Friday, December 23, 2011

Dark, Dreary and Disturbing: Dragon Tattoo Becomes Another Must Watch from David Fincher

    Many of my (not very smart) friends would claim that I don't like anything that is popular, and I would even go out of the way to not watch, read, or listen to something if too many people like it. This statement is usually wrong. When it came to Stieg Larsson's bestselling "Millennium" trilogy--which begins with the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--the statement rings more true: at one point in time in the past couple of years, it seemed like every living human was reading one of the three books, with their colorful covers and unique titles.
     So I decided not to read the books, particularly once I learned that David Fincher was adapting the first book of the trilogy into a film (same title). My thought: Fincher, one of the best directors working today, would make the story the best version possible. I still haven't read the books (though after watching the film my interest has risen), so I cannot attest to the versions of the characters, plot points, plot twists or narrative of Larsson's written word. There will not be any comparisons here. What I'm sure of is simple: Fincher has created another great film, continuing that trend from last year's incredible The Social Network. It's brutal, doesn't hold back any punches, and although the climax comes quickly and is a little less exciting than I expected, the American film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the year's best, anchored by Fincher's deft direction, Trent Reznor's beautiful and haunting soundtrack, and Rooney Mara's star-making turn as the wounded and wound-giving Lisbeth Salander.
     The story is extremely complicated at first for the uninitiated (me). Remember the first scene of The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend (who is actually played by Rooney Mara, if you can believe it) are talking fast and hurtful? Words fly by at a bullet's pace, snapping and insinuating in a sarcastic tone. The first part of Dragon Tattoo is like this too, except its about libel and a murder investigation and everyone is speaking in a Swedish accent. The basics: Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, looking disheveled and tired), a journalist/publisher who does stories for Millennium magazine, loses a libel case against a man named Erik Wennerstrom with money to burn. He's in trouble, and his reputation has been flushed down the shitter. Soon after, he's invited to an island by a man named Henrik Vanger. Vanger knows that it would be beneficial for Blomkvist to leave town and let the dust settle after his court case, so he commissions Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his great niece Harriet, who wandered off 36 years ago never to be heard from again. Vanger will pay him double his normal salary and even give him some inside information about Wennerstrom (that would help overturn the libel case) if he figures out what happened to Harriet. Commence the murder mystery.
     Throughout all of this, we meet Lisbeth Salander, an asocial gender-bending badass who is an expert at computer hacking and surveillance. Lisbeth and Mikael's paths cross when Mikael realizes that Lisbeth's talents would be extremely beneficial to the investigation of a family that lives cut off to the outside world (on the cold, snowy island) and hold secrets like lovers hold hands. As Lisbeth and Mikael's relationship grows, so do the lies and complex plot twists involving the Vanger family and that fateful day 36 years ago when Harriet either went missing, ran away from home, or was murdered.
     Girls kicking ass: it holds a soft spot in my heart. Clearly more audiences want an interesting female heroine to root for, myself included. Men shooting each other and uttering corny catchphrases is only interesting for so long. Lisbeth, surely, is one of the best female characters of the year. A self-admitted psycho, she is a ward of the state due to her violence and anti-social behavior. As previously stated, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is brutal. Most of that brutality deals with Lisbeth and men that take her strength for granted. Her scenes are not for the weak of heart: they involved forced blowjobs, anal rape and extreme violence. She's had a tough life, and we know that because it's depicted with a wounded ferocity by Rooney Mara. Every sarcastic reply, tear, scream and expression of sadness is portrayed brilliantly by the total physical transformation and acting of this great young actress. Her ability anchors the sometimes disjointed plot and occasionally predictable twists.
     The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn't David Fincher's best directorial effort. But that doesn't especially say much, considering he made the classics Seven, Fight Club, and The Social Network. It's still one of my favorites this year, even if when you take away all of the stylistic flourishes, awesome acting and setting the story boils down to a murder mystery that would be right at home in a show like AMC's The Killing. But that's okay, though: the dark direction is impeccable, the pacing incredible, the acting awe-inspiring. When the credits roll on the other two stories in Lisbeth Salander's trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, my only hope is that the same cast, crew, producers and musicians are listed, because I surely will have been wowed again.     (A-)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Choose to Accept Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

   After John Woo's crapfest Mission Impossible II, the already-getting-tired series took a new direction as TV wonder boy J. J. Abrams took the helm. It was a great success: Ethan Hunt's adventures turned darker and more serious, predominantly due to Abram's directing efforts and Philip Seymour Hoffman's scary turn as a villain with no mercy. (Is there any other kind in films like these?) For Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (MI:GP), Abrams and his producing company handed over the franchise to another exciting director, Brad Bird, making his first live-action film after three animated classics: The Iron Giant and Pixar's The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The jump to real life is a smooth one: Bird and the new and returning cast have created one of the most exciting, vertigo-inducing, action-packed films of the year.
     You've all seen the advertising (and the movie poster to the right). It has Cruise dangling off the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, wearing gloves that would make Spiderman shoot sticky white stuff. I almost shot out a different bodily fluid because of some of the incredible IMAX-camera-shot scenes that are not for the faint of heart if you're not a big fan of heights. It's the movie's best action set piece, and MI:GP is full of them: an elaborate prison break set to the soothing voice of Dean Martin, a break-in to the inside of the Kremlin in Russia (involving some of the most creative gadgetry seen in these types of spy films), a lavish party set in a mansion in Mumbai--they're all here, and they're all, particularly in IMAX, breathtaking to behold.
     The plot is typical and not especially important, which is one of the few detriments of the film. It involves the typical foreign baddie looking for nuclear codes, nuclear devices, nuclear anything. The world will end unless the IMF team stops it. It's not hard to imagine the climax of the film involving a countdown and a missile flying through the air. It does, however, have one cool twist: after a bombing at the Kremlin in Russia, the U. S. Government initiates "Ghost Protocol" (hence the title), in which they denounce any undercover agency. The IMF team is alone and in the dark.
     That leaves Hunt to lead his team through various exotic locations of the world. The characters are more interesting than typical: Simon Pegg is back in the role of Benji, and he gets to flash much more than his wit this time around (though he is the most amusing of the characters). Paula Patton is the feisty, big-breasted Jane who is out for revenge after her lover--another agent--is killed by a woman assassin. Nothing like a little girl-on-girl. Jeremy Renner, who lately seems to be great in any scene that he acts in, is the best new addition; he's a calm bad-ass with secrets that plays as a nice foil to Cruise's more frantic, nervous Ethan Hunt. They all have integral roles in each action set-piece, playing off of each other like a cast that has been together through numerous sequels.
     You would never guess that this was Brad Bird's first live-action directorial movie. But it does make sense: many animated films have high-action (particularly the ones that Bird has directed in the past). Like The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is, at times, incredible. But like all action spy films, some things are ridiculous and some things are predictable. But you don't walk into a theater and buy tickets to this movie expecting to be surprised or expecting the subject matter to be very serious. You walk in wanting your pulse to jump higher and your eyes to look in awe and wonder. On that account, Mission Accomplished.     (B+)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Different Sort of Clooney: The Descendants Review

     Alexander Payne's films are divisive, quirky, and hit-or-miss. It's been years since I've seen Election, but it didn't particularly leave an impression on my one way or the other. 2004's About Schmidt was the sort of sad, slow slog that turns many viewers off when thinking of independent pictures with critical acclaim. 2002's Sideways, on the other hand, is an incredible story of hope, friendship, and wine that would easily fit on the list of my favorite films ever. It's been seven years since that wonderful journey of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, and Payne's newest film--The Descendants--had very high expectations. Fortunately, it's more Sideways than Schmidt. George Clooney's newest is a tale that is sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful and always sad and uncomfortable. It's the anti-Transformers, a film that is, above all, real.
     A film starring George Clooney as a father raising his cute family on the beautiful beaches and hills of Hawaii? Sounds like a good, safe time. Luckily, the film isn't just that. It begins with a great shot of Matt King (Clooney)'s wife smiling and basking in the tropical sun as she rides a watercraft across the blue sea. It's the last time we'll see her in a non-vegetative state. You see, Mrs. King is a thrill seeker, and her latest endeavor had a major cost: her livelihood. She's in a coma, and Matt must take the reigns and learn to raise two teenage girls alone. He's a self-admitted "back-up parent," and really has no clue how to deal with the seemingly crazy 10-year-old Scottie, a rambunctious ball of energy, or the 17-year-old Alex, who has recently started to dabble in drinking and drugs in an act of rebellion.
     Matt's stress only starts here: his family can be traced back decades and decades in the lovely land of Hawaii, back to some of the original land owners. His family (mostly cousins) holds a vast landscape of untouched beaches and turquoise waters that many of them want to sell for millions of dollars. Although the 25,000 acres are owned by his entire family, for unlucky reasons Matt is the sole trustee. He is the one to make the final decision. Hotels and golf courses would be built immediately, if he sells. Obviously, most of the population on this particular island in Hawaii doesn't want the land deal to go through--they are protective of their virgin views, and a Donald Trump-like entity willing to destroy the natural beauty with condos, roads and thousands of tourists is the last thing in the world that would be beneficial.
    Matt's luck worsens when he realizes that his wife has been having an affair. It's through all of these horrible events in Matt's life that we realize there are no simple answers to the difficult events that life throws at us. Clooney is great in this part, a much different turn than his usual smiling, cocky and slick roles where he has no real problems. Everything is connected in complex ways: his wife's growing unhappiness before her unfortunate accident, his children (particularly Alex) coming to grips with difficult decisions and possibly losing a parent, the land deal which would ruin an incredible landscape but make a select few tens of millions of dollars, and his wife's lover, a man that's important in every aspect of the film. We follow this journey with Clooney, through every action, facial expression and thought. He's never been better.
     We care about the characters in The Descendants. Their problems might echo some of ours, but even if they don't it's easy to relate to them. That's what director Alexander Payne is great at, as we've seen throughout all of his films: thoughtful, realistic characters that deal with problems in a way in which you or I might. We understand the decisions that the King family makes, even if some of them are not agreeable. And even if our descendants, in the coming years and generations to come, face much bigger and different problems, we can only hope they take them head on with the same type of thoughtful poise and passion as the characters in Payne's films.     (A-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sitter Belongs in The Shitter

     A few months ago, I made the mistake of receiving director David Gordon Green's first comedy of this year, Your Highness, in the mail. I ran to the mailbox in a state of joy, invited some friends over, and popped the Blu Ray into my PS3, hoping to experience hilarity ensuing in a similar fashion to Green's perfect comedy, Pineapple Express. James Franco and Kenny Powers himself couldn't let me down, right? Wrong. Your Highness was total dog shit. The type of dog shit that gets into the treads of your shoe and then gets transferred and smeared into your carpet and no matter how hard you try, you can't get the stench out of the room. Then you accidentally get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and remnants get squished beneath your foot and get lodged underneath your big-toe nail. Terrible, to say the least. Now comes along Green's second comedy of the year, The Sitter, starring pube-head Jonah Hill (still morbidly obese at this time) as a babysitter who goes on an adventure involving drugs, sex and racial stereotypes. Fortunately, The Sitter doesn't reach the depths of a toilet bowl after a Chipotle cornitas-and-corn-burrito-fueled dinner, but it still reeks of any average turd.
     The plot is simple and super predictable: Hill, feeling bad that his single mom has to miss a date because she can't find a babysitter, decides to look after three kids for a night to be nice and maybe earn some Brownie Points at home. He's a sit on the couch "do what I say or I'll kill you" kind of babysitter, if you haven't seen the trailer (which contains the best parts of the movie). The kids and Hill end up leaving the house and going on an adventure, since the girl Hill has been seeing in a cunnilingus-only relationship calls and realizes she wants to take their relationship to next level: sex. She also wants an 8-ball of Coke, a perfect plot device to get Hill and the children into some hairy situations. I said hairy not hilarity, and hilarity most definitely does not ensue.
    The children in the film are not really at fault, but they don't add much to the picture either; they're rarely very funny. Blithe, the young one, is a girl who dresses up in slutty clothing and recites vulgar rap lyrics. You can picture her singing Katy Perry songs, even if she's not mature enough to realize that the song is about binge drinking and fucking strangers. Slater has anxiety problems and is on a myriad of medications, which I assume is the films not-so-subtle stab at parents over-medicating their children. He's the one that eventually comes to a realization about his young life, with the help of Hill's babysitter (like he would be extremely insightful about life lessons). Rodrigo is the token adopted Hispanic, the trouble maker, the one who puts cherry bombs into toilets and watches them explode. So we follow Hill and the kids on the search for sex, drugs and rock & roll. Not much really happens--surely nothing that can be considered laughable--but luckily the film's 82 minute run time is short enough to not have to suffer too terribly.
     These types of movies are growing tiresome; no, I'm not talking about raunchy comedies that throw every vulgarity in the book at you faster than Deadwood. I'm talking about boring comedies that are not funny and are, above everything else, lazy. Nothing here is original, and situations get thrown at the characters that don't make much sense. The scenes that do follow a logical plot line are too predictable to enjoy. Recently, Jonah Hill shed a huge percentage of his body weight to get healthier, live longer, and--I can only assume--try and land a beautiful girl. Here's hoping the shedding of the fat will help him regain some laughs.     (D+)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hugo: Scorsese Turns Back the Clock in a Timeless Classic for All Ages

       It's clear that Martin Scorsese has all of the tools that a director needs to create incredible and fascinating films that deal with violence and criminals barely holding on the edge of our society. Whether it be Robert DeNiro portraying Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), men with violent tempers and even more horrible minds, or Daniel Day-Lewis playing the murderous Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, Scorsese's knack for crazy characters, quick cuts, tracking shots, and wounds spurting blood raises heart rates and turns stomachs (in the best way possible). Scorsese's newest film, Hugo, does a complete 180° compared to his usual subject matter. You won't see heads getting squished into vices or pens getting jabbed into jugulars here; Hugo is one for the family. And if this is what family entertainment is like, consider me a family man: Hugo is an epic story that is different than any other picture Scorsese has directed, yet it ranks among some of his greats. 
     Don't call this a kids movie though. It surely isn't just that. A big-budget movie released during the holiday season (in 3-D no less!) may seem like the typical family fare. Instead, it's atypical: filled with an innocence that is lost in just about every other film played by and played for children (other than this year's super Super 8) and many hidden metaphors--the most noticeable of which deals with a plea of film preservation--Hugo defies even the most skeptical of expectations. 
     Hugo the film is based on a 2007 book titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret written by Brian Selznick. Like the book, the story is about a boy named Hugo (played well by Asa Butterfield) who lives in the walls of a Paris railway station, taking care of all of the clocks that need tuning and setting every day. This ain't the digital age: these clocks are super fucking intricate, with thousands of mechanical pieces and moving parts, some of which are ten times the size of Hugo himself. Hugo has no family to speak of, so instead of getting dragged off to the orphanage (a place that the film portrays as horrible), he lives in secret rooms and passages throughout the walls of the huge train station. Hugo is like a mouse, rarely making a peep and stealing food and mechanical parts when he gets the chance. Most mice have entities that want to destroy them, and Hugo is no different: Mr. Inspector Gustav (a great role for Mr. Ali G himself, playing more subtle than showy, which is a nice change) is constantly on guard with his ferocious dog, ready to pull any orphan boy kicking and screaming to the cage in his office. 
    Hugo's father was a clock maker and his uncle was the former clock tinkerer in the train station. The last time Hugo saw his father, Hugo left with dad's most prized possession: a broken automaton, a self-operating machine with the intricacies of a clock, the look of a human-like robot, and a wind-up keyhole with no key. Figuring out the Automaton and the missing key is the mystery for the rest of the film. Will the machine wake up with a message from father? Will it stand up and dance, like this freak? Or will it stay broken forever, its difficulty of operation sealing its secrets? Scorsese's deft direction of the adventure is God damned great. Hugo meets many colorful characters along the way, the most significant of which are train station toy shop owner Papa Georges (acted by Ben Kingsley, always awesome) and his granddaughter, who hold many important secrets of their own. 
     As the extravagant adventure unfolds, the real metaphor of the film takes shape: it's truly a call-to-arms about film preservation and the importance of cinema as a whole. Films are like dreams, and nobody in their right mind would want to live without either. They transport us to places we never expected or never even knew we wanted to go. It's an interesting choice, to say the least, that Scorsese chose Hugo as his first 3-D movie, a technology that has grown totally tiresome over the last year. Thankfully, Hugo, which was shot with 3-D cameras and not converted-to later, like most of the shit-stained films that try to "utilize" the technology, is easily the best 3-D film to date (sorry, Avatards). Like with subtitled films, you know the movie is good when you forget about them. You forget about the 3-D here because it's so seamlessly used in the enchanting world that is this peculiar Paris train station.
     Hugo, ultimately, is about the birth of many things: the world of film and special effects, the first spark of love when holding hands with another, the discovery of what you were meant to do in this machine-like world. It teaches us a lesson: you don't have to be forgotten, as long as you do something that you find meaning in. And it does what movies do best, transporting you from the problems and concerns of everyday life to another world in which love blooms and dreams are born. Ben Kingsley's character Papa Georges has a line that's sad but all too often seems true: "Life has no happy endings." But I disagree. With directors like Scorsese and films like Hugo, how can one not be hopeful of their own happiness?     (A)