MIFF Movie Review ~ The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A detective pairs himself with a famous psychologist on a case involving a traumatized young witness to a crime.

Stars: Tobias Zilliacus, Mikael Persbrandt, Lena Olin, Helena af Sandeberg, Anna Azcarate, Jonatan Bökman

Director: Lasse Hallström

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  The novel of The Hypnotist has been sitting on my nightstand for the better part of a year, gathering dust as it continues to be moved down the pile in favor of more pressing reads that I’ve been involved with over time.  I had hoped to work my way through the hefty tome before the rumored US adaptation was released, never realizing that like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, home country Sweden would take a crack at it first.  After seeing director Hallström and screenwriter Paolo Vacirca’s version of Lars Keplar’s blockbuster novel, I’m considering selling it instead.

If the novel is anything like this highly contrived and bloated film then I don’t need to read one page of it because making it through the film was frustrating enough.  What a huge disappointment this one was, a major let-down considering Hallström’s pedigree (to be fair, this is the man that has recently directed the treacly Dear John and Safe Haven…but also churned out the delightful Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).  Hallström’s first Swedish language film in 25 years is also one of his more lugubrious sloughs as the audience is drawn into family drama, red herrings, and enough loop holes to sink a small island.

The set-up of the film isn’t half bad – a killer has struck a family in a Stockholm suburb, leaving all dead but a boy and an estranged sister.  With the boy fighting for his life in a coma, a disgraced doctor (Persbrandt) is called in to see what memories he can extract from the boys psyche.  When the killer targets the hypnotist and his family (including Hallström’s wife Olin), the family must work with a dedicated cop (Zilliacus) to identify the danger.

Even writing that description was better than the execution provided by Hallström and company.  I’m dedicated to leaving things spoiler free for my readers but I’d be interested in conversing with anyone that does see this to go over some phenomenally hare-brained plot developments that baffled me during the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  So many things seemed to be presented solely for the benefit of getting our characters where the film needed to be, reality checks be damned.  I didn’t buy some lapses in memory for a moment, seeing right through their mechanical nature.   Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen enough thrillers in my life to populate a small library but I picked out who ‘dun it almost immediately.

What’s worse is that the actors don’t seem to have any clue what’s going on either.  Conveniently cast as an artist, Olin is nearly swallowed by her mass of hair and tightly pulled face.  I’m a big fan of Olin but she looks disheveled for most of the film and I’m pretty sure every line of dialogue she has was a question rather than a statement.  Worse still is Persbrandt as the titular character, played without any emotion and barely moving his mouth when he does speak.  He looks like Frankenstein and I half expected him to start drooling from his slack-jawed, droopy performance.  Zilliacus has the most interesting character and gets some good mileage out of him, but the film fails him in developing his character beyond the surface information we get on him.

Hallström does deliver a decent final act that equates to about five minutes in a film that wheezes in at around two hours.  The days following my viewing of the film have only widened the problems I have with the movie, it’s a gloomy gus affair that doesn’t have any fire or crackle to it.  If a US version is to be made (and it probably will), I’m hoping that these plot holes are fixed so I can hypnotize myself to forget the Swedish original.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Shabana Azmi

Director: Mira Nair

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Every now and then a smaller movie rolls around that you feel like you should get a gold star for choosing to see over a more mainstream feature.  There’s a certain sense of back-patting that goes on for plunking down your cash to see something more intelligent and timely than the latest 3D action adventure film playing on nineteen screens.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one such movie, a film that feels very prescient in our world that is still reeling in a post 9/11 culture…but it’s also a movie that you exit feeling you should get at least two gold stars for sitting through.

Now let me say that I had high hopes for this one going in, though I’m weary of these types of international relations dramas I’m a fan of director Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) and of many of the people involved with bringing this adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel to the screen.  The end result of this collaboration, however, is a densely worded rehash of a plot that feels overly familiar and a little late to the party.

Not that Nair hasn’t delivered a decently oiled product for audience consumption because much of the film is rich with her trademark stylistic use of color and controlled narrative.  Told in flashback between 2001 and 2011, the movie lives and dies with its lead performance and star Ahmed ably handles the role of a conflicted man torn between his ideal life in the US and possibly more important obligations at home.  Ahmed is onscreen for nearly every frame and he fills up the space nicely.

As he moves from college campus to the offices of a Wall Street corporation, he develops a relationship with a troubled photographer and that’s where the film takes the first of its missteps.  I generally like Hudson and though she has a dynamite scene late in the film, for most of her short time on screen she seems lost in the role and abandoned by her director.  I don’t think Hudson is necessarily wrong in the role but she looks so washed out and idle that it’s hard to pinpoint what our lead character sees in her.

Schreiber’s character feels constructed to give Ahmed’s fundamentalist an outlet to spill his life story to and though we gradually see that there’s some complexity to the person Schreiber is portraying, the film never makes a case for why the two dialogue for so long with increasing unrest/danger outside their door.  The best performance in the whole film is Sutherland as Ahmed’s superior, a bulldog of a businessman so tightly wound you can practically hear the gears grinding against each other when he walks.  It’s through Sutherland’s scenes that the film has the biggest impact but sadly he’s not on screen as much as the audience wants him to be.

This is a talky film that requires a lot of your attention – and maybe it asked more of me than I was willing to give in the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  It’s not a film I’d choose to see again and not one I could recommend to anyone that doesn’t have more than a passing interest in political films of this nature.  It could use a slick trim of excess scenes (mostly Hudson’s) and a more focused approach to some final act business that feels unresolved.  Reluctantly, I say this was a disappointment.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Mud

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Owing a lot to similar coming-of-age tales like Stand By Me, The War, and even Whistle Down the Wind, Mud is director Nichols third film and follow-up to his critically hailed feature of 2011, Take Shelter.  What Nichols has crafted for his latest movie is an involving tale that mixes a few genres into its pot, puts the top on, and then waits for it to boil over.  While it simmers for a while and eventually ends up a satisfying if not quite hearty meal, Mud was a strong showing in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

McConaughey has really been on a roll in the last few years.  After making a strong starring debut with A Time to Kill in 1996, he eventually sidelined into lighter fare that may have made money at the box office but didn’t season his acting chops any.  Then he started becoming involved with more independent features and that’s where he’s struck gold again.  Last year he made memorable appearances in Magic Mike (really the only good thing about the movie), Bernie, and Killer Joe.  Now he’s back in the leading man chair for Mud, playing the titular character…a man on the run that has a way with words.

Two boys find Mud living in a boat placed in a tree by flooding in the bayou and soon become involved with his plan to sweep the girl he loves (Witherspoon in a nicely muted small supporting role) off her feet and away to the gulf waters to avoid the law.  Mud paints a nicely romantic tale of forbidden love to the two boys but as the film develops we learn that everything isn’t as it seems and that some truths haven’t been acknowledged.

The film is told through the eyes of Ellis (Sheridan, in a well-layered performance) who seems to be on the same trajectory as Mud when it comes to falling for the wrong girl.  Barely a teen, he has eyes for an older woman and the pain of first love is handled by Sheridan and Nichols with care.  Paulson and McKinnon are nicely cast as Ellis’ parents, small-town folk adjusting to the reality of moving from their river home.

As you can see, there’s a lot of storyline to juggle and Nichols keeps everything flying for much of the film, only letting things dip when it feels natural.  Nichols once again is working with his Take Shelter star Shannon (Man of Steel) and resists casting him in several roles he may have been right for in favor of wisely utilizing him as the uncle to a friend of Ellis.

Mud is another nice departure for McConaughey – grubbed up with chipped teeth and greasy, tousled hair…he’s a fascinating character study that McConaughey seems to gobble up with aplomb.  As Mud starts to see the forest for the trees, we see the character at a crossroads rather than the actor making choices.  Nichols has given him a nice framework that McConaughey thrives in.

What I appreciated most about the film is the way that Nichols lets things happen in a naturalistic fashion.  It’s peppered with several edge of your seat moments…and not always for the reasons you’d expect.  If in the end the film sacrifices some of its earlier unexpected moments for a finale that feels too pat, it can be forgiven for the earlier noble attempts at something different.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Kon-Tiki

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s epic 4,300 miles crossing of the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947, in an effort prove it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

Stars: Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jakob Oftebro, Odd Magnus Williamson, Tobias Santelmann, Agnes Kittelsen

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, think of Kon-Tiki as the other Oscar nominated film (after Life of Pi) set on a raft adrift in the ocean.  Kon-Tiki was one of the only films I wasn’t able to see before the Oscar ceremony this year so I was happy to get a chance to catch this historical adventure/drama at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  Hailing from Norway and telling the true-life tale of explorer Thor Heyerdal, it’s easy to see why this film rose to the top of the crop in yearend award nominees – it’s a handsomely made film with beautiful images, solid special effects, and a team of winning performances.

I wasn’t familiar with Heyerdal before I saw the film and only caught a small piece on him on one of those Sunday morning news programs.  Wanting to prove that it was South Americans that settled Polynesia, he assembled a crew (some experienced, some not) to construct a similar vessel that would have been used in the time period to make the treacherous journey across the Pacific Ocean to show that it was possible.  Laughed out the door by National Geographic, Heyerdal pulled up his bootstraps and flew by the seat of his pants to get the funding necessary for the 100+ day in 1947.

Directors Rønning and Sandberg keep things moving from the start as we meet Heyerdal and his wife Liv (Kittelsen, who looks like she stepped out the 1940’s) as they start out in Polynesia.  Over the next few years, the trip will become an obsession to Heyerdal and though it’s never expressed stated here, the movie hints that this took a toll on his marriage.  Soon Heyerdal has a crew of comrades building the raft and setting sail on this historically famous journey.

As you may guess, the sea is a harsh lady to these men and they battle all sorts of problems…though surprisingly none that give the audience the feeling that any real danger will come to them. Not even knowing the eventual outcome, I wasn’t ever truly concerned at the various challenges that come up on the open waters.

Considering Heyerdal couldn’t swim, you have to appreciate the moxie it took to undertake proving his theory and Hagen is ideally cast in this role. With a megawatt smile and rugged good looks, he cuts a great image as the determined theorist showing a tough exterior that may hide some internal self-doubt.  Equally good are the rest of the men on the raft, all stars in their own right in Norwegian films.

The cinematography by Geir Hartly Andreassen is epic in scope and very engrossing even without being shown on a mega size screen (oh, how well this would play at the OmniTheater or IMAX!) and the special effects from the team at Gimpville successfully render various sea creatures like sharks and whales with striking believability (hope Hollywood keeps them on speed dial if another Jaws sequel should come to fruition).  I was drawn in by Johan Söderqvist’s subdued orchestrations that spike at just the right times.

It may be a slight spoiler to reveal that Heyerdal survived the journey to win an Oscar of his own in 1950 for the documentary he crafted from footage filmed during the trip but that should give you another resource to visit if you, like me, are as taken with this winning historical adventure like I was.  It’s perhaps a bit too easy of a film to heap with a lot of praise, but it’s so well made and delivered that it makes for very worthwhile viewing.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A painter struggling for inspiration finds an unexpected muse after he accepts a teaching position in a small town and becomes the caregiver to Eddie, a seemingly docile art student with a rare sleepwalking condition.

Stars: Thure Lindhardt, Dylan Smith, Georgina Reilly, Alain Goulem, Stephen McHattie, Paul Braunstein

Director: Boris Rodriguez

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  On the way out of the screening of Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival I overheard a member of a motley crew of teens say “What did we just see?”  Now I’m certain this group was enticed into the late night screening by the wacky title and probably thought they were lining up for a more mainstream horror film experience, but I find myself echoing the sentiment as it applies to this strange mix of horror and comedy.

What we have here is essentially another retelling of the plot from Little Shop of Horrors but transplanted from the gutters of Skid Row to the icy barrenness of a small Canadian town.  Not long after arriving to teach art, artistically blocked painter Lars (the nicely offbeat Lindhardt) finds himself watching over mute man-child Eddie (Smith, excellent) who has some problems adjusting to his new living situation.  The more stressed Eddie is, the more he tends to sleepwalk…and munch of some of the local wildlife.

At first terrified, Lars eventually becomes more and more inspired in his art using the blood and guts from Eddie’s kills to get his creative juices flowing.  He begins to sell more paintings, providing money for the local art school and attracting the attention of a pretty young colleague (Reilly).  What happens, though,  when Eddie gets more comfortable living with Lars and stops sleepwalking/eating…and what will become of some pesky neighbors and their yapping dog?

Director/screenwriter Rodriguez has packed his black comedy with a nice amount of small-town yuks and enough blood to satiate those hungry for some gore but not ready for Evil Dead-style violence.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some very graphic scenes here but it’s all so highly tongue and cheek that many laughs don’t land exactly where they should.

For a 90 minute journey into the tricky waters of bizarre horror comedy, Eddie mostly fits the bill as it lumbers along like the title character.  Lindhardt and Smith are very game leads with Smith taking every advantage of his dialogue-free role to convey much without saying anything.  If you have a taste and tolerance for this type of material, Eddie will be a nice film to absorb into your stable of films but all others should make sure they know what they’re getting into.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Door

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The Facts:

Synopsis: This is a story of a special relationship between two women, a writer and her maid.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck, Károly Eperjes

Director: István Szabó

Rated: NR

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  In looking over the credits for the Hungarian-produced film The Door I was interested to note that director István Szabó is also credited as the screenwriter, adapting the work of the late Magda Szabó for the screen.  Thinking I was putting two and two together, I assumed that there was a familial relation between the two that would account for the journey from page to screen.  So it was surprising to discover upon further research that director and author shared no blood ties, only a promise from István to Magda (one of Hungary’s foremost novelists) that he’d bring her tale of the relationship between a young wife and her brusque maid to the silver screen.

Director Szabó seems to have brought some of the problems with the material to the screen with him though, in a film that seems disjointed in structure and uneven in performance.  It’s a curious little piece of work, especially considering the involvement of Oscar winner Mirren (Hitchock) who, while adding a considerable amount of gravitas to her role, winds up sticking out like a gilded thumb in some otherwise shaky performances.

Mirren is Emerenc, a maid by trade living in a small Hungarian town shortly after WWII that begrudgingly goes to work for sweetly plain Magda (Gedeck, so good in Mostly Martha) and her husband.  Emerenc is the type that asks for references rather than giving them when she’s asked by Magda to help around her large house.  Sour faced and gruff, Emerenc does things her own way and expects everyone to get out of her way while harboring a secret that may be tied to wartime misdeeds no one is willing to talk about.

Szabó won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film for 1981’s Mephisto and has racked up an admirable body of work over the years.  The Door is his first feature in six years and while it isn’t a homerun, it’s probably more along the lines of a double play.  Maybe it was just the print I saw at the Minneapolis/St.Paul International Film Festival but the movie has a very rough look to it, with golden hues paired alongside flat colors that do no favors for the complexions of anyone.  Mirren is scrubbed clean, dressed down, and still outshines Gedeck who seems stymied by her character’s passiveness.  The few times Magda does stand her ground with Emerenc, there’s a fire between the actresses that makes the screen come alive – but these moments are few and far between with two many of the same set-ups running in circles.

That being said, there was something intriguing about the film that helped carry it through its 97 minutes with ease.  Though I found some of the developments frustrating and never warmed to any of the characters onscreen, it’s never a bad day when Mirren is allowed to go for broke with a character…even at the cost of overshadowing her costars.

The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World

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Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.