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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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****½

The fear of offending is stronger than the fear of pain.

Martin Vanger–Stellan Skarsgard–makes an interesting point by addressing just how powerful social norms are. The Vanger family, one of Sweden’s richest, abides by those norms, but ignore each other. That and one of them is a murderer. As Mikael Blomkvist–Daniel Craig–says to Lisbeth Salander–Rooney Mara, “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” I wanted her to help, but I also agreed with her boss—played by Goran Visnjic, “She’s had a rough life.” Lisbeth may be a victim, but she does not let that define her. She is brave, intelligent and technologically saavy. She and Mikael race to find this killer, but that challenge is not the entirety of story.

I think that David Fincher is a great director and he overcame some great challenges to make this film work. The opening credits are set to a cover of my favorite Led Zeppelin song, and I could see that turning off people older than I am, which is interesting considering that only Lisbeth is south of 40. The story also begins with Lisbeth’s report on the background check she did of Mikael, but she does not join the primary mystery for almost half of the film. That means that Fincher must tell the story of his main character, without having her engaged in the mystery. Of course she has a busy life of her own, one that includes muggings and sexual assaults. Deciding how much to show and what to show must have been challenging, but Fincher has never shied away from the horror of violence, nor given in to its seduction–like Taken or The Expendables. I have heard that the second and third installments went downhill in the books and Swedish movies. Hopefully David Fincher can work his magic and only improve on this start, because I want to know to root for Lisbeth more.

Happythankyoumoreplease

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****

All that matters is that I believe it. Let me adore you.

Good, realistic romantic comedies are extremely rare. Even movies likes Definitely, Maybe have precocious children who say things only the Diablo Codys of the world probably said. Happy… starts out with a one night stand escaping a bedroom and the viewer not knowing if we will follow the escapee or the man left to awaken alone. It is the man and he is late for some kind of meeting, which his best friend is calling to remind him of. On the subway heading thither he, Sam–Josh Radnor, sees a child left behind. Flummoxed he immediately protects the kid, brings him to an MTA worker who tells him to piss off to the cops. The kid, Rasheen, does not want to go to the cops and Sam tries to abandon him with $2 for subway fare. What makes Rasheen so interesting is how realistic he is. He is not a quip machine. What he says is rarely poignant, but you feel for the kid.

The other aspect of the realism is how Sam’s friends react to his choice to take Rasheen in. They all inform him that he has kidnapped a child for all the right reasons, but that he really needs to turn Rasheen over before he gets arrested.

My favorite friend, his best friend, is Annie, the most gorgeous woman ever afflicted with alopecia–okay, Malin Akerman does not really have alopecia, but now we know that she would still be beatiful like that. We see how stuck in a rut she is. When she hooks up with an ex boyfriend it seemed unnecessary to the story, but I was wrong. If she had simply stated that she only dates 12 year-old 29 year-olds, I might not have believed her self assessment. This leads to her giving Sam #2—Tony Hale in the best performance of his life—a shot. I wish I had a transcript of what he says to Annie in the restaurant, I only put a little bit above, because it was amazing and his delivery seemed so genuine. That scene really elevated this already good movie.

Insomnia

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A little over a year ago I said that I could not wait to see Christopher Nolan’s version of Insomnia. Literally, I could, and did, wait. Figuratively, I was right not to want to wait. I gave the Norwegian version ****, so how many stars does this version deserve?

Tackling the role of the big city detective sent to assist on a far north–Alaska instead of northern Norway–town’s murder investigation. Neither can sleep because it is the middle of Summer and the sun never sets. Also, they kill their respective long-time partners in the eerie fog of Alaska/Norway. Nolan shoots Alaska as beautifully and with a little more action than Erik Skjoldbjaerg did, but he also provides more clarity into our protagonist’s dispatch from the big city–L.A.

Pacino plays Det. Will Dormer with more bravado than Stellan Skarsgård played Jonas Engström. However, that is not to say that Pacino did less of a spectacular job. In fact, I thought that The Insider was Pacino’s last great performance, but was a masterpiece. As the guilt grows and the time since Pacino last slept increases, Pacino changes and shows through hollow looks and only the occasional anger of a wounded animal that his character is being tested in ways that a 30-year police veteran would not even expect.

Assisting him are Nightmute’s finest, which includes the young Officer Ellie Burr–Hilary Swank.  While Paul Dooley’s Chief is his typical solid cop performance—see Collateral and Miami Vice—it truly is Swank who shines. Initially the bounce in her step made her seem chipper and dumb, but without changing her motivations, she investigates Pacino’s partner’s death. That experience, which leads her to doubt someone who is practically her idol–Pacino.

In addition to the fog Nolan shows Alaskan beauty with honesty and grit. Robin Williams tries to show his character’s soul with the same. He really summed up one of the messages of the film quite beautifully, that human life is so beautiful, but death of that life comes so easily. He poses awesome questions, like if it takes half a second or ten minutes to kill someone, does that make it any less of an accident if you truly did not intend to end someone’s life?

On the whole the bulk of the film is as good as the Norwegian original. But it took something great, so I give more credit to the original. That said, the American ending is very good. It surprised me. I believe that almost all films end poorly, so the American version should receive a boost. Ehhhh, they both are **** out of *****.

The Best Directors: A Series—Michael Mann

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I love Michael Mann movies. He brings a style and intensity to his movies that I do not find in other directors. The main criticism of his movies is that he cares more about their construction and the efficiency within his characters than their lives or popular aesthetics. None of his films had made a great deal of money and few have garnered general adoration, but he is a master craftsman who loves characters who strive to be the best and to take care of business like none other. That took a boring book like Last of the Mohicans and turned it into a hit.  But that same attitude took his 80’s tv hit “Miami Vice” and, by keeping it real, left many fans disappointed.

This “efficiency” tone can be seen in many of his movies, in descending order of popularity: Collateral, Heat, Public Enemies, & Miami Vice. You can take any major law man or criminal from these movies and stick them into any of the other ones and I guarantee that they thrive. Crockett and Tubbs could have hunted down John Dillenger with 1920’s technology, or Al Pacino could have matched wits with Tom Cruise’s Vincent, with or without his laptop.  While Heat is visually different from those three movies, Mann did not have digital cameras and as advanced of special effects at his disposal.  While his characters disagree on moral issues, they always respect each others capacities to succeed. Through that respect, Mann’s love of his characters, good and bad. He also loves Stephen Lang, who America finally recognizes through Avatar and “Terra Nova.”

Stephen Lang plays a small, but slimy role in Manhunter, the forgotten chapter in the Hannibal Lecter series. Did you know that Red Dragon–starring Ralph Fiennes–is a remake of 1986’s Manhunter and that Brian Cox was the first to portray Hannibal? He is fantastic and every bit as frightening and mesmerizing as Anthony Hopkins in the role. It also is one of the few movies to star “CSI’s” William Peterson.

While he did not cast Stephen Lang in The Insider, Michael Mann cast just about everybody else: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Philip Baker Hall, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, et al… The newsroom world of The Insider is every bit as stylized as the police/criminal world of other films, with far more tension. For everyone who said that they did not want to see a 2:40 movie about someone testifying, this is a gem. While I would watch any of his movies, this is the one I would recommend to anyone old enough to handle it.

Call Northside 777

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****

That’s the trouble with being innocent – you don’t know what really happened.

Like most people, I had never heard of this 1944 film. I saw that it was going to be on tv and DVRed it because it had me with Jimmy Stewart and Lee J. Cobb. I did not know the third lead,  Richard Conte, but who cares? It turns out that he plays a very convincing wrongfully convicted jailbird.

Despite the black and white the voiceover that starts the film could have been out of any 1950’s to 1980’s cop show. It starts with a copper getting iced in front of a Polish dame who runs the most boring speakeasy I have ever seen. After the murder, investigation and trial we are thrust into the editor’s office at the Chicago Times. Lee J. Cobb plays the editor and Jimmy Stewart the reporter.

Stewart plays the reporter as one who does not believe that a convicted cop killer’s should be freed. I think that he has to play it like that to win over an audience who might have walked out of the theater rather than let their hearts bleed over someone even accused of murdering a police officer. I suppose some things never change; those audiences now enjoy Live Free or Die Hard. Also, just as the Chicago Police are helpful now they were real helpful then. Similarly, as modern films like cutting edge technology, so did they in the 40’s, except that the technology consisted of enlarging photographs and wiring pictures. Not that it matters, the tension in the scenes are real so the use of technology works.

There is one scene that outshone the rest—the convict’s mother, Tillie–Kasia Orzazewski–breaking down. She does so when she hears that after years of slaving away to save enough to put out a reward to free her son she finds out the that the Chicago Times feels it cannot win with the appeals board and she will die with her son languishing in prison. It’s a harrowing moment that she made seem so real. Rare is it when an actress I have never heard of out acted the great Jimmy Stewart.

The Tree of Life

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***

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

I hate movies where the director looks down on his audience. When the director thinks he is smarter than his audience or tries to play me, I have one finger for that person, Roland Emmerich. That said, there is something to be said for having too much respect for your audience. Terrence Malick respects the hell out of us, but to the extent that he shows 15 minutes straight of nature footage, of the cosmos, of microscopic organisms. He tells the story out of order and without identifying who the characters superficially are.

The film occasionally cuts to Sean Penn as the adult version of the youngest of three boys, whose parents provide the two world views for our child to wind up messed up from—Brad Pitt & Jessica Chastain.  Sean Penn seems to love nature, yet live in Chicago. He looks at the angles of buildings and the film cuts to nature. In the end he is following his dead older brother and running into hundreds of people on a beach, even though the chronology is impossible. It reminded me of the end of the Emir Kustirica film Underground.

Underground this movie isn’t. While that movie checks in at three hours, this two hour fifteen minute opus drags after the midway point. Unlike Terrence Malick’s New World and The Thin Red Line, the ethereal and elegiac quality of the film overpowers the story and collapses like sand castle built on a cloud. If that sentence did not make sense to you, then this movie will not either. I still love Terrence Malick’s style, his editing, his musical selections, his casting—except for Sean Penn, but I am sure there are hours of footage on a cutting room floor that would redeem this choice—and his tone. I just did not love how he applied those skills here. Hopefully when his next movie comes out in 2017 it will be a return to form.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

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***½

You fools, this man is plotting our doom! We die at dawn! He is Caligari!

I know I talk about German Expressionism all the time, but this seems like a seminal piece from that important start to the world of cinema. This film uses sets in 1919, that would never fly today. In almost 100 years of film, audiences have grown far too rigid and boring when it comes to set designs. The angles and the unconventional shapes and heights of things do not bother the characters, they merely add a dreamlike quality to the film. Yet I guarantee that the masses would object to the realism of that, in a way that they did not to Tom Cruise climbing a building 100’s of stories in the air–in Mission Impossible 4.

The basic story here is an eery one that still manages to creep me out. The bulk of the tale comes from the words of one poor soul, lamenting his life. He lived in a small German town with a festival where a “Dr. Caligari” appears with a “somnabulist.” A “Somnabulist” is someone who sleeps literally almost all of the time. In Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet the “Somnabulist” sleeps, but fairgoers can see him and ask for their fortunes, or to know of the past. It is best not to ask your fortune…for each night of the fair, another person dies. While  “somnabulists” might be fake, the fear of being wrongly imprisoned still resonates today. The fear of knowing the truth about someone and having no-one believe you lives on.

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