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.
Exposition is often an unfortunate but necessary evil in movies but at least Smokin' Aces hammers it immediately. After we are privy to everything two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear during a tapped phone call at mob boss Primo Sparazza’s (Joseph Ruskin) home the table is quickly set: There’s a $1 million bounty on the head of magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) for squealing. It’s a hefty sum and as we’re then told by a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) interested in collecting the “reward ” a veritable all-star team of criminal masterminds has lined up to try and smoke Aces--including: the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine Kevin Durand Maury Sterling) a trio of uber-sadistic skinheads; a tag team of feministic hitwomen (Alicia Keys Taraji P Henson); a ruthless knife-wielding madman (Nestor Carbonell); a near shapeshifter (Tommy Flanagan) himself a sort of magician; and the bail bondsman narrator’s two buddies (Martin Henderson Peter Berg) and oddball lawyer (Jason Bateman). Not only is everyone up against the Feds but they’ll also have to survive Aces’ henchmen (Common Christopher Michael Holley) and each other’s lust for the (blood) money. Not that he’s the proverbial “lead”--no one really is--but Piven in his first true Entourage-afforded role is the story’s central figure. Surprisingly deep and multilayered Piven’s performance is very strong and affecting but buried beneath constant rapid cuts to one of the seemingly infinite other characters’ high-octane arcs. Reynolds ably switching from Van Wilder-type roles to cop with a 'tude is the closest thing to a good guy along with his partner in non-crime Liotta who was a perfect fit in the director’s Narc just like he is here. But the baddies are where the real fun’s at. It’s fine that Affleck’s role is extremely short but out of his crew for Henderson (The Ring) to get more face time than Bateman is criminal. Bateman’s performance is quick-witted a la his Arrested Development character but even funnier. Oh well--onto the musician actors: Common and Keys both essentially making debuts simply perpetuate the truism of musicians having a much easier time of acting than vice versa especially Keys who plays totally against the pop-queen image she’s built via music. Andy Garcia also has a small and predictable role as an FBI deputy and Matthew Fox makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan picked a bad release time. The buzz-ards feel the need to compare it to the recently Oscar-ed The Departed and hell you'd think Pulp Fiction was just released too with the way Tarantino's name is being name-dropped. Neither is fair and truth is the only similarity is the casual bloodshed and its often comedic context courtesy of Carnahan. The director who burst onto the scene with ‘02’s aforementioned Narc doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but he’s not ripping off anyone more than any other director. He actually imparts a good deal of originality for the better part of the movie blending comedy with carnage at breakneck speeds. The issue of not having a traditional “hero” also has its pluses because you’ll never be able to look at someone’s face and name and predict his or her lifespan. But still the story is where Smokin' Aces falters. The beginning and end seem like pieces of two different flicks and nothing more than stabs at coolness is actually transpiring in between. Ultimately Carnahan’s spunky effort makes for great but forgettable fun; however you get the feeling he didn’t quite want it to be so forgettable.
At least Bewitched has the smarts to reinvent itself contemporizing rather than going for a straight remake. First we meet Isabel (Nicole Kidman) a naïve good-natured witch who wants to give up her supernatural powers to lead a "normal" life--much to the chagrin of her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine). He doesn't believe she can do it. Neither do we. Then on the other side of town we meet Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a nearly washed-up actor who's done one too many bad films. To get back on track he decides to do an updated version of the beloved 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As the mere-mortal Darrin Wyatt would be the star of the show not the actress cast as Samantha. In order for that to happen a nobody must play the witch. Lo and behold Jack runs into Isabel who can manipulate her dainty nose in just the right wriggle. He persuades her to take the part while she sees Jack as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead the normal life she so desires. Think it'll work out? (Cue the Bewitched theme song).
We all know Kidman can play complicated and romantic and Ferrell can do comedy. But in Bewitched they each try to do something beyond those skill sets. Unfortunately they can't quite pull it off. Kidman of course is a consummate actress. She can take on just about any character and make it her own including the slightly ditzy eternally cute Isabel. And so she taps into her inner witch once again (like she did in Practical Magic). But trying to remake comedies (like The Stepford Wives) especially something as balls-out as Bewitched doesn't really suit the Oscar winner all that well. And in Ferrell's case he hilariously handles all of Bewitched's improvisational comedic moments as expected. But watching him try to be a romantic leading man is a bit cringe-worthy. I mean if you can make smooching on Nicole Kidman look uncomfortable you certainly aren't doing the job. As far as the rest of the cast everyone is pretty much wasted in one form or another. Caine as Isabel's debonair roué of a father and Shirley MacLaine as the diva-esque actress who plays Bewitched's wonderful Endora have a couple of bright moments but don't get nearly enough to do. The same goes for Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Jack's unctuous agent and Kristin Chenoweth (from the Broadway musical Wicked) as Isabel's spirited neighbor. Even Steve Carrell (TV's The Office) as the irascible Uncle Arthur can't offer the right spontaneity. What a shame.
One of Bewitched's saving graces however is writer-director Nora Ephron. She knows romantic comedies having helmed such hits as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as well as writing the quintessential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. Bewitched is right up her alley and she fluffs it up like a pro. Yet overall the film is just too darn silly for its own good. Maybe Bewitched suffers from the whole TV-turned-film phenomena in general. The idea of taking such classic TV favorites and adapting them into feature films continues to prove there isn't a shred of originality left in the studio system. But sometimes the concept works (Starsky & Hutch is one that comes to mind). Fans like me are curious as to how filmmakers will rework the material and are especially interested in who they decide to cast to play those beloved icons. We end up giving each one of these big-screen treatment iterations a chance--and are usually disappointed. Bewitched is no exception. Besides being only mildly entertaining to diehard fans Bewitched's inside jokes will most likely go over the heads of those who can't tell Samantha Darrin Endora Aunt Clara Uncle Arthur or Mrs. Kravitz from the characters on I Dream of Jeannie. Probably best just to own the sitcom's DVD collection instead.