Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Today I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.

I'm always hesitant to see a film created from a book I enjoyed, but in this case it worked out for the best. The parts of the book I found cumbersome and verbose are eliminated, yet the story is undoubtedly fulfilled.

Mikael (Nyqvist) is a journalist who has just been convicted for committing libel against a powerful, wealthy man. Never mind that he was probably framed; he agrees to go quietly into prison once his sentence commences in six months.

Before he can begin serving that sentence, he is contacted by the people of billionaire Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to research the cold case murder of his niece Harriet who went missing 40 years ago. He is reluctant to take the offer, but the money is good, and coincidentally the missing woman babysat him in youth, so perhaps he feels remotely obligated.

Mikael doesn't get too far solving the mystery until he begins working alongside Lisbeth (Rapace), a twentysomething woman he caught hacking into his computer who has major social issues (and a menacing dragon tattoo).

Together they find the pieces of the never-forgotten puzzle and get close to one another as they discover them. On the side, Liseth overcomes some horrific personal violence (and no, if you can't handle brutal rape scenes, you shouldn't see this film) and fights demons from her own past.

The film succeeds in playing this all out in a realistic way. Nothing is over-stylized and the dialog is completely believable. We care about the characters enough to want to save them and root for any connections they can build with each other. That is both a testament to the strong adapted screenplay and the perfect casting of the two main leads. Really, how will any Americans measure up to them in a remake?

This was a very satisfying screen version of a book that could have been shorter. However, if you're going to devour both the film and the book, be sure to read the book first or you may not make it to the end.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Solitary Man

Tonight I saw Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas and Jenna Fischer.

Car salesman are seldom liked and rarely respected, but you get the sense that before his dealership began running scams, Ben Kalmen (Douglas) may have been both. And when you're used to everyone adoring you and your world falls apart, it's hard to dissolve the natural arrogance that comes with the former privilege.

Susan (Fischer), Ben's adult daughter, just wishes he'd act his age. Instead of chasing skirts 30 years younger, she'd like for him to rebuild his life with a new job and a reasonable stability. His ex-wife Nancy (played by a cleavage-bearing Susan Sarandon) is apparently still fond of him, and his current girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) chooses to look the other way as he cheats his way around their relationship.

All hell breaks loose when Ben takes Jordan's daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to a college interview out of town and sleeps with a barely legal girl. The consequences don't dent his conscience, but they do wreak havoc on his finances, his reputation and his ability to start a new car dealership.

Faced with eviction and homelessness, Ben turns to his daughter for help until he also betrays her and she's forced to cut him off. He has also received word that he may have heart trouble, but instead of getting the necessary tests to find out either way, he puts himself on a steady diet of baby aspirin and alcohol.

The entire film is a character study of a man choosing to live his life the way he pleases, regardless of the consequences. It's not that he doesn't love his family, or respect the natural 'order' life is meant to impose; he just feels his charm will overcome any situation too difficult to bear, and when that doesn't work, he just moves on.

Michael Douglas plays Ben superbly without an ounce of self-loathing, complete with slimy appeal. You really believe he would easily talk these young women into his bed because despite his flaws, he's sexy and smooth.

Supporting characters are also perfectly cast—Sarandon as the wistful, yet independent divorcée, Danny Devito as a long-lost friend and Jenna Fischer, an innocent, wounded daughter.

The ensemble is strong, the writing (which could've easily been one-note) is sharp without being too precious, and the direction is organic enough to make you feel as if you're in New York and Boston alongside the characters.

I have no idea why this interesting indie with an all-star cast isn't getting more attention.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

When Good Things Happen to Good People

I love that I have a reason to blog with such a headline.

Now let me explain:

In June of 2003, I attended an uber-geek event called the "U2 Fan Celebration" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. I had recently joined a local U2 group through the website, and made friends here in Seattle who shared my love of the band—they were also willing to travel to Ohio for worship.

I'd already seen the U2 exhibit in February when it opened, but was determined to return in June, not just for the special events surrounding the celebration, but because I was an avid reader of a fan site called @U2, where I was addicted to a humor column by a guy named Answer Guy. This site was co-hosting the event, and its owner and several staffers were going to be there. I was a fan of these fans, and couldn't wait to meet them.

The first night I got lucky enough to sit with a few of them at the dinner table. Present were @U2 founder Matt McGee, @U2 cartoonist Kelly Eddington, and Aaron Sams, who runs a site called U2 Wanderer. I remember immediately bonding with Kelly over the fact we were both wearing Sally Hansen silver nail polish, and enjoying the lighthearted energy of the collective group. Everyone was so naturally kind and welcoming.

Here's a photo of Kelly and Matt at the Hard Rock Café that night:

Celebrating U2 at the Hard Rock Café

That weekend at the museum was nothing short of amazing. Aside from enjoying all the U2 content that was surrounding us, I came away feeling like part of the @U2 family.

When I returned to Seattle, I was flattered to learn that Kelly had featured me in one of her cartoons (that's me on the right on page 2). Though non-U2 friends made fun of me for appearing as a "fanatic," on a fan site, I couldn't have been more honored to have this artist reproduce me in such a way.

I stayed in close touch with my new friends, and in 2004, Matt gave me the opportunity to write as a contributor for the site. In 2005, just in time for U2's Vertigo tour, I was promoted to news writer, which changed my life.

@U2 threw an amazing party in my hometown of Portland, Ore. that year, in honor of the site's 10th birthday. And though I was already on staff, I still felt like a fan of all of these geniuses that had come before me. Many of them I met for the first time that weekend; others I spent time catching up with as if I were at a family reunion. Fans of the site were sweet to all of us, but the clear stars of the party were Answer Guy and Kelly the cartoonist, and it was easy to see why. Answer Guy was a naturally funny, sharp writer with a gift for sarcasm, and Kelly was a talented artist with a sense of humor that only enhanced her already-great writing.

Here's a photo of Kelly and me that night (she was making me a bracelet out of Christmas tinsel), taken by our mutual friend Michelle:


I was finally part of the crowd that I so longed to be associated with, and I considered my role on @U2 as a great privilege (5 years later, I still do). But as with all organizations and workplaces, people get married, switch their focus and move on. That's what happened with our brilliant Kelly, who was always putting out consistently wonderful, time-consuming cartoons. I was devastated when she announced her departure (as were thousands of fans who looked forward to her work each month), but as a friend I was glad that she'd found a more satisfying happiness in married life.

Since then, I've followed her blog, Alizarine, religiously, often making many of her delicious recipes and envying her idyllic home surrounded by the occasional woodchuck and deer. I was especially happy to see that she decided to follow her dreams and take a year off to paint. If only more of us were that courageous.

I've also branched out myself, focusing on my first love of film—co-creating the movie review podcast Cinebanter, which just turned four yesterday. My partner? A guy called Michael, who used to go by the name "Answer Guy."

Of course, all self-respecting film critics owe Roger Ebert for setting the bar so high and I am no exception. I immediately joined "The Ebert Club" when memberships were sold earlier this year, and consider him one of the best Tweeters on all of you can only imagine my delight today when I noticed that Roger was Tweeting about a certain watercolor artist, and that artist was Kelly!

You can read the full exchange on Kelly's blog, but basically Roger responded to her response to his earlier Tweet about film criticism books never getting their due in the background of films. She had done a painting recently that included one of his books on her shelf, and he not only wrote back in our club's blog, he Tweeted the sweetest endorsement for her art to his 180,000+ followers. As a result, Kelly's website has been getting countless hits, and I know of at least one painting that has already sold.

Congratulations Kelly, and thank you Roger, for recognizing the talent of my gifted friend.

It's so wonderful when good things happen to good people.


The Kids Are All Right

Today I saw The Kids Are All Right, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Moore) are modern family mamas. They're married lesbians living the dream in California with two nearly grown children; one boy, one girl. One from each of their wombs, produced by the same anonymous sperm donor father.

Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has turned 18 and is preparing to leave for college at the end of summer. Her brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is pressuring her to inquire about their biological father because he is not yet of age, but dying of curiosity about his identity.

Finally persuaded, Joni contacts Paul (Ruffalo) and the three arrange to meet. The encounter goes well, and soon Paul has become a positive part of their lives, much to the dismay of their mother Nic, the most controlling (yet also responsible) of the family. Soon both children are spending quality time with him and Jules is designing his backyard (she's a landscape architect that just started her own business).

From here, things go awry as they do in many families: there is jealousy, betrayal, conversations no one ever wants to have—the family, once seemingly harmonious—is falling apart.

Nic, who is the instigator of much of the drama, is played almost too neurotic by Annette Bening. Of course there are people with her issues everywhere in life, but without anything redeeming to credit her with (aside from her obvious love of the family), it's hard to be on her side. In contrast, Mark Ruffalo's Paul is written to be so accepting and universally cool that I wanted to jump through the screen and start my own family with him. And really, he's not my type.

The real prize for acting, and remaining believable throughout the film goes to Julianne Moore. Her Jules is conflicted and honest and wounded and needy and likable all at once. She's one of those characters you can't help but forgive (and would probably do so in life if she existed), and I can't credit just the writing for that achievement. Moore's ability to morph into an entirely different spirit each time she graces the screen is in full form here.

Both children also do fine, though I would've liked more character development for Laser, and overall I would've favored an ending that didn't frustrate me.

I guess not everything about an enjoyably watchable movie can be satisfying.



Yesterday I saw Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #94, so tune in August 2 for our review.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Tonight I saw the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Thierry Guetta was a young boy when his mother passed away. As the youngest in his French family, her apparent illness was kept a secret from him, which made her death a horrible shock. He never truly coped with this grief, being swept away in the aftermath by relatives, and began filming every aspect of his life perhaps to ensure he'd never forget it.

As an adult, he moved to Los Angeles and began building a family, continuing to film even the most mundane of moments. Friends and neighbors grew accustomed to seeing him with a video camera in his hand, and after a while forgot they were constantly being taped.

At some point, Guetta became interested in the street art that was rapidly gaining notoriety. After learning more about the practice (really, just organized graffiti) he began shadowing some of the artists, traveling and filming their work, claiming he was making a documentary. Though his presence was obviously a nuisance to some, they let him play along, hoping his filming would shed a brighter light on their creations.

The film up to this point in the story is somewhat jumbled and dare I say: boring. If you're not a fan of basic cartooning, you may, like me, find yourself looking at your watch until Banksy appears.

Banksy is an undisputed genius of the medium. He's a British man cloaked in mystery who has made a name for himself by pushing the envelope with a sense of humor and a display of authentic talent. His "stunts" (painting along the controversial West Bank border; counterfeiting British money by replacing the Queen with Princess Di) have made international news, but there is an undeniable charm in his satire that makes him a coveted guest in the art world.

Unfortunately, he let Guetta into his life just long enough for the filmmaker to "learn the ropes" and decide that he would risk everything to create his own art show.

He's soon re-financed everything in his life and hired an army of true artists to make his concepts into artistic reality. And because he's good at self-promotion, he draws a crowd.

To say anymore would be to spoil the film, but I will say that I don't find Guetta to be the least bit endearing. If it were truly a film about Banksy (as it was billed to be), I would have been a lot less bored and perhaps this bad taste in my mouth would go away.


Wednesday, July 07, 2010


On Sunday I saw Cyrus, starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #93, so tune in July 19 for our review.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Please Give

Today I saw Please Give, starring Catherine Keener and Rebecca Hall.

If you're not prepared to view life as it is sometimes lived, you probably want to stay away from Nicole Holofcener films such as this. I, for one, happen to love the fact that this writer/director creates characters who feel like real, breathing human beings, but I can see how they may depress others.

The subjects of this indie are neighbors. Kate (Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are a married couple who own a vintage furniture business as they raise their only child, teenage Abby (Sarah Steele). Next door is 91-year-old Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a miserable aging coot who is looked upon by her granddaughters. Rebecca (Hall) is the responsible, patient radiologist that acts compassionately no matter how badly her grandmother treats her; Mary (Amanda Peet) is the sexy, shallow spa worker who only visits Andra when forced.

Kate has a habit of giving money to strangers because she feels so guilty about her business. She and Alex aren't involved in any illegal activity, but they have been known to take advantage of families of the recently deceased who have valuable furniture and don't realize its worth.

Everyone in this film is searching for something: Abby desires the perfect jeans to offset her battle with acne; Kate wants a charitable cause to fill the hole in her heart; Alex seeks the excitement missing from his marriage; Rebecca would like a boyfriend; Mary wants answers as to why a muscle-heavy saleslady stole her man; Grandma wants her shopping granddaughters to use her carefully clipped coupons. Please, give.

The lives of these neighbors are intertwined as they offer the odd olive branch, but of course not everything works out for the best. As in reality, there are lies, deceptions, awkward silences and guilty consciences as a result of the bad decisions they make.

What I liked about this film (and its entire stellar cast) was that none of the characters were people who were difficult to relate to. Even those making choices we hope we wouldn't make didn't seem like horrible people—they were just wounded.

There's something life-affirming about watching people struggle and then advance past whatever is troubling them. Please Give reminds us that life isn't simple for anyone.