Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Winter's Bone: Grade A


Winter’s Bone (2010)

Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garrett Dillahunt; Co-writer and Director Debra Granik.

This is a dark, depressing story of a seventeen-year-old woman (Lawrence) living in abject poverty in the Ozarks. Her mother is mentally ill, on meds, so the girl tries to raise her two young siblings.

The father has been arrested on a drugs charge. The sheriff (Dillahunt) tells her the father put the property up to make bail, and if he doesn’t appear in court next week, they will lose the house. She vows to find him before that happens, but everywhere she goes, hostile neighbors and relatives tell her to butt out.

Her scrawny, coke-snorting older brother (Hawkes) reluctantly investigates and reports that their father is dead. But unless she can produce the body, there is no proof and the house will be lost anyway. She asks everyone, but only succeeds in getting herself beat up.

Acting is very strong by these unknown (to me) players, and the movie is well-made and well-directed. The basic story line is not tremendously compelling (save the farm), but that weakness is more than compensated by the strong sense of place.

Scenery, sets, and costumes are on pitch, and we feel the cold dirt, the grime, the hunger, poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness of the people. Actually the sets are overdone. In their zeal to project squalor, the set designers overexaggerated. Unpainted wooden houses are in ill-repair, outbuildings are in ruins, roofs collapsing, mildew covering the walls. The winter trees are bare, the ground is frozen, the air is blue, and every house has a rubbish fire burning in a steel barrel, sending dirty smoke onto pathetically worn clothing hanging on a line. Every house has empty or partly empty five-gallon plastic buckets lying around multiple derelict vehicles.

It is all too much. These cliches are interesting at first, but strain credulity with repetition. Grungy costumes have the same effect: they’re good, but relentless.

But these are minor flaws. Despite the weak and slow-paced story, strong acting and interesting visuals make this movie linger in your mind for days.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire: Grade C


The Girl Who Played Who Played With Fire (2009)

Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist , Lena Endre; Director Daniel Alfredson. (Swedish, subtitled).

Rapace still has her dragon tattoo in this cinematic installment of the wildly popular Stieg Larsson series of novels. She is Lisbeth, a young gothic woman recently released from a mental institution, where she was held for setting her father on fire. Lisbeth is wealthy, living off a trust fund, and she is an expert computer hacker. And oh, yeah, a master kick boxer too. She seems to be on the lam in Stockholm, doing what, we do not know.

But the story begins elsewhere, when Nyqvist, a reporter and publisher, is about to expose a government sex scandal. His informants are murdered and Lisbeths’ fingerprints are on the murder weapon. Suddenly she is hunted by the police (which she learns about by seeing a poster tacked to a phone pole. Maybe that’s what they do in Sweden). Nyqvist does not believe she did it, because of his relationship with her going back to Dragon Tattoo, but I can’t remember what that was. So the race is on: can he find and exonerate Lisbeth before the police get to her? (Yes, of course).

The character of Lisbeth is much stronger than the acting by Rapace, but she fills the role adequately with her chain smoking, furrowed brows, and multiple nose rings. Not much else, though. None of the acting is strong in this movie. The plot is always on the verge of confusion, but can be followed. Lisbeth doesn’t actually play with fire, and the shot on the DVD cover does not occur in the movie. That must be a trait that was in the book (which I haven’t read) that did not make it to the film.

Characters are cartoony, not realistically motivated, but you kind of expect that in a thriller. Scenery, sets, and costumes are excellent. It’s nice to see several views of Stockholm, a gem of a city I have visited only once. You see the stunning beauty of the area around the old town, but also some of the gritty neighborhoods. The directing / cinematography has the deadening syntax of television. The pace is slow, as most European movies are for Americans. If you edited out all shots of people getting in and out of motor vehicles and driving them around, the movie would be shorter by 10 minutes. Cut all shots of people walking on sidewalks, down hallways and across fields, and you have saved another 5 minutes. Save 10 more minutes by cutting out shots of people staring into computer screens and watching data scroll past. In the end, I didn’t care about the story or the characters, but overall, the film was mildly interesting and easy to look at.

Awake: Grade C


Awake (2007)

Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terence Howard, Lena Olin. Writer-Director Joby Harold.

Christensen is a young business tycoon with an international, multi-billion dollar empire, but a defective heart. He needs a heart transplant. While he waits for a donor, he falls in love with the domestic help, his mother’s secretary (Alba). Mom (Olin) does not approve, but what can you do. The donor heart comes through and the young tycoon (way too young to be even close to believable in that role) goes under the knife of transplant surgeon Howard, the only one in this movie who is a good actor. For reasons unknown and unexplained, the patient experiences a rare (actually disputed) condition called anaesthetic awareness, in which his body is immobilized but he retains full consciousness during surgery. He hears everything that is said in the operating room, much to his own surprise and panic. What he hears is a plot against his life. Improbably, he is saved at the last minute and the bad guys get their due.

Reported cases of anaesthetic awareness are rare in the medical literature, mostly anecdotal and not well documented, and strongly denied by both anaesthesiologists I happen to know. In the most credible reports, patients have post-surgery memory of snippets of conversation, from which we can deduce they were, at least partially, awake. Full waking consciousness during anaesthesia has never been documented, to my knowledge. That the patient could do crime-solving problem-analysis under anaesthesia is not believable. Other facts depicted, such as the idea that the patient feels pain or might cry, are virtually impossible. But hey, it’s a movie.

The crime story is just barely believable but it hangs together better than the central biological premise. What makes the movie worth watching is that it is well made. The open heart shots are very good, very realistic. When the patient is supposed to be awake, we see him walking, running, and hovering around the hospital corridors like a ghost, trying, in vain of course, to convince other players to save him. That was a creative approach. Alba does a reasonable acting job, but I couldn’t stop wondering about all the cosmetic surgery she has obviously had, at such a young age. Hollywood is extremely harsh on women. Unfortunately, Christensen, playing the main character, was the weakest actor. Music was inoffensive, editing notably good, directing competent. Worth watching on DVD or on TV.