Archive | December, 2010

REVIEW: The Tourist (2010)

28 Dec

Brian Pac Sostak

It seems almost predestined that I end up writing a lackluster and underwhelming review of The Tourist (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), because the film deserves just that.  I had written a complete and well-thought review, providing commentary on the acting, plot, and cinematography.  I compared the film in-depth to two previous films this year, The Killers and Knight and Day; discussed how their plots were similar and how The Tourist was no more exceptional than either.  I questioned The Golden Globes for nominating this film three times in the Musical or Comedy category for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress.  All this then my computer went haywire and I lost all my work.  Perhaps this is what happened when The Tourist was written, only to be replaced with a lackluster and underwhelming script and the faint memory of what once was.

There should never have been any concern from the wife of Johnny Depp about him starring in this film alongside Angelina Jolie; and I’m sure after viewing it, all her worries will be put to rest.  Perhaps it is the director’s fault, the script’s, or the actors’ themselves; but with a movie driven on the chemistry of the two leads, it was disappointing to discover there was none.  It is a shame really because without that chemistry, almost all of the success of the film depends on the plot of the film, a plot as tired as an Angelina Jolie adopting babies joke.


The titular character, Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) is traveling to Venice via train trying to mend a broken heart.  On the train he encounters Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie), a mysterious woman who wants Frank to accompany her.  Elise is being followed by various groups of men, all looking for her lover – Alexander Pearce.  When Elise kisses Frank in her hotel room, all the voyeurs believe him to be Pearce and begin their pursuit.  This film, like others of its kind, is driven by the mystery that every character is shrouded in some sort of mystery, unfortunately the film took this too much to heart.  The Tourist lacks an identity that could set it apart from other films released this year (The Killers, Knight and Day), undecided as to whether it wanted to be a comedy or an action flick.  The only concrete decision this film really wanted to make was the grand reveal of who is Alexander Pearce, but even that was predictable and rather uneventful.

While watching The Tourist I couldn’t help but wonder if a film like The Third Man would be received with similar displeasure if it were first released today.  In 2010, we as an audience require a little bit more from out mystery pieces than The Tourist was willing to deliver.  If you’re looking for a film to see in theaters while the holidays are still upon us, save this for rental and perhaps try The Fighter, we know that film was at least made with some passion.

Now for my grand reveal, here are my grades:

  • Characters: C
  • Cinematography: B
  • Directing: C
  • Plot: C-
  • Performances: B


28 Dec

Guest Review Written by: Jeremy “Jerome” Petersen

True Grit

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Haitee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Like most parents of small children, my wife and I take whatever opportunity we get to leave our child in the care of their grandparents and enjoy some time without the cloying sounds of Veggie Tales Christmas in the background. Two nights ago, to take a break from both our child and the bedlam of a house with ten people in it, we went to go see True Grit in the comfort of one of the most luxurious theater experiences around: VIP (21 and over) seating at the Muvico Village 12 in Fredericksburg, VA. (Quick side note: The only reason I was seeing this movie at all was because it was one of only two movies–the other being the unappealing Little Fockers–that had VIP seating available. My wife and I were planning on seeing Black Swan (see Chris and Pac’s “Take Two” review here), but since Muvico moved it from the VIP screens in favor of newer–if not necessarily better–material, my wife insisted that we go see the Coen Brothers’ remake of the John Wayne classic despite the fact that she is an avowed Western hater.) Overall, while the movie itself–though solid–felt somewhat unfulfilling, the combination of True Grit’s sharp dialogue, memorable characters,  understated score, and lack of talkative small children made for an enjoyable evening.

To get this out of the way at the outset, I have not seen the 1969 original (dir. Henry Hathaway) that won John Wayne his only Oscar as Best Actor. Despite that, my view of this remake is influenced heavily by my impressions of John Wayne from other classics like Stagecoach and The Searchers (which I have yet to get Chris to watch).

True Grit tells the story of the sharp-tongued girl Mattie Ross (Haitee Steinfeld) who hires the alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and bring him to justice. As the title suggests, the movie is more about the two main characters than about the plot itself. In fact, the plot by the end is rather subsidiary to Rooster’s redemption and the bond formed between Mattie and Rooster. The main strength of the film–as one would hope in a character-driven film–is the characters. Despite the presence of Oscar-winner Bridges, who seems to play an 1880s version of Dude Lebowski at points, Haitee Steinfeld dominates the screen from the outset until just before the end with her portrayal of Mattie. Rarely at a loss for words, Mattie virtually always has the verbal upper hand, engaging in stinging repartee with every character who stands in the way of her goal of settling her father’s affairs and avenging his death. That Steinfeld–who does not look a day over her character’s fourteen years–is able to so convincingly play a rather unrealistic character is deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nomination buzz she has been receiving. Mattie and Cogburn are assisted in their search for Chaney by the rather foppish Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Given that most Westerns venerate LaBoeuf’s outfit and Texans in general, that the Ranger is the butt of most of the film’s jokes for his Texas origins is one of the more comical elements of the film. Bridges is adequate in filling Wayne’s impossibly large shoes as Rooster Cogburn. While I don’t think anyone else around could have played the part any better (unless maybe Sean Connery could come out of retirement and learn a passable Western accent), Cogburn, until the very end of the film, comes across as somewhat cartoonish, amusing dialogue notwithstanding. Bridges may be able to deliver quips well, but he cannot bring the same presence and gravity to the film that Wayne provides.

In terms of the construction of the film, the cinematography seems rather understated, and the camera–with the exception of a shootout in the Indian territory and Cogburn’s redemptive sequence–does not insist on itself to the viewer. While landscapes are often a character of sorts in Westerns, the Coens employ very few of the long and very long establishing shots used to show off the unforgiving landscape in most Westerns and even in their recent Western No Country for Old Men. The score, composed by Carter Burwell, is the only element of the film from which I felt a distinct, though gentle, artistic insistence. Consisting of simple piano and string variations on the venerable hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the music imbues the film with an undeniable sense of nostalgia, comparable to the effect of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary. The moving nostalgic tilt both softens and complicates some of the film’s more violent scenes.

While there is much to like about the parts of the film, the sum of the movie is somewhat lacking. Oddly, despite the 110-minute running time, the film felt like it could have used another 10-15 minutes before the climax to make the transition between Cogburn’s lowest point and his redemption feel less abrupt. Perhaps this sense comes from the large amount of time that the Coens took to establish Mattie and, to a lesser extent, Rooster’s character before the primary action of the film.

Rooster Cogburn before redemption.


With the exception of the opening sequences with Mattie and Rooster, many of the following scenes–while enjoyable–feel somewhat underdeveloped as a whole. While the Coen Brothers are famous for films with the sort of (often literally) messy endings that make the viewers, like J.K. Simmons’ CIA character in the Coens’ Burn After Reading, ask, “What’d we learn, Palmer?” (to which the only appropriate reply can be “I don’t know, sir”),  the underdevelopment of the plot and the film’s ambivalent ending feels somewhat less organic than in some of the Coens’ other films (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men to name a few).

Much of the early reaction to news of True Grit’s production (including this blog in this August post), before anyone really saw it, was that the film, attempting to remake a classic and an iconic actor’s part in it, was unnecessary. However, the Coens clearly feel otherwise, and the reason for it may be in the nostalgia they feel for what Wayne represents. Joan Didion refers to Wayne in her essay “John Wayne: A Love Song” as a “mold” into which was poured “the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost.” The insistent score, evoking the hymn’s praise for everlastingly strong arms, yearns for this sort of classic American anti-hero–thoroughly flawed but ultimately dependable and ruthless in his defense of those he holds dear–that Wayne played in much of his later career. If the Coens see the inescapably violent world of No Country for Old Men as an accurate depiction of modern America, perhaps they see men like Rooster Cogburn as the only way in these times to achieve justice and security for those not strong enough to get if for themselves. After all, Mattie, for all of her pluck and wit, would not be able to survive her mission without Rooster’s intervention.

Ultimately, while this movie is not among the top five films of the year or the Coens’ career, it is well worth watching, if for nothing more than the memorable characters and faint, poignant echoes of John Wayne’s greatness.

  • Characters: A-
  • Cinematography: B
  • Directing: B+
  • Plot: B
  • Performances: A-

The Evolution of the Sports Film by ESPN’s Bill Simmons

24 Dec

My brother pointed out an article on ESPN by Bill Simmons, which started as a review of the film, The Fighter, and developed into a rather poignant insight into the evolution of the sports film and the state of affairs in Hollywood. If you have time, it is well worth the read. Here is the link:

***Trailer Time*** Ed Helms and John C. Reilly Star in “Cedar Rapids”, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

23 Dec

This edition of Trailer Time features Ed Helms in a long-awaited lead role, with a strong supporting cast. The film is called Cedar Rapids and focuses on the hilarity that ensues at an insurance convention. Here is the official synopsis:

To call insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), “naive” is a gross understatement. He’s never left his small hometown. He’s never stayed at a hotel. And he’s never experienced anything like Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Sent to represent his company at the annual insurance convention, Tim is soon distracted by three convention veterans (John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who will show him the ropes and push his boundaries. For a guy who plays everything by the book, this convention will be anything but conventional.

The trailer makes it look like John C. Reilly will be doing his darndest to steal the show again. While it looks like some crazy shenanigans, it is directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt), which means that we should see some true heart show through at some point.

The next trailer is long overdue. I have failed many of you by not mentioning this film sooner, especially with all recent debate over its MPAA rating. Finally, this film won its long battle to be reduced to a hard “R” rating, after originally being slapped with “NC-17“, due to a graphic sex scene. However, Blue Valentine, appears to be far from the realm of throwing sex in a film for sex’s sake. The film received high acclaim at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, and also garnered Golden Globe nominations for the performances of its leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Valentine is about two lovers (Gosling and Williams) and the evolution of their relationship, cutting back and forth in the timeline to accentuate the change. It comes out next week, which is why I feel bad for not mentioning it sooner, and the trailer has been out for about two months. If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is:

TAKE TWO: Black Swan (2010)

21 Dec

Black Swan

Rated: R

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

Director: Dareen Aronofsky

Chris’ Take: There are very few films that can categorize themselves as a pyscho-horror-ballet-thriller, but this one falls solidly into it. This is one of the films I really wished I had brought something to take notes with, because while it was punctuated with grand moments of dizzying genius, there were so many small screen captures I wish I had to look at and mull over. This film was just downright brilliant.

Black Swan starts with a young ballet star, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), being picked to replace a veteran ballerina (Winona Ryder) as the lead in a new season of Swan Lake. Her director, Thomas Leroy( Vincent Cassel), is wary about Nina’s ability to encompass the role of both the purity of the White Swan and lustful passion of the Black Swan on stage, and sets her out on a rigorous and unconventional training. As the pressure to pull off the role mounts, her sanity begins to slip, especially when she feels threatened by a new dancer (Mila Kunis).

I am really glad I saw this in the theater for one reason: the music. For the last twenty minutes of the film I was completely entranced in both Portman’s performance and engulfed in the depth of the music around me. I think some of that would have been lost if I was watching it on a small screen with my modest sound system. The way the camera worked in conjunction with the soundtrack was perfect and made the finale that much more incredible.

The cinematography bothered me a little bit at first. The film was shot very tight, honing in on Natalie Portman’s head for most of the film. I knew what Aronofsky was going for, trying to portray Nina’s short-sighted, tight view of the world, which was opened up more throughout the film, and it also added a claustrophobic effect of the world closing in around her. However, I had to sit in the second row and it made it difficult to watch for the first half hour or so. That’s not to say that the cinematography wasn’t good, just bothersome at points. Aronofsky also did a lot with color, or lack thereof in the film, adding some interesting subtlety.

Natalie Portman definitely stole the show with her performance, making her metamorphosis very believable and the payoff that much more spectacular. Kudos to Mila Kunis as well, playing a little bit out of her normal range and managing to pull it off very well. I am kind of biased against Barbara Hershey.

Mainly because she stood in the way of this great sports film.

But, she definitely had a great role as an overprotective maternal figure, living vicariously through Nina. I think Portman should be at least nominated, if not win Best Actress at the Oscars this year.

Darren Aronofsky proved yet again that he can be visceral, gritty,and at the same time, beautiful. His style and editing make it really hard to figure out what was real and what wasn’t in the film, and demands a second a viewing.  There are some talented directors out there right now, and they have definitely stepped up this year. It is hard to say which film will come home with the highest honors this year, but Black Swan is definitely a top runner, and rightfully so.

  • Characters: A
  • Cinematography: B+
  • Directing: A+
  • Plot: A-
  • Performances: A+

Pac’s Take

Often time when I come out of the theater after watching a movie I have to reflect on what I just saw and take a breath.  Friends who joined me in the theater will often ask me what I thought of the film in the lobby and I respond to them with a blank stare and a shrug; in my mind the movie isn’t really over for me yet.  Black Swan was no exception to that rule, in fact it could probably be the poster child.  Deep down I do not want to like this movie as much as I did because honestly I don’t think I enjoyed the experience of watching it, but when I finally left the theater (physically and mentally) I was in awe of the story I was just told.

More like shock and awe really

It is very difficult to discuss the plot of the film because I think a lot of the unknown drives the brilliance behind the film, I can only go as far as to say that it is an adaptation of the Ballet they’re performing on-screen, adapted in a very visceral way.  Aside from the story, the two most notable characteristics of the film are the cinematography and the performances.  Much like Chris, the cinematography of this film was a complete distraction for me during the first act of the film.  The resolution, filters, and close shots (coupled by sitting so close to the screen) nauseated me at times and kept me from really getting into the first 30 minutes of the movie.  I hadn’t really considered why Aronofsky had shot the film like that until it was brought to my attention, but even after hearing a justification I thought it was unneccessary.  The close shots reminded me a lot of the way Let Me In was shot, and I had no qualm with denouncing it then too.  As the film progressed, the camera drew out and the momentum of the story picked up making the cinematography less noticeable (as it should be).

The performances in Black Swan were fantastic and I cannot see how Natalie Portman does not get both an Oscar nomination for her performance, and a win.  Portman is a very talented actress and it seems like this role was a long time coming for her; something to showcase her ability in a way that will get the recognition of the Academy and audiences alike and take her to the next level.  Not since The Professional (1994) has Portman had a role with this depth and raw emotion.  While no other performance stood up to Portman’s, the others did not slouch either.  Cassel stood out to me next as the ballet director, and I think this may mark his transition into Hollywood A-List (although he already has had a very successful career in foreign markets).  The tension between Barbara Hershey and Natalie Portman as mother and daughter really allowed Portman to shine and Hershey should be recognized for her great performance here, I think she deserved the best supporting actress nomination over Mila Kunis.  Even though she ventured outside her typical role and did a serviceable job playing Lily/The Black Swan, nothing about her performance stood out to me as exceptional.

Sorry Mila

Chris mentioned the score of the film, and an interesting bit of trivia is that the entire score of the film is a variation of the Swan Lake ballet played backwards and distorted.  If you’re looking for a fun movie to see with the family, friends, or loved ones sometime this holiday, Black Swan probably shouldn’t be your first choice; but this masterful film is definitely a must see.  Here are my grades:

  • Characters: A
  • Cinematography: B-
  • Directing: A
  • Plot: A
  • Performances: A+

Opening This Week (20 – 26 Dec, 2010)

20 Dec

There is quite the mixed bag of films this week with the arrival of Christmas. The expectation for Christmastime  films is almost exactly the same as the expectation for Christmas presents you had as a little kid. You knew there would a be a fair amount of socks and shirts that you will never wear, but you always knew there would be one gift that would leave you glowing for at least an hour, until its newness wore off. This week there are a couple of socks and shirts (Little Fockers, Gulliver’s Travels), but you know there will at least be some films of real value (i.e. True Grit, The Illusionist).

Little Fockers

Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert DeNiro, Barbara Streisand, Dustin Hoffman

Director: Paul Weitz

Synopsis from IMDB: Family-patriarch Jack Byrnes wants to appoint a successor. Does his son-in-law, the “male nurse”, Greg Focker have what it takes?


Chris’ Take: Like all decent (not great) comedies, it is necessary to run them into the ground until their is no ounce of humor, originality or inspiration. Such is the tale of Little Fockers. I don’t think I laughed once during the trailer and it now looks like they are relying most heavily on the word Focker’s relations to a four letter word, and that is all they got. The sad part is that they will run away with a good $75 – $100 M before anyone notices.

True Grit

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

Director: The Coen Brothers

Synopsis from IMDB: A tough U.S. Marshal helps a stubborn young woman track down her father’s murderer.


Chris’ Take: When I first heard about this remake, I was disgusted. It seemed like a shameless attempt to capitalize on a great western and spit on The Duke’s iconic role. The more I read about it, saw the cast, and finally that the Coen Brothers were directing, my anticipation started to grow and now it is the film that I most look forward to this Christmas season. I think it will end up being a respectful tribute to the original and a compelling film as a whole.

Gulliver’s Travels

Starring: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet

Director: Rob Letterman

Synopsis from IMDB: Travel writer Lemuel Gulliver takes an assignment in Bermuda, but ends up on the island of Liliput, where he towers over its tiny citizens.


Chris’ Take: I  miss the days when Jack Black was still a supporting actor. His comedic style is only good in small doses and it is difficult to watch a feature length film with him as the lead. The trailer, like the idea to remake this to begin with, seems bereft of comedy, with the exception of the throw away Kiss gag at the end. I like Jason Segel and Emily Blunt, and hopefully their involvement will bring some spark to the film.


Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Benicio Del Toro

Director: Sofia Coppola

Synopsis from IMDB:  A hard-living Hollywood actor re-examines his life after his 11-year-old daughter surprises him with a visit.


Chris’ Take: Sofia Coppola returns to the director chair, examining the life of another successful actor in a foreign country. This film already won the Golden Lion Award for Best Picture at the Venice International Film Festival, which bodes well for its critical reception in the States. It looks like it will be an intriguing character study, and a very slow-moving film, that will be worth seeing if you have the patience.

Country Strong

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester

Director: Shana Feste

Synopsis from IMDB: A drama centered on a rising country-music songwriter (Hedlund) who sparks with a fallen star (Paltrow). Together, they mount his ascent and her comeback, which leads to romantic complications involving her husband/manager (McGraw) and a beauty queen-turned-singer (Meester).


Chris’ Take: The Academy Awards love their films about fallen music stars and this film seems like it is trying to bank on the success of another washed up country music star film, Crazy Heart. These films, especially when they involve country music, aren’t usually my cup of tea, but chances are it will at least garner some recognition for performances, and music, come Oscar time.

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste)

 Starring: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin, Duncan MacNeil

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Synopsis from IMDB: A French illusionist finds himself out of work and travels to Scotland, where he meets a young woman. Their ensuing adventure changes both their lives forever.


Chris’ Take: This looks like a beautiful animated film, and from the amount of critical acclaim, is going to give the audience favorite, Toy Story 3, a run for its money in the Best Animated Feature category.

*** Trailer Time***: Water for Elephants, The Tree of Life

16 Dec

Today’s Trailer Time does not feature special effects fueled motion pictures, but instead offers hope for some great and visually stunning films to be released early next year.

 The first is Terrence Malick‘s (New World, The Thin Red Line) The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. The film is about a young boy in the 1950’s, whose journey of disillusionment and loss of innocence starts with his two parents giving conflicting views on life that have ripple effects into his adulthood. It looks like a very solemn, thoughtful and beautiful film. Here is the trailer:

Another film, which I am less excited, but still intrigued, about is Water for Elephants, based on a best-selling Sara Gruen novel of the same name. The film is directed by Francis Lawrence (I am Legend, Constantine), stars Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz, and revolves around the story of an older man telling the tale of his time with the travelling Benzini Brothers circus. Pattinson plays the younger version of the main character and looks like he is sticking to brooding stalker characters that would probably creep people out in real life. That would tend to take away from the credibility of this film, were it not for the rest of the talent attached to this film, namely Reese Witherspoon (who I never have a problem watching) and Christoph Waltz (who you may remember as Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds). Hopefully, Pattinson will break away from the stigma of the Twilight films and deliver a decent performance because this film looks like it could be pretty solid otherwise. It will also be interesting to see what director Francis Lawrence can do with something other than an action film.

Without further ado, here is the trailer: