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At The Movies

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
For all of the collective love affairs with the movies, American audiences are far less enamored of films they have to read. Hence this retread of the earlier Swedish adaptation of the first of Stieg Larsson’s popular trilogy. The same was done recently with the “Let the Right One In”/”Let Me In” pair of vampire movies, although this time the new adaptation seems like a better match for the original film.

One of the factors that makes the second “…Dragon Tattoo” work where “Let Me In” didn’t, is the retention of the Swedish setting, with a severe sense of long, bleak, winteriness that seems to invade the characters’ spirits. It’s also probably better paced for the new audience, although I actually preferred the more deliberate pacing of the original in what is, after all, a slow investigation of old police records, accounts, and photographs. It’s not a story that requires rapid development – any more than those old snapshots.

The casting is a mixed bag of successes also, with Rooney Mara seeming to inhabit the character of Lisbeth Salander more than Daniel Craig does with Mikael Blomqvist. Michael Nyqvist, in the Swedish version, had more of an everyman appearance that made him seem like his journalistic successes were probably more genuine. It’s still a great story, although it seems to have lost some of its sense of dread – but then again that might just be a result of increased familiarity.

Second Opinion

by Malcolm Maclachlan
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” isn’t playing very well with female audiences—reportedly due to extreme scenes of violence against women, one famous sequence in particular.
But the story’s inherent contradictions are also more jarring in living color. It is, let’s face it, a squirmy orgy of feminism and female hypersexuality, a self-righteous lust and revenge fantasy written by a dead man who wanted us to believe that it’s all ok because he was so enlightened.

Not that it’s not okay, or he’s not enlightened, but “Dragon Tattoo” lives in that weird place where gender equality and straight male sexual desire are having an uncomfortable cup of coffee together. One half of the heroic duo, Mikael Blomkvist, is a painfully-obvious, idealized stand-in for the author, Stieg Larsson: a lefty investigative journalist and effortless womanizer persecuted in a libel case where he was set up. My own fantasies tend more towards envisioning a world where a court case involving a political print journalist would actually be big national news, but I digress.

In some ways the more masculine half of the team—and in the books, one of the more interesting creations to come out of popular genre fiction in years—is Lisbeth Salander, a tiny, 23-year-old bisexual borderline Asperger’s punk rock computer hacker with psychiatric programs and a photographic memory. She’s the female version of that kid we all knew at some point, the shrimp who had adopted the survival strategy of immediate massive retaliation involving hammers and baseball bats.  

Which gets to why the casting, and the film overall, was so much better than the original Swedish version. The best word I’ve heard to describe Rooney Mara as Salander is “feral.” Younger and smaller than the miscast Noomi Rapace, she’s clenched inward, all piercings, thin lips and hollow cheeks. Daniel Craig is perfect as Blomkvist, the not-that-handsome crusader who doesn’t understand why all these women keep throwing themselves at him (actually, very much toned down from the book, where he seemed to be on every woman’s bucket list).

And yes, I’m not talking about the Nazis and serial killers that occupy the bulk of the story, all wrapped up in a slick thriller veneer. The accents are uneven, but the pacing and production values are flawless. I was surprised afterwards to find out it runs 158 minutes.

If I had seen this without knowing the story already, would I think it was a good film? Absolutely, though one partially interesting because of all the Nordic psychological weirdness I’ve described so far.

But I do know the story, and I bet nearly everyone else in the theater did too. The image of Mara’s body—tiny and childlike but also attractively female, raped in one sequence and unapologetically lusted after in nude scenes later—literally embodies these contradictions. Yes, the issue is her choice and her control, but the gaze here is too plainly male to entirely sell this fantasy.

Mission:  Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Directed by Brad Bird
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment here is that of director Brad Bird who’s more known for his work in animation (he wrote and directed such titles as “Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille”). He’s clearly just a good storyteller, regardless of the medium, and the franchise producers should be grateful for that. Here Ethan Hunt finds himself, and a new team, working alone – without the technical support and endless supplies of their home base – and the outcome is a far more interesting prospect than when a character can call in a drone air attack to kill a noisy squirrel outside the window.

Bird also allows the camera to dwell long enough for the audience to focus on moments of action that would routinely have been seen through the frequent cutting of a hyperactive editor in so many other recent yarns. After all, if you’re going to hang Tom Cruise off the side of the tallest building in the world, you might as well get to enjoy it. And this also helps the IMAX presentation, which might otherwise be a tad head spinning.

I think the best compliment for a new director in a series like this is to hope the producers pick him again. Although, presumably, any new installments would have the team back in the thick of things with all of their supporting technology, which is a shame as it’s nice to see a little more improvisation in the plot. It’s also noteworthy that even with the immense Burj Khalifa as the setting for aerial stuntwork, the best choreographed action sequence occurs in, of all places, a parking garage. Not just any parking garage … but you’ll have to see it yourself to check that one out.

The Artist
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Just when everybody seems to be clamoring for higher and higher tech, “The Artist” seems to take a huge step backwards by using the silent movie format to tell a story about a silent movie star. And the result is richly rewarding and somehow makes you wonder if it could have been told better any other way. As with some others of his period, the fictional George Valentin doesn’t welcome the arrival of “talkies” and tries for one last silent winner before risking his own slow fade into obscurity. But audiences want younger stars, including the perky Peppy Miller, a starlet Valentin himself helped put on the front page, literally.

The two leads may be unfamiliar to most U.S. filmgoers, unless fans of French cinema, but there’s a rich supporting cast of more familiar faces, including John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller – all of whom do well with their arsenal of frowns, smiles, and archly raised eyebrows. But Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo carry this as Valentin and Miller – two stars and unintentional competitors, trapped in a fateful moment of time.

There’s
one particular sequence in the film that seems ill-conceived and out of place, but aside from that anomaly, the overall project is a true pleasure for the cinephile. Sadly however, it may have a hard time finding an audience among those who measure the passage of styles and time by Lady Gaga’s wardrobe abominations or a Kardashian marriage.

The Adventures of Tintin
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The original adventures of young reporter Tintin and his little dog Snowy were a fixture of many European childhoods, my own included.  They were part of a tradition of large format comic-style story books along with others such as the Asterix series, although Asterix was French where Tintin was Belgian.

This ambitious adaptation attempts to capture both the style and tone of the original drawings, while also updating them with motion capture animation.  The outcome is slightly disjointed with some characters who look quite lifelike while others still look more like caricatures (and there’s even a joke on this theme), but it somehow manages to work despite the contrast.  The motion capture isn’t perfect and the faces still look a little botoxy at times, but far better than some previous attempts like the disturbing appearances in “The Polar Express.” But more importantly, the tone is correct and the story and sense of adventure are well conveyed throughout the film.

Having already been released in other worldwide markets where the books are more familiar, “The Adventures of Tintin” has probably already grossed enough to secure a sequel, with U.S. receipts more like icing on the cake than a deal breaker.  But it would be nice if this latest, well-produced iteration, that follows earlier television adaptations, introduced a whole new generation of fans, even if their parents might not be quite as enthusiastically familiar as their European counterparts.

We Bought a Zoo
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Cameron Crowe has another winner on his hands with this pleasant and upbeat tale about a widower who suddenly decides that the way to bring his family back together, and get them all out of the doldrums, is to buy a dilapidated old zoo. It’s the kind of story that avoids ever becoming hokey by instead being true, rather than just the fond daydream of some cooped up screenwriter trying to relive his or her childhood. And this is all about childhood and one man’s attempt to avoid his own kids’ upbringing from being dominated by the absence of one life rather than the presence of the three remaining ones.

The father is played by Matt Damon, with Scarlett Johansson as the resident head zookeeper he inherits along with the animals and a motley crew.  But this is a film that succeeds less because of the expected fine performances of the leads and more because of the less expected but even better performances of the secondary cast: Most notably Thomas Hayden Church as the skeptical brother, the gifted Elle Fanning as the youngest of the zoo crew, and the adorably cute Maggie Elizabeth Jones as the youngest of the family.
This is the kind of true story-based movie that makes you look forward to an update on the lives of the family during the end credits. It’s a safe pick for the whole family and the rare movie that you might want to take your pets to too.

War Horse
Directed by Steven Spielberg
In Spielberg’s second holiday film (how often does that happen?), we get a story of an old boy/young man who falls in love with a horse – in a family friendly way – before the horse goes off to carry a slightly less young cavalry officer into war in the trenches of WWI. The horse then becomes the common element in a series of vignettes that depict the impact of war on people and their relationships, with the element of love having more to do with blood relations than conjugal ones.

It’s really a very clean film – probably too much so. It’s one of those war films, or films set in a war, that attempt to give an impression of the atrocities and hardships while avoiding catastrophic onscreen blood loss and ricocheting body parts. So we see those infamous trenches filled with mud but too free from human carnage to seem as threatening as they might otherwise.  It all seems reminiscent of “Pearl Harbor,” which presented a similarly sanitized version of the horrors of war.  Indeed, if you substituted that film’s Josh Hartnett with an unknown English actor and then replaced Ben Affleck with a horse (with or without people noticing), you’d come close to the tone of “War Horse.”

That said, it’s beautifully shot and well acted, but it seems to present a mixed tone – with everything from comedic moments with a goose on the family farm who likes to chase off visitors, to intimate encounters with death that seem equally likely to scare away younger family members. The end result is a film that seems caught between demographics – a PG-13 film that could have been an R, but looks a lot like a PG film from a distance.


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