Saturday, December 31, 2011

“Dragon Tattoo”: Rooney Mara rocks

When it was announced that David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network) was going to direct an American adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, fans of the bestselling thriller were holding their collective breath. After all, the entire trilogy of novels by Stieg Larsson had already been turned into very successful movies in Sweden, with Noomi Rapace giving a star-making performance in the title role. The films were released briefly to theaters in the U.S., but gained a large following on video. There was some doubt if another version of the story needed to be told. Larsson fans needn’t have worried. Fincher’s film is a moody, well-acted thriller.

Daniel Craig (the screen’s current 007) stars as Mikael Blomkvist, a writer/publisher who has just lost a libel case. He is summoned by industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who asks him to solve the decades old disappearance and possible murder of his niece. As Mikael weaves through the strands of family history, he finds some disturbing facts buried beneath the surface. At the same time, Lisbeth Salander, a punkish hacker who is a ward of the state (and has a violent past) is dealing with the loss of her kindly guardian, who has suffered a stroke. A brutish lawyer named Nils Bjurman becomes her new guardian/advisor. When he abuses & attacks her, Lisbeth exacts a horrible revenge. Eventually, Blomkvist’s & Salander’s paths cross, and old secrets & hidden truths are revealed.

In one of the year’s best performances, Rooney Mara fully embodies Salander. It’s an astonishing piece of acting, as amazing & revelatory in its own way as Rapace’s take on the character in the Swedish films. Mara conveys much of Lisbeth’s pain, anger and emotional turmoil with her expressive face, and sometimes with little or no dialogue. Craig is solid as Blomkvist, and familiar faces such as Joely Richardson, Robin Wright and Stellan Skarsgard round out the supporting cast. 

Fincher’s direction is assured and powerful. He was absolutely the right choice for this material, having previously directed the films Se7en and Fight Club. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's excellent work defines the cool, icy look of the film, as does Trent Reznor’s score. They both enrich the stark atmosphere of the story. The film completely evokes the world of Larsson's novels, and is stylish, electric and often unsettling. In some ways, it's a closer adaptation than the Swedish version, though there are some minor changes to the ending of the novel, which work fairly well in the context of the film.

If you’re looking for a powerful mystery that goes down some chilling roads, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is worth seeing. But, be warned: If you’re not familiar with the book, this is a dark tale, with some disturbing scenes and imagery. The violence isn’t glorified, but this film fully earns its R rating. If you're a fan of the novels, or even the Swedish film adaptation, this version is recommended viewing, especially for Rooney Mara’s incredible performance; she rocks.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Wishing A Very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah & Happy New Year to all who have read posts on my blog this year; Thanks to all for your support! Here's a holiday playlist:

1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love

2. Santa Claus is Coming To Town by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
3. What Christmas Means to Me by Stevie Wonder
4. Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band
5. Donde Esta Santa Claus? by Guster
6. Christmas Wish by NRBQ
7. The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
8. White Christmas by Bing Crosby
9. Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let It Snow! by Dean Martin
10. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland
11. Santa Claus is Back in Town by Elvis Presley
12. Little Drummer Boy by Joan Jett
13. Merry Christmas Baby by Charles Brown
14. Run Rudolph Run by Chuck Berry
15. Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid
16. Elf’s Lament by Barenaked Ladies
17. Step Into Christmas by Elton John
18. This Christmas by Donny Hathaway
19. Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms
20. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee
21. Sleigh Ride by Ella Fitzgerald
22. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer by Gene Autry
23. Christmastime Is Here by Vince Guaraldi Trio
24. I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake
25. Christmas is The Time To Say I Love You by Billy Squier
26. Christmas at CBGB’s by The Baghdaddios
27. Please Come Home For Christmas by The Eagles
28. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by John Mellencamp
29. Baby It’s Cold Outside by Norah Jones & Willie Nelson
30. Fairytale of New York by The Pogues wth Kirsty MacColl

Bonus Tracks: The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler 
                       Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Super" isn't heroic

Super (2010) is a dark, depressing film that never quite gets its tone right. Rainn Wilson (The Office) stars as Frank, a regular guy married to Sarah, a former addict (Liv Tyler). He considers himself blessed to have her in his life, and loves her deeply. When Kate suddenly leaves him for a drug dealer named Jacques, Frank decides to become a superhero and “rescue” her. He starts by taking his anger over the situation out on petty criminals. Frank is aided by Libby (Ellen Page, Juno), who works in a comic book store. She eventually becomes his sidekick. As his quest to save Sarah continues, he becomes even more violent, with tragic results.

Unlike Kick Ass (2010), which has some similar themes, the story, characters and style here don’t mesh. The dark tone is unrelenting, and the violence in the film is ugly; it’s almost too realistic. The characters are under-developed, and not especially likable. Page’s character in particular is off-putting, and it’s tough to empathize with her. And how can we sympathize with Frank when he mercilessly beats on a guy who cuts ahead of him in a line (with a wrench, no less)? When the story ends, we don't feel the same sense of redemption as Frank. By trying to be “real,” the film loses the fantastical tone that energizes most superhero movies. The movie can't have it both ways, and it suffers as result.

The attempts at mixing humor with the story’s darker & more violent moments don’t work. Are we supposed to laugh at the comic book style captions (similar to the 60s Batman TV show) that pop up during the carnage filled finale? The film can’t seem to decide if it’s a straight vigilante tale like Death Wish or a more traditional superhero movie. Unlike films by directors like Quentin Tarantino & Sergio Leone, the balance between the violence & humor isn't as well handled. It’s a shame, because Writer-Director James Gunn has an interesting visual style, and there are a few good satirical moments, including Nathan Fillon as a Bible-inspired superhero who’s idolized by Frank. Had the film’s elements been combined more solidly, Super could have been a minor gem. The film is currently available on DVD & Blu-ray.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is The Cosmic Plan For Your Life?

What would you do if you found out there was a mysterious “plan” for your life, but you didn't agree with what fate had in store for you? That’s the premise of the intriguing thriller The Adjustment Bureau (2011). David Norris (Matt Damon) is a popular congressman running for a Senate seat in New York. He ends up losing the race, and must give a concession speech. While preparing for the speech, he meets a carefree woman (who's crashed a wedding in the same building) and is captivated by her. She gives him the strength to go out and give an honest speech that helps him move ahead in the world, despite his loss in the race.

Some time later, a man named Harry Mitchell (who has been following David) is given an assignment: Make sure David spills coffee on himself on the way to work. But Harry misses his opportunity. David boards a bus, and runs into Elise (Emily Blunt), the woman he met earlier. The two strike up a conversation, and she gives David her phone number. He’s excited by the prospect of seeing her again, and heads off to his job, eager to tell his co-worker (and former campaign manager) about his meeting with her.

When David arrives at his office, everyone appears to be frozen in place. A mysterious team of people is walking around, wielding weird devices. He’s chased by the group, and taken to a warehouse. A man named Richardson (John Slattery of Mad Men) explains that he is deviating from “The Plan” and the team (including Harry) is here to set things back on track. The group is called “The Adjustment Bureau.”

They appear to be normal men in business suits and hats, but their job is to make sure people’s lives stay on the proper path, set out by “The Chairman.” They are to be able to predict events, and seem to have power over space & time. Richardson tells David he is not destined to be with Elise, and a different path is set out for both of them. They try to keep them apart, but David fights to make his own choices & control his own destiny. And Harry, who had been assigned to watch David, starts to doubt his role in the plan, and may hold the key to the couples' escape.

The movie raises some interesting questions. Is it better for man to have free will, or should we follow a cosmic “plan?” Are these “adjusters” angels, and is “The Chairman” God? This intelligent, well-written film lets the audience come up with its own answers. Damon & Blunt are well cast as the lovers fighting fate, and Terence Stamp (yep, General Zod from Superman II) is excellent as Thompson, another member of “The Bureau” brought in to deal with the issues David is causing by deviating from the plan. Thompson believes that if man has free will, it can only lead to disaster, as it has in the past, when we were allowed to control our own destinies.

Written & Directed by George Nolfi, the movie is based on a short story by the late Philip K. Dick. The celebrated science-fiction writer’s stories have also served as the basis for movies like Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002). It’s a thinking person’s thriller, and a neat mix of science fiction, romance and action. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking change of pace, The Adjustment Bureau is a good choice. The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.