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Bright (2017)

Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.

In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.

For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.

However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.

Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.

The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.

Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.

On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.

Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).

Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Child 44 (2015)

imagesUnfairly cast out like some unwanted vermin, Child 44 is a police procedural based on a best-selling novel that the studio simply wanted to get rid of quietly. It was “dumped” into theaters and, as expected, began its disappearing act. That’s a shame, because it’s actually a rather involving mystery and an especially fascinating perspective into a little known world of being a cop on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Tom Hardy plays Leo, a member of the Soviet state police who is tracking a serial murderer preying upon orphaned children across the countryside in 1953. His wife (Noomi Rapace) is terrified of him and secretly a rebel informer. The two of them get banished to a Soviet outpost when Leo refuses to turn her in; he also refuses to accept the state’s conclusion over the dead children. In a weirdly perplexing turn, the Soviet Union believed murder was a Western byproduct. “There is no murder in paradise,” we are told several times, and since the U.S.S.R. is a communist worker’s “paradise,” whatever reality that doesn’t jibe with the party line is swept away. The murder mystery itself is fairly well developed and suspenseful, but it’s really the glimpse into this bleak and paranoid world that I found so intriguing. Child 44 is a slowly paced film thick with the details of establishing the dour existence of Soviet Union life. You truly get a sense of how wearying and beaten down these people’s lives were, how trapped they felt, how justifiable their paranoia was. The husband and wife relationship grows as they’re forced to reevaluate their sense of one another, and it genuinely becomes a meaty dramatic addition. Child 44 is a slow movie but the pacing serves the deliberate and oppressive tone of the film. It’s a film with some problems and missteps (certain antagonists make little sense in their motivations), including some incoherent action/fight scenes (fighting in the mud? Way to visually obscure everybody, guys). However, this is a better movie than the studio, and a majority of critics, would have you believe. It’s engrossing and taut and ambiguous and consistently interesting, with another standout performance by Hardy. Like many of the characters, this movie deserved a better fate.

Nate’s Grade: B

Prometheus (2012)

Ridley Scott has always wanted to go back to the Alien franchise that began with his 1979 sci-fi staple. There have been a lot of coy discussions over whether his big-budget sci-fi spectacle Prometheus is indeed an Alien prequel or not. Scott keeps hinting it has the DNA of the franchise but exists on its own. This movie has some Big Questions on its mind, like where did we come from, but the biggest question out there is whether it really is an Alien prequel or not. Well rest assured, that question will be sufficiently answered. Now if you have more than that, you will be left empty-handed with this gorgeous but ultimately confounding sci-fi thriller.

In 2089, a team of archeologists, lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), discover an ancient star map from 30,000 years in mankind’s past. This is not the only ancient illustration displaying the same constellation. Sure enough, in every ancient civilization across the globe, the same star pattern. Shaw believes it is an invitation and th key to finding the “engineers” who may be responsible for life on Earth. Four years later, the wealthy Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has funded a trip to that exact point in space, which harbors a moon that seems extraordinarily like Earth and capable of sustaining life. The ship is run by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). who keeps asserting her company’s authority on this mission. Along for the ride is a cocksure pilot (Idris Elba), an android named David (Michael Fassbender), and Shaw’s own lover, a scientist in his own right, Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green). When the gang gets to that moon, they uncover large buried structure with some nasty surprises inside. Suffice to say, they should have stayed home.

You can always count on Scott to deliver a visually extravagant picture, and Prometheus is packed with stunning, arresting visuals that fill up the big screen with lovely detail. The scale of some of these sets is massive, and your eyes just want to soak up every detail. The alien world is vast and eerie and you just want the characters to spend the rest of their lives exploring it (Scott shot in Iceland but it looks remarkably like a whole different world). The interior sets on the space ship are also sleek and cool. There’s a terrific sense of immersion in the movie. Scott has always done a great job at building worlds that feel completely lived-in, and Prometheus is another example of his talents. The special effects are astonishing but best when not dealing with the biological life forms. The giant spaceship is incredible; its inhabitants? Not so much. Apparently our DNA grandfathers looked like giant Michelin men (thankfully we take more after our mother’s side). Prometheus demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Prometheus harkens back to the original Alien in its suspenseful “haunted house in space” setup. The movie has some terrifically taut moments and a great overwhelming sense of dread. The scientists let curiosity get the better of them, so they poke their heads in dark corners, touch unknown alien material, and get up close and personal with things better left unmolested. If slasher movies elicit a “Don’t go in there” audience response, then Prometheus certainly elicits a “Why are you touching that?” reaction. And yet, deep down, we want them to keep pushing further because like the best suspense films, we can’t stand the tension but we really want it to keep going. Probably the most memorable scene of them all involves Shaw performing her own hurried abdominal surgery to remove an alien from inside her. It’s creepy and caused me to wince repeatedly, but man is it fun and gruesome and a nice payoff to an earlier setup. The rest of the movie is pretty standard with its thrills, including the canon fodder supporting characters getting picked off unceremoniously, and the large-scale devastation climax. The movie delivers the goods when it comes to entertainment and suspense, though mostly in the first half. It’s almost like the movie is awed by the visuals as well, and then halfway in remembers, “Oh yeah, we got to do more than just poke at things,” and then it’s a rush to the end with a cascade of conflicts that don’t seem properly developed.

The film lays out a very essential question about the origins of mankind and plays around with theological concepts but it only plays in the shallow end of the philosophical pool. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV’s Lost) deals with the conflicting origin stories via religion and observable science but never goes into specifics. “Religion” is always symbolized as a cross necklace that Shaw wears and her falling back point upon what she “chooses to believe.” The discovery that our alien forefathers have a similar appearance would be a huge revelation, except the movie spoils it with a clumsy prologue that shows us right off the bat what the “engineers” look like. Prometheus actually posits an Intelligent Design argument for human existence, albeit one the Raelians have been promoting for years, the idea that intelligent life outside our galaxy seeded Earth. Yet the one scientists on the crew, the one who objects to 300 years of evolutionary evidence, remains mum on the matter. I suppose the filmmakers didn’t want their monsters-in-space movie to be bogged down with that much pithy philosophy, but I would have appreciated some meatier conversations other than, “Should we touch this?” It’s not nearly as thought provoking or as compelling as it thinks it is.

As I sit here and I write this, the plot becomes a wispy memory of strong set pieces and eerie mood, but I cannot connect the story. It makes little sense and by the end of its 124 minutes we’re left with hardly any more answers than we started with (some spoilers to follow). Our genetic “engineers,” as they call them, remain pretty nebulous. I suppose one could argue that it would be impossible to fully understand an alien race’s habits and purposes without resorting to pandering, but that strikes me as a cop out (I’m reminded of Spielberg’s similar approach in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, where the characters that wanted to know were punished for their intellectual curiosity by alien forces). Why did these super aliens create life on Earth and leave maps to a planet that was little more than a weapons depot? Why would these superior beings create life hundreds of thousands of years ago and then leave clues 35,000 years ago that would lead to the destruction of their little experiment? The motivation seems rather hazy. It’s not like the aliens created life on all these planets and waited to be contacted so that they knew their little biological Easy Bake oven was done and then they could reclaim a new planet. It’s not some imperialist empire or colonization scheme; it appears to just be wanton destruction. That seems like a waste of effort. Did these aliens keep checking back, see our ancestors hunting and gathering and go, “Oh my Space Deity, I can’t believe we created life on this planet? We were so wasted. Well, just wait until they conquer space travel and then we’ll kill them with a weird biological weapon.” If your desire is to destroy life, why even have a waiting period? If these “engineers” wanted to destroy Earth why not do it when there was far less clean up? Is there some kind of parent-child relationship I’m just not getting here?

Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) makes the biggest impression as the fastidious android, David. He’s by far the most interesting character and he’s not even human. It doesn’t take long to figure out that David has his own agenda, and Fassbender plays the character with this eerie passive-aggressive arrogance. You get the sensation that he looks down on his human clientele, but you don’t know what lengths he will go. “How far will you go to get your answers?” he asks before doing something very not nice. He makes statements like, “Who doesn’t want to kill their parents?” and there’s an icy placidity to him; he’s just off enough to be menacing and unsettling without going overboard. Fassbender is excellent.

The rest of the cast cannot be at fault for failing to measure up to Fassbender (is that a Shame joke I stumbled upon?). Rapace (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is given top billing and does an admirable job of being a kickass heroine, which we already knew she was fully capable of in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. She even has a Ripley-esque haircut, which I doubt is a coincidence. Theron (Snow White & the Huntsman) gets to once again practice her ice queen routine, but I wish she had more to do than occasionally glower and bark orders. Her character’s secret background should be obvious to anyone well versed in the film economy of characters. Elba (TV’s superior Luther) tries to stick it out with some twangy Texas accent but can’t make his way through. His natural British accent pokes through routinely. Then there’s Guy Pearce (Lockout) as the wealthy benefactor who bankrolled the whole project. Apparently he was hired to film viral videos as himself, because in the movie he’s like a 100-year-old man in some pretty poor makeup (he resembles old Biff in Back to the Future: Part 2). Why hire an actor of Pearce’s caliber if you’re just going to hide him under a veil of old-age makeup? The actors do what they can but the film doesn’t give them much to work with. They’re stock roles and absent development. You don’t notice for a long while because you’re so caught up in the exploration and the gorgeous visuals, but when the end comes you realize that you hardly knew these people.

After all the pre-release coyness about whether this belonged in the Alien universe, Prometheus seems to be a victim of its own sky-high hype. The movie is moody and dark and intriguing and visually magnificent, but the plot does not hang together at all. The central mystery of the origins of mankind is given a face to start with, but that’s about it. The confusing story tries to mask its plot holes but eventually they just overtake the movie. It’s an entertaining movie in the moment but Prometheus pretty much evaporates as soon as you leave the theater and start thinking, “Hey wait a minute, that didn’t make any sense.” Why are mankind’s “engineers” a regretful bunch of jerks? Scott’s visuals are impressive, the film has a killer mood that’s hard to shake, but the plot is pretty shaky and reliant on supposedly smart people making pretty dumb decisions (why yes, I’ll try and touch the alien snake monster thing). That’s fine for basic thrills but it doesn’t elevate the movie into something headier, meatier, and more satisfying, like the original Alien. Prometheus was never going to meet the unattainably high expectations of fans stoked by tremendous trailers and the promise of Scott’s triumphant return to sci-fi, but much like the characters in the film, I was glad to go on this journey but wished I had more to take home with me.

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+

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)

The worldwide publishing phenomenon comes to a close with the third and final film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. In the span of nine months, all three Swedish films, based on the late Stieg Larsson’s best-selling books, have been released stateside. Hollywood is already filming the first of three remakes directed by David Fincher (Fight Club), with Fincher’s Social Network star Rooney Mara in Lisbeth’s chunky shoes. Releasing three films in one year, mere months apart, has given the series the feeling of an event. The Girl Who Played with Fire left a lot to tie up, but audiences steeped in the Larsson’s sordid particulars should find something rewarding, albeit unspectacular, in this final chapter.

The third film picks up immediately after events from the previous story. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), punky computer hacker and international badass, is being airlifted to a hospital. She is recovering from a brawl with her father that left her with a bullet in her skull and him with an axe lodged in his (surprisingly, both live. Credit Swedish healthcare). Her father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), was a Soviet spy that defected to Sweden in the 1970s. He is a high-value informant, which means that anyone who would compromise or expose Zalachenko needs to be dealt with. And if Zalachenko is going to speak his mind, perhaps he needs to be silenced as well. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), muckraking journalist and Lisbeth’s staunch ally, is trying to protect his friend and one-time lover by exposing the corrupt and powerful. Lisbeth is trying to be silenced, and if assassins don’t work then the state will try her for attempted murder and lock her away in a mental institution, the same institution that Lisbeth was committed to at 12 when she tried to save her mother by setting her abusive father ablaze. The sinister Dr. Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom) admitted Lisbeth when she was a child and is eager to have her back in his clutches. He and the other crooked government officials will stop at nothing to put her away and stop Mikael from publishing the truth.

So at the axe-swingin’ conclusion of Girl Who Played with Fire, I felt that some of my conclusion had to be put on hold until I could see the third film, the conclusion to what seemed like one larger film. For Fire I wrote: “As such, it’s hard to fully analyze certain storylines at play. I imagine that the sex trafficking storyline will carry on with the third film because of the tease that high-profile figures in government and police offices were involved. It already establishes a conflict and a set of antagonists ready for the third film. Then again, I may be too hopeful and the storylines of interest in Part Two may be completely dropped or mishandled by Part Three (see: Matrix sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean sequels).” Guess what happened? Dropped storylines abound as well as a lack of follow-through on most everything but the major storylines involving Lisbeth’s tortured personal history.

Now that we can all witness how Lisbeth and Mikael have walked off into that Swedish sunset, I can finally and conclusively say that the second film is incomplete and will never be complete. The loose ends abound and characters are completely forgotten, like Lisbeth’s Asian friend/sometime-lover and her boxing pal who took a beating. Apparently their narrative purpose was to take Lisbeth’s licks (could this be the greatest double entendre in the history of film criticism? Yes). The brute that dished out those bruises is a blonde baddie named Neidermann who looks like he was ripped from a bad James Bond flick. He is a straggling loose end that circles the narrative like a lost child in a supermarket (“Are you my mother?”). The high-reaching sex trafficking ring featured in Fire has a tenuous connection to Hornet’s Nest; in Fire we talk about an Evil Shadowy Government and in Hornet’s Nest we see the faces of that Evil Shadowy Government Agents.

If the first film was a slow-burning and lurid thriller, the second film a preposterous action film, then the third film falls clearly into the genre of legal thriller. The majority of the plot revolves around the People vs. Lisbeth Salander. The sluggish opening gives way to a sluggish series of pre-trial preparations. Mikael assigns his sister to serve as Lisbeth’s attorney, and thus we see the behind-the-scenes arrangements as far as gathering evidence, building a case, plotting arguments and counter-arguments, preparing Lisbeth to confront the men who have caused her such suffering and anguish. And being a courtroom thriller, we also get a heavy dose of new characters, almost all of them elderly and somewhat menacing (a guy with cancer even becomes a hired gun for One Last Job). There are a lot of liver-spotted faces to try and sort through, so it helps when the filmmakers add touches to set them apart (one of them wears a bow tie, another has glasses). Given the lethargic nature of assembling a court case, the pacing can get pretty slack. Then there’s the issue of Lisbeth. She spends almost the entire movie in police custody and the first hour or so confined to a hospital bed. It doesn’t make for pulse-pounding stuff. Lisbeth is a willful, defiant, quick-witted creature so it feels like she’s like a caged bird in this third and final film.

Rapace is starting to catch serious Hollywood heat and deservedly so because once again she commands the screen. At first when the series began I was unsure of her acting abilities considering her mysterious character is forced to respond through a prism of emotional reserve. She doesn’t speak much but her intense, cold stares speak volumes to the turmoil she has bubbling under the surface. Restrained to a hospital bed or a jail cell, Rapace is given even less to work with. The part is nearly mute for long stretches of plot. Yet Rapace finds new and interesting ways to channel her character’s intensity and allow the audience to view her thought process. It’s a sign of a talented actor when a character’s internal thinking can become transparent without the need for hyperactive expressions. Lisbeth Salander is a complicated character and the audience deserves to have such an intriguing presence fleshed out into three dimensions. I wrote about the disappointing downgrade of Lisbeth’s character in Fire: “We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.” With Hornet’s Nest, we discover the extent of how men have damaged her, which focuses more attention on the person of Lisbeth rather than the Gothic aesthetics. It’s a return to form even if Lisbeth is still remote.

Luckily, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest does manage to offer a satisfying sense of closure. The series has several bad men doing bad things, so it’s rewarding that after sitting through close to seven hours of material yields some long-awaited justice for Lisbeth Salander. We yearn desperately for this pint-sized gal to get her vengeance and for the powerful to find their comeuppance. Watching the antagonists fall would be more fulfilling if they weren’t only introduced a mere hour ago in this movie. Salander doesn’t get to put on her Gothic war paint until her first court appearance. It feels like a triumphant return, complete with a towering and imposing mohawk. Blomkvist’s storylines will always be the movie’s weak point considering he has to compete with the likes of the audacious Salander. In Hornet’s Nest, his magazine team is threatened but you never really take any of it seriously, because of course the crusading journalist will stick by Lisbeth. The ending is less than desired and tries to recycle some of the same action tropes that lead Girl Who Played with Fire astray. The final scene leaves you with a sense of, “Oh, so that really is it? Better get my coat then.”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest works as a mostly fitting capper to a long-standing mystery series. The bad guys are punished, the good guys prevail, there’s an open-ended resolution that leaves you squirming for more, especially now that Lisbeth is a free woman. At a bloated 145 minutes, Hornet’s Nest can often feel like an overextended Swedish episode of Law and Order. There’s a good 45 minutes that probably could have been left on the cutting room floor. At times the movie feels like it’s lurching along, caught up in the mountain of details. But then it generally finds a way to regain momentum and head to a satisfying close. Still, it’s disappointing that for the majority of the two sequels Lisbeth and Blomkvist have rarely been onscreen together. They worked so well as a team in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I never would have thought that the sequels would take that concept and keep them apart for as long as possible. Too bad author Stieg Larsson isn’t around to write new adventures for his characters, though there are rumors about an unfinished fourth manuscript left on Larsson’s laptop. Until that gets sorted out between Larsson’s widow and his family in Swedish court, I guess the world will have to settle for the forthcoming Hollywood remakes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010)

So in the few short months since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opened in the spring, the book series has catapulted to even new reaches of fame. It even appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly under the headline, “The hottest books on the planet.” I’ll take their word on that one. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third book in late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s series was finally released stateside, and depending upon when you read this, is probably still on the best-seller list. Larsson’s trilogy of novels is a global publishing phenomenon. The first film in the series made over $10 million dollars in the United States and was the top-grossing film in Europe last year. That says something about a 150-minute Swedish thriller with no-names attached. The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second film in the series and naturally couldn’t live up to expectations after the first smash movie. The second film is good, not great, but really whets the appetite for the concluding movie to come.

It’s been one year since the events of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The titular tattooed-girl, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), has been living abroad. Her ally and one-time lover, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), has been trying to get in contact with her but to no avail. Blomvist is about to publish a damning report about sex trafficking with some pretty high-profile names attached as members. The authors of the article are then executed and Lisbeth’s fingerprints are found on the gun left at the crime scene. Salander’s court-appointed guardian, the one who viciously raped her in the previous film, is also found murdered. Blomkvist is certain his companion is innocent and goes about investigating who is truly responsible. Salander comes out of hiding and back to Sweden where she tries to clear her name the best way she knows how. All roads seem to lead to a figure known as “Zala,” a Soviet spy who defected to Sweden ages ago but who has been carrying on in the shadows ever since.

The focus with Fire in on Lisbeth Salander, which is exactly the character the audience wants to spend the most time with. Salander split duty with Blomkvist in the first film. They were equals, but a crusading journalist just isn’t as interesting as a five-foot Gothic ass-kicking computer hacker. As I wrote: “Mikael isn’t a blah character by any means but he seems to serve as an expository device, the guy who uncovers the secrets and gets to be the helpless foil to Lisbeth. I suppose for maximum narrative effect a straight man would be required to be paired with Lisbeth.” She is the star of the series so it’s a great pleasure to watch her receive oodles of screen time. The second film is significantly devoted to the history of Salander, her back-story, her father, what she did to get locked away in a mental ward (which was hinted at before). The sex trafficking murders are merely a narrative smokescreen. Being framed for the murders puts Lisbeth on defense, but the sex trafficking stuff and the high-profile johns quickly dissolve in the wake of a standard investigation into the mysterious “Zala.” The mystery of this film is really the mystery of Salander’s back-story and family tree. However, being focused primarily on Lisbeth Salander also means that everybody else gets sidelined. She’s on the run and trying to clear her name, but that doesn’t give much room for other people to contribute to the narrative. Blomkvist gets to pensively look at his computer screen a lot and always show up one step behind our heroine. The two are kept apart for nearly the entire movie.

Rapace is still the best reason to see the series. She inhabits the character with tremendous intensity and skill. If you stripped away all the aesthetics, the Goth trinkets, you would still have a vital character. As I wrote before: “There’s much more to this girl than a dragon tattoo and a spiked collar. Rapace doesn’t let the outfits overwhelm her. There’s a certain joyful recklessness to her character hidden beneath a veneer of steely coolness.” Because of her mysterious nature and painful past, Rapace must play all emotions through a prism of emotional reserve. Even though we get a lot more of Salander’s past explained, I felt like we got to know her as a character better in the first flick where she could breathe and behave “normally.” Thanks to being on the run for murder, it’s hard to argue that Lisbeth ever gets a chance to simply be her complicated self, which robs the audience of an appealing character. We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.

Girl Who Played with Fire is nowhere near the complete film experience that the first film offered. This movie feels like one half and the continuing half, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, won’t be out until later in the fall. As such, it’s hard to fully analyze certain storylines at play. I imagine that the sex trafficking storyline will carry on with the third film because of the tease that high-profile figures in government and police offices were involved. It already establishes a conflict and a set of antagonists ready for the third film. Then again, I may be too hopeful and the storylines of interest in Part Two may be completely dropped or mishandled by Part Three (see: Matrix sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Girl Who Played with Fire does a decent job of setting up a narrative base and establishing a one-shot villain, somebody to be dispatched by episode’s end. But the movie feels far from complete, and sadly I won’t know until later whether that incomplete feeling is from breaking up a continuing storyline or from deficits of filmmaking. There are too many loose ends with Girl Who Played with Fire for it to feel complete, and thus it cannot help but suffer in comparison to its predecessor.

Where the movie goes haywire is in its adoption of action tropes. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was more of a slow-burning thriller with some nasty flashes of violence. The second in the trilogy seems to take place more in the realm of action cinema, which means that things get a little preposterous. There are a lot more car chases, henchmen, fistfights, shootouts, and it almost unravels at the end. Slanader seems to transform into the Bride, sharing two key abilities from Uma Thurman?s character in the Kill Bill series (that’s about as spoilery as I want to get). Salander just becomes like a pint-sized Terminator; she’s indestructible and capable of amazing feats. It’s like the Swedes took the Hollywood edict that every sequel had to be bigger and better than the original. There’s even a lesbian love scene before the 20-minute mark, in case the audience was already getting bored (presented like something out of Cinemax late-night TV). I appreciated that the original film respected the intelligence of the audience, giving a deluge of information and characters to sort and trusting that in time we could follow along. The Girl Who Played with Fire is far less complicated in scope. In fact, it’s a fairly rote detective story that only dishes out clues when the characters need to progress. The first film actually utilized good detective work; the second film just has everything fall into people’s laps at predetermined points of need. The tension doesn’t manifest as ferociously as it did in Dragon Tattoo. For goodness sake, the chief antagonist has a hired goon that is actually a rip-off of a James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough, which was an awful Bond movie! The end focuses too much on the bloody confrontation between Lisbeth and a chief antagonist and an axe that apparently fails to mortally wound people when swung at their craniums.

I think the switch in directors, from Niels Arden Oplev to Daniel Alfredson, has something to do with the slip in quality. To American audiences, this might not ever register, but the films have completely different tones. The turnover feels less abrupt thanks to the cast reappearing. The direction feels less focused, more casual and pedestrian, relying on that grimy green/orange cinematography that Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) always favored so much. Here’s another thing I learned. When it’s not a snowy winter, Sweden looks pretty much like Canada. Seriously, the landscapes do nothing in this movie to distinguish it.

Now that sounds like a lot of quibbles, like I’m quibbling Girl Who Played with Fire to death. In short, it’s not as good as the first one, and the final 20 minutes proves it, but it is still a finely entertaining movie. Even with a less complicated plot, the movie manages to be smarter than most of its Hollywood brethren. It’s more an action movie than a dark, lurid thriller like its predecessor, which means there will be certain limitations on the use of your brain. But the movie plays off our residual good will from the last one, it’s interesting enough, and Lisbeth Salander is rightly the star, so it’s enough to forgive. We’ll see in the fall whether The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest can provide a satisfying close to the popular series. As proven, never count Salander out.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

Heating up the art house cinemas, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is two and a half hours, Swedish, in subtitles, and is absent any familiar faces, and audiences can’t seem to get enough. Based on the international best-selling novel, this independent thriller was the highest grossing European film for 2009 and deceased author Stieg Larsson’s two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (sounds like a lot of risky behavior for this girl) have also been made into movies with the same cast. So now that America is caught in the midst of Dragon mania, we all won’t have to wait long for the ongoing adventures of the journalist and the Gothic investigator. Both sequels are planned for release this summer, meaning that the entire trilogy will unwind in theaters over the course of only a few brief months. That’s one thing that has to please American audiences — instant gratification. For those unhip to the world of Lisbeth Salander, get ready to take notes because she’s likely to become an indie film icon, at least for an older, well-read demographic (think: your parents).

Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is an investigative journalist sentenced to jail for 6 months after losing a libel case against a large shady corporation. Before he serves his prison sentence, Mikael is approached by a wealthy businessman, Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube), convinced that his niece, Harriet, was murdered and her murderer is still taunting him 40 years later. Henrik Vagner lives with various other family members on a remote island. The mysterious clan has some serious skeletons in their closet, and Henrik believes ones of his family members, apart of the powerful Vagner Group, is guilty. Mikael takes refuge on the island and begins to comb over old police documents looking for any overlooked clues. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) inserts herself into the case. She’s an expert computer hacker and hired by Henrik Vagner to compile a background check of Mikael. But her interest did not end with her assignment. She has hacked into Mikael’s computer and furtively spies on Mikael’s progress. She e-mails him some key breaks in the case and joins Mikael on the island. Together they make rapid progress finding out what happened to Harriet all those years ago, and a serial killer makes note of their encroaching progress.

Thankfully, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thriller that respects its audience’s intellect by not having to spell out every damn detail, and people, there are a lot of damn details. While the movie feels complete, it still leaves much to the imagination to fill in character back-stories, connect the plot dots, and interpret all those silent glances and meditative stares (granted, it might all get filled in following two sequels). A prime example is when Mikael covets Lisbeth’s photographic memory, telling her what a terrific advantage that must be, and a small pensive look from Lisbeth says all we need. It’s enough to make us re-examine what we think we know concerning her background, and the rest of the movie follows this model. I also appreciated that every break in the case came from good detective work and not some swishy super computer stuff. Though Lisbeth is an expert hacker, nothing these characters do is out of the realm of reality unlike other tech-heavy detectives. The plot is tied in knots and we have all sorts of various suspects and angles. The central mystery needs to be interesting for this movie to work, and it is … after it gets into a second gear. A girl’s disappearance 40 years ago isn’t enough to grab you until the more sinister and sordid elements come out into the fray. It also hurts that there’s a clear disparity when it comes to character interest. Mikael isn’t a blah character by any means but he seems to serve as an expository device, the guy who uncovers the secrets and gets to be the helpless foil to Lisbeth. I suppose for maximum narrative effect a straight man would be required to be paired with Lisbeth.

Lisbeth is an unorthodox choice for a researcher given the fact that she’s pierced, punky, and full of attitude and ink, including a certain titular dragon tattoo. But she’s also fiercely intelligent, resourceful, intuitive, and wounded, which makes her a fairly fascinating character. She’s an exciting mystery of a character. She’s wounded and defensive but cavalier and intentionally confrontational at the same time, an exciting conflict. Her attitude is roughly, “So what if I dress as I do? So what if I have a healthy sexual appetite? So what if I am a woman? I demand to be treated with respect.” Lisbeth commands attention even though she feels uncomfortable being gazed at. She’s more than some female fantasy protagonist, though a punky, bisexual ass-kicking gal will fit the bill for some, she is a full-bodied character and a terrific break from the traditional investigative heroes of mysteries.

I asked myself midway through if the aesthetics were standing in for character; if you stripped away all that punk rock glamour and the shock value of a “Goth PI” than would there be anything compelling left (I was sort of thinking of the Gothic lab tech on America’s quizzically #1 TV show of the moment, the alphabet soup-friendly NCIS)? The answer, I found, was a resounding yes. There’s much more to this girl than a dragon tattoo and a spiked collar. Rapace doesn’t let the outfits overwhelm her. There’s a certain joyful recklessness to her character hidden beneath a veneer of steely coolness. Rapace has to play many different elements through a specific prism of emotional reserve, which makes her character, and her performance, less showy. It makes for a very good performance but ultimately leaves the final judgment of Rapace in question. Despite the international acclaim, Lisbeth isn’t exactly a star-making role. Yet, at least.

The story is awash in details, which is both a positive and negative reflection of the screenplay. There’s likely too many plot details for one screenplay and several elements feel like they may be integral when they really turn out to be incidental, like Nazi ancestry and the lone bridge off the island. Don’t get me all excited with Nazi ancestry and then have it become incidental to the plot. Nonetheless, it takes a good deal of time to process and familiarize all the numerous expository groundwork of the case, and time is what The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has to offer. At 150 minutes, the movie follows a pretty languid pace and doesn’t get moving until an hour in when our two leads join forces. Echoing that deliberate sense of pacing are the sparse and snowy landscapes of Sweden communicating isolation and looming danger. I can pretty much guarantee that the Hollywood adaptation in the works will not be nearly as leisurely with its pacing. The film’s resolution is very drawn out but that’s due to the many niggling plot threads that need to be attended to. It makes for a satisfying albeit mildly exhausting conclusion.

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 Swedish 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.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an arresting and entertaining thriller that occasionally ducks a little too low into the gutter for my tastes (I’m really taken aback at how rape-heavy it is). The mystery works, though it’s more complicated thanks to an excess of detail and not necessarily a complex narrative. The characters, in particular Lisbeth Salander, are what make this movie work. Lisbeth is a captivating lead character and only promises to get more interesting in those future sequels. In many ways, this is a mystery for grown-ups, not just in content but also in approach, with the relaxed pace, subtlety, and moral ambiguity. Having never read the books, I can now see what all the fuss is about, and most of it is warranted. Still, I’m holding out my final judgment until those other two editions of the Adventures of Lisbeth and Crew hit theaters. The movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an exciting opening entry into the world of Lisbeth Salander, international woman of extreme ass kicking in fine fashion to boot.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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