Monthly Archives: December 2011

Tuesday, After Christmas (2011)

Who knew that Romania, of all places, was the wellspring of tremendous artistic talent? Over the last five years or so, Romania has been home to a burgeoning renaissance of daring, provocative, and naturalistic films, its own New Wave of Eastern-bloc cinema. Some of these gems include The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, the understated, cerebral Police, Adjective, and the award-winning, grueling abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, winner of the prestigious 2007 Cannes Palme d’Or. Director/co-writer Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas is a worthy entry into the ever-growing canon of stupendous Romanian cinema. It and many other of these Romanian renaissance pictures are available via Netflix streaming, so if you’re unfamiliar with these great movies, now is as good a time as any to play catch-up.

Paul (Mimi Branescu) is a middle-aged man coming to a crossroads at his life. He loves two women: Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), his wife of ten years who they share a young daughter, Mara; and Raluca (Maria Popistasu), a dentist in her late 20s. His mistress has accepted her role but wouldn’t mind reaching out to Paul’s daughter. Paul is unhappy with his wife but is he unhappy enough to come clean about his infidelity? Over the course of a few days around Christmas, Paul will decide which woman he will stay with.

This movie is something of a small miracle in how naturalistic it plays. The dialogue is splendid, reverberating with the rhythms of real speech but also giving weight to the characters, fleshing out personalities, relationships, and penetrating subtext. I was luxuriating in the dialogue and its nuances. To some people Tuesday, After Christmas will be a boring movie, but for me I was on the edge of my seat thanks to the dialogue and characterization. If ever Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) were to make a Romanian film, it would be this. Like Linklater’s Before Sunset, watching these actors speak such truthful, personable, revealing dialogue is like listening to birds sing. It’s such a pleasure for the ears. Take the first scene, a sexy, nearly six-minute unbroken shot of a couple in bed. Over the course of those six minutes Muntean (Summer Holiday) and his actors peel away the layers, revealing more and more of these characters and their situation. We can tell from their playful, affectionate, and relaxed manner that they are lovers. Also the fact that they are naked seems rather telling. Then we learn who they are naturally. He pretends to take offense at her admission of other lovers’ penis sizes, and pretends to bite her nipple, which makes her examine his teeth and chide him that smoking harms his teeth. Right there we learn about her sexual past, his mixed feelings about it, their teasing relationship, and her profession. And then, of course, we learn that the man is married and this is the “other woman.” That six-minute scene is near perfection. It sets up the characters, the conflict, and not a single point felt false or contrived. The rest of the movie follows suit, from the mundane moments of married life (the manner of rubbing a spouse’s feet) to the quiet storm of indecision.

There isn’t a wasted line of dialogue or a camera shot in this entire movie. Part of that is because Muntean deals in extremely long takes. There isn’t one camera shot that lasts under a minute; most of the camera shots last for several minutes, some approaching double digits. In other hands, the glacial pace of the camerawork would make the movie feel trapped and stagnate, as I felt watching the clinically dull movie, Shame. Instead, this movie is captivating because of the draw of the characters and the inherent drama/irony presented with the romantic triangle. A dental appointment for Mara becomes an uneasy, squirmy situation of great ironic tension, watching Paul shift uncomfortably and trying to mentally figure out what direction to take as his mistress speaks to his wife. Tuesday, After Christmas feels more like a stage play than anything cinematic, unless you’re counting John Cassavetes or the French New Wave (and why shouldn’t you?). The scene where Paul mulls over whether to tell his wife is more suspenseful than most Hollywood movies. The devastation that follows is heartbreaking but completely absorbing. This tiny Romanian film is so astutely well observed when it comes to human foibles and interaction that the film almost feels like a documentary. The patient, deliberately elongated takes further crystallize this sensation, making us feel like we are inappropriately eavesdropping on some very serious personal drama.

The acting is equally remarkable. For this movie to really work the three actors must step up their game, and all three came to play. First off, Branescue (Outbound) has to do his best to engender empathy because our introduction to the guy is during a romp with his mistress. But in those early moments we see how kind, lively, and peaceful he can be. Maybe this arrangement is good for him, we question. Then we see his interaction with his wife, and they are less lively, as the day-to-day grind of marriage can take its toll, but their interaction is warm, personable, and even through the mundane activity of Christmas shopping, we can piece together their relationship, which doesn’t seem troubled but resting in that comfortable position long-term relationships can plateau. Branescue never comes across as a scheming cad to vilify or a romantic victim. Instead his performance makes him spookily identifiable – this could be anyone. This could be you, assuming “you” are male and possibly living in Romania. The everyday nature of the character and his conflict, and Branescue’s nuanced performance, makes the guy empathetic even when his world is crashing around him and it’s his fault.

The women of Tuesday, After Christmas are also unforgettable. Popistasu (Midnight Man), as the mistress, is mesmerizing, a beautiful woman reminiscent of a Romanian Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), able to communicate so much with her body language. That first scene with her nude in bed establishes her as a charming, intelligent, rationale ingénue, neither calculating nor flighty. She feels like a real woman, and her relationship with Paul seems to bring out her spark, judging from that sparkling opening sequence. Likewise, Oprisor (Youth without Youth), as the wife, is equally compelling a figure, a woman settled into her marriage and her job and being a mother. Her reaction to Paul’s admission of infidelity is the movie’s dramatic highpoint, and we witness the actress seemingly go through every stage of grief in a manner of minuets, from anger and betrayal to thinking out the next course of action.

I know “Romanian relationship drama” probably doesn’t sound like a rollicking night out at the movies, but Tuesday, After Christmas is such an expertly crafted film, carefully observed, impressively acted, gloriously naturalistic in dialogue and direction, and even humorous. Yes, for a movie about infidelity and the possible explosion of a marriage, there is plenty of humor to be found naturally. You may feel stirring of romantic intimacy with Paul and Raluca, so much so that you too share in Paul’s guilt. You’ll feel the disquiet during that meeting of mistress and wife. You’ll feel the ache when Adriana really lays into Paul, a deserved and withering attack. You’ll understand where every person is coming from. But mostly you’ll feel like you’ve watched a really good movie. Tuesday, After Christmas is richly attuned to the subtleties of human joys, conflict, and reactions, and a movie that will linger with the ring of truth. Don’t be a stranger to Romanian cinema. Start here and work your way back. The rewards are worth it.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Senna (2011)

I have never been a fan of racing of any sorts, be it horse or NASCAR or Formula One, the subject of the biographical documentary, Senna. So naturally I never felt like I’d been interested in a documentary about Ayrto Senna, the brilliant Brazilian driver who was the head of the pack. I was wrong. Even non-fans like myself can get enjoy Senna, a lean doc that doesn’t waste a second. In fact, never do talking heads, interviews, or reenactments enter the frame. The movie is completely made up of archival footage, some of it astonishing like Senna’s dashboard recordings that immerse you into his world of speed. The vintage race footage is thrilling. The film ably portrays the driver’s life, his passion, his controversies with league officials who disliked the young man’s style, his competition with rivals, and his impact on the sport. Here’s an instance where being completely ignorant of the subject and its sport will come in handy, since you don’t know what befalls Senna, though most will be able to pick up the ominous tones and markings of tragedy. This is a doc that just flies by with skill, precision, and enthusiasm, much like its charismatic and confounding subject.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Warrior (2011)

This may be a mixed martial arts (MMA) movie in appearance, but really Warrior is put together like a traditional boxing movie. Director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) takes a kitchen-sink approach to storytelling; just about every damn dramatic thing you can think of, short of emergency baby deliveries, is stuffed into this movie. You’ve got two brothers, one a hard luck school teacher (Joel Edgerton) trying to save the bank from taking his home (his family is broke due to his sick daughter’s medical condition), and the other (Tom Hardy) an Iraq War vet who saved lives and wants no glory, for he’s haunted by the men in his platoon who did not survive. Add a drunken father (Nick Nolte) trying to live life on the straight-and-narrow who wants to get back in his sons’ good graces, the teacher’s community rallying around him, the Marine’s comrades in service rallying around him, and some major personal issues between brothers (Hardy feels that his bro abandoned him and their sick mother), and two competing underdog tales, and my God, it’s hard not to feel beaten into submission. But damn if it isn’t effective stuff. I was tearing up at multiple points, completely sucked into the drama, riveted by the brutal, adrenaline-pumping MMA fight scenes, and pining for family reconciliation. Hardy and Edgerton flex more than their muscles on screen; each gives terse, heartbreaking, completely convincing performances as broken-down men struggling for redemption. You don’t have to no a lick about MMA to get hooked by the heavy emotional beats of the movie. Warrior is by no means a subtle movie, but it pushes all the sports genre buttons expertly, presenting a gratifying, affecting meat-and-potatoes drama that grown men are given permission to get weepy over.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Passion Play (2011)

You would think that a movie where a jazz musician (Mickey Rourke) gets in trouble with a mobster (played by Bill Murray!) and while on the lam he discovers a girl (Megan Fox) with angel wings working in a circus sideshow would be interesting. How could you go wrong with all those interesting elements? Mobsters, circus freaks, angels, Mickey Rourke! Well Passion Play found a way, a triumph of failure. This would-be parable just sleepwalks from scene to scene, rarely making much of its fantastical sci-fi elements. Fox swears she’s no angel, just a girl born with bird wings, and people let this be a conversation ender. Rourke’s character is a pathetic coward who nets little empathy. Not reverent or weird enough, Passion Play was the passion project of writer/director Mitch Glazer but the movie feels devoid of anything approaching passion. The actors seem bored, the romance between Fox and Rourke is a non-starter, and the lame ending borrows a page from An Occurrence at Owl Creek as a last-ditch attempt to interject some meaning into this unholy mess. The only reason I can foresee (sober) people watching this is for the mistaken belief that they might glance upon some heavenly nudity from Fox. Sorry boys, the gal keeps her purity. The entire production is just so wrong-headed and listless; I can’t even work up a good dose of bile to proclaim its utter inanities. This is a terrible, silly, puzzling, dopey movie made even worse by its pseudo-intellectual twist ending.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Artist (2011)

Ever since it charmed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, The Artist has been one hot commodity. The Weinstein Company snapped up the film rights though they have a bit of a hard sell. The movie takes place in the era of silent movies and it also happens to be a silent movie itself. Ignoring Mel Brooks’ unsung efforts, asking paying customers to sit through 100 minutes of silence, albeit accompanied by a musical score, may be a risky financial bet. That’s where the appeal of being an award-winner comes into play. The Artist has been racking up awards since Cannes and has been tagged by many as the favorite to take home a Best Picture Oscar. This celebration of the Hollywood of old is a nostalgic trip through the ages, but I’m doubtful that the film is deserving of the gushing admiration. I think this would have been better had it been one of them new-fangled talkies.

In 1927, the biggest star in Hollywood is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). His latest spy caper is knocking them dead. He’s prancing before a sea of photographers when he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). He graciously brings her into the act and the two pose for pictures. “Who’s the new girl?” demands the newspaper headlines. Peppy is given her big break as George’s co-star in his spy series. Peppy is a natural and over the course of two years she becomes a bona fide star. Also over those two years Hollywood has undergone a drastic makeover. New “talkies” are all the rage with the public, who now demand to hear their favorite actors speak. George is adamant that talking pictures are only a fad and he plunks his personal fortune to bankroll his directorial debut. The movie is a flop. George is viewed as a has-been; yet Peppy has been keeping a watchful eye on her old friend and waiting for the time to reveal her love for the fallen star.

The Artist is a completely silent movie except for two key sequences; one of them a nightmare where George hears objects make noise. The film is an unabashed love letter to old Hollywood, and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius makes witty use of the storytelling techniques of the silent era. Much relies on editing and reactions for shaping the narrative. The story, therefore, is broken down to its simplest incarnation. Peppy Miller’s star rises, as George’s grows fainter. Still, The Artist has many recognizable pieces for fans of the silent era. George even has a trusted Jack Russell Terrier at his side, a clever pooch with keen mimicking abilities. There’s a cute moment where Peppy slips her arm into George’s coat hanging on a coat rack and pretends to caress her self as him. It’s a small yet slyly tender moment. It’s not a prerequisite to be well versed on silent cinema, though it helps. While a French film (a foreign designation seems superfluous when it’s silent), the movie was shot in Los Angeles and is stocked with English stars like John Goodman (TV’s Treme) as a film director, James Cromwell (Babe) as George’s dutiful butler, Penelope Ann Miller (Flipped) as George’s unhappy wife, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as a silent film co-star, Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) as a maid, Ken Davitian (Borat) as a pawnbroker, and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween II) as a dismissive old man in a chair (the role he was bon to play). It almost becomes a side game of cameos.

It’s a sprightly, charming, sometimes enchanting little experiment, but in the end an experiment is all the movie turns out to be. The Artist is no great story; in fact it’s pretty much the 80th rendition of A Star is Born. The transition between silent films and talkies is a subject rife with drama, and a lead character who sees his fame and fortune crumble by being left behind in a changing society, well that should be interesting. What’s surprising to me the most about this film is how little you invest with it. I don’t know if it’s the silent gimmick or just the idle characterization, but I found myself never really engaging with the movie, always a step removed. The characters were nice but I neither celebrated their triumphs nor bemoaned their hardships. The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here. Praise Hazanavicius for his dedication to silent filmmaking techniques, but let’s be reasonable here because The Artist is a pleasant experiment but nothing more. The characters and story do not bear scrutiny. This story would have been more interesting had the movie been a traditional talky. Alas, we are limited to a handful of title cards with single lines of dialogue and extreme amounts of pantomiming. If you took away the central gimmick, would anyone be interested in this movie? I wanted to be swept away by The Artist after reading all the fawning accolades, but I wasn’t. The commitment of the artists on screen is commendable but the finished product is little more than an amusing trifle of a movie.

Dujardin (OSS: Lost in Rio) and Bejo (Modern Love) look like they stepped off the screen from an old Hollywood movie, al la Purple Rose of Cairo. Dujardin is a suave presence with great comedic physicality at his disposal. There’s a poignant moment where George, broken down and washed up, looks into a tuxedo store window, seeing his reflection appear above the neck of the tuxedo. He gingerly smiles, wistful of times gone by, and in that sad, face crinkling little moment, Dujardin reveals more about the man behind the flashbulbs than the script ever will. Even without a word spoken, you can tell that Dujardin and Bejo have great chemistry. Bejo, the wife of the director by the way, matches Dujardin note for note in terms of star wattage. She’s got a terrific smile and one of those classic faces for an Age When They Had Faces. It’s a shame that the characters don’t have more interaction.

The Artist is a fine film but ultimately disappointing given the hype. The saddest part about my reaction to The Artist is how little I find myself having to say about this much-ballyhooed silent film. It’s an exercise in nostalgic back-patting, but if you strip away the silent movie gimmick I feel like there’s so little at heart here. I walked away liking the movie, being charmed by the actors but feeling unengaged and mildly indifferent. The threadbare story is too familiar, the characterization is slight, and the movie ultimately becomes light, airy, and insubstantial. The novelty eventually does wear off and you may find yourself adding a mental commentary to the film to fill in the blanks. You’d have to be a Scrooge to resist the film’s whimsy and the talents of the charismatic performers, but I’m scratching my head at the adulation give to The Artist. In a year heavy with reminiscence, The Artist overdoses on feel-good Hollywood nostalgia, and in a down year at the movies, perhaps that’s enough when it comes time for awards.

Nate’s Grade: B

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Zookeeper (2011)

A lamebrain comedy with a horrible, repulsive romance where we watch a sweet, hapless zookeeper (Kevin James) romance a shallow woman (Leslie Bibb) who dumped him years ago and wants him to change, despite the fact that he’s great at his job, loves what he does, an the animals love the big lug as well, so much so that the animals all take turns giving the guy mating advice. That doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a comedy, though James takes the admission that animals could always talk a little too in stride. Their advice typically amounts to stuff like “puff out your chest” and “pee on this tree.” The potential of the premise is dashed when the comedy usually takes one of two routes: 1) James being clumsy, or, 2) James being fat. Rarely will The Zookeeper stray from these two troughs of canned laughs. There’s a bizarre montage of product placement for T.G.I. Friday’s where James takes a gorilla out to the restaurant. There’s Rosario Dawson looking splendid as the Obvious Love Interest Who Will Not Materialize Until James Has to Chase Her Down to Stop Her From Leaving. And there are poop jokes. Oh, the poop jokes. At one point there was a studio bidding war over this screenplay, which has five names attached to the finished product. I can’t imagine the end result was worth fighting over when it’s so predictable, flat-footed, and unfunny. And why have animals singing over the end credits? Surely that little dash of CGI was an extra few million dollars that could have been spent wiser, like purchasing a different script.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Nothing says holiday treat for the whole family like a nearly three-hour movie about rape. Late author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling trilogy made three very successful Swedish films, all released last year in indie theaters. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood optioned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, benefiting those averse to reading subtitles. At least they hired the right director in David Fincher, a man used to plumbing the depths of human depravity in films like Seven, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Fincher’s take is pretty dark and hardcore, but once you wash all that perfectionist grime off, I prefer the Swedish film in just about every way.

Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is smarting from a court case that found him guilty of libel. He’s commissioned by a wealthy businessman Henrik Vagner (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his granddaughter, Harriet. Henrik strongly believes she was murdered by one of the sinister members of his extended family, a group of shady characters with some allegiance to Nazism. Mikael is assisted by the unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a rail-thin Gothic gal clad in tattoos and piercings. Their partnership sometimes gets blurry as they grow closer over the course of the investigation. Together the pair investigates a series of grisly, ritualistic murders related to Harriet’s disappearance, and the closer they get to discover the truth the more dangerous things get.

So the burning question: is Fincher’s take better than the original Swedish version? Well, in some areas yes but in many areas I’d have to say no, that I prefer the lower budget, no-name Swedish version. Obviously a director of Fincher’s caliber is going to significantly raise the quality of a production, and the technical merits of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo are without question. This is a seedy, grimy, prurient, and very dark (in both lighting and thematic material) little movie. There’s always been an eerie beauty to Fincher’s cool aesthetics, and it’s on display here as well. Many of Fincher’s Social Network crew carried right over to Dragon Tattoo, so the editing is crisp, the cinematography sleek, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is a storm of ominous tones. Their plaintive score is actually a fairly unmemorable muddle, never approaching the energy, intricacy, or diversity of their Oscar-winning score for The Social Network. However, the extra polish and the glut of familiar actors takes away from the intrigue of the movie. When something meant to be gritty is too artistically stunning, it detracts from the thematic intent of the story. That sounds like a contrary way to insult Fincher for making his movie look too good, but perhaps that’s the best way of stating the point. Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere near the filmmaker that Fincher is, nor did he have the budget or creative freedom afforded Fincher, but perhaps someone of lesser talents was better suited to best tell this tale. By all means, the American Dragon Tattoo is a more visually alluring film, but Oplev’s film is more fully felt. I recently rewatched the Swedish version again for points of comparison and found myself much more involved in the characters, the story, and the actors, even though I had already seen the movie. Fincher’s version may be the better-looking movie, but surprisingly Oplev’s is just the better movie, period.

The adaptation by Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List) actually hews closer to Larsson’s book than the Swedish film, though Zallian redirects the film into a new ending. But the additions don’t seem to add anything of substance to the narrative (Blomkvist’s teenage daughter; dead cat), and the new ending feels more confused than helpful. Most of all, Zallian’s script devotes less time to the characters of Lisbeth and Blomkvist. I had a better understanding of these characters and their complicated, shifting relationship in the Swedish film. That narrative was much cleaner with helpful, clarifying procedural details and a dose of ambiguity. Simply put, the story just flowed better in the Swedish film. The personal connection Blomkvist had to Harriet (she was his babysitter long ago) has also been severed. Many of the story’s problems are still the same regardless of language or adapter. There is a clear disparity when it comes to audience interest in the two leads. What’s more interesting, a punky, bisexual, computer hacker or a disgraced, somewhat bland journalist? Exactly. Also, the story takes far too long to put our lead characters together, over an hour at that. The murder mystery is filled with murky plot points, pieces that seem like they might be integral but then turn out to be incidental. It takes a good while to process and familiarize oneself with the expository details of the case, but under Zallian’s draft, the mystery is given less room to breath. For a movie clocking in at 150 minutes, things feel untidy and rushed. The resolution feels drawn out to ungodly Lord of the Rings-lengths; I swear there must be a solid 20 minutes after the eventual serial killer is dealt with. It just feels like it goes on forever. Still, the characters are what ultimately makes Dragon Tattoo engaging, and Zallian’s efforts cannot dampen the captivating, curious nature of Lisbeth Salander.

Both Craig and Mara give fine performances but I prefer both Swedish actors to the A-listers. Craig is certainly a better actor than his Swedish counterpart, but the role is a middle-aged journalist and not James Bond, and thus a better fit for the unknown Swedish actor, Michael Nyqvist (Mission: impossible: Ghosts Protocol). Blomkvist isn’t supposed to be an ass-kicker. As a result, you don’t feel his terror as he gets in deeper and lands in serious physical jeopardy. Likewise, following in Noomi Rapace’s  (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) shoes was going to be a difficult feat for any actress, but Fincher got the girl he wanted, Mara, who tore down Mark Zuckerberg with precision in The Social Network. Mara commits herself completely to the role and undergoes a severe physical transformation (bleached eyebrows, wiry frame, nipple piercings), but she lacks the intensity of Rapace, the spiteful attitude, the recklessness and the resourcefulness. Rapace felt like a caged animal that could explode at any moment; Mara feels more like a lost puppy. I’m being intentionally cavalier with my word choice. Mara is quite good as Lisbeth; it’s just that Mara can’t quite measure up to the preceding tattooed girl. It feels like there’s a lot more going on with the Swedish Salander, whereas the American (still Swedish) Salander is waiting for her cue. It’s like Mara has dressed the part and waits for the character to just click over.

I’m not one for lazy analysis, but I feel like the uncomfortable issue of sexual violence/ voyeurism needs to be addressed, and I find that everything I wrote a year ago in my original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review could readily apply to its Hollywood counterpart. So here goes: “The book’s original title was ‘Men Who Hate Women’ and that seems apt given what occurs on screen. Sure there’s a serial murderer on the loose but that’s par for the course. Even the grisly ritualistic killing stuff. But Lisbeth encounters a lot of malice and hostile male aggression, some of it very sickening. There’s a startlingly extended rape sequence, followed by some sadistic, if justifiable, revenge. It all contributes to an overall tone of queasy misogyny that seems to waver between intentional and unintentional. I’m not sure tone-wise whether the movie ever creeps into unsettling voyeurism at the behest of women in explicit sexual peril, but it certainly is a distraction. It can get pretty hard to watch at times in this disturbing thriller. I hope the eventual sequels don’t follow this same queasy, upsetting tone but I also worry that this may be unfortunately part of the books/movies’ appeal.”

For those new to Lisbeth and Larsson’s sordid saga, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will more than likely play well, a squalid thriller with the nicest coat of gloss you could ever hope for given the material. This is dark, rape-heavy stuff, and an odd adult drama to position as a Christmas release, but the collective appeal of the best-selling books should guarantee so many butts in the seats. It’s likely a safe bet that a high majority of those paying customers are unfamiliar with the Swedish version of the same story, which is a shame because, short of a few technical advances, I believe the Swedish film to be the superior movie. It had better acting, more appropriate casting, a rounder narrative that fleshed out the characters, their relationships, and their histories better, and a better score (sorry Trent, better luck next time). It’s still a movie that registers a “good” on most critical accounts, and Lisbeth Salander is still a fascinating person, a wounded warrior that catches the imagination. I’ll be curious to see if the subtitle-free Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does well enough at the box-office to warrant filming the next two decidedly lesser books. Whatever the case, there will always be the Swedish films and Ms. Rapace’s star-making performance.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Delivering pretty much more of the same, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t exactly an improvement over the classic detective’s first foray into out-and-out Hollywood action cinema. The real treat of the budding franchise is the comic interplay between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Their harried banter makes for the best moments. Once again the plot is overwrought, the side characters underdeveloped (poor original dragon tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace, given absolutely nothing to do but run in a gypsy skirt), mysteries that you give up and just wait for Holmes to explain, and a villain that proves to be lackluster. For Moriarty (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) to be the nemesis, the intellectual equal of Holmes I’m going to need to see much more than this. There is a fine sequence at the very end where Holmes mentally envisions the steps of his attack and then Moriarty joins in: “You think you’re the only one who can do that?” They hold an entire duel fought step-by-step in the imagination. I wanted more experiences like this, but director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) falls back on his signature stylized action sequences of fast whooshing and quick spinning. The action is a step up from the first Holmes, and that will be enough for most ticket-buyers. I’ll admit there is a certain meta-literary charm at watching Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature detective fighting his way through an armed body of baddies. Whatever your feelings were for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, I’m fairly certain you’ll revisit them in their entirety with Game of Shadows. I know I did.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Atlas Shrugged: Part One (2011)

Billing itself as part one of an intended trilogy, Atlas Shrugged is an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s famous 1200-page book on the merits of self-interest. Rand has become resurgent in the last few years, a favorite author of the Tea Party, as her anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-union, and anti-poor perspective has found a new legion of fuming followers. I can’t imagine anyone else buying a ticket to the big screen version of Atlas Shrugged, a resoundingly tiresome and didactic enterprise. If this is what Part One brings, I can already predict the extensive yawning exercises I’ll have to do to get in shape for Parts Two and Three.

In the not too distant future, America’s airline industry has ground to a halt due to rising gas prices ($35 a gallon we’re told). The country has gone back to rail and leading that charge is Taggart Railway, lead by Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling). She’s trying to save her company from her lazy brother, James (Matthew Marsden), who wants to rely on bribery and his Washington friends to get by. Dagny wants to join forces with steel tycoon Henry Reardon (Grant Bowler), who has staked his company’s future on special new extra shiny steel. Other companies want to block Dagny and Reardon’s efforts, relying on Washington to write strict laws penalizing the rich and successful and spreading the wealth around to those less unfortunate. At the same time, powerful businessmen seem to be vanishing and the only connection seems to be the identity of John Galt, a mysterious capitalist with an offer no rugged man of industry will refuse.

Maybe Atlas shrugged because he got tired of how unbelievably boring this movie is. Oh my goodness, I was rolling my eyes and checking my watch every five minutes. The vast majority of this film involves ideologues disguised as characters talking about esoteric business practices. A full 80 percent of the dialogue has to be about railways and steel and this manufacturing and ore mines and… I’m sorry I fell asleep in the middle of writing that sentence. Seriously, this movie could be a cure for insomnia. It’s so crushingly boring that it makes you wonder how anyone could ever pick up Rand’s novel and think, “This deserves to be a film.” There are segments where characters will talk this corporate gobblety-gook in unbroken reams, the actors behaving like androids. Now technical talk is not necessarily a one-way ticket to snoozeville, as political and corporate dramas can be quite invigorating in the right hands (see: Margin Call). It helps when you have a story, but with Atlas Shrugged all we have are mouthpieces for a political ideology. Regardless of political opinion, the movie fails because it never makes the story feel like it matters. The dialogue is perfunctory, labored, and inert, bogged down with lazy philosophical jabs. It’s all tedious expository dialogue with no room for character. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie completely around the conflict of whether a train will get its steel tracks? That’s it. You wouldn’t know any of this mattered without the helpful inclusion of an overly enthusiastic dramatic score. Who cares about any of this junk? If you’re looking for the most high-profile movie of 2011 to talk about the infrastructure dynamics of railways, your long wait ends here.

Dagny and Reardon are supposed to be our heroes, the champions of the not-so-little guy, and thus we’re intended to root for their romantic coupling. Never mind that Reardon is married because, in that age-old point of rom/com rationalization, his wife is a bitch. The two have one of the most robotic lovemaking scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, and this flash of sexuality and a few dirty words are the sole reason this film earned a PG-13 rating. These characters remain one-note and vacant, including icy heroine Dagny casually admitting, “I don’t know how to feel.” And then there’s Reardon, who admits, “My only goal is to make money.” What better antagonists than unfeeling heads of huge corporations who just want to be left alone so they can make their untold millions? What a great entry point for the empathy of the audience. None of these characters grow, change, learn, or even seem to reflect recognizable emotions beyond venom-filled anger. The villainous government stooges act shady, plotting the downfall of those laudable titans of industry, but it all just becomes indistinguishable chatter, villains clucking to themselves.

Set in the near future of 2016, this adaptation feels strangely dated, most notably in its ascent of railroads. There’s some ham-handed throwaway line about the cost of gas being so high so America just reverted back to the good old locomotive. I find this deeply implausible. It would have made more sense to actually make this a 1950s period piece, the original setting of Rand’s novel. We’re constantly told about the instability in the world via newscasters and announcers, but we don’t ever see the effects of this world in crisis. Mostly that’s because we’re hobnobbing with the rich in their boardrooms and cocktail parties, but there’s a scene where Dagny exits her limo and walks in a huff down the streets, which are empty of those dirty hordes of bottom-dwellers we’ve been hearing about. Apparently a world in crisis has done little to upset the disadvantaged, or the cities have just been very adamant about cleaning up the riffraff. The world depicted does not seem realistic. Would the country so easily go back to train travel where Dagny’s super train can cross 200 miles in a single hour? What about international freight and travel? I guess that still has to run on all that precious petrol. I’d assume that by 2016 the world will still be an interdependent, globalized economy, so I would think that the United States would face more dramatic tension than the oversight over a railroad company.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to a mostly conservative, mostly Christian fan base, the quality of movies is almost irrelevant. Movies like Left Behind, The Omega Code, Fireproof, or the recent Courageous are not expected to be good movies by traditional standards. They are sermons packaged in the guise of popular entertainment, which means that the artistic particulars come second to the message, and often do. Atlas Shrugged seems to fall into this same category. The production is very low budget, hence all those conversations in offices, and the CGI that is utilized looks pretty chintzy. The acting is profoundly bad, with Schilling (TV’s Mercy) giving a flat, monotone performance throughout, closer resembling a well-dressed mannequin than a human being. And naturally subtlety goes out the window in favor of reconfirming the belief system of the people buying the tickets. I have no issue with movies that adhere to an ideology, whatever that may be, as long as the message doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Atlas Shrugged is not a good story, not even close, and the message can be all too bludgeoning at times, like when Dagny incredulously remarks, “What’s with all these foolish altruistic notions?” The movie seems to be bristling with anger and many a character spits venom at the very idea of government involvement, unions demanding safe working conditions, and regulation in any form, red meat for the Tea Party faithful. Without that red meat, or the film’s strident message, there would be no reason to watch this mess.

And now I’ll shed my objective reviewer cap briefly to get on my own little soapbox and denounce the dangers of Randian politics. To be fair, I’ve never read an Ayn Rand book and honestly have no inclination of ever reading one of this woman’s polemics. I just feel I have better uses of my time than reading a justification for sociopathic greed. Rand’s extreme philosophy has been described as reverse Marxism, wherein the social elite is being sucked dry by the lechers of the world, those who do not contribute to the value of society. And for Rand the only value is money. The world, Rand posits, would be a better place if man would only think of himself. I fundamentally disagree with this notion. Remember that part in the bible where Jesus gives money to the rich and tells the poor to suck it up? Rand’s self-involved philosophy seems like a round of consumerist Calvanism, rehashing a skewed religious perspective that was popular with the upper classes because it provided celestial reasoning why the rich were so rich and the poor were so poor. You see God wanted you to be rich, that is why you were born into a wealthy family, and he wanted all those miserable poor people to suffer. To help out the poor would therefore be blaspheming God’s infinitely unknowable plan. The basic plotline of Atlas Shrugged, though only teased in Part One, is that the rich will get tired of being burdened by societal constraints and up and leave us all. Here’s a good question: if all the billionaires in the world were to vanish, do you think everything would grind to a halt? Would we all be so out of luck without the super wealthy telling us what to buy? It’s like the reverse of 2006’s social satire A Day Without a Mexican, proposing that the American economic engine would be severely stalled if all the undocumented workers were to vanish. Under Rand’s narrow line of thinking, the rich are that way because they are the best and brightest, the innovators. Nowhere in that equation does Rand leave room for the rich being rich due to lies, cheating, nepotism, and rigging the system for the continued benefit of a select few. I’m not meaning to begin a screed here, but I think the 2008 economic meltdown proved what happens when business is left to regulate itself. The economic collapse also proved that just because you’ve got some letters in your title (CEO, CFO, etc.) does not mean you’re the smartest egg. Cronyism and a scoiopathic desire to look out for one’s self-interest above all else is what brought the world on the brink of economic collapse. For me, recent history is a rejection of Rand’s theories, not corroboration. Okay, soapbox put away.

Atlas Shrugged the film seems almost like an unintended ironic statement on Ayn Rand’s belief of the superiority of the individual. That’s because movies are a profoundly collaborative medium, where many hands toil away to create a work of art. It is not the result of one man or woman but the results of hundreds of men and women working together, each knowing their role, playing their part, and working toward something greater than individual self-interest. Huh, how about that? It pretty much doesn’t matter that Atlas Shrugged is a powerfully boring, braying, incoherent, tedious chore that is merely a message disguised as a movie. The intended audiences will more than likely hail the final product, ignoring “details” like the talky exposition-heavy dialogue, horrible acting, laughable special effects, and plodding pacing, and overall poor production. The Rand faithful are not going to this movie to be entertained, they are going to see their beliefs reflected upon the big screen. The overall quality of Atlas Shrugged is an afterthought to them. I just wish it wasn’t an afterthought to the people making the movie.

Nate’s Grade: D

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