The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Too Tired right now for the full post. I will get to it tomorrow. Preview though “Very Good”.

OK, I’m still tired but I need to get this done. I did not read any of the original books that this movie is based on but I have watched all three of the Swedish language films made from the series. The story was excellent and it is quite intricate. I found that I was able to follow the Swedish language version more clearly than this English language remake. It may have been that the sub-titles force you to pay more attention to details than a passive listener is likely to do. There are elements to this story that require the setting in Sweden, so the new version basically is the same movie done with international stars,but shot pretty much in the same locations as the Swedish language version. Production values are also a bit higher.

This is a dark and disturbing story. There are ideas and sequences in the film that are likely to haunt me the rest of my life. There is a brutal rape scene that was horrifying in both versions of the movie. This current version struck me as less explicit in the visual aspect of the sequence but stronger in the sound design and the acting. The retribution segment that is a follow up may seem less terrible simply because I knew what was coming. It is a comeuppance that is earned but is nearly as brutal as the act that inspired it. This post seems to be focusing on comparisons between the two movies, I suppose that is inevitable, but I don’t want to ignore those things that are unique to this particular movie.

Since I have been a James Bond fan all my life, title sequences are like manna to me. The Maurice Binder work on the Bond films was my introduction to titles. Earlier this week I saw a great opening title sequence in “The Adventures of Tin Tin”, this is the second title sequence this week that is noteworthy. The music you hear in the teaser trailer is used in the titles. The Led Zeppelin “Immigrant Song” actually build some tension and lets the audience know that this will be an unusual story we are about to see. The images are artistic visuals using black oil covered props, faces and human forms. We get a good idea from this that there are dark things coming in the next couple of hours.

I don’t know the actor from the Swedish version of the film but he was perfectly fine, I thought however that Daniel Craig was much more effective at playing a conflicted investigator. I was impressed by him in a sequence in the movie where he is in substantial danger. In the Bond character he plays, even when at the mercy of the bad guy, he comes across as tough. In this story he is not tough, he is defeated and you can see the expression on his face that another character is referring to at the time. It was a solid piece of acting. The actress from the Swedish version was solid, but I thought her performance weakened over the course of the other films. I don’t know how Mara Rooney will do in the subsequent versions should they choose to make them, but I think she is going to be pretty huge after this. She nails the character and makes us understand that there is anger in her but also a good deal of insanity. The end of the story as it is shown here, steals her potential breakthrough, although in the long run it is necessary for the other movies to work

The director David Fincher has done a couple of movies that I like really well and a couple of films that I can’t stand(Alien 3 and Fight Club could disappear and I would not shed a tear). “Zodiac” was the best film of it’s year but was largely ignored. He gets the creep factor up in two or three places and sustains it. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, needs that sort of suspense and creepiness, and it shows up in a couple of places, including the climatic revelation of the murder mystery. My memory was that there was a very limited sexual relationship in the Swedish film and it is more extended in the new version. I think that works at deepening the relationship between the two main characters but also showing the seeds of resentment that are going to be a part of the next couple of features, so for me this is a plus for this version. They made a commitment to extending the movie past the place that the mystery of the story is resolved. It is all set up for what comes next, the last twenty minutes of this movie were the first twenty minutes of the second of the Swedish films. This section was not as clear as in needed to be and it makes the film sag at the climax instead of sing.

It is hard to say that the movie is entertaining since it goes so many dark places. It was exciting and suspenseful and well crafted. I think the story telling in the original Swedish film was stronger but the acting and production here is better. I do think that there was a lot of honesty in the promo used in the teaser, “The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas”. The images and ideas are hanging around my head, and I don’t know that I like it, but I do know that the film worked because it left me with those feelings.

The Adventures of Tintin

Film making is a complicated and time consuming process. I am amazed at the number of professionals it takes to put together a single movie. When it comes to the logistics of creating a film, the director more than anyone else is responsible. I’m not talking about writing, or art work, or acting, or photography, or any of a dozen other specialties. I mean the work of putting those all into motion, shepherding them through the process, and making sure that all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. There are a hundred decisions a day and a movie means thousands of decisions. That is one of the reasons that directors since the 1960’s, are not likely to have a lot of movies out in a single year. When putting together a film in the Golden Age, the studios were factories that used assembly line type processes so a director could go from movie to movie as a hired hand. Since the end of the studio era, directors and producers have to be more than just technicians, they need to be entrepreneurs, and showmen, and hard nosed financial negotiators. Steven Spielberg, has had five years in his career in which he has put out two movies in a single calendar year. These week we get two Spielberg films within three days of each other. The last time I remember a film maker having two movie out that close to each other was in 1983 when John Badham had “War Games” and “Blue Thunder” in theaters at the same time. It happens a lot with actors, but it is rare for producers and directors.

Yesterday on Christmas we saw “War Horse”. Less than sixteen hours later we were sitting down to enjoy “The Adventures of Tintin”. These two films have very little in common when it comes to story, theme or style, yet they are both very much Spielberg films. “Tintin” is an action based adventure story along the lines of Indiana Jones. This is the Saturday serial form that Spielberg grew up loving and that he brought to life with the Indy series. This new film however is based on preexisting material and I think that puts a little bit of a straightjacket on Spielberg’s usual story telling skills. It is a great Adventure story, but it lacks some of the touches that we are used to from Mr. Spielberg. Those weaknesses are a result of the source. Tintin is a comic book serial. I first encountered the character in Boy’s Life magazine back in the sixties and seventies. We would get a story serialized over a few pages and then have to wait for the next month’s issue. Dramatic development is skimpy as a consequence and the focus has to be on action.

This movie is a motion capture animation movie. This allows incredibly complex action pieces to be visualized that could never really exist in the real world. It looks great but often lacks the tension that comes from identifying with a character at risk. This is a little strange because there are a lot of animated movies that achieve this objective. This story may lack some of these qualities because it is treated as a continuing series, we are not given anything about the lead character to care about or feel a connection to. Harrison Ford could make Indiana Jones come alive just by turning and facing the audience in his first revel. Tintin is introduced through a character drawing of an animated face, and it is a scene that has no tension to it. After that, he is simply a character we follow, without ever becoming the hero we invest in. On the other hand, his dog “Snowy” does achieve some degree of emotional life that will later make what happens work better.

There is quite a bit of humor in the film, most of it in the form of slap stick visual gags. these usually involve the other main character in the story, Captain Haddock. He is the comic side-kick but also the protagonist in much of the story. These seem like complicated roles to be playing simultaneously. I liked several of his lines of humorous dialogue and some of the visual tricks, but I don’t think he can carry the story on his back and that shows where the weakness of Tintin comes in. He has no distinct characteristics except his hair. That is not enough to build a two hour movie around. Because this is the first of a proposed movie Trilogy, we may get more in the later stories, but for the moment, the archetype of the intrepid young reporter simply feels empty.

The look of the movie is one of it’s strong points. The images match the look of the comic as I vaguely remember it and it has a very early twentieth century movie vibe. I especially liked the title sequence which was very reminiscent of Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” opening titles. The John Williams score is also very effective and it feels more jazzy than orchestral in nature which does work for the movie. It’s not that I’m disappointed in the movie, it is simply that I wanted it to be more emotionally involving. It stimulates and entertains but I never felt connected to it the way I have with most Spielberg pictures.

War Horse

A bit over a year ago, we heard Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, on the Mark and Brian Radio show. He had just come back to L.A. from a visit to New York. He could not stop talking about a play he had seen there which was done with puppets. He did not reveal any plot line or discuss the actors performances, he was simply entranced by the story and the stage craft.I happened to mention it to my daughter Amanda and I was surprised to find that she had heard about it. The play is called, “War Horse”. The reason she knew about it was the previous year in her cinema class on the movies of Steven Spielberg, the day they had Spielberg himself in, her professor was promoting this play to Spielberg as the next movie he ought to make. Now having seen the film, I can understand the enthusiasm he had for Spielberg to work with this material. It’s the story of a boy and his horse, set against the background of World War One. There are quaint vistas of early twentieth century England, the countryside of France, and horrific battle scenes that punctuate the story. This is Spielberg territory.

This movie is simply beautiful to look at. I am sure that the cinematography will be long remembered for displaying the rich countrysides in a variety of European locations. There are some dramatically lit night time battle scenes set in the trenches of both sides in the war, and a disturbingly dark and visually discrete sequence set in the barbed wire of no man’s land between the trenches. As the action shifts from a farm to a battlefield on another farm and then plunges us into the woods, the lighting is used to show location and mood very effectively. There are also some tense and dramatic scenes set in a windmill that also show the cinematography here is not just noticeable because the locations are incredibly beautiful. Of course what will be easily scoffed at by detractors of the film will be the golden tinted skies over Devon England, and the rich colors of the land that the tenant farmers are trying to plow to eek out a living. The poster shows you some of the beauty that Spielberg will inevitably be criticized for lingering over in a harsh dramatic story. It’s as if some people want to sweep aside the craft that made movies from the forties and fifties so vibrantly colorful. I remember people bitching about how gorgeous “The Color Purple” was while all the rape and wife beating was going on. I really think mood can be enhanced not only by highlighting the dark areas of life but also by contrasting those bright spots with the dark events going on in that world.

So, it is a horse story but it is not “National Velvet” or “The Black Stallion”. The title tells you right away that this is a violent story of war that this horse is going to be a part of. There are heroes and villains on both sides of this war. None of the villains are deliberately cruel, rather they are brutally cynical and rationalist about the events that go on in the story. The only character that I thought was clearly evil, was the landlord introduced in the first part of the movie while events are still set in England. After the war story begins, the cruelty is not of the malicious kind from a “Snidely Whiplash” type character. The terrible things that we see are part of the nature of war, and so the experience feels more universal to us. It often comes down to how people relate to animals. If you can’t imagine a bond between a person and an animal that is emotionally deep, then you are not going to be as strongly effected by the fate that befalls many of the animals serving in this war. Of course you are also not going to be able to relate to this movie either.

I found the relationship between the humans and the horses in the story to be very real. The farmers connect to the horses in a different way than the soldiers do, but regardless of side, soldiers still find something to connect with about the horse. There is also a very big sub plot concerning the relationship of two horses to one another. I imagine this was the hook that made the puppetry on stage work so well. Here it felt slightly underdeveloped, probably in part because of how expansive the story turns out to be. The two most emotional scenes in the movie from my point of view, concern the emotional sacrifice that one horse wants to make for another, and the suspension of hostility between soldiers that see the horse as a truly wondrous animal. The second scene was the one that everyone in our group was talking about after the movie. This film is rated PG-13, but it is a tough PG-13 rating. There are some deeply disturbing moments that do not show blood and guts but do tune us into the costs of war in emotionally scarring ways. so be warned.

We are all probably a little jaded sometimes by animal stories. The sentimentality seems like a cheap way to tap into our emotions and give us a feeling that has not been earned. To be honest, that works for me most of the time, but I felt like Spielberg was holding back on making use of the natural inclination of many to attache to an animal. I thought the final emotions were earned by the story telling and not just by the setting and characters. I would love to see how this story plays out on stage with puppets standing in for the horses. Until the play makes its way out west her, I guess I can live with the fine film that Steven Spielberg has made out of the play. Some of the images will live in my head a long time, they were not always pretty, but they sure looked amazing as I was watching.

Muppet Christmas Carol

Amanda has us on our Christmas Movie Advent Calendar countdown. Last night was Scrooged, and tonight we had The Muppet Christmas Carol. There are so many variations on this Charles Dicken’s story, it would be hard to count them all. When Andy Williams sings “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, there is a lyric that says, “they’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago”. Dolores asked me, what scary stories are there about Christmas? I had to point out that A Christmas Carol is in fact a ghost story. I remember watching the Alister Sim version in 1993, at 1:00 in the morning as I was wrapping gifts, the day of Christmas. It always puts me closer to the spirit of Christmas than any other element of the holiday.

The Muppet Christmas Carol has become my favorite variation of the Christmas Carol Story. It features the magnificent Michael Caine, who I first noticed in the movie Zulu, back in the 1960s, and who is still working and impressing today. Caine does a couple of things with this movie that are essential to make it work and keep the essence of the story in tact, despite the fact that it is being told by puppets. First of all, he plays it very straight. There is no winking at the camera, he is not the comic lead, he is the dramatic center that all the other Muppet characters react to. He on the other hand takes no notice that he is having conversations with rats, frogs, pigs etc. All the Muppets are simply other actors in the story and he treats the story seriously. Second, this is a musical, and therefore Michael Caine will be called on to sing. He does not have a singer’s voice. He does however achieve the same kind of effective “talk singing” style that Rex Harrison achieved in “My Fair Lady”. He can sell the songs that he needs to get through but the main work is carried by others.

The songs in this movie may not be perennial Christmas tunes, but they are all quite tuneful. The opening number which introduces Scrooge is particularly amusing and has a nice hook to it. There are clever bits of humor in other songs as well and they carry the story with a lot of perky bravado. The slower ballad lament song is sentimental and easy to listen to but it would not be easy to sing along with. The songs were written by Paul Williams, who does not work enough these days in the film business. He probably doesn’t need to because he may have been one of the most successful songwriters of the 1970’s and can get by on licensing his music everywhere. His Hollywood career may have been cut short by his participation in the movie “Ishtar”, but I’m still waiting for the song score from that movie to show up somewhere. It was promised, but when the film tanked, those plans went out the window. The bad songs in that film were deliberately stupid but in a brilliant comedic way. His cleverness with a melody and a lyric are on full display with the Muppets singing his funny lyrics with just the right amount of silliness.

We originally saw the movie in Hollywood at the El Capitan Theater. The El Capitan is the Disney Operated upscale theater on Hollywood Blvd, directly across the street from the Chinese Theater and the Kodak Theater. We went two years in a row at Christmas time to see first runs of films there. In 1991 we saw “Beauty and the Beast” and in 1992 we saw “The Muppet Christmas Carol”. The films were preceded by a holiday themed live action show featuring Disney characters and Christmas Carolers. Also, there is live organ music played on a huge Wurlitzer organ. Both years the weekends we went were chilly, the movies were exclusive to that theater for the week, and it felt like we were in an old movie set in New York at Christmas time. I may be clouding my impression of the movie with my nostalgia for that experience, but I still think anyone would like this film.

Not everyone appreciates the Muppets. I can’t understand that very well since I love them. I was not a Sesame Street kid, but I did get into the Muppets when they were on TV and I was in college. All of the Muppet films have been a part of my life, this was the first one that I got to share with my kids and pass on the love of these characters. They stick very closely to the story here and the occasional slapstick humor does not detract from the true meaning of the themes. I get warm and Fozzy, just thinking about how much I love this movie. I hope all of you reading will seek it out and enjoy it again if you haven’t seen it in a while, or discover real Christmas joy if you are new to it. Merry Christmas, and God Bless us every one.

Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

This movie opened on IMAX Theaters this weekend, almost a week before it’s regular engagements. There is every reason in the world for this. First it has some amazing scenes that in IMAX take your breath away. The building climbing sequence set in Dubai, is likely to cause your head to spin and your stomach to churn if you are subject to height based vertigo at all. We went to a Real IMAX theater, not one of these pseudo-IMAX imposters that have popped up in the last four or five years. When the screen is seven stories tall and you are looking at a scene set 130 stories above the ground, believe me, it is impressive. There are more sections where the big screen images enhance the film as well, but the other big reason to go and see it in IMAX is that the trailer playing with the movie, is the first six minutes of next summers “The Dark Knight Rises”. This movie promises to be as involving and special as the other Chris Nolan Batman films have been. So there is a little bonus to go with your Tom Cruise fix, not that it is required, The fourth Mission Impossible movie gives you double your investment in pleasure, it is action suspense at it’s finest.

Brad Bird, the director of this movie, made “The Incredibles”, which is my favorite Pixar film. It was also the best spy, super hero movie of the last decade, Now he has taken his gifts for James Bond style espionage tone, and put it into a live action spy movie. The opening sequence and subsequent Title section, live up to that whole Incredibles vibe. There is a long set up, punctuated by perfectly timed pauses in action, and highlighted by shots that linger ever so slightly on an important image. All of this is backed by the iconic Lalo Schiffrin theme from the original TV series. In previous installments of the franchise, we had to wait for the theme to kick in at the right moment. I remember when “Goldeneye” relaunched the James Bond series with Pierce Brosnan as 007, we did not get the Bond theme until two thirds of the way through the film. The same happened on the first Mission Impossible, and in both cases, the timing was exquisite. Instead of playing on the same delayed gratification note here, Bird commits to the music cue early on and then uses it freely during the rest of the film.

There are several ingenious set pieces in the movie. The aforementioned skyscraper climbing scene is the most visually spectacular. It sets up quickly, plays out dramatically and take advantage of the splendor of the desert visual from atop the world’s tallest building. It is filled with suspense but also a little bit of humor to make us continue to relate to Ethan Hunt and his IMF team. The most inventive sequence takes place in a multi-storied Mumbai parking garage. With a series of hydraulic lifts and rotating platforms, a spectacular fight sequence takes place with the prize suitcase dangling off of edges and tantalizingly close but often just out of reach. There is one piece of show off storytelling that was a little too much for my taste. Jeremy Renner, is excellent as an analyst thrust into Hunt’s team. He is clearly more capable than he should be, but he does get used for comic relief in one stunt that did not look very convincing and made little sense. Other than this bit of anti-gravity CGI trickery, the movie sustains it’s reality very well.

Tom Cruise has been an action star since 1986. He often looked like a kid playing a grown up in Top Gun, here he is a mature looking adult, but has the stamina and good looks of a man twenty years his junior. Many people are unable to get past the over the top personal behavior that was shown on Oprah a few years ago, but to me, that has nothing to do with my enjoyment of an actors performance. If I had to carry the baggage of everything an actor said or did off screen with me into a theater, I would be hard pressed to enjoy most films. The decision of Paramount Chief Summer Redstone to severe the studio’s long term agreement with Cruise after the last Mission Impossible film, now looks to be petulant as opposed to forward thinking. Cruise still delivers here and Paramount is lucky that he wanted to keep this franchise going.

There are some flaws in the storytelling in the movie. I thought there were several cheats that allowed movement from one part of the story to the next. There is a complexity to some of the background plotting which makes things more complicated to follow than necessary. I know that it is a spy film, but we should be able to know why something is important, especially five minutes after it has been revealed. There are still things I’m not clear on why they were included. I will say we got a couple of nice payoffs in the coda to the story, and it looks like this series could continue for a while, which would be perfectly fine by me. Let’s blow some more stuff up and chase around in fast cars with hot women and gadgets. The original TV series was inspired by the original Bond movies, and now the Movie franchise is raising the stakes for the next Bond movie. Until “Skyfall” net November, we have Ethan Hunt and the IMF team to keep us happy for the interim.