Score) makes for great drama. Norton, all decked out in cornrows and a raspy southern drawl, is his usual magnetic self, and it is hard for us take take our eyes off of him. The religious epiphany he undergoes is an ambiguous one and we are never sure if this is a genuine transformation or one completely invented to fool Jack. Conroy is perfectly cast as DeNiro’s ultra-religious wife — she walks through the movie half comatose, showing that the decades of marriage to this man has left her completely numb to the world around her. Jovovich also delivers a strong performance, holding her own against such heavyweights…and then some. We’re never sure what her true intentions are and she seems completely natural and at ease in utilizing her sexual prowess. I particularly admired the art direction (Kerry Sanders) here, with such special care being paid to the Mabry home and everything in it. The impression given of the elder couple living there — from the washed-out living room chairs to the TV to the mildly scratched headboard of the couple’s bed — is clear and authentic.

I am afraid many expecting a “DeNiro/Norton” commercial thriller will walk away disappointed and frustrated. There is certainly much to admire and enjoy here, most of all the performances. But the film gets bogged down a bit in all of the religious overtones (a religious radio station is constantly playing in between scenes) and the conclusion may be too ambiguous for its own good. It seems to want to cover more ground than it should, which is admirable, but derails from the drama taking place. My biggest concern was the overall pacing of the film, which is painstakingly slow at times. I wish it had delved more deeply into Jack’s life — he is such a miserable and emotionally-blocked man, it would have been interesting to have a better understanding as to why (though he does try to open up at one point to the local pastor). A commendable effort, with its pros and cons…I would recommend to any DeNiro fan who has been waiting for him to give an impressive performance — or for anybody into these sparse independent dramas. If nothing else, it is surely deserving of a rental.

Year:       2010
Director:  John Curran

Film Review: Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger”

I am not a Chicago Cubs fan, but I would imagine that being a fan of the iconic Woody Allen is a lot like being crazy about the historic baseball franchise that has been without a championship for over a century now. Each spring brings with it a sense of hope and optimism – that this will be the year all of the baseball demons will be put to rest…only to have those dreams squashed come October. For the past decade or so, I have felt the same about a new Woody Allen release. I read about it, watch the trailer, eagerly anticipate its release, and finally see it – only to exit the theatre feeling (more times than not) quite disappointed and a bit frustrated. Such has been the case with films like Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, the dreadful Anything Else and a number of others since 1999’s wonderful Sweet and Lowdown. But, like the crazed Cubs fan, I remain cautiously optimistic with each go-around. Such was the case going in to see his latest work, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Mr. Allen’s 41st film.

Woody’s latest “tale of sound and fury signifying nothing” (stated as such by the film’s narrator) is an entertaining, well-written, thoughtful film that stands out above most of the filmmaker’s most recent, mediocre works. It isn’t a comedy, though there are a number of humorous moments. The feel is more of a lightweight drama. Material-wise, he’s not covering any new ground here. Again, we are introduced to couples struggling in their marriages, the artist’s ambition & toil for success, the afterlife, adultery, and the inevitability of growing old. However, the characters here ring more genuine and are more engaging than most of the recent characters who have spoken Woody’s words. The dialogue is not as stilted nor as dated as previous scripts, coming off as more realistic and lifelike. The editing and tempo here are also first-rate, moving everything along quite smoothly. And as always, Woody manages to bring in some superlative actors to frame his ensemble. Sometimes these hodgepodges of big-name celebrities don’t come off and feels uneven – maybe someone isn’t particularly appropriate for a certain role. Not here. All the main players fit their roles flawlessly and there a handful of scenes that capture an absolute sense of authenticity that it is riveting to watch.

Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones) have been married for years, but Alfie is becoming increasingly aware of his own mortality. Helena only serves to be a constant nagging reminder of this fact, so he leaves abruptly her and tries to find his long-lost youth. In the process, he moves on and quickly marries the very young Charmaine (Judy Punch), a hard-edged prostitute who Alfie wants to give a more luxurious life to. Their daughter Sally (a very strong Naomi Watts) is unhappily married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer whose first book some time ago made quite a stir. Roy though has been struggling for years with his latest novel, trying desperately not to become a one-hit wonder. The pressure has put quite a strain on the marriage as they both privately seek out possible substitutes. She, with her new art gallery boss (Antonio Banderas, refreshingly effective) and he, with the mysterious and beautiful stranger (Freida Pinto) who has just moved in to the building across the street. Gemma Jones is especially magnificent here as the flighty mother who has become obsessed with everything her spiritual advisor tells her. She and her son-in-law have never seen eye-to-eye and the scenes with both Jones and Brolin make for great drama. Brolin fits very well here and his own subplot (involving a writer-friend who is in a coma) plays out brilliantly, and ends with fascinating ambiguity. Hopkins is well cast, and doesn’t fall for the trap of playing Woody’s alter-ego like so many have done in the past. The character is his and he is certainly well-suited for it, though he doesn’t get to do all that much with it.

The Shakespeare quote that begins and ends the film is taken from one of Macbeth’s more famous soliloquies (Act V, Scene 5), when the King of Scotland has just been informed of his wife’s suicide. Macbeth ponders the meaning of life and what it’s all for. He feels that, in the end, life is simply a tale “told by an idiot…signifying nothing.” Any movie-goer familiar with Allen’s works knows that he shares this sentiment through many of his characters. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is indeed a fine tale — told by no idiot at all. And though it is by no means one of his very best films (a difficult feat to accomplish), it remains a worthy achievement, that should surely be considered one of the stronger works in the great canon of Woody Allen films. I’d recommend any fan of his to see it.

Year:         2010
Director:  Woody Allen

Peter Eramo Reviews: “The Social Network”

Near the very end of David Fincher’s, The Social Network, Ms. Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones) stops at the door on her way out, gives an empathetic look at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and says, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” But that isn’t an accurate statement at all. Zuckerberg is very much an asshole – at least, as he is portrayed in this thought-provoking biographical drama about the inception and meteoric rise of the Facebook website…and the legal ramifications that followed shortly thereafter.

This proper “A-hole” label is made palpably clear in the very first scene of the film, when we see him arguing with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and he tells her she doesn’t need to study because she goes to B.U. It is more evident as we watch Zuckerberg throughout the film dealing with various people – classmates, colleagues, women, attorneys, administration, et al. And yes, it’s illustrated when we see the new business cards that he had specially made which read, “I’m CEO, bitch.” In Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (based on the Ben Mezrich book, The Accidental Billionaires), Mark Zuckerberg is a computer nerd who desperately seeks the approval of everyone; a terribly insecure young man always on the outside looking in – with tremendous ambition and no social skills whatsoever. He is arrogant, obnoxious, a “punk” (as it reads in one of the film’s billboards)…a social misfit. It is no wonder that the real Mr. Zuckerberg wanted no part in the making of this movie and has since rebuffed the events dramatized in it.

What we are seeing here is, in a sense, two stories being told simultaneously. The first of which is the creation of the Facebook website, which begins in Zuckerberg’s dorm room on the Harvard campus in 2003. He is ferociously blogging about his disastrous evening with Erica; insulting her online for all to see. This is the woman who will haunt him for many years to follow, as we see in the film’s very last scene. He comes up with a clever programming idea for the students on campus to participate in, which becomes insanely popular overnight. This idea will later lead to the much larger design of the Facebook networking website. The second story, which really works only to narrate the events of Story #1, is the initial legal proceedings against Zuckerberg as he is being sued for millions and millions of dollars. Again, Zuckerberg acts as if this is just some burdensome errand he must run for the day – like picking up a friend at the airport – and it is this kind of depiction that keeps the audience from having any sympathy for him whatsoever.

Despite the anti-Zuckerberg sentiment, the film works. The story of the beginning stages of Facebook – and Zuckerberg’s relationship with CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and later, Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) is too compelling not to. Unlike most Sorkin screenplays that play off too much like melodramatic TV and filled with cheesy lines, this script flows much more naturally. The back-and-forth of both stories keeps the pace moving and it never lulls off. The score – by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – stands out and suits the mood of each scene very well. Garfield’s performance is a fine one and he is the one character we truly end up feeling for – he looks so tormented when sitting opposite the man he is suing. As the source of money and “business side” for Zuckerberg’s venture, he is pushed to the wayside when the flashy Parker shows up on the scene and seduces Zuckerberg into a West Coast life of investors, women, and margaritas. We get the sense that Saverin was the only real friend Zuckerberg ever had, and Garfield makes that believable. Timberlake adds a lot of flavor to Parker and is well cast, playing the opposition to Saverin admirably. The very limited Eisenberg does what he is supposed to do, I suppose, but little else. He has shown in past films that he can play the neurotic, quick-tongued, quirky, deadpan-delivery young man – and that’s pretty much what he does here, without adding anything to help us understand his reasoning.

Despite what others may have written, the film is not about Facebook. Sure it takes place in a time where social networking was starting to take off and is a solid representation of our lives in the digital age. But really, you can substitute any other business enterprise here for Facebook and get the same story. The themes of loyalty, money, friendship, trust and ambition are what this story is all about — and all showcased well in Fincher’s film.

I won ‘t pretend to know anything about the origins of Facebook – who came up with the idea, who stole from whom and who should have credit. I wish I did know because then I could compare the real story with The Social Network, which takes a lot of artistic license with the facts, I am sure. I can only go by what the movie portrays and that is of a young man who took the ideas of others and went off on his own – only to pay millions and millions of dollars (“a speeding ticket”) for doing so. I’m not crazy about the underlying idea that he went through this all to impress a woman — I find that a bit far-fetched…but it doesn’t keep this from being a smart and entertaining film that, because of its central themes, I think will hold up well years from now when Facebook becomes a “Oh, you remember that? So 2009!”

Year:        2010
Director: David Fincher

Peter Eramo Reviews: “My Dog Tulip”

I have always preferred animals to people. Perhaps growing up with dogs as a child and having my own dogs since then have helped to perpetuate this feeling. There is something to be said for having a long, miserable day at work and coming home to a furry, four-legged friend wagging its tail, wanting nothing more than to shower you with wet, sloppy kisses and having its tummy rubbed. This is unconditional love…an ideal picture that comes to mind when I think of the old adage, “man’s best friend.” Some of my most favorite moments of the day are at night when I am curled up on the couch with my pug, Lily, watching a movie together, or the night’s ballgame. These are quiet moments, but, snuggled up against one another, the connection is always there and never taken for granted.

So it goes without saying that I was very much looking forward to seeing Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s delightfully heartfelt and at times, profound animated film, My Dog Tulip. The film is based on the acclaimed 1956 memoir by the British writer, J.R. Ackerley and chronicles the old bachelor’s real-life 15-year relationship with his German shepherd, Tulip (named Queenie in the book). The film begins with a witty quote from the author — “Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs” — and manages to maintain this clever wit throughout the film.

In short, My Dog Tulip tells the story of a very unlikely friendship between a cloistered human and his devoted animal. Ackerley was already in his 50’s when Tulip entered his life. He worked as a writer for the BBC and, somewhat a loner, never really had much in the way of friends. He certainly never had his own dog before. That is, until he took the 18-month old German shepherd from a family that couldn’t really handle her and kept her locked up for most of the day. In doing so, he obviously takes on much more than he ever expected.

The film is narrated by Christopher Plummer (as Ackerley) and chronicles much of their life together. From their long walks together and trips to various vets (one voiced by Isabella Rossellini), to a tug-of-war battle of wits with Ackerley’s meddling sister (Lynn Redgrave, in her last role) over Tulip’s affection to trying to find a mate for Tulip — it is all accompanied by what Ackerley’s most innermost thoughts are concerning his kindred spirit, and done so with such candor, insight and good humor. Plummer does an exceptional job narrating the story — and really, who couldn’t sit and listen to that wonderful voice for 83 minutes?

I must say that I feel we have all been spoiled with the “newer” animated films that have come out the last few years in that they take full advantage of all that technology has to offer. Most of these computer-generated films look quite impressive and dazzle the eye with its uncanny resemblance to real-life images. It was enormously refreshing to see the handmade animation used for My Dog Tulip. About 60,000 drawings went into the making of this film — though no paper or plastic was used. Taking 3 years to make, the Fierlingers used computers for their drawings and, unlike studio cartoons, the result is a more antiquated looking quality to the art. The drawing itself though is wondrous to watch — at times funny and at others, really delving into the psychological images of what our narrator is thinking.

Of course, dog lovers will enjoy and appreciate this film more so than others. I wouldn’t recommend the movie to anyone who doesn’t love our little canine friends as they might simply be bored and not “get” the whole “dog thing.” For those who love dogs, but are afraid to see any movie about animals fearing that it might be too sad, I would say (without using any spoilers here) to fear not. The film never borders on the tragic and does not touch on morose subject matter. However, the film is not for children. Not only is most of the humor on a more “intellectual level” than most animated films, but there are also a number of images illustrated and feelings expressed that may not be suitable for children.  What the film does is show (very well) the inseparable bond between Ackerley and Tulip — a closeness that he never thought he’d ever experience in his life. Tulip provides this for him, and seeing that warms the heart. In speaking of his ever-faithful dog, Ackerley tells us, “She offered me what I had never found in my life with humans: constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer.” A sincere and thoughtful remark — and a charming, funny and intelligent little film.

Directors: Paul and Sandra Fierlinger
Year:         2010

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Jack Goes Boating”

For such an over-populous and forever busy city, New York can be a pretty lonely place to live for any single person. Whether you are attractive and reaping in the dough or a bit homely and hold a tedious, low-paying job that not many aspire to, if you don’t have that special someone wrapped around your arms, the City That Never Sleeps can go to bed pretty damn early. Enter Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an overweight, unkempt, pot-smoking, socially awkward limo driver who leads a pretty quiet, meek existence amidst the millions that inhabit the Big Apple. He likes reggae music for its upbeat vibes, dons knotted dreads under his unappealing winter hat and isn’t much of a talker, even to the social elite that he chauffeurs around the city. But he has a good-natured and devoted best friend in Clyde (John Ortiz) who looks out for his best interests and sets his timid friend up on a blind date with a gal who works in his wife’s office at Dr. Bob’s Funeral Home.

Such is the premise of Jack Goes Boating, the new indie film that marks the directorial debut of Hoffman and based on the 2007 off-Broadway play by Bob Glaudini. Hoffman originated the role of Jack in the staged production that was mounted at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre and he brings back Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega (who plays Clyde’s wife, Lucy) to reprise their stage roles for the film. Hoffman obviously feels a close kinship to the material and to its emotionally delicate characters and this much is clear in the film adaptation. Oscar-nominee Amy Ryan, not part of the staged play, slips in to play Connie, Jack’s love interest. When Jack firsts meets the equally shy Connie at a low-key dinner set up at Clyde & Lucy’s apartment, he immediately takes a liking to her and is inspired to alter his lifestyle just a bit…for the better, I might add. Connie mentions wanting to go on a romantic boat ride when the weather gets warm; she brings up the fact that no man has ever bothered to cook a meal for her before. Of course, Jack wants to be the man to give her that boat ride and cook her a feast to remember. The only problem is…he can’t cook and he can’t swim. Jack must really like her though because in no time, Clyde is teaching him how to swim at the public pool and he hires someone to teach him how to cook. Ahh, those first stages of love can be oh-so-inspiring. As the film shows the blossoming relationship between Jack and Connie though, we see the slow disintegration of Clyde and Lucy’s marriage, which makes for an interesting combination.

The performances here are all solid, with Hoffman at the center as the lovable eccentric with so much love to offer. Amy Ryan fits the role of Connie nicely and the two work quite well off one another, especially in their more intimate scenes together. The relationship here constantly reminded me of the one between Robin Williams and Amanda Plummer in The Fisher King, and the juxtaposition of the two couples and the directions they are going in reminded me of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives — two pretty damn good films to be reminded of, if you ask me. The focus on these four characters and all of their emotional hang-ups and oddities is handled with subtlety and care. Hoffman also takes advantage of using the magical backdrop of Manhattan in wintertime, with some very charming scenery. But in the end, some plays are meant to stay plays.

I could never quite put my finger on what makes a successful adaptation from the stage to the silver screen. Some (like Glengarry Glen Ross and The Night We Never Met) make the transition quite seamlessly and make for some wonderful movies. Others (Hurlyburly and American Buffalo), well…not so much, despite top-notch performances. Some stories are just better suited for the stage. Sometimes the magic that the confines of the theatre brings is lost when brought to the big screen. Such is the case with Jack Goes Boating. Now, I never saw the staged production, but it is such an intimate little piece that I would imagine it made for an enchanting and charming night of theatre. As a feature film, this simple story with its complex characters gets lost in the translation. A big part of this problem is Glaudini’s screenplay, based on his own play. The dialogue throughout feels stilted and very “stagey” — a heightened sense of awareness that works well on a small stage, but doesn’t make for good movie-speak. I know that Hoffman fell in love with the play and its script, but perhaps someone else could have adapted it with greater success and more realism because many times I felt that this is not the way these characters would speak in real life. Yes, we do get to see what’s going on inside of Jack’s mind — something you can’t really get with the theatre — and Hoffman shows us what his character is visualizing in his mind’s eye, whether it be under water in the pool or on top of a bridge with traffic streaming below him. It works to an extent.

Another problem I had was with the soundtrack. Hoffman floods the film with an over-abundance of music which sometimes takes away from what is going on in the scene or just makes for an awkward fit. The reggae song, “Rivers of Babylon” though is central to the film and the essence of what makes Jack tick — and this is used very well, except for the when it is used to lure Jack out of the bathroom after throwing a violent tantrum that comes pretty much out of left field.

I very much wanted to love this film going in. After seeing the trailer a couple of months ago, I was very excited for its release — and the trailer does make it look like a quirky and charming love story. And, at times, it is. However, for me, as a whole, it just wasn’t enough and falls disappointingly short. There are too many uncomfortable moments to sit through that take away from enjoying the experience of watching Jack’s ride. Lucy is also a difficult character to like and I feel that in more capable hands, the audience would be able to empathize with her at least a little bit. Here, she gets none of our sympathy and we are left feeling very sorry for poor Clyde. I would think that fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman would appreciate and enjoy this film — and this character is right up his alley — and yes, it is at least more original than most of the romantic comedies being released nowadays, but in the end, I am not sure that is enough to give it my recommendation.

Director:  Philip Seymour Hoffman
Year:         2010

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Dinner for Schmucks” (***)

As a general rule, I am usually very wary of seeing movie remakes, especially ones adapted from very enjoyable/strong foreign films that Americans tend to treat with less than respectable hands. So my expectations were not so very high going in to see Jay Roach’s comedy Dinner for Schmucks – a film inspired from Francis Veber’s wonderfully warm and witty 1998 French film, Le diner de con (The Dinner Game). Deep down, I must admit that I didn’t very much want to like the movie – mainly because I am such a fan of the original and consider myself somewhat of a purist. However, I let the movie do all the work and much to my surprise, Dinner for Schmucks holds its own in many aspects and succeeds at being one of the stronger comedies released this year, providing many laughs throughout.

Tim (Paul Rudd) is a rising executive who wants to move up in the world – he wants a cushy office on the 6th floor where the big boys play and a bigger salary to better provide for his artistic and sophisticated girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). Tim feels her rejections to his marriage proposals (two in two days) stem from his lack of success in the business world. When Tim impresses his shallow and ego-maniacal boss (a very effective Bruce Greenwood) at a meeting, he is invited to astound him further at an upcoming dinner party which he hosts each month. The dinner however, has a sinister twist to it, as it is rather, a competition among the invited guests to see who can bring the biggest idiot with him to entertain and amuse the snobbish and well-to-do elite. If Tim can bring an A-1 moron, that promotion is as good as his.

Tim struggles with his conscience and after seeing Julie’s utter displeasure in this tasteless sport, he resolves not to go through with the dinner. Until, that is…he meets Barry (Steve Carell), the perfect idiot sent from Heaven above. Tim sees this as a strong prophetic sign and decides to invite Barry to the dinner. Of course, Barry makes the mistake of showing up at Tim’s one night early — just enough time for numbskull Barry to ruin just about everything in Tim’s life, including his relationship with Julie.

There is a lot that works here, and most of that stems from the chemistry between Rudd and Carell, who have worked with each other before. Rudd plays the straight, sarcastic guy here, while Carell gets the bulk of the laughs with his ridiculous stupidity and, for the most part, it works. Barry is just a pathetic character — he’s lost his wife (who he loves unconditionally) to a rival co-worker (Zach Galifianakis) at the IRS, he has absolutely no friends, and he spends most of his time working on his mouse caricatures — something he is quite skilled at and has an enormous passion for. We should have tremendous empathy for Barry, especially as he is being used here for the sadistic amusement of others — and we do…a little bit at least. A lot of the comedy here is a bit over-the-top, especially in the film’s supporting characters, and that is what keeps us from having absolute compassion for this guy. It plays out a bit unreal, which hurts the film. Jacques Villeret played the idiot in the original film and was absolutely perfect — his facial features and gestures alone moved you near to tears. That is what this American remake is missing.

Jemaine Clement and Judy Punch are very strong in their supporting roles. Clement plays Kieran, the narcissistic artist with the animal magnetism who Tim is very jealous of. Clement does a very nice job at giving the character some heart and conscience beneath all of the bravado – and his connection with Barry is a humorous one. Punch plays the imbalanced and delusional Darla, a one-night stand from years ago who is obsessed with Tim and comes back to wreak more havoc in his life, all thanks to Barry’s snooping. Punch comes off like a deranged, psychotic Courtney Love (is there any other kind?), and is perhaps more upsetting than funny. Kristen Schaal deserves mention here, playing Tim’s assistant Susana. Schaal only has a handful of short scenes here, but is delightfully funny and makes the most out of what may have been a thankless role in another actor’s hands.  Galifianakis plays Barry’s nemesis, Therman, and I have to ask — is anyone tired of this guy yet? It seems to me, this guy just plays the same thing over and over and for me, the moment has surely gone. Therman claims to be a mind-reader and uses this fraudulent talent to possess complete control over poor Barry. An envious rival of Tim’s (Jon Livingston) invites Therman as his own idiot and the two jackasses go mano-y-mano.

The telling scene in this film is when Barry is making his presentation at the actual dinner. Here, Barry is showing off his most impressive works (the evolution of man, the Wright Brothers, Vincent Van Gogh — all depicted by his crafted rodents), and as Tim’s colleagues are secretly laughing at and mocking Barry, we look at Tim and therein lies the key to the movie’s success or failure. Rudd makes this work with great subtlety as Carell forges ahead, completely oblivious. It’s after this key moment that the dinner gets completely out-of-hand and goes too far over the edge, trying to get as many laughs as it can from the variety of invited idiots as the house goes up in flames.

I must say that I laughed out loud quite a bit — and the audience around me seemed to take great delight in it as well. And beneath the slapstick humor and absurd supporting cast of characters, Roach manages to give the film some heart, which is imperative in order for the movie to work at all. It may not be as warm or sincere as its predecessor, but it does provide many laughs and amusing moments throughout. It’s also worth watching Rudd and Carell play off one another. Definitely worth seeing if you need a laugh.

Year:        2010
Director:  Jay Roach

Peter Eramo Reviews: The Girl Who Played With Fire (** ½)

Sequels are a tough breed — and a bit of a bitch to get right. Recent history has shown that it is the rare film indeed that can stand up to its predecessor, let alone best it. Let me start by saying that I thought that Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (released earlier this year) was a marvelous film — powerful, gripping, haunting, and vastly entertaining (see my review here). As of this posting, it remains the best movie of the year in my opinion – it really isn’t even close. That was the first film of the trilogy based on the bestselling novels by the late Stieg Larsson. I have not read the books and didn’t know much about them at all, so the first film caught me completely off guard in the very best of ways. Then The Girl Who Played With Fire came out recently to lukewarm reviews, but I loved the first film so much and was so thoroughly impressed with its towering achievement that I most certainly had to check it for for myself.

Sadly, I must agree with the general consensus that this 2nd installment — directed by Daniel Alfredson (and not Oplev, which may have been a detriment) — doesn’t come close to touching the first. I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who says otherwise. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but there is so much wrong with it that it doesn’t make up for its intriguing storyline, frequent plot twists, and overall mystery. This film, by contrast, seems scattered and disjointed. The character development that was done so brilliantly in the first film is altogether lost here. The pacing is also somewhat slower, with the action taking the viewer to numerous locations throughout Sweden rather than keeping it centered and focused.

Part of what made the original so compelling was its two lead characters: the ever-resourceful Lisbeth Salander and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist respectively), working together throughout the film to solve the fascinating mystery. Rapace gave the grittiest, most multi-layered performance of the year and if she is denied an Oscar nomination for doing so, then something is most terribly rotten in the state of Denmark (or Sweden, if you prefer). Here, her computer whiz Salander has become the prime suspect in the double murder of two journalists right before an expose of the Swedish sex trade is launched in Blomqvist’s Millennium magazine. Refusing to meet with Blomqvist, she tries her best to avoid being detected and find the murderer(s) herself. In doing so, Rapace is given very little to do — and knowing her range and scope, it just seems to be a terrible waste. She is a loner, an outcast, autonomous, disconnected — too much so. For his part, Blomqvist is absolutely sure of Salander’s innocence and does everything in his power to prove this to everyone, including the police. His faith in and love for her is clear throughout and NyQvist does a good job of conveying this without going overboard.

There are some terrible bad guys here, which make for great villains — and some fascinating discoveries made along the way, some believable and some, unfortunately, too far-fetched. Peter Andersson makes another appearance as the “sadistic pig” Nils Bjurman and he is so effective in this role, truly creating one of cinema’s most vile characters. Yasmine Garbi does admirably as Lisbeth’s lover and woman who unwittingly puts herself in grave danger by taking over her friend’s apartment — and as Alexander Zalachenko, Georgi Staykov under all the heavy make-up is loathsome and harrowing. There is a line in the film that describes Lisbeth as being indestructible — and boy does the story really take that theory to its most extreme — to the point where it is almost too implausible.

However, for all of its faults and setbacks, The Girl Who Played With Fire does deliver in terms of suspense and intrigue. Alfredson manages to keep you on your toes and wonder what the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle will be. At its core, the film is a mystery/thriller and it does provide in that respect. But the ending — what were they thinking with this ending?! I can understand leaving viewers hanging a bit, but this was far too abrupt and left you more frustrated than anything else.

Now it may be unfair to compare a sequel to its original, but that’s part of the bargain — and the studios and  filmmakers are well aware of this. It is almost impossible to critique a sequel without some comparison to its original, especially when its the second film of an immensely popular trilogy with all three films released in the span of under a year (and I should mention that those who have not seen the first chapter, will be at a complete loss if they go into this second film blind). The upside here is that it provides a more modest level of expectation for the third film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (also directed by Alfredson). Where the first film tidied things up rather soundly (though it sacrificed an utterly brilliant climax to do so), this second film leaves a few strings left untied, setting up the third and final installment quite nicely. Let’s hope it delivers in mighty fashion.

Director:    Daniel Alfredson
Year:          2010

To view the trailer for The Girl Who Played With Fire, click here.

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Inception” (** ½)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception was perhaps the most widely anticipated movie of the summer; a summer besieged with lackluster remakes and sequels; a summer filled with mediocrity. Acknowledging the depth of Nolan’s past work (in particular, Insomnia and Memento), I too was looking forward to seeing this new sci-fi thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard, though I remained cautiously optimistic. Now, the film has had an impressive opening weekend at the box-office and has received a tremendous amount of critical and public acclaim. And though it is at times an engaging and entertaining film, it falls well short of its pre-perceived hype that had already declared it a “masterpiece” before it was even released. In fact, there is no reason to even be thinking of throwing around the overused “m” word in this case – the word is so recklessly thrown about too much as it is. But, I digress…

Inception is an easy enough movie to explain, however hopelessly wearing and nearly impossible to follow. That is because this is a film about dreams and nearly everything that we see here is a dream, or a dream within a dream — or as arduous as it sounds, a dream within a dream within another one. It’s an easy out for Nolan and he takes full advantage of it, believing that he is giving the public something to mull over and analyze, when really, he has a full-proof “out clause” for any perceived hole in the story, of which there are a few. Nothing needs to be logically explained here — it’s all surrounded by dreams…the writer’s ever-tempting “fall back.”

Set in the near-future, technology has now advanced to the point where people can enter into and access the dreams of others. Enter Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a thief who specializes in entering people’s subconscious minds and extracting their ideas and thoughts. Cobb is fighting his own personal demons which build in the various dream sequences throughout the course of the film. Living from job to job, he wants nothing more than to be able to enter his home country once again and be reunited with his two small children, who he hasn’t seen in years. Enter the mysterious business tycoon, Saito (Ken Watanabe) who presents Cobb with a very intriguing proposition and the chance to return to his children for good: rather than extracting an idea from someone’s mind, Saito wants to hire Cobb to implant the seed of an idea into the mind of the wealthy heir of a gigantic business conglomerate (a wooden Cillian Murphy). This process — called “inception” — has seemingly never been done before, though Cobb insists it can be done and takes this one last risky job for a chance at redemption. “Assemble your team!” Saito shouts out from his private helicopter and with that, we are introduced to Cobb’s team of professionals.

Let’s start with that team, shall we? A fine collection of actors who are given very little to do. Nolan is not interested in giving these characters any depth whatsoever and we learn almost nothing about the entire lot. The result is that we are left with uninteresting, 2-dimensional characters who we have no emotional connection or investment in. His right-hand man and trusted associate Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), meticulously plans out all the intricacies of the mission, his forger (Tom Hardy) takes on various identities within the dreams, and Yusef (Dileep Rao) is their chemist who makes sure that everyone is properly in a deep sleep. But Nolan needs someone to explain all of his rules about the dream state to the audience, so he has Cobb hire a new architect (Ellen Page), someone who creates the structural design of the dream world. The dialogue in these parts, is a bit stiff as it really only exists to explain and narrate to the audience what is actually going on. Rao and Gordon-Levitt are fine, though kind of just “there.” Hardy actually brings a charm and certain suavity to Eames, the forger. Watanabe, though very fitting, is very hard to understand throughout because of his thick accent and a lot of dialogue is lost. Clarity is always a good thing. Ellen Page is simply a complete misfire here and brings almost nothing to the role of Ariadne. She plods along throughout the movie with little emotion and I just never bought into the silly idea that Cobb’s associates, who have worked with him for years, aren’t aware of his volatile mental state as it concerns his wife (who haunts him in each and every dream) — but the girl who has been on the job for a few days knows all about it and continues to pester Cobb to let the others in on his little secret. Marion Cotillard plays Cobb’s wife, and as we come to expect, she is quite captivating here and keeps our attention on her whenever she appears. The scenes between husband and wife are very well done and it’s the only time DiCaprio really gets to work his acting chops. Cotillard’s presence is pervasive, even in those scenes which she is not in. Michael Caine is wasted in his two scenes and it is a wonder why he even needed to play such a thankless role other than having worked with Nolan before.

Of course the special effects here are remarkably impressive, but at this point, isn’t that to be expected? I don’t really count that as such a major plus at this point, knowing how far technology in film has come. We watch DiCaprio and Page calmly sit outside a Parisian bistro as the city is blowing up all around them. Very cool to look at indeed, but when you know the two actors are sipping cappuccino in front of a green screen, it takes something away from the experience. The art direction truly stands out as does Hans Zimmer’s score. Lee Smith has the very tiring and impossible task of making sense of all of this and does a commendable job.

I must say that I was very much engrossed in this movie for the first hour. I loved the dynamic of Cobb and his wife and the idea of inception struck me as original and compelling. Everything is set up pretty well and I’m waiting to see how this mission will take shape. It’s when the team puts their “mark” (Murphy) under sedation that the film slowly begins to go south…and boy do I mean slowly. I have never minded a long film in my life, so long as it’s engaging and worth the time. The last hour of this movie just lumbers along at a painstaking pace you can’t wait for it to end – and that is never a good sign. What takes 40 minutes here can easily have taken 20 minutes, but I fear that Nolan falls so in love with his own vision that it comes back to bite him. Memento is the much tighter, smarter film; not to mention, the more entertaining of the two.

I have read a number of glowing reviews over the past couple of days and I wonder to myself if they were watching the same muddled mess I was watching. There is the idea that people were going to fall in love with this film no matter what they saw (which certainly happens). Perhaps compared to nearly every summer movie out there, this simply looks more impressive than it is based on comparison alone (which happens as well). I know that Nolan has a devout following and this is yet a third hypothesis. Look, I don’t think this a bad movie by any stretch — and I will certainly give it another viewing, which I feel it deserves. But I like to remain truthful and honest in my criticism and as much as I wanted to love it too, I cannot get past the many flaws that are quite clear in this work. In many ways, this is a cold movie — in mood, narration and approach to its audience. In areas it has remnants of The Matrix and Dreamscape, two films that I would give much higher recommendations to. In the end, I know this film will wind up on nearly every critic’s Top 10 list of the year, and I know when I see that, I will still be shaking my head wondering why….hoping that this too will be a dream that I am suddenly waken out of.

Year:          2010
Director:   Christopher Nolan

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