Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

That David Fincher came to direct 2011's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is one of those filmic self fulfilling prophecies. The auteur behind such dark offerings as SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, and ZODIAC is as suited to this material as any artist could possibly be. Those earlier films were so saturated in Fincher's lucidly bleak visions that I wonder if they in part influenced the author of Tattoo and its sequels, Stieg Larsson.

You're likely aware that the wildly popular Tattoo was already filmed in 2009 in Sweden (the setting of this story) by director Niels Arden Oplev to great acclaim. Cue the chorus of disapproval when it was announced Hollywood would have its turn with it. I've seen many botched American remakes of foreign classics and neo alike (POINT OF NO RETURN comes to mind). This time, Fincher and company have legions of fans of the book and the original film adaptation frothing at the mouth. No adaptation or remake could possibly be satisfactory.

I came into THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO without having read any of the trilogy or seeing the original film adaptation. In other words, I'm part of the targeted demographic. I saw the film not because the storyline tantalized me - it sounded like any old fashioned whodunnit, though adorned with 21st century gadgetry and a punk attitude - but because I am a fan of Fincher, and knew this ride would be worth taking.

A long, harsh ride it is. You know from the opening titles, a discordant orgy of images of black ooze pouring horizontally and vertically all over a woman's body, set to Trent Reznor's equally dissonant re-imagining of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song", that Fincher is out to set a macabre and uncomfortable stage. In a weird bit of coincidence, this sequence is in some ways reminsicent of those silhouetted slender women moving about in the openings of James Bond movies. Daniel Craig, who plays Mikael Blomquist, the leading role, is the current 007.

Blomquist is a writer/reporter for a Swedish magazine of which he is part owner (along with Erika, played by an underused Robin Wright) who is charged with libel after his printed damnation of a shady local businessman. Disgraced and broke, Blomquist accepts an offer from a elderly CEO named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to write a book detailing his large, troubled family's history in Hedeby Island in Hedestad, a bleak, frigid tundra of a place. Vanger also wants Blomquist to play detective and find out what happened to his niece, who mysteriously disappeared 40 years earlier. This mystery will form the crux of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

Meanwhile, Fincher cuts to the unfortunate life of a young, multi-pierced and tattooed woman named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who has had a lifetime of foster homes and remains a ward of the state due to being declared unfit to manage her finances. She seems to be a classic sociopath, often quite brutal, but with a keen self-awareness. Her personality and strong intellect suggest perhaps undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome. She works as a researcher and computer hacker for a security firm. Her current job: doing an extensive background check on Blomquist.

Lisbeth is assigned to a new caregiver after her current one (a gentle fellow with whom she regularly plays chess) suffers a stroke. The new guy is, to put it mildly, a scumbag who will take advantage of her in multiple ways. One graphic and close to unwatchable sequence will find Lisbeth brutally raped. As I've gotten older, I've become much more sensitive to such scenes. As necessary to the story as it is, I think Fincher showed far too much; the screams would've been more than enough. Less is more. Less is more.

Blomquist and Lisbeth will eventually cross paths and team up to solve the mystery. Nick and Nora, they ain't. The writer learns quickly that Lisbeth is an incredibly sharp and organized young woman who tirelessly researches and pursues clues. She also can apparently retrieve any piece of data off any computer in existence. When Blomquist catches her attempting to hack into his computer with her trusty Apple ProBook, he tries to explain the boundaries she should observe and oh, that everything is encrypted. "Please.." she retorts with a roll of her eyes. She is Privacy's worst nightmare, perhaps Larsson's statement on the increasing surveillance in society. But what if Big Brother is helping to solve/prevent crimes?

And THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO does make many points on technology, how it insidiously has altered our existence. Also, how it contributes to isolation. It's a bit funny and ironic in this story as several of Venger's family members (including the creepy Martin, played by Stellan Skarsgård), live within sight of each other but barely (or never) speak to one another. They are already isolated and perhaps damaged beyond repair. Much is made of Lisbeth's lack of social graces and skills, but is she fundamentally that different than the Vengers? As the missing girl's story gels, several interesting points on identity will be raised. But the mystery, as I said, is nothing any fan of Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie hasn't seen before. The plot is fairly engrossing, but hardly inspiring or innovative. Old photographs and the book of Leviticus will be integral pieces of the puzzle.

But the film is arresting in its near continuous intensity. Fincher shifts gears deftly throughout, weaving disturbing imagery within traditional storytelling and suspense. Craig is game as the investigator but at times a bit more casual than you would expect of a man in such perilous conditions. Mara does fine work in the flashiest role, her very embodiment singular and alien-like. Also: violent, carnal, hyper-conscious, extraordinarily guarded. In the later segments of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, she will open up, allow herself vulnerability. In the final, abrupt scene, she does pay for that mistake.....

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bubba Ho-Tep

OK, you gotta admit that the plot of 2002's BUBBA HO-TEP is intriguing in a good ol' B-movie sorta way: an elderly Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) finds himself in a Texas nursing home and joins forces with a black man (Ossie Davis), who insists he is President John F. Kennedy, against an ancient mummy that prowls their halls at night, sucking the souls out of residents. Imagine the cheesy possibilities.The movie had the most interesting drive-in movie premise since William Castle's 1965 I SAW WHAT YOU DID, the one where 2 girls make random prank phone calls, saying the movie's title, then finding themselves stalked by one of their victims, a guy who just killed his wife.

To add to the pedigree, BUBBA HO-TEP was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, the guy responsible for all those PHANTASM movies, the ones with the flying silver ball that punctured unfortunates' skulls. I was expecting this movie to be vintage exploitation, with lots of gore and nekked women. Talk about being blindsided.

This movie does have some violence and one (very briefly) topless woman, along with some creative vulgarity, but BUBBA HO-TEP, believe it or not, is a very insightful examination of aging, sense of purpose, relevence. I can't recall another low budgeter of this stripe that made so many salient points.

Early in the movie, Elvis' roommate dies suddenly, prompting the latter's daughter to make exactly her second visit to the home, to collect his valuables; the first was when she had admitted him years earlier. Initially, Elvis lusts after her but then a terse dialogue develops between them, her words painfully realistic in reflection of our nation's attitude toward those advanced in years. This film actually seems more interested in examining the ennui and unspeakable sadness that accompany the "golden years" of life than showing graphic bloodletting or icky make-up effects.

Elvis is seen day after day in his squalid room, struggling physically with ambulation and an embarrassing tumor on his private part, as well as mentally with the weight of decades of memories. My grandmother, 98 years of age, has described this feeling. The unimaginable sense of isolation, the lonely nights as she nods off thinking of so many loved ones who have passed. The weight of the memories, years and years of half and clearly remembered good and bad times. The enormity of it makes it hard to breathe, she states.

How did the King end up in a nursing home? Didn't he die in 1977, face down on the carpet while he was on the toilet? BUBBA HO-TEP concocts an amusing alternate reality, playing on the old "Elvis was seen at.." legendry with a convuluted story of how he swapped identities with an Elvis impersonator so he could get up and perform again (and have sweaty panties flung at him from adoring fans). The plans see some unfortunate twists that you can learn of on your own.

The African American man who claims to be JFK (his explanation of this involves, in part, an elaborate skin tinting and prosthesis in his skull at the exit wound) is quite enthusiastic about catching the gauzy predator that hobbles the dim halls and retrieves souls through victims', um, orifices (this is a B movie). Davis turns in a vibrant performance as a throughly delusional conspiracy theorist who is quietly insane but so ingratiating you just can't help but nod your head when he explains of the forces that tried(!) to assassinate him on that gloomy Dallas day. His monologues are equal parts E.C. Comics and (almost) New Yorker satire.

Campbell, well known to B-movie audiences (and fans of Burn Notice) is just as good as a contemplative King, his narration far more poignant than expected. When the final showdown arrives, BUBBA HO-TEP has proven itself far more than just a horror programmer, and the moments after the fade out actually left me feeling more pensive than grossed out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One Trick Pony

By the time famed musician Paul Simon wrote and starred in 1980's ONE TRICK PONY, the whole affair, like its protagonist, seemed dated. That's a bit ironic, as the story concerns a once bestselling songwriter named Jonah who finds himself marginalized in a music business that is increasingly Flavor of the Moment. The Vietnam war was over, the peace and love Boomers had moved on and purchased Mercedes and Cuisinarts. The younger Boomers were listening to screaming punk rock and New Wave. Lyrics, so integral to Jonah's songbook, were barely noticed (or intelligibile). The venues Jonah plays nowadays are the kind where the half filled tables seat chatty singles and blind drunks.

ONE TRICK PONY is noble in its intentions. It involves us in the life of a man struggling for relevance not only in his music, but his family life as well; his wife (Blair Brown) wants a divorce, and his child feels neglected due to his father's constant touring. Jonah's band begins to have those "creative differences". The record company executives (played to perfection by Rip Torn and Allen Goorwitz) nod politely as Jonah demos a tune but then inform him that it needs a good "hook". When Jonah finally gets a chance to cut an album, it is only because he sleeps with Torn's wife (Joan Hackett). Once in the studio, a commercially-minded producer (Lou Reed, in perhaps the most hilariously ironic casting in recent memory) insists on adding a string section and back-up singers to the mix.

Oh so familiar, no? Almost every cliche in this sort of tale is covered in director Robert M. Young's film. That's the main problem. Of course, cliches are born out of real life. I remember reading Roger Ebert's review of COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, also from 1980, how he stated that it isn't Loretta Lynn's fault that Horatio Alger wrote her life before she actually lived it. Granted, but the deja vu I felt throughout this film just made it seem so trite, so shallow. Maybe if I had seen it during its original release....

The events in ONE TRICK PONY likely echo those in Simon's real life in the mid-1970s (he did pen the script). He had had massive chart success in the 60s with Art Garfunkel and in the 70s on his own. Then, the inevitable backlash. Trends change. You may think your art is timeless, but...what you produced yesterday becomes nostalgia. What you produce now must be in step with current tastes or you are now a footnote. Early in this film, Jonah's band (Simon's real life collaborators, including drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd) opens for the B-52's, quite representative of the "new style" of the late 70s/early 80s. Jonah peers through the curtain and observes the funky outfit as they prance and yell. It is foreign to him. It is not him.

Another problem with this movie is Simon himself. It would seem that a semi-autobiographical screenplay would lend itself to have the writer as the star. Unfortunately, Simon's performance is less than inspiring. He seems a bit adrift much of the time, as if waiting for a cue or a mark from the director and/or other actors. His work here is better than that of his former compadre in music, Mr. Garfunkel (who underwhelmed in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and BAD TIMING), but not by much. The supporting cast, however, fares much better.

I had sought out this film for a long time. I have a strange curosity for films of this time period. That interest, and a vivid atmosphere, sustained me through ONE TRICK PONY, though not enough for me not to point out its failings. I also enjoyed Simon's soundtrack, insightful and catchy songs that were, both in this film and real life, not cashbox Top 40. But they are Paul's/Jonah's, without compromise. The (arguably) victorious final image of the film, also a bit of a cliche, will certainly resonate with any artist who's ever felt compromised.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Muppets

Watching 2011's THE MUPPETS, I felt a wide variety of emotions, mostly favorable. Seeing those beloved creatures of my youth of course warmed my heart, the way any fondly remembered piece of one's past might. I was one of millions who watched The Muppet Show and saw their films back in the 70s and 80s.

When I heard of this new outing, I was immediately suspicious, and fearful. I was concerned that director James Bobin would screw this thing up a thousand ways. Honestly, there are endless possibilities to destroying the legacy of the late Jim Henson's creations. At worst, I had visions of a vulgar re-imagining ala Avenue Q. I was also curious as to Frank Oz's, long a Muppeteer, non-participation (he disagreed with an early script draft). THE MUPPETS, happily, does not in any way taint the Muppets and their charm, but is not an entire triumph, either.

If I could base my review on the opening and closing scenes alone, I would write glowing positives, sentences all ending in exclamation points. But that darned middle section, hmpf!

The Disney Studios' THE MUPPETS begins by introducing a Muppet we've never met before: Walter, a pleasant fellow who grows up in suburbia with his human brother, Gary (Jason Segel). How he was born into a human family may raise a few eyebrows, but no matter. Walter narrates a montage of his early years: the fun, the inevitable teasing from the neighborhood kids, his lack of growth spurts. It ain't easy being made of felt in a human world. Gary is always supportive and one day gives him a video of the The Muppet Show . It's a life-changing moment for Walter.

Gary meets Mary (Amy Adams) and on the 10th anniversary of their dating/courtship, surprises her with a trip to Los Angeles. Another surprise: Walter gets to tag along. Mary, a sweet, unfailingly polite young lady is visibly (and understandably) concerned but goes along with it. Before the bus trip, we get a bouncy, clever opening number with solos from everyone in town, right down to the milkman. It is a great start, worthy of the memories of all the fun tunes from 1979's THE MUPPET MOVIE et al.

Gary also surprises Walter with plans to visit the Muppets' Theater on Hollywood Boulevard (filmed at the El Capitan, where I saw Disney's TARZAN in '99). Once there, sad discoveries are made. The place is a shambles, mostly abandoned. A zombie-like tour guide (Alan Arkin) offers a drowsy walk-around. Walter steals away and hides in Kermit the Frog's old office, overhearing a buisnessman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) making plans to buy the old theater from those 2 crumudgeon Muppet judges, Statler and Waldorf. You remember them, with their caustic commentary from the balcony, offering scrooges in the audience who didn't like the Muppets some comic relief.

Walter stays long enough to discover that Richman not only wants to buy the theater, but also raze and tap the oil reserve beneath it. The only hope for the Muppets is for them to raise 10 million dollars to buy the theater back. But where are they? The film takes us to the Bel Air mansion of a near manic deppressive Kermit, seeming more like Eeyore than his old cheerful self. We learn he has not seen his friends in many years. Walter encourages Kermit to track down his co-horts and put on a show to raise $$$. This plot is as old as cinema itself.

It is about this point where THE MUPPETS' spirit and energy began to wane for me. The exposition of learning where each Muppet is (Fozzie's in a cheesy band in Reno, Gonzo's the CEO of a plumbing company, Miss Piggy's working for Vogue in Paris, etc.) sort of entertaining, but perhaps the malaise of the characters affects the movie itself. It is interesting to see a kids' movie deal with the disappointments of life with some insight, but everything turns sour with the realization that (seemingly) the 2010 pop culture audiences view the Muppets not even with half-remembered warm feelings but just total non-awareness. Veronica, a network executive (Rashida Jones) who reluctantly offers them a time slot for a telethon, very plainly spells it out for them: no one cares.

1984's THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN dealt with the realities of show biz in the Big Apple, but the Muppets were still in their prime. Things didn't seem so gloomy. A long stretch of THE MUPPETS seems almost catatonic. Half-hearted. Maybe the years will do that to ya? The gang regroups in the dilapadated old Theater, then begins to restore it (inexplicably and infuriatingly set to Starship's "We Built This City")and rehearse their old schtick. Gary and Mary have their inevitable squabbles; the fiance needs to decide who is his number one priority. Mary sings an embarrassing song in the middle of a diner. Gary sings his own questionable tune, "Am I a Man or a Muppet?". The Muppets kidnap a celebrity (I'm no spoiler) to host their show (in a sequence that awkwardly pays homage to Q. Tartantino) since these has-beens can't get a willing volunteer. Worst of all, Tex sings a cringeworthy rap song about how greedy he is. Gloomy going, I tell you.

But then THE MUPPETS gets back on track and delivers an upbeat, on-target third act, mainly covering the telethon, with some surprise guest stars manning the phones. Old favorites (including "Rainbow Connection") and new gags ("Smells Like Teen Spirit" set in a barber shop) abound. The absolute funniest skit? Camilla and the Chickens singing (or "bokking") Cee Lo Green's "Forget You". The original song is pop refuse; this cover is comedy gold. Walter even gets his debut on stage. Good spirits, the kind present in the productions of the Muppets of yore, prevail in the third act.

The finale, a reprise of the winning number, "Life's a Happy Song" sends you out with a smile, almost redeeming THE MUPPETS from a lackluster second act. Having "Minah Minah" sung during the credits was also a good idea. Dee dee deedeedee.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Long As You Know You're Living Yours

"Judge For Yourself", Part MCMVII:

Pianist Keith Jarrett successfully sued Steely Dan (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) for plagiarism after hearing their 1980 tune "Gaucho". Listen; I can't argue the similarities.

Monday, January 9, 2012


John Sayles is one of the few well known filmmakers (indie or otherwise) who truly stayed the course. Never "sold out". He penned several screenplays for B-movies in the 70s and 80s, then scripted and directed his own films. Independents that, starting with THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, felt authentic and were yet never amatuerish. Or stained with dewey nostalgia. He did a few studio movies like BABY, IT'S YOU, even then maintaining integrity in his art. If Sayles has directed a film, it's worth seeing, even if he once in a great while creates a disappointment (CITY OF HOPE).

1987's MATEWAN is one of his finest. Gritty, straightforward, honest, all of the qualities you could use to describe a Sayles work. MATEWAN details the struggles of a small town in West Virginia in 1920. Coal mining drives the local economy; its workers are all but owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The workers are poorly treated, their hours are punishingly long, and their wages garnished bit by bit for work necessities like uniforms. A general store in town, also owned by the Company, continues to raise its prices. Even worse, the Company owns all the land and houses in Matewan.

The men are a dime a dozen in the eyes of the Company. When the workers threaten to form unions (lead by organizer Joe Kenahan, played by Chris Cooper), Stone Mountain imports a trainload of "scabs", African-American non-union workers from Alabama and immigrants from overseas. They are treated like dirt by both the Company and the mine workers whose jobs they may take. Tensions among the townspeople boil over not only against Stone Mountain, who sends two reps to try to maintain order, but against each other. There will be turncoat traitors, false accusations, discussions of being "red", and even some dueling pulpit preaching before the storm settles.

MATEWAN patiently retells this tragic chapter in American history in a manner that might be termed "novelistic". Each scene carefully develops the story, the characters therein. Mary McDonnell and David Strathairn, Sayles film regulars, excel in their respective roles as Elam Radnor (who runs a boarding house at which Kenahan stays) and Sid Hatfield, Matewan's police chief who bravely stares down Company thugs. Even the smallest roles are given weight by Sayles; few actors with speaking parts are merely anonymous extras on the margins of the frame. The later events in this story are powerful not only because of the inherent drama, but also because we've gotten to know people like Bridey Mae Tolliver (Nancy Mette),"Few Clothes" Johnson (James Earl Jones) and even Sayles himself, who plays a "hardshell", anti-union Baptist preacher. What is remarkable is that these characters don't necessarily have a lot of screen time. It is a credit to Sayles' lean approach that we learn everything we need to know about them and their significance to the story without extraneous scenes. There isn't a wasted line.

That is not to say that MATEWAN isn't stylish. Haskell Wexler's photography can be admired for a certain sooty beauty, utterly real. Bad cinematography can completely remove a viewer from the world the filmmakers are trying to portray; Wexler again demonstrates why he is one of the best of his craft. Sayles' direction is also beautiful, beautifully austere. He's controlled yet relaxed, never dictating our emotions but letting the events speak for themselves. I did not learn about the town of Matewan in history books. This film fills in that huge gap. Its discussions of union versus corporation are as relevant as ever. MATEWAN is a small treasure that deserves (re)discovery.

Friday, January 6, 2012

TV or.....?

Further evidence of "the good old days".....

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is as in love with Paris as he is New York. Perhaps even more. His 2010 MIDNIGHT IN PARIS opens with a 3 minute plus travelogue that highlights many of the most famous spots in the City of Lights. It reminded me of the opening of 1979's MANHATTAN, though this time sans Gershwin (there is Sidney Bechet) or voiceover. I especially enjoyed this montage as I had traversed these scenes last year on my first ever trip to Europe. I had many such moments during this movie.

As in some of his previous, Allen does not appear in the film but rather has an actor channel his famous neuroses. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a possibly talented scribe who's made a living cranking out formuleic Hollywood pap while dreaming of composing the Great American Novel. I'll bet many screenwriters in Los Angeles secretly sneer at the work they turn in while fancying themselves a Faulkner or at least a Jonathan Franzen. Gil is vacationing in France with his grating fiancee, Inez, (Amy McAdams) and her wealthy parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy). Within minutes you'll rightly wonder how Gil and Inez ever stayed together: he's a romantic who likes to walk in the rain and wants to relocate to Paris for good; she's a pragmatist on whom the very essence of the magic of Paris is lost, and is quite content with living in Malibu.

Inez's mother likes art and antiques only because they are expensive; her father is an "Ugly American" Tea-Party conservative. At one point, after Inez believes a chambermaid stole her jewelry, says to Gil, "You always take the side of the help. That's why Daddy says you're a communist!" As you can see, the characterizations Allen creates are paper thin, possibly with no more depth than a Playboy cartoon panel or even a Saturday Night Live skit, and will not hold up to scrutiny; that can describe the entire film.

Eventually, Gil tires of the boorish family and the arrival of Inez's ex-boyfriend, Paul (Michael Sheen), another in Allen's long line of aggravating pseudo-intellectuals who loves to endlessly pontificate on art and history (he reminded me a bit of Alan Alda's character from CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS). Gil makes excuses to skip outings to spend each evening alone strolling the ancient streets, meeting at midninght a mysterious antique cab filled with revelers in 1920s garb. People with names like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. Could they be...?

At a saloon he also meets Josephine Baker and none other than Ernest Hemingway, who asks him if he likes to box. Even Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel, and T.S. Eliot show up! Gil is understandably aghast. Does he "need a neurologist"? After his initial disbelief, Gil finds himself intoxicated with discourse among these luminaries, finding that no less than Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates) will even take time to read his novel in progress! This is after Hemingway turned him down: "If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

If you are seeking an airtight scientific explanation for the time traveling or anything ressembling an accurate characterization of any of these historic figures, you've wandered into the wrong movie, mon ami.

Gil will later meet Pablo Picasso and his mistress Adriana (Marian Cotillard), with whom Gil becomes smitten. She entrances him with lofty words and a glowing beauty that matches the city around them. Through a series of interesting plot dynamics involving the 1920s and present day, Gil even tries to steal his fiancee's pearl earrings to give to Adrianna. His creative whims and heart are stirred by this "Golden Age" atmosphere, this curious dimension that Woody never tries to logic out, a correct approach. You may find yourself concluding that it's all in Gil's mind, but again, if thoughts like this invade your enjoyment of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.....

This is a light as air, fluffy confection of a movie, but it wouldn't be a Woody without some sober analysis among the lush cinematography and old music. Dew eyed nostalgia is taken to (gentle) tasking. Paul, in a moment of genuine insight, explains, "Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present... the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present." Gil will find that Adriana feels much the same of the 1920s as he feels of the 2010s, a point exemplified when the couple walks into Maxim's Paris of the 1890s. Gauguin and Degas, among others, are holding court. The young lady wants to remain here in the Belle Époque, an era Adrianna feels is the true Golden Age.

But things never get too serious or maudlin in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Bittersweet, yes. The best of Allen's comedic and dramatic trademarks are present throughout in this, his most enjoyable film since 2005's MATCH POINT. This includes his "wish I'd written that" dialogue, such when Gil, again awash in Paris-love, states: "What is it with this city? I need to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce!"