The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (A-)
U.S.: David Fincher, 2011, Sony Pictures Entertainment
Rooney Mara is no Noomi Rapace. At least when it comes to playing superpunk, black-jacketed, neo-noir heroines with burning eyes, pierced eyelids and deadly temperaments. But she's close.
In David Fincher's version of Steig Larsson's Swedish thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the tart-tongued American actress (Mara) who put down Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, proves surprisingly adept, and very entertaining, at putting down (and messing up) chauvinist pigs, and uncovering serial killers in Noomi's old role of supreme hacker/heroine Lisbeth Salander.
This new Tattoo is an effective Hollywood movie thriller as well, even if it's one that -- at least for Dragon Tattoo veterans -- has few surprises. Director Fincher (Se7en) and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) stay so faithful to the plot, characters and parameters of the original novel and the hit Swedish movie, that a sense of neo-noir déjà vu permeates the whole show.
Lisbeth was the astonishingly antisocial but utterly compelling heroine of the movies made from the late Swedish journalist/novelist Stieg Larsson's worldwide bestsellers, the trio that comprised The Millennium Trilogy: She was the "Girl" in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Those Millennium novels, all published posthumously, followed the dangerous investigations of the fictional Swedish leftie journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a character many feel was modeled on leftie journalist Larsson himself), into the mysterious disappearance, 40 years earlier, of Harriet Vanger, beloved great-niece of Mikael's employer, Henrik Vanger.
Henrik is a strange bedfellow, or employer, for Mikael. He's the elderly but still determined patriarch of a famous Swedish corporate family, an elite clan who prove to have numerous skeletons (possibly Harriet's) rattling around in their mansion closets. Mikael (played in the original Swedish films by Michael Nyqvist), was hired by Vanger (and ensconced in a cottage on the Vanger private estate-island) to solve the Harriet mystery after losing (wrongly) a huge libel case filed by the corrupt business magnate, Wennerstrom, against Mikael's magazine, Millennium. And Mikael, in turn, hires the unorthodox Lisbeth as his researcher, because of her incredible skills at digging facts out of the Internet -- and because he isn't put off by her wardrobe.
Soon the two of them are swimming in a whirlpool of family secrets, scandal, and spiralling dread.
Overall, it's the sort of intelligent adult entertainment we keep asking for and don't usually get from our blockbuster movies.
Adding greatly to that intelligence, and to that entertainment value, is the excellent cast: Rooney Mara as Lisbeth; Daniel Craig as Mikael; Robin Wright as Mikael's editor-lover Erika; that very active octogenarian Christopher Plummer as Mikael's new employer, Henrik Vanger; the usually superb Stellan Skarsgard as genial Vanger company head Martin; Joely Richardson and Geraldine James as Vanger family members Anita and Cecilia; Steven Berkoff as the dour family attorney Dirch Frode; and, Yorick Van Wageningen as Bjurman, Lisbeth's amoral legal nemesis and subject of the trilogy's most shocking and notorious scenes: the rape and anti-rape.
Mara has the hardest task: reprising a very popular role in which the original actress -- Noomi Rapace, with her semi-goth outfits, spiky hairdo, "screw you" attitude, and killer stare -- already made into something richly memorable in the original Swedish movie. Noomi was one of the major reasons the Swedish films were so successful and so well-regarded, and Rooney doesn't fumble the shot.
A bit more shy of the mark, I think, is Craig, who gives a good performance by any normal definitions, but doesn't look or seem as vulnerable as his Swedish counterpart Nyqvist.
On the other hand, it'd be hard to top either Plummer, Skarsgard, Van Wageningen, or Berkoff in their juicy archetypal thriller roles.
So why do murder mysteries and detective yarns, film noirs and neo-noirs, still captivate audiences so much and so intensely? Perhaps it's because most of us enjoy unraveling puzzles and identifying with the sleuths who can unravel them -- and because the best of these stories imply that the world in all its mysterious tangles can be fathomed, and that justice, in all its vagaries, is not as fragile as it sometimes seems, and that the confusion and chaos and horrors of life may sometimes, somehow, be finally straightened out, or at least understood.
The Muppets (B)
U.S.: James Bobin, 2011, Walt Disney
It's good to have them back.
Jim Henson's Muppets -- among the most delightful puppets and most engaging fuzzy-furry fictional beasties to ever pop out of a TV or movie screen -- haven't been around much in recent years. Oh, once in a while we've seen them: a snatch of Fozzy, a smidgen of Gonzo, an eentsy-weensy hunk of Miss Piggy, and a dash of Kermit.
But the last Muppet movie was Muppets from Space, which came out in 1999, and the long-running TV Muppet Show is long gone.
But I have good news for everyone who's missed the Muppets. Their new movie, The Muppets, which brings back almost all of them (including Rowlf the Dog, oldest active Henson creation of all), has been made by people who clearly love the Muppets, understand their humor, and want to be as faithful as they can to Henson's vision -- making it as cracked and sweet and bravely schmaltzy and very funny as it was in its prime.
Mostly they succeed. We're held and charmed, moved and amused, by this affecting tale of a little boy named Walter in Smalltown, U.S.A., who is really a Muppet and is also the Muppets' biggest fan, and who travels to Hollywood with his best friend Gary (Jason Segel) and Jason's best gal Mary (the delectable Amy Adams) to the surviving but bedraggled Muppet Studio, to meet his puppet idols. But Little Walter finds (alas!) that their home studio is bankrupt, that Kermit has run out of ideas, and that an evil biz-whiz named Tex Richman (played by Chris Cooper with all the meanness he can muster) plans to buy the studio, destroy it and drill for oil.
What's to be done? Well, the munificently talented and ever-enthusiastic Mickey Rooney is one of this movie's cameo as-themselves or small-part guests, along with Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinki, Ken Jeong and Sarah Silverman.
Trust me. Unless you just plain hate the Muppets, this one will work for you. And that's even though it's a show probably even more geared for the adults who remember and love the old Muppets than it is for their children who will now be introduced to Kermit and the crew -- many of whom will love them as well. (Extras: commentary by Bobin, Segel and Stoller; deleted scenes; spoof trailers; documentary; the full Tex Richman song; the longest blooper reel in Muppet history).
Louder than a Bomb (A-)
U. S.: Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel, 2011, Virgil Films and Entertainment
Louder than a Bomb made me feel good about some of the kids of today, made me feel that they're probably being maligned, at least in part, by most other American movies that try to show us contemporary U.S. teenagers. The movie, a multi-award-winning documentary co-directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (Gene's nephew), takes us into the high schools of contemporary Chicago, and shows us something besides the usual teen-sex shtick: all those nerds, babes, studs, clowns and bullies swaggering down the halls.
Bomb, on the other hand, is a celebration of real teenagers and of a whole other art form -- not a new one, really, but one that was fairly new to me in this getup: the Louder than a Bomb Poetry Slam.
Specifically it's about the 2007-2008 Louder than a Bomb that pitted poetry teams from over 60 Chicago area high schools against each other. The movie concentrates on four teams -- from Oak Park/River Forest, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Steinmetz, and Northside College Prep.
Adam Gottlieb is one of the kids the movie follows: an unusually sweet, smart, gifted guy, with a little of the elfin charm of the young Arlo Guthrie. Jacobs and Siskel make a real protagonist of him, along with the absolutely incandescent Novana "Nova" Venerable, the beguiling, smiling Nate Marshall, and virtually the entire eloquent and powerful Steinmetz team, tagged the "Steinmenauts" -- especially Lamar "Tha Truth" Jorden, Jesus "L3" Lark, and Kevin "KVO" Harris.
These kids howl, chant, recite, tell stories (mostly drawn from their own lives and the things they know), and they storm the heavens of language and self-revelation. Some of them, like Nova and Lamar, become truly spellbinding.
The Sitter (D+)
U.S.: David Gordon Green, 2011, 20th Century Fox
Well, I've had it.
No more Mr. Nice Guy. After defending David Gordon Green for making Pineapple Express, a controversially violent stoner comedy that I think is well-acted, well-directed and hot-damn funny, and after sparing some kind words for Green's and buddy Danny McBride's medieval four-letter-fest Your Highness, a movie hated by many, I now find myself confronted with this silly-ass Green comedy and harebrained Jonah Hill vehicle The Sitter, a movie that tries to stuff the white-boy car-crash raunch of The Blues Brothers and the paranoid comedy of After Hours into the kids-out-all-night plot of Adventures of Babysitting, and comes up with something just this side of "Adventures in Idiocy."
The Sitter is a typical dirty-mouth teen/tween comedy, better looking and better shot than usual, that sends the talented and normally more selective Hill, as Noah, careening around the city in his babysitting client's stolen minivan, with his three juvenile charges, trying to find some cocaine for his outrageously selfish girlfriend Marisa (Ari Graynor), after being forced to sub for an absent sitter for a neighbor's three kids, so his single mom Sandy (Jessica Hecht) can go out on a hot date.
Whheeew! Noah, a slacker and college escapee who still lives at home, may be the world's most reckless babysitter, and these are the kids from hell. They include Slater (Max Records, of Where the Wild Things Are) who's gay, or wants to be, Salvadoran foster child Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), who likes to smash crockery, and blow up toilets with fireworks, and Blithe (Landry Bender), a heavily made up 8-or 9-year-old charmer who comes across as a cross between Margaret O'Brien and the Hollywood Madam and tells Noah he has a hot name, because it comes from the Bible, which is a hot book.
Did we say Noah was reckless? Somehow, he has persuaded himself that it's okay to steal their daddy's minivan and take the three kids along on this coke-hunting expedition, though it would make more sense, and be funnier, if he showed a qualm or two. He also takes them to parties with booze, and a black pool hall where Noah outjives the jivers and earns respect with a little improvised Afro-lingo. Then, after some more illegal foolery, he blows up a jewelry store after stealing some diamonds to pay back the insane coke dealer "Karl-with-a-K" (Sam Rockwell), after dropping and blowing Karl's cocaine all over the front seat of the minivan.
The Sitter is not badly directed or acted -- Hill and Bender and Method Man are all pretty good, and everybody else is at least passable -- though it's horribly written. Some of it is funny. Most of it is not. Overall, it's a movie so stupid and tasteless, that you feel embarrassed laughing at it. Or maybe you laugh at being embarrassed by it. I'm not sure which.
U.S.: Tim Hill, 2011, Universal
Animated features, which are sometimes ghetto-ized as "children's movies," have been among the brighter spots on the big studio schedules of the last few years. But Hop has a script that, on the screen, plays just as crummy as any gore-besotted alien monster massacre, any crash-happy action thriller, or any addle-brained rom-com that comes rolling out of Shameless-Hackland. It's a big glossy, laughless botch.
Listen, I love bunnies as much as the next guy -- and, in this movie, one of the next guys is Hugh Hefner -- but this is ridiculous. This cutesy-wootsie saga of Easter Bunny slackers, evil Easter Chicks, L.A. layabouts, rock 'n' roll bunny wannabes, and a revolution on Easter Island (land of the Easter Bunny in this movie) is an insult to the intelligence of the 7-year-olds who will be its most receptive audience.
For about five minutes at the start, the movie had me. I was momentarily dazzled by its spectacular candy factory opening, where the camera flies down to the truculent statue-heads of Easter Island, darts down a secret passageway and finally swoops along the conveyor belts and chocolate vats and candy thingumabobs where all Easter stuff is supposedly being made -- all as smoothly as a series of Max Ophuls tracking shots in Tim Burton-land.
It even had me when it introduced the somewhat annoying lead human character, slothful slacker and Easter Bunny fan Fred O'Hare (played by the live James Marsden of Enchanted), whom we meet as a little boy (Django Marsh), enchanted when he catches a glimpse of the Easter Bunny dropping off baskets, and thereby developing a lifelong bunny fixation.
It sort of had me when screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and director Tim Hill drag on the lead cartoon characters: the Easter Bunny himself (voiced by Hugh Laurie, in a half-funny Brit snob routine), the Big Bunny's rock 'n' roll wannabe son, Spielbergishly named E.B. (Russell Brand), and the scheming, rebellious Easter Chick Carlos (Hank Azaria, with a burlesque Mexican accent).
And I still hadn't wised up when E.B. decamped to Hollywood, where he hooks up with Fred, and starts pooping jellybeans and trying to come up with so-called humor (lame zingers and amazingly laugh-challenged wisecracks), and where the movie definitively revealed its true agenda: bad jokes and L.A. clichés, mixed with elaborate animation, TV meta trendiness and loud, bright icky-poo cutesy-wootsies.
By then, Hop had turned into the usual rancid Hollywood wish-fulfillment semi-satire.
Oh, did I mention that there's a big talent show, called "Hoff Knows Talent," fronted by David Hasselhoff, parodying himself? Or that Gary Cole and Elizabeth Perkins show up as Fred's parents, who get things rolling by booting him out of the house? Or that Azaria does the voice for another Easter chick, dancin' fool Phil? Or that Hefner himself does a cameo? An unending stream of slick nonsense just keeps pooping and popping out of Hop, a movie that misfires about as often as Elmer Fudd's wifle.