Review – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

When I first saw the Swedish film “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” two years ago, I was completely unfamiliar with the book series by Stieg Larsson. Since then, I have seen both “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” in theaters and recently finished reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Needless to say, I’m more familiar with it now that this new version from director David Fincher is here.

Upon first hearing that there would be an American take on the franchise, I was a little upset. The Swedish trilogy JUST came out and those films were pretty good (the second installment is kinda weak, but “Dragon Tattoo” is great and “Hornet’s Nest” is a good conclusion).

The more I thought about Fincher making an American version, though, it all made sense. Looking at some of the past films that he has handled (“Se7en” and “Zodiac” for starters), Fincher has shown dedication to his work as well as the ability to gross audiences out and occasionally scare the pants off us.

I went into the theatre with a fresh sense of the book as well as the original Swedish film, having finished both the night before. From the opening credits, it was obvious that the fans would be pleased with this American offering.

For those who don’t know, “Dragon Tattoo” is about two characters, a computer hacker (Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander) and a journalist (Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist), who must track down the killer of a young girl 40 years after his crime.

The main question for fans going into the film has to be “how does Mara match up with the brilliant performance by Noomi Rapace?”

Noomi Rapace was great for the character and, since I saw her first, will always be Lisbeth Salander for me. However, this new girl does a great job too. Mara has the anti-social behavior down: looking away from people when she’s speaking to them, having little-to-no manners (lots of interruptions, etc.), the anger and just an overall good interpretation.

I’d say Rapace wins me over with her facial expressions though. If you’ve read the books, you know what’s going on inside Salander’s head. I just felt that with each scene of the Swedish film, you knew exactly what the character was thinking despite her silence. Mara does a little bit of this too and she should be commended for a fine performance.

As for Daniel Craig and his in-and-out accent, I think he actually produced a better Blomkvist than Mikael Nyqvist did in the Swedish film. The character felt truer to the books, especially in scenes like the first meeting between he and Salander.

The rest of the cast does a fine job as well with special marks for Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard.

My main gripe with the film is that Salander goes from hardcore biker girl to love-smitten girl too fast. Of course the romantic aspect does happen in all versions of the story, but I think the Swedish adaptation may have had the right idea in playing down the romance. It works fine in the books because we understand Salander’s thought process the whole way, but in the American film, she becomes a little too attached too quickly in my opinion.

And I prefer the book’s, and Swedish film’s, way of handling the end of Harriet Vanger. Those are probably my only two complaints with Fincher’s version.

The film’s source material is rather violent so I hesitate to recommend both it and the film(s) to just anybody. You must first know that the story is immersed with sexual violence against women. it has both very much to do with the killer’s motives as well as the development of Salander. There is a scene or two where the squeamish will cover eyes (and possibly ears).

With that disclaimer out of the way, the film is a fantastic mystery tale with great characters. Fincher orchestrates it all very well and produces a film that makes your skin crawl and spine tingle.

Although I’m more impressed with the Swedish Salander, this American remake overall is an improvement on the original (no small feat).

I hope that we can see more of this team with the Millenium trilogy, but I fear that poor box office returns added with the fact that Fincher probably won’t want to helm sequels means that “Dragon Tattoo” is all we get this time around.

But at least it was a great ride.

Grade: A-

Happy viewing.

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Review – Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

                                 Noomi Rapace (L), Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law

All too often, sequels have this annoying habit of not living up to the expectations set by their predecessors. On rare occasions they live up to the original (The Dark Knight), while even less often they exceed them (X-Men 2).

Whether the blame is to rest on audiences for getting their hopes too high or on filmmakers for not trying hard enough, sequels tend to be disappointing.

This was my fear when waiting in the theater for “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” to start.

The first film in director Guy Ritchie’s franchise left off with the suspenseful acknowledgement of Holmes’ greatest villain, Professor James Moriarty.

Including Moriarty in this new film raises both the bar of expectation as well as the list of possibilities for the story. He is brilliant, powerful, a skilled fighter and, above all else, purely evil.

“Game of Shadows” picks up with Watson’s (Jude Law) approaching wedding and Holmes’ (Robert Downey, Jr.) continued pursuit to uncover Moriarty’s schemes. Unlike the first film, there isn’t much time spent on setting up our heroes. The plot is fairly straightforward: Holmes must find and stop Moriarty at all costs.

The majority of the film follows Holmes’ investigation of what his nemesis has been up to. Moriarty is different from 2009’s Lord Blackwood in almost every way. His schemes are brought to fruition through the acquisition of companies and by dispatching men to do his dirty work. Blackwood ruled through fear whereas Moriarty is a thinking man.

As for the man who plays Moriarty, I was a little worried about Jared Harris’ capabilities. He is a fine actor, but not one where you immediately think “Of course, who else could it be?!”

That being said, Harris gave a chilling performance worthy of the character. It was not a portrayal that will have people talking Heath Ledger in 2008, but Moriarty felt right. He was calm, intelligent and he gave off the creepy feeling of evil. The first scene where he and Holmes meet is very relaxed but you can feel that both men would stab the other in the heart if the time was right.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes (L) and Jared Harris as Dr. James Moriarty

Being a fan of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, I was very excited about seeing Noomi Rapace (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) in an American film. Both she and her “Dragon Tattoo” co-star, Michael Nyqvist are appearing in American blockbusters this holiday season for the first time.

Rapace gave an okay character a pretty good performance. There wasn’t a whole to work with as the story was mostly concerned with Holmes, Watson and Moriarty.

Speaking of Holmes and Watson, Ritchie may have had a little too much fun with the bromance between Law and Downey. The latter’s delivery on lines like “Lie with me, Watson” are dead on, but overall it felt like they were implying a romantic relationship a few too many times. We get it, you don’t have to beat it over the audience’s head.

How well did “Game of Shadows” live up to the original? It’s kind of hard to tell. “Sherlock Holmes” was partly such a big success because Downey was still riding his comeback from “Iron Man” and the film was a brand new idea. Kind of like how the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” was great and the jokes became stale further into the series. Downey hasn’t outstayed his welcome in this franchise but the filmmakers may want to cut down their reliance on humor in future films.

One thing that I did enjoy more about this film than the last was that Holmes didn’t hold back his cards from the audience until the very end. This time around, we were able to journey with Holmes, rather than just have him tell us everything at the end.

The last 45 minutes of this film are really what sold me. I was feeling pretty shaky up until that point. Between the scene where the heroes are trying to outrun military artillery to the chess match between Holmes and Moriarty (and what this scene leads to – don’t want to give up too much) I believe this film is better than most sequels, but misses the bar set by the 2009 film. A little too much camp, not enough classic Sherlock.

Grade: B

What was your favorite film this holiday?

Good afternoon and happy viewing.

DVD Review – Midnight in Paris

I am not the biggest Woody Allen fan. This is mainly due to me having a problem with his personal life. Since I’m so invested in film, at times I have trouble separating artists from their work. For similar reasons, I try to avoid some of Roman Polanski’s work. That’s not to say that either of these elite directors are bad at creating films, just that I’m hesitant to pay to see their work.

That being said, “Midnight in Paris” is the first Woody Allen film that I have seen at full length in one sitting. Other than a half hour here and there on the occasional TV viewing, I am not THAT familiar with his work.

Keep all of this in mind when I say that this film is more than just worth checking out. Much like the city that it takes place in, the film is dripping with charm, nostalgia and great atmosphere.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a writer visiting Paris with his fiancee, Inez, (Rachel McAdams) and her parents and, right off the bat, the audience knows Gil isn’t having the trip he would like to be having.

As Gil explains in the film, he and Inez are worlds apart when it comes to the big things….but they both really like Indian food. Gil is a romantic who fancies himself having been alive in Paris in the 1920’s while Inez is the stereotypical rich girl who cares more about the finer things.

One night while Gil goes for a walk, he hops into a car that ends up taking him back to the Roaring 20’s. Here, he runs into several of his literary and artistic heroes including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. The whole ordeal is amazing for Gil, but he learns that he can only visit this world each night at midnight.

Sneaking away from his fiancee (and her pedantic “friend” Paul) at night, Gil is wrapped up into a period that he so desperately wishes he was a part of. He falls in love with the city, the time and a woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who is the mistress of Picasso.

The experience works wonders for the novel that Gil has been trying to finish and pushes him to question what he is really seeking in life. Do we romanticize the past because the present is unsatisfying?

“Midnight in Paris” features what many are calling the best writing and directing Woody Allen has put together in years and the cast is pretty solid. Beautiful Parisian scenery doesn’t hurt either.

The film is most definitely worth the 94 minutes it takes to view and will be probably be up for a few awards this season if later pictures like “The Artist” don’t cloud judgment.

Grade: B+

Good afternoon and happy viewing!

Review – Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol

After a short pre-release on IMAX screens, “Mission:Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the fourth installment of the Tom Cruise spy franchise, came to theaters on Wednesday boasting the near perfect Rotten Tomato score of 95%.

Other than Cruise, Simon Pegg’s recurring character Benji and a small cameo by Ving Rhames, the film introduces a variety of new characters. Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Josh Holloway and a villainous Michael Nyqvist add flavor to the entertaining franchise that never delivers two similar films.

This time out, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team are forced into guerilla spy-fare when they are blamed for the destruction of the Kremlin during a mission to acquire Russian nuclear launch codes. As a result, the IMF is disavowed and they are stripped of all support and clearence by the U.S. government.

Despite these major setbacks, a terrorist (Michael Nyqvist) bent on starting a global nuclear event must be stopped and Ethan’s team is the only force with a lead to follow.

As mentioned above, the “Mission:Impossible” franchise aims for a different vision with each film produced. This is mainly due to each film having its own director. Brian De Palma, John Woo and JJ Abrams have handled the past three installments and each brought their own vision of the TV show-inspired series.

Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”) makes his live-action directorial debut and, considering the vastness and technical intricacies of the film, knocks it out of the park. While he shouldn’t be expecting Oscar recognition any time soon, Bird has crafted a very smart, engaging film.

The plot for “Ghost Protocol” is more reactionary and situational than the average spy film. Missions from previous films have often seen the heroes racing against the clock to stop a disaster, but the added pressure of limited supplies and other special circumstances really put Hunt’s team against the wall. These on-screen setbacks are great for building suspense and improve the film over many spy thrillers.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the film is full of impressive locations and big time stunts. The franchise is known for scenes showing Cruise jumping between rock ledges (M:I2), rapelling into impenetrable rooms (M:I and M:I3) and leaping from an exploding helicopter onto a bullet train (M:I).

This time, the thrills are delivered through Cruise running from a sandstorm and a bomb detonation, scaling a skyscraper in Dubai and other activities a civilian wouldn’t dream of doing.

On the franchise’s action scale (M:I2 being the most action heavy and the original having the least action), “Ghost Protocol” is closest to the 1996 original. The film is nowhere near boring, but audiences don’t have to put up with too many over-the-top antics.

While the film is mainly concerned with Cruise and Co., one aspect of the film that felt lacking was the villain. Nyqvist, who is probably most well-known for playing journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, is rarely seen on screen and never really gets a chance to shine. At least, not like Dougray Scott and Philip Seymour Hoffman were able to in the past two “Mission:Impossible” outings.

That being said, the film is about the heroes racing against the clock. Much like a wise saying, it is the journey that matters, not the destination (or main bad guy).

“Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is a fast-paced spy thriller lacking the usual throwaway characters and unnecessary stupidity that drag the action genre down (save for a President Bush joke near the end that misses).

Grade: A-

Good afternoon and happy viewing.

Golden Globe nominations offer diversity, competitive season

This morning the nominees for the 69th annual Golden Globes were announced by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA). While many of the nominees read off by Rashida Jones, Woody Harrelson and other stars were guaranteed to make an appearance, there were also several surprises along the way.

The Golden Globes are known as a serious indicator for each year’s upcoming Oscar ballot, but the award show often makes decisions that leave critics and audiences shaking their heads (a Best Picture – Musical or Comedy nomination for last year’s “The Tourist”).

Fortunately most of the surprising bids announced today were of the “I’m glad they thought of that” variety.

Leading the pack is “The Artist,” a silent black and white film that has been scooping up numerous awards since it’s release, with 6 nominations. “The Help” and “The Descendants” each earned 5 nods, and “The Ides of March” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” snatched 4 nominations each.

The aforementioned surprises were mostly nominations that many were displeased to find missing from the recent Screen Actors Guild ballot. This includes a Best Actor -Drama nomination for Michael Fassbender in the NC-17 “Shame” and Ryan Gosling in both “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “The Ides of March” (the former is a nominee for the Comedy or Musical category).

Also missing from the SAG list but finding redemption this morning were Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”), Christopher Plummer (“The Beginners”) and Albert Brooks (“Drive”).

Surprising film nominations that were not SAG make-up calls are George Clooney for Best Director (“The Ides of March”) and Best Picture nods for “50/50,” “Moneyball” and Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.”

As for the TV side of the Globes, the stage is set for old favorites to face off against the new kids on the block and the battle should be intense.

Showtime’s “Homeland,” Starz’s “Boss,” and FX’s “American Horror Story” will be up against the cultural icons that are “Boardwalk Empire” and “Game of Thrones” in the Best Drama Series category.

Best Comedy Series sees a struggle between Showtime’s “Episodes,” HBO’s “Enlightened,” and a host of more famous shows like “Glee,” “The New Girl” and the most recent must-watch comedy “Modern Family.”

Unlike last awards season, when everything was “The Social Network” vs. “The King’s Speech,” the Golden Globe nominations have assured critics and audiences that the race to the 84th Academy Awards on Feb. 26 is wide open.

Good afternoon and happy viewing.