Sunday, January 8, 2012

More 2011 Reviews

Some more miniature reviews to add to the pile.

The Interrupters

Urban violence, as it's likened to in Steve James' gripping documentary The Interrupters, is a virus. A disease that infects at-risk communities and spreads as violence begets more violence. It's enough to make you sob, but in the streets of Chicago, tucked out of sight from mainstream media, there are antibodies ready to fight the epidemic of violence on the front lines.
Steve James (acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams) spent a year documenting the thanklessly heroic efforts of the CeaseFire program, an organization that aims to directly mediate potentially violent situations on the streets. Many of the group's members used to be involved in gangs and crime themselves, but have decidated themselves to turning it around not only for themselves, but for their communities.
Taking up the task of shooting and editing the picture himself, James captures a harrowing time-capsule version of Chicago at its most horrifying. We actually witness conflicts unfold in front of the camera. At the same time, his film is an inspiration. He keeps replenishing our hope with his tactful exposition of the interrupters' own redemptive backstories. Piecing it together as only a master documentarian can, he never lets the film stagnate. We're always moving on to the next segment at just the right moment.
Had I seen this a couple of months ago, there would have been no doubt in my mind that it would be up for the Academy's Best Documentary prize, but having not even made their 15-film shortlist, I know better than to predict it. But as to how it could have missed is beyond me.

***1/2 out of ****
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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Much like the graphically dynamic credit sequence that opens it, David Fincher's filmed take on the international bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is stylishly crafted but also confusing and abrasive. Steve Zaillian's adaptation, while detailed and apparently faithful to its source text, seriously needed some trimming down and tightening up. The first act is rushed and the ending drags on and on. The mystery/thriller plot that makes up the bulk of the film would have been enough on its own. Complicating matters is the fact that the story is dividing its attention between Rooney Mara's misanthropic investigator Lizbeth Salander and Daniel Craig's dogged journalist Mikael Blomkvist; the former is a gripping, mannered performance with lots of edge, the latter comes up rather flat. Being a Fincher film, it naturally looks and sounds great, boasting slick sets from Donald Graham Burt, arresting filtered photography from Jeff Cronenweth, an involved sound mix from Ren Klyce, and a score from the recently Oscared Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that fits the material nicely.

**1/2 out of ****
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Jane Eyre

The updated Jane Eyre, Cary Fukunaga's dour take on Charlotte Bronte's dour classic, barely gets by on the strength of its craft but falters by the sluggishness of its sedate mood. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with adopting a quiet tone, but the performances and plot dynamics are subdued to the point of dullness, except perhaps in the overdone opening sequence which sees Mia Wasikowska, as Bronte's eponymous heroine, stumbling about a blasted heath sobbing to herself. Save for some off-putting editorial choices, the film is well made. The textured costumes, dressy interiors, and weathered exteriors are all nicely designed and shot.

**1/2 out of ****
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If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front

With If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Marshall Curry shines a light on the sociopolitical grey area of “eco-terrorism” by giving a face to the radical environmental group. That face is that of David McGowen, a seemingly amiable young man who, during a particularly tumultuous time for the logging community in Eugene, Oregon, became entangled in the efforts of a band of concerned tree-huggers aiming to protect America's national forests from timber companies. What started as peaceful protests, however, eventually degenerated into a series of covert arson operations as tensions mounted with the law and the corporations. As David waits under house arrest for his trial which will either deem him an arsonist or, a much uglier label, a terrorist, the film objectively presents us with the context for his situation, allowing us to come to our own judgments on what constitutes an act of “terrorism”, where does an act of protest cross the line, and gives us plenty of fodder to decide for ourselves which side of the debate we fall on.

*** out of ****
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Hanna

Joe Wright's Hanna is a unique tale that makes an unlikely platinum-haired action star of Saoirse Ronan, who plays a girl trained in the deadly arts by her fugitive father in order that she might stand a chance against the sinister G-men set to come after her. Seth Lochhead's screenplay is rather indulgent in terms of premise, which is far from believable at the best of times. Even some of the characterizations are unconvincing. But despite its tonal inconsistencies, the aural and visual elements are interesting enough to make this a mesmerizing ride 100% of the time. To say that Joe Wright employs many stylistic flourishes would be less accurate than to say that the whole film is one big stylistic flourish. He clearly has a taste for the long tracking shot (as if that 7-minute one in Atonement didn't tip you off), but the film's standout below-the-line contributors are The Chemical Brothers for their hypnotic electronic musical score.
**1/2 out of ****
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Shame

Michael Fassbender gives a perturbed, methodical performance as a sex addict in Steve McQueen's discomforting Shame, and frankly, the character is more interesting in concept than the film that showcases him is in execution. McQueen is an established fan of observation and inconsequential details over pacing and structured plot. You have to take the good with the bad. On the plus side, it maximizes our connection to the performances, and there are a couple of real good ones. Fassbender's subtle portrait of an invisible mental illness is mesmerizing even during long uneventful takes, He masterfully evokes the complex relationship with his clingy sister, who is herself exceptionally played by Carey Mulligan, showing her range with a spikier, worldlier character than the naïve nymph that first brought her to our attention in An Education. The downside to McQueen's committed approach is a lack of immediacy in the storytelling. He dabbles with a few long takes too many, which could have been edited down to more essential images.

*** out o ****

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