Tag: thriller (page 3 of 6)

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


Ever since I introduced the poll that lets fine people like you chime in on which movie gets ‘the treatment’ every week, one film has consistently and patiently waited its turn. I knew of its existence, heard it was extremely well-done and of interest for many reasons, including the fact it’s an adaptation of a novel. It finally won this past week, and I sat down to watch it last night with little to go on save knowledge of its long-form fiction origins, the sentiment that its plot is difficult to encapsulate (which it is, I only got my synopsis down after a half-dozen attempts), the touting of its female lead and the warning that this movie is long. At two and a half hours, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo certainly devours your evening, but considering that I was never bored, always intrigued and eager to find out what happened next, I’d call it an evening well-spent.

Courtesy Music Box Pictures

The story begins with the conviction of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist accused of libel by a powerful industrialist. While Blomkvist suspects he was framed, he knows he can’t fight the industrialist’s legal team alone and resigns himself to spending some time in jail. Before his sentence begins, however, he is contacted by the reclusive patron of a powerful family living on an island off the coast. The old man’s neice, his favorite girl, has been missing for 40 years and he wants Blomkvist to find her. He finds himself drawn into a tangled web of tense relations and dark secrets, but he doesn’t start putting the pieces together until he gets a tip from a girl who’s been hacking his laptop – the girl with the dragon tattoo.

The novel upon which the film is based was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. It’s a dark story, superficially reminiscent of thrillers like Silence of the Lambs and Seven, or crime dramas like L.A. Confidential or Mulholland Drive. Moreover, the notion of a crime in a remote location with a limited number of suspects with intricate connections is evocative of even older dramas, those penned by Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite the prevelance of computer hacking and other modern trappings, there’s something seriously old-school about this yarn. Not many movies these days make a character going through old non-digital archives a gripping scene.

Courtesy Music Box Pictures
Not your typical heroes.

While we’re on the subject of characters, the emphasis on their reality and dimensionality is clear. The protagonists are never invincible and the antagonists are never cartoonish. Conclusions are reached and actions are taken for reasons that are not contrived or convenient. It keeps the story very grounded and surprisingly immersive. You lose yourself quickly in these peoples’ lives, especially when it comes to Blomkvist and Lisbeth. Blomkvist is a decent guy with a good head on his shoulders and a deep hunger for the truth that lies at the heart of any good and true journalist, but while he’s the gateway into the story, he’s definitely not its star.

The girl of the title, Lisbeth Salander, is a haunted, driven, asocial and violently independant young woman. Her actions, attitude and outlook are informed by a past that has lead her into being kicked around by the mental health and social authority systems. Being told who to be and how to act for years has left Lisbeth fiercely determined to make her own way. Actress Noomi Rapace never throttles back on Lisbeth’s intensity. Everything she does, every move she makes, has determination and purpose. Despite the tendency for the older gentlemen in thrillers and dramas to play chess with the lives of others, at this table, Lisbeth is Bobby Fischer and most other people aren’t sure of how the knight is supposed to move.

Courtesy Music Box Pictures
As much as I like Wonder Woman, Lisbeth’s a much more interesting “heroine.”

Something that struck me as odd is that this movie seems to be completely uninterested in the gravity of its own subject matter. It’s taking on things like misogyny, child abuse, indoctrination and rape but it never does so to the point of belaboring or dwelling overmuch on the matters. These things just happen, and the characters need to deal with them. It’s a slow burner, in that scenes take time to set up and pay off but never fall into the realm of uninteresting exposition. It’s detailed and meticulous, never taking our intelligence for granted. It might not have been necessary to go into as much depth as it does initially setting up the backgrounds and underlying motivations of the duo tackling this bizzare and ultimately disturbing case, but I feel this decision was rooted in the source material. I haven’t read any of Stieg Larsson’s work, but I get the impression the filmmakers were as faithful to the novel as possible. I really can’t fault them for that, but I’m also aware that not everything in a novel is necessary for a story on film to work.

The foundation of this film and its success, however, isn’t just the late novelist’s work, it’s the reality of its characters, settings and situations. From the way Blomkvist looks and behaves to the fact that Lisbeth uses a Mac with software we recognize instead of some sort of magic device as computers are often seen in American media, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo tells its story without hyperbole or hooplah. It’s not overtly romanticized or saddled with trying to fit into a particular genre for convenient marketing. It’s straightforward storytelling driven by characters that are well-rounded in their writing and excellently portrayed by their actors. Available via Netflix’s instant service, I’d recommend this for any fan of crime drama, good character development or foreign films. And you should definitely see this version if you’re a fan of the novels, because Hollywood has gotten their claws on it and are making their own version. I expect it’s going to have more beautiful people, more bombastic music and more telegraphed dialog in it, but I’ll try not to hate it on principle. Other Americans have the hate market cornered and I really don’t want to step on their toes. They have guns.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.


Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


Remember that stuff I said last week about science fiction? In that context, an animated space western was being discussed. On the Moh’s Scale of Science Fiction Hardness, I’d probably put Titan A.E. at between 0 and 1 out of 8. Duncan Jones’ Moon, on the other hand, comfortably sits between 6 and 7. It also makes itself at home in your brain, and if yours is anything like mine, it’s not going to leave any time soon.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic

Earth’s energy crisis has been solved thanks to the utilization of helium-3 deposits on the Moon. The mining operation is the sole propriety of the Lunar Corporation, and its base on the moon’s far side is run by Sam Bell. Sam’s 3-year contract is almost up. Other than the occasional video message from his wife keeping him up to speed on their infant daughter, his only company has been the base’s computer, GERTY. The tenure at the station is beginning to take its toll, however, since Sam is starting to see things. He’s very much looking forward to going home when one of the harvesters breaks down. Sam goes to check it out, and… well, things gets really interesting really fast. I’ll say that much, and no more.

In terms of aesthetics, hard science and mood, Moon feels very much like a spiritual successor to 2001. In fact, Duncan Jones does seem to have taken at least a few notes from Stanley Kubrick. Without relying on showy computer graphics or big name talent, Jones has shoot a film that is at times breathtakingly beautiful and shockingly intimate. But remember how in 2001, we had to wait over an hour and watch stuff float around in space before we got a memorable character? Moon gives us a character right the hell away. And it’s a damn good one.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic

Sam Rockwell has always struck me as something of an underrated performer. He’s been in science fiction since his big break in Galaxy Quest, where among heavyweights like Tim Allen, Sigorney Weaver and Alan Rickman, he provided a memorable and very funny performance in what could have been a throw-away role. Especially since he was the ‘red shirt’ in the party. It’s really a shame that Iron Man 2 didn’t have more for Justin Hammer to do, focused as it was on Tony Stark wrestling with his demons and learning to get along better with the people around him. If you don’t think Rockwell’s got charisma, watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, I know, it’s not as good as the book, but Sam as the vacuous party-president Zaphod has got charisma oozing out of his pores.

Here, Sam gives a very poignant and subdued performance, but no less charismatic, as… well, Sam. In fact, Jones wrote the part of Sam with Sam in mind, after Sam expressed a further interest in science fiction. He handed the script to Nathan Parker, who’s also familiar with Sam’s work and tailored the script to take advantage on a vast well of untapped talent. There’s a lot of it here, too, from the still and slow-moving camera work by cinematographer Gary Shaw that underscores many themes of the film to Clint Mansell’s simple yet haunting score.

However, this is very nearly a one-man show. The bulk of the heavy lifting in Moon is the responsibility of Sam Rockwell. The film’s story, emotional drive and thematic meaning all live and die based on Sam’s ability to convey those story points, those emotions, those themes. And in every aspect, he displays an adroit mastery. We see so many sides of the same character that… well, again, saying more will spoil things. So let’s move on.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
Not Pictured: The note reading “HUGE SUCCESS.”

I say it’s “nearly” a one-man show because Sam (the character) isn’t 100% alone. The station’s computer system, GERTY, interfaces with Sam by way of a mobile device bound to a single rail that traverses the station’s interior. GERTY claims to be there to help Sam, as it watches the human through an inscrutable single lens and manipulates the environment with its robotic arms. The computer is voiced by Kevin Spacey, in a smooth and soothing tone that… ahh, there I go again, very nearly spoiling the movie for you.

Seriously, this is one of those films you must see to fully appreciate. I can only ramble on about characters for so long without approaching the border of spoiler territory, and talking about all the technical aspects can get kind of dull even when it’s nothing but absolute praise. There is, however, something I feel I should touch on that has nothing to do with either the particulars of Moon‘s story or of its production.

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
“What do you mean, ‘I can’t open the pod bay doors’? We don’t even have pods!”

Remember me mentioning Moh’s? It’s unfortunate that, on that scale, a lot of the science fiction we see these days barely rates above a 4. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this and a lot of good stories are told on the softer side of science — Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Gattaca and District 9 just to name a few — but some of the best fiction is born out of constraints. Some shorter works have more punch and poignancy than novels, due to the author needing to get to his point and drive it home within a restricted word count. Existing as it does on the hard side of Moh’s scale and clocking in at a deceptive-sounding 97 minutes, Moon shows us the kind of story that can be told with the discarding of things like faster than light travel, ray guns and long loving shots of docking sequences set to classical music — a damn good one.

Hard or soft, the best science fiction out there isn’t just about the trappings of the genre. I mean laser cannons, jump drives, killer robots and space whores are cool and fun, sure. But good science fiction, the kind that sticks with you after the space battles are over and the ship pulls in to dock, uses its awesome trappings to draw you in and then teaches you something about the human condition, about who we are and where we’re going. Instead of a grand scale of intergalactic conflict or system-spanning action, Moon has its focus squarely on us here on Earth. By maintaining this tight focus, we experience through the character of Sam Bell some of the things we ourselves deal with despite the fact we’re surrounded by other people every day. In spite of that, some of us can empathize with Sam’s loneliness. We ask ourselves some of the same questions: How much longer do I have? What’s waiting for me after this? Who am I?

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
Sam can see his house from here. Kinda.

On top of everything else, the film captures a sense of mystery and suspense that feels fresh and edgy despite the jaded lens through which many watch movies. If Hitchcock were alive today and interested in science fiction, Moon might be a production of his. Its story moves at its own patient pace, much like GERTY’s unflappable patience with Sam. While it’s only an hour and a half long, it feels much longer and much deeper. It follows the traditions of Smith, Heinlein and Niven in using elements both familiar and fantastical to tell an intricate and pointed story about humanity. In other words, this is what high-quality science fiction looks like stripped of hyperbolic special effects and presented with the purest intent and passion of the genre. Moon is, in a word, exemplary. It’s on your Netflix Instant queue. Or rather, it should be. Right now.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Inception vs. Ocean’s Eleven

Courtesy Warner Bros

Once again a discussion on the Escapist has caused me to pit two films against one another in my metaphorical cage. Considering both are capers with teams of experts, I’ve had to weld extra grates onto the cage to contain all of the action. However, as I was hosing down the alien bits stuck to the cage from the last match, it was pointed out to me that picking the criteria myself waters down the credibility of the match. I know who I’d like to win, so objectivity is colored by choosing points of comparison where I know one film may be superior to the other. With that in mind, I turned to the Escapist and Twitter to help pick out the sticks I’ll be using to measure, and perhaps beat, these two films.

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Movie Review: Salt

Thanks to my friends at Geekadelphia, my wife and I were able to enjoy an advance screening of Salt. We walked out of it wondering the same thing: why is a movie dealing with a villain put to bed twenty years ago coming out now?

Remember how Yahtzee equated the United States to a prize fighter who keeps yelling at his old rival Russia because they didn’t have a proper title match? “Last I checked, it hasn’t been 1979 for at least 10 years.” In that case he was talking about Battlefield Bad Company 2, but it seems this unfortunate backwards-looking form of inspiration has reached Hollywood as well. Despite the fact that there are all sorts of punching bags for an espionage thriller that’s also a vehicle for Angelina Jolie, Kurt Wimmer’s Salt manages the feat of bringing the Soviet Union’s labyrinthine intelligence plotting back from the dead as an engine to drive the film’s plot.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The plot introduces us to Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative married to an arachnid expert. She’s getting ready to enjoy her anniversary when a Russian defector walks into her office claiming to have vital information. Placed in an interrogation room with Salt, the defector reveals that he has knowledge of a presidential assassination plot going down in New York City in 24 hours. He even knows the name of the assassin: Evelyn Salt. Pointed out as a possible mole, unable to reach her husband and trapped in her own office building, Salt needs to facilitate an escape and find a way to prove her innocence. Or carry out her role in the assassination plot. Or go on vacation. Or get her nails done. The question I asked myself while actually watching Salt was, “What the hell is she up to?” he desire to see what exactly her plan was kept me going all the way to the end credits.

A lot is made of the identity of Evelyn Salt, and to the credit of Wimmer’s script, Philip Noyce’s direction and Angelina Jolie’s acting, we’re never quite sure who’s side she’s on. She conveys emotion when she has to and turns it off when it’s time to kick ass – par for the course from the creator of Equilibrium. The film seems aware of the fact that it’s a vehicle for Jolie, and never really gets in her way. We’re never out of sight from our leading lady for more than a minute. Her performance here is definitely more in the vein of Wanted than Changeling, but she’s at least somewhat interesting to watch.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

In fact, the cast isn’t uninteresting and does rather well all around. None of the performances feel forced, none of the actors gnaw on the scenery and they’re given interesting stuff to do. Liev Schreiber has quickly grown on me as a supporting actor, with a quiet intensity and growling voice that isn’t overshadowed by Angelina’s presence. Chiwetel Ejiofor isn’t bad, either, channeling a bit of the drive that informed his performance as the Operative in Serenity. The script is fine, never going into camp territory or stopping to wink at the audience. The action is at least somewhat inventive in places and it’s shot well by Noyce, never becoming too confusing or too loud, a tip some other directors could take. In fact, all of these elements make it a more-than-decent thriller, and a thrill ride besides.

But the best writing and acting in the world can’t overcome a bad premise. It’s like building a brilliantly designed and carefully constructed house on a beach with bricks of sand as your foundation. It’s not going to end well. Salt never completely collapses, but the idea that the spectre of Soviet aggression would rise up from the shadows of the past to seek revenge on America for a war that never got to the shooting stages and resolved itself almost two decades ago is pretty preposterous. I can think of at least a few people who will see this film, take it as at least partial fact, and use it as just another thing that we should be afraid of, in addition to terrorism, socialist medicine, communist market oversight and fascist environmental controls. BE AFRAID. WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT. OBEY US.

Dammit, there I go getting political again. I told my controller therapist very patient readers I wouldn’t do that any more.


Since posting this review on the Escapist the night I saw it, I’ve gotten some stick for apparently being ‘naive’ and ignoring the threat that Russia presents to America. The thing is, though, I know we’re going to get spied on. Espionage does not automatically mean open conflict. In fact, if it gets to the point of a car chase or a gunfight, the espionage has failed. So, when the US busted that Russian spy ring recently, was I surprised? Not really. I’m sure the US has spies all over the world as we speak. I do see the point made to me about not being naive in terms of espionage happening right now, but I have to opine the idea that espionage inevitably leads to open conflict is very far-fetched. To anticipate that sort of hostility is to live in perpetual fear, and that is something I refuse to do.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Stuff I Liked: Decent script, well-shot action and a brisk pace.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Dammit, leave Russia alone. The war’s over.
Stuff I Loved: If I loved anything, it was seeing Angelina kicking ass and seeing how creatively she was dealing with the people she didn’t kill.

Bottom Line: It’s not a bad movie. It’s a decent little espionage thriller that suffers from the aforementioned idiotic premise. You’d be okay if you wait for it to come out on video. There are other movies out there that deserve to be seen in a cinema. Like Inception.

Movie Review: Inception

I’ve been a fan of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s work since his shatteringly brilliant Memento. He’s breathed new life into Batman with two equally stunning films, and his somewhat underrated adaptation of the novel The Prestige is every bit as haunting and cerebral as his other work. This year, he brings us Inception. Not only is it probably the best film you’ll see all summer, if not all year, it’s also the best film of Nolan’s career to date.

Yep. Better than The Dark Knight, better than Memento.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The tag line for the film is “Your mind is the scene of the crime.” The concept is that technology originally developed to allow military recruits to train against each other in a consequence-free dreamscape is now being used by professional thieves to steal information from others’ minds in their dreams. This requires the participation of an architect to build the world of the dream, a chemist to balance the drugs required to keep the mark and the team under, a forger who creates cyphers to assist or distract the mark, a point man to keep the mental defenses of the mark’s subconscious at bay, and an extractor to get their hands on the information. Everybody involved needs to remained focused and calm, which is a problem for the extractor, Cobb, whose own subconscious is breaking into the dream worlds his team have built. He needs to go home, and to do so, industrialist Saito offers him one last job – not to steal an idea, but to implant one, a process considered to be impossible and known as inception.

If he hadn’t become a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan may have become a renowned illusionist, the sort of stage practitioner that leaves the crowd breathless and wondering how exactly he pulled off his trick. What’s particularly amazing about Nolan’s work is, not only are we aware that he’s manipulating events like a master puppeteer, he goes out of his way to show us the strings before he leads down a labyrinth of ideas and environments, daring us to keep up. We caught glimpses of this in Memento and The Prestige, but Inception takes this to a whole new level. The rules of the dream, the logic behind the flow of time within the subconscious and the ways in which the mind moves to protect itself are explained in great detail, Nolan shows us how these constructs work, and then takes us on a journey that has us questioning what rules, if any, were broken, and how the story arrives at its conclusion, to say nothing of what that conclusion actually is.

Courtesy Warner Bros

Inception would not work anywhere near as well as it does if it didn’t have such an excellent, top-caliber cast. Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb the extractor continues to shine in the sort of edgy, mature, hard-bitten roles that have caused me to embrace him as a fantastic actor. He gives Cobb a great deal of haunted depth, and has the burden of carrying the bulk of the film’s emotional and philosophical weight. He does so with grace and not a hint of exertion, drawing us deeper and deeper into the realm of Cobb’s mind.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of the cast is just phoning it in. Everybody’s in top form here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who apparently can totally rock a suit no matter what film he’s in, seems dedicated to keeping Cobb grounded to keep his job as point man from being to difficult, while Tom Hardy (who thankfully has put that Shinzon debacle far behind him) encourages everyone around him to use their imaginations while he forges the tools they need to pull off their heist. Ken Watanabe shows us many dimensions as Saito, a man who is both the cause for Cobb’s predicament on this last job and the apparent key to his freedom. Cillian Murphy as the mark is more that just a dupe, but to say more would be giving away plot information. And Ellen Page, who’s quickly become one of my favorite young actresses, conveys Ariadne as both the eager young architect recruited by Cobb and the voice of reason inside his head. If Saito has the key to Cobb’s freedom, Ariadne has the key to preventing the interference caused by Mal, played with sublime menace by Marion Cotillard.

Courtesy Warner Bros

Yes, her name is ‘Ariadne’, as in ‘mistress of the labyrinth’. There’s a lot of symbolism in Inception. Since we’re dealing almost entirely in the realm of dreams for the running time of this film, and dreams are populated by people, places and things that hold special meaning for the dreamer, quite a few things that happen between the first shot and the last seem to invite us to interpret them. Christopher Nolan is a skilled storyteller, so the film never verges into completely obscurantist territory like 2001 does, and even as symbols come and go, the plot remains taut and the characters clearly motivated. As I said, Nolan’s confident enough in his skill to show us the strings. That doesn’t mean that those very strings we’re shown can’t be used to mess with our heads.

I admit I had a squeal of delight when Ariadne asks the question, “What happens when you start messing with the physics?” It’s something I never quite got about The Matrix. If you were in complete control of the world around you, why not start messing with things the way she does? The way the real world interacts with the dream world leads to some very interesting situations, from a quick laugh at the beginning of the heist to one of the most inventive and breathtaking fight sequences I have seen in a very, very long time. Not only does Joseph Gorden-Levitt rock that suit, he does what was probably a rather complicated stunt without seeming to break a sweat. The guy’s a pro.

Courtest Warner Bros

This is a film I will be watching many more times for many years to come. It’s Christopher Nolan’s best film to date, and it will be damn hard to top. I’d love to go see it again right now, in theaters, as the big screen perfectly captures the scope, power and danger of the worlds built within our dreams. However, it’ll also be great on DVD, so that the film can be paused, rewound and analysed with friends over drinks to try and figure out what exactly it all means. I for one can’t wait for those evenings.

A lot’s been said about the ending of Inception. I’ve tried very hard not to give away any spoilers, but let me voice my opinion to the best of my ability. Christopher Nolan is not a bad storyteller. He gives us all the clues we need to figure out exactly what Inception is and means, to him and to us. He doesn’t take the Kubrick & Clark route, of trying to raise many more questions than he answers. He wants us to understand. He encourages us to figure it out. And he provides everything we need to solve the puzzle. The challenge is… can we?

I’d like to think I can. I just need to see it again. A few times. It’s an amazing film, one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and if ever there was an excuse for me to sell a major organ to afford a high-def television and a PlayStation 3 in anticipation of a film coming out on Blu-ray, Inception would be it. This one’s going to be in my head and in my heart for a long, long time.

Courtesy Warner Bros

Stuff I Liked: Beautifully shot, written and executed. The various dreams are distinctive and gorgeous. The touches of humor are brilliantly timed and delivered. It’s subtle, cerebral and packed with action.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I am going to miss that kidney I have to sell.
Stuff I Loved: Very strong characters portrayed by skilled, damn good-looking actors. A totally immersive storytelling experience I won’t soon forget. It made me think. It still does.

Bottom Line: You owe it to yourself to see Inception in the cinema. Find where it’s playing and go see it. It might be the best way you’ll spend money on entertainment all year, and it’ll stay with you long after the credits roll. Go. See. This. Film.

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