Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Eric’s Capsule Reviews: June

In Film, Reviews on June 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm

By Eric Plaag

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009)

In theory, anyone who decided to bring Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series of crime novels to the screen should have been able to knock the entire project out of the park. Focusing on the intriguing connection between a controversial investigative journalist and a young woman named Lisbeth Salander, whose horrific past continues to haunt her present, the book series was in fact inspired by Larsson’s lingering guilt over having witnessed the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl named Lisbeth and doing nothing about it. The kind of intensity that reviewers insist guides the novels does in fact translate nicely to the movie series, at least in the first film. When Lisbeth exacted her revenge upon the guardian who raped her earlier in Dragon Tattoo, I couldn’t think of a time that I’d ever been infused with such a simultaneous feeling of giddy empathy and grotesque revulsion as I was at celebrating Lisbeth’s victory with her.

Unfortunately, the rest of the trilogy, under the separate direction of Daniel Alfredson, never quite recaptures the electric anticipation and dread of the first film, which on its own would stand as a truly great example of hardcore crime drama. This is no fault of the central actors, including Noomi Rapace as the utterly badass Lisbeth and Michael Nyqvist as Millennium magazine’s persistent journalist Mikael Blomkvist, both of whom are consistently believable in their roles, even when the script may not always be so cooperative. Dragon Tattoo focuses on the Vanger family, the bizarre disappearance of one of their own, and the family secret that lies behind it, allowing us to see glimpses of Lisbeth’s past and Nyqvist’s investigatory skills as a complement to the main narrative rather than its sole focus. In the hands of director Niels Arden Oplev, this first film is a pulse-pounding thriller that never disappoints, in spite of some bizarre and creepy turns. From there, though, the series devolves into a laborious effort to solve the “bigger” mystery behind why so many people want to either hurt or kill Lisbeth. When she (literally) rises from the grave near the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, my ability to root for her vicious vengeance was impeded by my countless questions about how she managed to breathe beneath all that dirt for several hours. The snail’s pace at which Alfredson presents the loose ends and implausibilities of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—including the fact that the baddies spend so much time trying to frame Nyqvist rather than killing him, as they would easily and willingly do with Lisbeth—left me begging for my viewing torture to end and eagerly anticipating my opportunity to exact my own small measure of revenge by writing this capsule review.

Do yourself a favor: Watch the first film and pretend the story ends there. Then go spend the five hours you just saved on two different films that you’ll actually give a damn about 48 hours later.

DVD; Tattoo: 4 out of 5 stars; Fire: 2 out of 5 stars; Nest: 1 out of 5 stars

Biutiful (2010)

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a complicated scam artist with an apparent disaster of a life. Along with his brother, he coordinates cheap, illegal Asian labor for construction projects and uses the income from that business to payoff the Barcelona cops who repeatedly hassle the team of African counterfeit vendors he manages. On the side, he takes huge sums of cash to comfort grieving family members by sitting with the corpses of their dead loved ones and guiding their spirits to the other side.

All this may make Uxbal sound like a grotesque and completely unsympathetic character, but the trick is that this last business—guiding the souls of the departed—is his only legitimate one, although it, too, is complicated by a core ethical dilemma. “We were given this gift for free,” a fellow guide and kindred spirit reminds Uxbal, “and that’s how we should give it.” But Uxbal has problems. He has two young children who live with him because his ex Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) is so strung out and bipolar that she can’t be a parent. It doesn’t help, either, that she’s awfully busy screwing Uxbal’s brother when she isn’t abusing their kids. Even when Uxbal tries to do what he thinks is the right thing, only the worst seems to happen. Add to Uxbal’s woes that he pisses blood and is dying from cancer, and, well, who can blame him for giving up on the world as one giant, stinky piece of shit.

But he doesn’t. In spite of the most devastating of tragedies, which writer and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu throws at us and Uxbal without either mercy or fanfare, Uxbal somehow manages to find peace and comfort in his final days. It would ruin the film to say how or where or from whom, but veterans of Inarritu’s work (21 Grams, Babel) should know not to expect neat, cathartic, ethically balanced answers here. And this is why the film still resonates with me two weeks after first viewing: Inarritu seems to insist that good things and bad things don’t happen to us because they are meant to or because we deserve them. No, it is far more naturalistic than that. Good and bad happen because people choose to do either the good or the bad thing. This is the power we hold over others and they hold over us.

DVD, 4 out of 5 stars

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Fellow writer Matt Smith here at TheSplitScreen did his best to pump me up for this latest round in the self-absorption cycle known as the Woody Allen oeuvre, and I went in looking forward to a host of thoughtful, knowing, even if a bit neurotic commentaries on the great literature of the early 20th century. And, in complete fairness, Matt is right—the performances work for what this is. Owen Wilson is certainly a capable Allen cipher as Gil, a neurotic writer who finds a strange Parisian portal into the Jazz Age, and to be honest, Corey Stoll’s turn as an advice-spewing Ernest Hemingway is dead-on terrific. But the premise of Allen’s film—Gil as a nostalgic dreamer who discovers that we all yearn for a golden age in a time that preceded our own—falls apart largely because Gil is nearly as unlikeable as his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and the blathering, arrogant Paul (Michael Sheen), whom she’s sleeping with even as she plans her nuptials. If I find Gil so detestable (both for wanting to marry Inez in the first place and on his own merits), and Allen seems okay with that, then why should I care whether Gil finds happiness or gets his book published or ever returns from his midnight sojourns into the Jazz Age?

In my experience, there are two kinds of educated/cultured people. There are those who enjoy art and literature and music for what it is, who treasure talking about it and debating its merits because they thrive on the experience of elucidation, enlightenment, and emotional/spiritual connection with others who express a meaningful vision of the human experience better than the rest of us. Then there are those who like the arts strictly because they serve as a vehicle for demonstrating one’s self-worth and self-importance. It is this latter group that populates Midnight and most of Allen’s other films, preening about with a self-conscious braggadocio that is less about finding meaning than it is about getting other people to overhear how much one “knows” about meaning. True, Gil’s critique of pedantic behavior is hilarious, but it is also hypocritical, relying as it does on the same tools of the trade. Likewise, while some of the icons of the past are well-rendered, many of them come off as cartoon versions of themselves, circularly validating Gil’s errant observation that “Zelda Fitzgerald is exactly as we’ve come to know her through books.” What Allen leaves unanswered, though, is the more difficult and important question of why so many of these kinds of intellectual elitists, including Allen himself, settle on accepting and repeating these cartoon versions of the great artists of the past, when even a cursory reading of Zelda’s and Scott’s letters would make it clear that she wasn’t simply a flighty drama queen prone to threats of suicide for effect. But since Gil only got to know them for about five minutes, maybe he—and Allen—never could get past his own preconceptions.

Theaters, 2 out of 5 stars

Ghost Story (1981)

When I first saw this film as a teenager, I loved how creepy the premise was: Four really old guys (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and John Houseman) spend their retirements sitting around trying to scare the crap out of each other by telling ghost stories that bear an eerie resemblance to something that haunts them from their past. Soon, these members of the Chowder Society begin having nightmares about that past, at the same time that David (Craig Wasson), the son of one of the old codgers, dies in a fall from a hotel window. Eventually, David’s brother Don (also Craig Wasson) shows up asking for admission to the club, promising to pay the price for admission with a tale that will shock them all.

What follows in director John Irvin’s adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel is the story of Alma/Eva (Alice Krige), a woman all of the men find frighteningly alluring but also a little bit…off…when they first fall for her. And she is the key to the secret of all the horror that is unfolding for them in their present. To this day, even though I had forgotten many of the plot and character details of the film, I remain able to quote her chilling warning to Don shortly before they break up: “I will take you places you have never been. I will show you things you have never seen. And I will see the life run out of you.” I’ll take “Things You Never Want to Hear Your Girlfriend Say to You in Bed” for a thousand, Alex.

Ultimately, though, Ghost Story doesn’t hold up for me 30 years after my first viewing of it. I’d forgotten how out of synch Phillippe Sarde’s score is, preferring as it does a zany, madcap tone (think Steve Miner’s 1986 comedic thriller House) over the John Carpenter-like, shit-your-pants jolts that Ghost Story should convey. Likewise, there’s nothing overtly wrong with the performances by all of the key players, but while it’s fun to see Douglas, Fairbanks, and Astaire in their final film roles, these parts are more walkthrough than actual performance. Under Irvin’s direction, too, the payoff is a bit underwhelming and not nearly as climactic as I remember it. Perhaps the story seemed original in its day, but now the ending seems ridiculously obvious less than halfway through the film. And that, to me, just isn’t the kind of scary that the Chowder Society promised to deliver.

DVD, 2 out of 5 stars

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  1. Two stars for Midnight in Paris???? So very generous for a movie that caused me to literally claw my own face in pain and fear when Eliot showed up. Two stars for something that has permanently lowered my standards for everything in life? I will remember this…

    • Let’s not forget, Teresa, that despite what you think of Eric’s ‘generous’ assessment, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year…Glad I don’t have star ratings to visually anger you! (I’ve already done my job in that department.) -Matt

  2. Matt, you will be named as a co-conspirator when Allen is tried for crimes against humanity!

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