December 14, 2011 12:53pm EST
Let’s put the cards on the table: I have not read Steig Larsson’s best-selling “Millennium Trilogy” and therefore cannot comment on whether or not Columbia Pictures’ big-budget (American) adaptation of its first novel is a spot-on transfer of the shocking story or if Rooney Mara has lived up to the punk-goth-genius of an anti-heroine he created. This review is about director David Fincher’s craft and the dream cast he has assembled to make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo one of the most brutal and engrossing films of 2011.
Right from lustrous sexy title sequence evoking torturous S&M imagery to the ultra-cool Karen O/Trent Reznor rendition of Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” the Oscar-nominated filmmaker plunges his audience into a very specific experience. This is not to say that the story itself is notably inventive; Dragon Tattoo is more or less a standard serial killer thriller wherein a pair of investigators attempts to solve a decades-old murder that has ties to other gruesome mysteries and a wealthy Swedish family. It’s the sinister atmosphere and tone he cultivates using color music and lighting that makes this tale so unique and highly watchable in spite of the terrible events that occur throughout.
Perhaps most compelling though is its mixed bag of characters from different walks of life including Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) a recently disgraced financial journalist in need of an assignment Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) a yuppie-ish corporate tycoon charged with running the family business started by his uncle Henrik (Christopher Plummer) and Lisbeth Salander (Mara) the alpha-outsider and titular character of this eerie epic. All are emotionally scarred and the actors charged with portraying them go the darkest corners of their own souls to make them their own. Mara in particular must be praised for her ghoulish and extreme embodiment of Salander who suffers physical and emotional torment unlike anything we’ve seen in cinema this year. This more than her scene-stealing presence in Fincher’s The Social Network is no doubt her star-making turn; expect to see her name on a marquee soon. Though she and Craig at times struggle with the Swedish diction (the latter’s native British accent slips through more times than I can count) they more than make up for it with their physical personifications facial expressions etc. Yet it’s Skarsgard who is most impressive as the younger Vanger (he’s of Swedish descent) and delivers a stunning and chilling performance that will rival Mara’s in defining this film in years to come.
Still this is a Fincher film through and through and I cannot think of source material better suited for the maker of Se7en and Zodiac than this disturbing chronicle. Visually he’s given the opportunity to create damp decaying interiors familiar to fans of his work but contrasts them with beautifully filmed exteriors including some terrifying whiteout conditions that are sure to lower your body temperature. In terms of form he and editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall effectively lay out dual character arcs (that of Salander and Blomkvist) that run parallel but connect in uncanny ways until their eventual convergence resulting in a highly literary feel. Both Baxter and Wall won Oscars for cutting The Social Network and I’m afraid that their penchant for quick transitions between shots has a decreasing effect on the terror; for a film that so closely treads the line between horror-thriller I felt that letting certain shots play out a bit longer could’ve had more dreadful results.
Still in no way I am saying that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t come with its share of nail-biting suspense. Fincher takes tense situations to the next level using unconventional camera angles and Reznor’s unnerving score making many sequences in the movie hard to watch. It’s a tiring but entertaining task; one that is a pleasure and pain to endure but the auteur’s masterful methods are quite magical even when being used to tell a story as menacing as this one.
There’s nothing else playing at the multiplex this season that’s quite like it and should you choose to view it you’ll carry its shocks with you for days after.
What starts out as a case of mistaken identity turns into a war between two of New York’s most rival crime bosses: The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley) and The Boss (Morgan Freeman). They both believe laid-back Slevin (Josh Hartnett) staying at his absent friend’s apartment is the guy who owes them money--and they both set about to make sure he pays them back one way or another. The happy-go-lucky girl next door (Lucy Liu) tries to help Slevin unravel the mystery but the whole mistaken identity thing gets him into even more hot water when a relentless detective (Stanley Tucci) hounds him--and an infamous assassin Goodkat (Bruce Willis) tracks him. Looks like Slevin is going to have to come up with his own ingenious plot to get himself out of this fine mess he’s in. And I do mean ingenious. With character names such as “The Rabbi ” “The Boss ” “Goodkat ” and “The Girl Next Door” you know you’re in for some style over substance which is probably why the script attracted such a top-notch cast. Josh Hartnett (who starred in Slevin director Paul McGuigan’s weirdly romantic Wicker Park) tries something different as the affable Slevin a guy who seems pretty smooth on the surface but who has some seriously twisted ulterior motives. Liu also veers from her usual icy villainess to play Slevin’s kooky love interest bouncing all over the screen like a pinball. Willis revisits his Jackal character but adds a certain panache to the hit man role. And then there’s Kingsley and Freeman. As the Rabbi Kingsley deliciously chews things up while Freeman deftly plays his usual understated self as the Boss. When these two have their one and only confrontation the Oscar winners show us exactly what acting is all about. Lucky Number Slevin is a bit of an enigma. It starts off shaky. You feel like you’re watching something you’ve seen done a million times before: Mistaken identity quirky crime lords who want him dead the bumblin’ cop the hardened assassin. But in the capable hands of Scottish director Paul McGuigan(Gangster No. 1) things aren’t what they appear to be and soon you are thoroughly involved forgiving its formulaic beginning. Much like the recent Inside Man this is yet another excellent example of taking something prescribed and turning it on its ear. Of course much of the intelligence comes from the smartly written script by Jason Smilovic who supplies the actors with plenty of juicy mouthfuls. But Slevin makes you think. It makes you want to find the clues so you can figure out the puzzle. Or if you didn’t catch the clue have it shown to you in an inventive way. Thank god independent film these days offers such new and resourceful ways to watch staid themes.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
Only mildly titillating and not especially thrilling the wannabe erotic thriller In the Cut isn't able to rise to the occasion so to speak. This yawner stars Meg Ryan as Frannie a depressed creative writing teacher in New York who keeps mostly to herself unless it's to get together with her slutty half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Wary about love Frannie's seen how messed up relationships can get. The last guy Frannie dated an mentally unstable med student (Kevin Bacon) is stalking her while crazy sis Pauline is currently stalking a married man who has a restraining order against her. These people have serious issues and dour Frannie figures its easier just to fantasize about men and masturbate (hey don't we all?). Then she meets Det. James Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) an aggressive yet charismatic cop who questions her about the brutal murder of a woman in the neighborhood. Things get all screwy (in more ways than one) when the attraction between Frannie and Malloy grows and the slick detective ends up taking Frannie to some new sexual heights while at the same time strange occurrences are making her suspect Malloy is the murderer. Aw she's just so negative. It all comes to a head so to speak as the real murderer comes to light blah blah blah--but all we want to know is will Frannie finally find a good anti-depressant?
Along with so many actresses Meg Ryan apparently believes dying her hair brown wearing no makeup and sporting a sour and we suspect surgically enhanced face (she looks more nauseated than anything) gives her dramatic heft. And what about that gutsy move of showing a little frontal? Stop the presses--America's sweetheart bares her soul and her breasts! Unfortunately it all backfires. The usually perky Ryan can't dig deep enough to inhabit Frannie's miserable persona even though she's had practice (remember When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire) and with In the Cut she comes off looking worse than ever literally and figuratively with a wrist-slitting performance that only proves comedies will forever be her forte (where's Sally when you need her?) As the skanky cop Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me) fares a bit better but still telling a woman all the things you want do to her in bed in a flat emotionless voice doesn't help his case as a sexually provocative leading man. If Ryan's Frannie was not so lifeless maybe she and Malloy could have sizzled but they never connect. The always-good Leigh would have made a much better Frannie. As disturbed Pauline she turns in the most interesting performance of the film.
Director Jane Campion (The Piano) admits she was going for a specific look and feel with In the Cut that of the emotionally charged '70s dramas and thrillers such as the classic 1971 erotic thriller Klute about an emotionally distant prostitute who helps a detective solve a string of murders. In the Cut tries to be Klute--sans Jane Fonda's Oscar-winning performance as the prostitute and Donald Sutherland's superb turn as the smitten detective. Campion's film lacks both stellar performances and the street grit that made those older films so powerful though she does give the film the same drab grimy look of a '70s indie film to match the mood of her main characters (and what fun that is). Plus the way she annoyingly films scenes out of focus makes you think you've got myopia--the periphery is constantly out of focus. Rather than being artsy all this does is trigger a headache.
When he was 12 years old Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz) was recruited to attend a summer camp secretly run by the CIA. Four years later the Agency comes knocking on his door with a mission: He must get close to Natalie Connors (Hilary Duff) a prep school student in Cody's home town and the daughter of a scientist developing deadly nanobot technology for the evil organization ERIS. Problem is Cody is not the most confident guy when it comes to girls and meeting Natalie proves to be a mission in itself. Luckily for Cody his agency mentor is the stunning Ronica Miles (Angie Harmon) who knows a thing or two about relationships. Cody must now prove himself as an agent and stop ERIS from completing its mission. Can he do it? And more importantly will he get the girl? With its crop of predictable gadgets and two-dimensional villains Agent Cody Banks MGM's answer to James Bond for 'tweens is not too imaginative. But its likeable cast and characters make this pic a tolerable undertaking.
Muniz is only 16 years old but he's hardly a newcomer to Hollywood. He stars in Fox's hit sitcom Malcolm in the Middle and has two features My Dog Skip and Big Fat Liar under his belt. Muniz doesn't come across as a manufactured Hollywood kid actor and there is something refreshing about the fact that he doesn't use puppy dog eyes or speak childishly to wring sympathy out of moviegoers. He possesses an intelligence that comes through in his work especially here where he plays a quick-thinking operative. Duff meanwhile stars in her own hit Disney Channel series Lizzie Maguire a comedy about a young teenager and her animated alter ego. In Cody Banks Duff plays Natalie a smart and clever teen who doesn't have to follow the pack to be popular. Together Duff and Muniz make a snappy little onscreen duo. Rounding out the cast is Harmon (formerly of NBC's Law and Order) as Cody's proctor. Harmon obviously saw the humor in this part and ran with it. You'll love her leather outfits and shoulder-pad stuffed cleavage.
Director Harald Zwart's pint-sized secret agent flick is packed with silly but entertaining action sequences. The film starts off on a high as Cody jumps on his skateboard to save a toddler trapped inside a runaway car in a thrilling high-speed rescue. Although Agent Cody Banks has some lively action the storyline is a bit derivative and follows the basic spy formula of good versus evil complete with bald scarred villains seeking to destroy the world for no reason other than to be well evil. The gadgets--an important part of any spy movie--are also basic fare (think suction cup shoes and x-ray vision glasses). But the film is still fun to watch because a) it only runs 96 minutes leaving little time for boredom to set in b) it's got a really likeable cast and c) it doesn't take itself seriously. Zwart who directed the 2001 comedy One Night at McCool's lightens the film with some humorous touches here and there including playing Nelly's "Hot in Herre" whenever Ronica Miles makes a sultry entrance.
Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) is on top of his game--he's the eponymous star of the highest rated kid's TV show Rainbow Randolph has his own Times Square billboard and makes lots of money. Until that is he gets caught taking bribes from stage parents. Suddenly he becomes the social pariah of the millennium and of course gets canned. Losing Rainbow Randolph however leaves the network in a bind. Now they have to find a squeaky-clean replacement pronto. Enter Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) and his alter-ego Smoochy an abnormally large fuschia rhino who sings children's songs about kicking drug habits and stepdads who aren't mean but simply adjusting. With his naivete unwavering ethics and unflagging ambition to make the world a better place he becomes the new number one show. Sheldon soon learns however how cutthroat children's entertainment can be as the powers that be try to corrupt his ideals. Meanwhile a homeless Randolph makes it his number-one priority to destroy the bastard who stole his life. Who's going to get Smoochy first the corrupt businessmen or crazy Rainbow Randy? Stay tuned...
When you hear the Smoochy cast list--Williams Danny DeVito Jon Stewart Catherine Keener--you automatically think mondo laughs. Added to the list is Norton who may not be known for his comedic talents but certainly adds credibility to the movie especially given that he rarely picks bad scripts. Luckily no one disappoints. Norton plays the straight guy with aplomb and shines brilliantly when singing his sappy yet lesson-filled songs. Keener whom we haven't seen since her Oscar-nominated turn in Being John Malkovich is also a standout as the jaded development VP who falls for Sheldon's sweet manner. She has an uncanny way of delivering lines that bite to the bone. And then there's Williams--as always he has extraordinary moments of sheer hilarity in the film. This isn't one of those films where the comedian has to attempt to act or simply be reined in by the director (as some have done) to give a good performance. Director DeVito (who also plays the greedy agent) is wise enough to simply turn the camera on the comedian and let him go. Just wish we could have seen more of him.
Ever wonder what it would be like to kill Barney? We're betting DeVito thought about it quite often--and things never turn out good for that purple dinosaur. The premise of Smoochy is one of the funnier ones in recent memory and seems to follow the dark comedic path DeVito has chosen in his other directorial efforts including War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train. Unfortunately Smoochy doesn't quite hold up to its hype (or its trailers) because basically it focuses on the wrong character. It's got some great moments granted especially when Smoochy is on his show. But instead of being about Randy's obsession to do away with his replacement the film chooses to follow Mopes and deal with the dirty business of making a kid's show which appears to involve the Mob (whatever). Smoochy would have been a lot funnier if Randolph could have finally succeeded in his quest instead of getting all sappy.