Monthly Archives: May 2010

Robin Hood (Review)

Since I’m finishing up my PhD in history I think I have stronger views about historical dramas than most.  I’m not sure why a filmmaker wants to make a movie about an historical figure or event and completely disregard accuracy.  I get that some events are so complex that adhering to an accurate account would sacrifice dramatic and narrative coherence.  So then the question I ask is, why make a movie about it?  If it is so complex, why muddy the waters even more with deliberate misinformation?  In the case of Ridley Scott’s new film Robin Hood, supposedly the story of what happened before Robin Longstride became Robin Hood, a bastardization of a mythical story is superimposed over an historically unrecognizable Medieval England.  While watching I began to wonder why they even bothered to use real figures from the past like King John, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and William Marshal when they were going to butcher their legacies and just have them do whatever their script needed them to do to get to the next fighting sequence.

Forget historical accuracy – they don’t even get the legend of Robin Hood right.  By all accounts that I knew (and from my research since seeing the movie), Robin Hood was supposed to have terrorized the rich in favor of the poor while King Richard was away fighting the Crusades and King John acted as ruler in his place.  In this incarnation of the legend, Robin is off fighting with King Richard.  He returns, impersonating a slain knight, after Richard’s death.  What Ridley Scott has done has streamlined the legend.  No messiness:  the good king is dead and there is a bad new one.  They leave out most of the true family drama of the Plantagenet family that resulted in kidnappings, imprisonments, revolts, betrayals, and deceit, all handled much more skillfully (and that isn’t saying much) in the play and movie The Lion in Winter.  Scott makes it look like John was just sitting around waiting for Richard to get back.  (Let’s not even consider the revolt led by John’s nephew Arthur over his succession; that would make it even messier and harder to follow.)  Robin travels to Nottingham with a few other soldiers from Richard’s army to return a sword to the father of the knight whose identity he assumed.  Once in Nottingham the elderly Sir William Loxley (Max von Sydow) convinces Robin to pretend to be his son so that when he dies his widowed daughter-in-law, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) will not lose her land.  Robin agrees to the charade.

This might have been a fairly serviceable story, but there is a lot thrown in about King John’s quest for tax money to replenish the coffers after Richard’s overseas campaigns and his need to be obeyed at all costs.  King John (Oscar Isaac – gleefully evil and one of the bright spots of the picture) sends a trusted adviser north to collect taxes from recalcitrant barons.  Godfrey (Mark Strong) has convinced the king that he can reign in their rebelliousness and collect the taxes he needs.  What John doesn’t know is that Godfrey is an agent of the King of France.  His actual mission is to terrorize the north so completely that the barons will rise up in revolt creating a perfect opportunity for the French to invade.  None of this works as a history lesson, a compelling story, or even an action movie.  I felt like it needed to be the story of Robin Hood or the story of royal machinations.  Either story could have been strong on its own accord without the distraction of the other.

The best historical movies tend to focus on a small aspect of a larger story without struggling to be all places at all times.  Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991) is a fantastic movie about a French missionary travelling through Canada to a remote Algonquin mission.  Beresford saw the natural limits of the story and didn’t try to stretch it too far.  In this way he constructed a clean narrative without having to sacrifice much historical accuracy.  It is impossible to do the same about the ascension to the throne of King John and his early reign.  It is too complex of a time to be reduced to the limited scope of a movie.  Scott should have focused on a more controlled story.  There would have still been plenty of time for swordplay and battles, but it wouldn’t have treated the audience like we are idiots and it wouldn’t have created more misinformation about a time which most people already know little.

Russell Crowe also weighs down the part.  He plays it all so soberly without a smidge of humor that it almost gets unintentionally funny.  The character is written so sickeningly principled that it was probably the easiest way to go.  A more creative actor, not burdened by the constant need to prove his worth as a leading man by huskily exhaling all his masculine lines, would have played this variation on a prophet with some panache and humor.  Instead we are forced to suffer through more than two hours of listening to Crowe glare and philosophize about the rights of man.  (I bet you didn’t know that the catalyst for the Magna Carta was really Robin Hood.)  Cate Blanchett does what she can opposite one of the worst leading men in movies, but all she can do is liven up her scenes.  This Lady Marion is left to hold her land and her villagers together after her husband and all the men of the village leave.  She works well as a strong woman, forced to a place of authority contrary to the customary position of women at the time and I liked the direction the movie took her.  That is until the script called for her to ridiculously enter the fray in the climatic battle, armor and all.  That was a head smacking moment.

All in all, there isn’t much to recommend Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. If you want a good Robin Hood movie rent the old Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland picture The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Flynn approached Robin Hood as a gallant crusader against tyranny, but with wit and grace.  Even the old Disney animated feature is more entertaining than this preachy slop.


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Just Wright (Review)

Seeing Queen Latifah cast as the lead in a romantic comedy is always refreshing.  She isn’t what studio execs seem to think they need for a romance to work: skinny and white.  They still think that movie-goers won’t accept women who look, you know, real.  They love Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer Aniston, and the inexplicably busy Katherine Heigl.  Seyfried was at least charming in Letters to Juliet, but who looks like her?  Jennifer Aniston isn’t particularly pretty, but she’s cute and it doesn’t hurt that she’s white, has a decent body, and is, to many, (but not me) likeable on screen.  (I also think she and filmmakers have been milking the sympathy factor for many years – too many years it now seems.)  But Katherine Heigl is so lifeless on the screen she looks like someone is pointing a gun at her to make her act.  She exudes pretentions of cuteness, something that came naturally to Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz (and now, I think, Amanda Seyfried).  Her body and looks (and the potential Grey’s Anatomy cross-over audience) are the only possible reason a casting agent would think of her.  Queen Latifah doesn’t meet the physical requirement unimaginative film execs have set but she is still vibrant and refreshing in Just Wright; though I worry that studios will think of her as the exception that proves the rule.

Queen Latifah elevates Just Wright from an average romance movie to something a little better.  It isn’t a great movie; she isn’t that good.  But the average script is almost single-handedly resuscitated by Ms. Latifah.  Armond White of the New York Press, one of the worst paid critics around, slammed her for playing “neo-Mammy” roles.  While it’s true that she hasn’t done anything truly challenging or provoking, it is plain wacky to equate her roles with the Mammy stereotype.  (But then wacky is White’s specialty.)  She plays Leslie Wright, an attractive, but slightly overweight woman who has a good job as a physical therapist, owns property, and loves basketball, especially the New Jersey Nets.  I don’t get where Mammy comes in here.  The one thing missing in her life, at least according to her mother (Pam Greir, who is oddly wasted in a throw-away part), is a man.  She goes on dates, but as much as the guys love talking to her and hanging out with her, she just isn’t what they had in mind physically.  Queen Latifah conveys true resignation as she is blown off by another guy at the end of what appeared to be a good date.  She isn’t angry or sad, just disappointed once again.

Not once does anyone in this movie question the assumption that a woman’s life is not complete without a man.  I know our culture constantly reminds us that life without marriage (forget romance) is worthless.  A life alone is by definition one of loneliness.  Of course a life, alone or with someone else, is whatever we make of it.  But that isn’t what Hollywood is peddling: romance is easier.  Enter a love interest for Latifah’s Leslie.  And it isn’t just any love interest.  He is Scott McKnight, a star player for her beloved Nets.  McKnight is played by rapper turned actor Common.  He isn’t the strongest actor here, but I think he is saved by some good directing and editing.  Overall, despite the weak moments, he has some good moments especially with Queen Latifah.

Essentially this is a Cinderella story.  There isn’t a cruel stepmother and stepsisters, but there is an insensitive mother and Morgan (Paula Patton), a godsister (is that even a word?) who is mooching off of Leslie and scheming to bag an NBA player because she is almost 30 and “has to think about her future.”  Sexy Morgan diverts Scott’s attention away from Leslie and soon (too soon) he proposes marriage to her.  I’m not sure what we as an audience are supposed to think about Scott that he would fall for such contrived nonsense.  Morgan made up a series of lies to impress him like that she volunteered at a homeless shelter, but wouldn’t that have come up in subsequent dates and wouldn’t it have become clear that she doesn’t have a clue what goes on in homeless shelters?  Hot bodies can blind us for a while, but not for months on end.  If Scott is such a great guy he wouldn’t have fallen for Morgan’s tricks.  (This then leads to the question: If he is so dopey why would a smart woman like Leslie want him?  Romantic comedies always make this mistake.  One or both of the pair is always with someone who isn’t nice, isn’t honest, isn’t respectful, etc.  I have trouble taking a character seriously when they make rotten relationship choices.)

When McKnight is injured Morgan bails, but Leslie steps up as his physical therapist.  Morgan can’t envision a future with a man who may not have a future in the NBA.  Leslie is left not just to work on rehabilitating his knee, but also, as is preordained by the genre, to fall in love with him.  Of course Morgan will come back at the right time (for the script) because manufactured drama is better than watching a simple story of two people falling in love.  This could have been a very good movie had some people behind the camera been bolder and had some faith in their abilities.  With such a strong performance by Queen Latifah this could have been a moving romance about a man falling in love with a woman that society tells him isn’t worth his time.  Watching him discover her true beauty would have been much more entertaining than going through the paces of a typical romantic comedy when everyone in the audience knows exactly where it will end up.

I doubt many studios, casting directors, or directors will chalk the continued success of Queen Latifah up to a hunger in the United States for movies populated by real people of all shapes, sizes and colors.  When was the last time we saw a major Hollywood romantic comedy production with an overweight woman?  Overweight men like Seth Rogan, Kevin James, and Jonah Hill are fine, but name the overweight women that aren’t treated as jokes.  You can’t.  And it’s odd because romantic comedies are geared toward women, but why would they want to see unattractive fat guys with gorgeous skinny girls.  But then, they’ve done tons of market research and test screening so I’m sure they think they know more than I do.  I’m not sure that they do.  Queen Latifah isn’t a fluke.  She’s black and large and people want to see that.  Where are Latinas (other than Jennifer Lopez)?  Where are the Asians?  Romantic comedies are so out of touch with the diversity of our country (not to mention the world) that Just Wright should be singled out just for trying to break that down.  Unfortunately diverse casting and some strong performances can’t lift this formula picture up past the “just fine” status.


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Best Performances of 1930

Best Actress:

Marlene Dietrich (Morocco).  Other Noteworthy Performances: Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel), Marie Dressler (Min and Bill), Greta Garbo (Anna Christie).

For me the best female performance of the year is clearly Marlene Dietrich’s role as the sexy singer Amy Jolly in Morocco.  At first glance she plays the part almost lackadaisically; she looks bored to be on the set.  But there is an underlying passion and vulnerability that she keeps hidden and Dietrich gives us restrained hints at them.  It takes an accomplished actress to pull off something as subtle as what she does here.  Nothing is over the top as was the case with so many of the performances of an era that preferred either mannered or histrionic acting to quiet sincerity.  Even Garbo in Anna Christie has some eye-rolling moments.  Dietrich’s Jolly, a singer at a Moroccan nightclub, falls for legionnaire, Tom (Gary Cooper).  They are both emotionally broken and cannot trust one another, but are drawn together nevertheless.  As they fall in love they both get scared and panic.  They break it off, trying to convince themselves that they didn’t really need the other.  She even has an affair with Adolph Menjou to show Cooper (and probably herself) that she doesn’t really need him.  She is flirtatious when she needs to be (such as when she playfully kisses a woman during her act), but comes off as cold when she feels something (such as when she encounters Cooper with another woman at a bar).  If only Dietrich could have sung well she would have been a perfect performer.  Fortunately she left us this truly great performance, so understated it almost looks natural.

Best Actor:

Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel).  Other Noteworthy Performances: None

I know it isn’t fashionable to praise the work of Emil Jannings anymore.  He enthusiastically embraced the Nazi movement and made several propaganda pictures for them.  (Quentin Tarantino gleefully killed Jannings off in his alternate history World War II film Inglorious Basterds.)  But his performance in The Blue Angel deserves notice.  His portrayal of staid Professor Immanuel Rath stands as one of the greatest of romantic obsession.  Rath, dismayed at his students’ infatuation of showgirl Lola Lola (Dietrich), visits her cabaret to make sure they aren’t there ogling the half-naked woman.  His sexual appetite was suppressed, but Lola inflames him and he becomes infatuated with her more than his students ever were.  For them she is a natural adolescent fantasy; for Rath she becomes a fatal fixation.  Perhaps intrigued by his respectability she begins seeing him and they eventually marry.  Naturally a professor cannot be married to a disreputable woman in show business so he is forced to resign.  So begins his descent into disgrace.  It is interesting to see someone, so sure of his moral and social standing, fall so far when he realizes he can have the woman of everyone’s dreams.  Of course he can’t hold her.  A person with more experience and perspective might cut their losses and walk away, someone like Rath, who never pursued the sensual or erotic sides of life, can’t see that she isn’t the only one, because for him she is the only one.  His final scenes of murderous jealousy and irreparable despair help make Jannings the only actor of 1930 worth singling out.  Too bad he didn’t follow Dietrich’s path and denounce Nazism.  If he had he might actually be remembered today.

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Nineteen-thirty was not a great year for movies.  In the first full year of sound, Hollywood and international film production struggled to come to terms with the new technology.  Sound had been slowly creeping into movies since The Jazz Singer in 1927, but by 1930 most studios had converted some or all of their stages for sound recording and theaters had sound systems in place, but there was an artistic lag.  Studios did not adapt to sound well; they seemed to still be making silent movies with a layer of sound rather than integrating the new technology into the art of film.  The scripts often feel appropriate for the stage rather than movies and the acting is often even less appropriate to the medium.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find ten movies that I loved, but there are still several worth seeing.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (U.S., Dir. Lewis Milestone)

No one who wasn’t there can truly know what life was like in the trenches of World War I, but this anti-war, call for understanding from Lewis Milestone and Universal (a rare prestige picture from the traditionally low-budget studio) probably gave the most accurate portrayal Hollywood ever produced.  Based on the celebrated Erich Maria Remarque novel, the film follows the initially enthusiastic enlistment of a group of German students and their gradual disillusionment in the face of the horrors of World War I.  They are slowly killed or wounded (two or three before they see any actual combat) until we are left with only Paul (Lew Ayers).  Ayers wasn’t the strongest actor, but he certainly looked the part, a nice combination of innocence with a potential edge under the surface.  All Quiet on the Western Front constructs the hardest image of the First World War seen in movies up to that point.  It is stronger than King Vidor’s excellent movie The Big Parade (1925) and certainly stronger than the fluffy Wings which inexplicably took the first Academy Award for Best Picture.  We see the realities of war as the men on the front are slowly driven mad by waiting, mud, rats, bombardment, homesickness, hunger, bad shoes, disease, horniness, and a growing sense of futility.  In one scene several of the characters discuss what they are fighting about and no one comes up with a satisfying answer.  And when there is fighting it is pointless attack, fall back, attack again, and everyone ends up where they were at the start of it all.

Milestone succeeded in filming the horrors of war without sacrificing a subtle but positive message:  despite all the horrors of the war, Paul and the men with whom he serves create bonds with each other and continue to live, no matter how miserable things got.  They learn through war to love and respect each other and their enemies (it was no accident that the story is about German soldiers which didn’t make French audiences happy).  They learn that what they experienced was too complicated for black and white good versus evil explanations, nationalism, and jingoistic slogans.  It’s anti-war without the usual mushy-headed naivety of well-meaning liberals who have never experienced war.  And they can, after 4 years in the trenches, still appreciate the beauty of the world: the final shot of Paul reaching for the butterfly on the battlefield could have been hokey, but Milestone handles it deftly and it is the perfect quiet note on which to leave the picture.

2.   The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel, Germany, Dir. Josef von Sternberg)

This chilling movie is about romantic obsession and how our passions can trump our dignity, how infatuation can reduce us to places we never thought we would end up.  Emil Jannings is a respected professor slowly unraveled by his fixation on the sultry temptress Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich).  This is a fantastic movie that deals with these issues in a way only a movie from Weimar Germany could have in 1930.  There is no moralizing, no tut-tutting, just a straight forward story of the professor’s slow degradation until, after being dismissed, he literally becomes a clown to support his obsession.  Director Josef von Sternberg directed an English language version at the same time, but was thought lost until recently.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I would be curious to see how it stacks up to this great movie.

3. The Big House (U.S., Dir. George W. Hill)

Warden Lewis Stone tells playboy Robert Montgomery, newly incarcerated for manslaughter, that prison doesn’t make people yellow, but if you already are yellow prison will make it worse.  Well, he is yellow and that leads to all kinds of problems.  I wasn’t expecting to like this movie before I saw it.  I’ve seen tons of prison movies and rarely do they thrill me.  This one is surprisingly good and my affection for it has only grown over the years.  Wallace Beery has garnered a lot of praise for his performance as the tough con with a soft side (sort of).  I think he might be a shade this side of hammy, but maybe that’s part of the movie’s charm.  I am more partial to the performances of Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery, both of which are necessary for the gripping climax.

4. Morocco (U.S., Dir. Josef von Sternberg)

This is another Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg pairing, but this time made in the U.S. with a super-hunky young Gary Cooper.  Like The Blue Angel this movie also deals with what sacrifices some are willing to make for love.  Feminists tend to hate the movie because of the sacrifice Dietrich makes at the end, but they fail to recognize that both Cooper and Dietrich make massive sacrifices for each other (not to mention the sacrifice Adolph Menjou’s character makes because of his love for Dietrich).  This is not a movie that advocates women’s subjugation to men; it advocates the subjugation of men and women to love.  Maybe not the best advice in the world, but still a great movie.

5. Animal Crackers (U.S., Dir. Victor Heerman)

I love the Marx Brothers.  Their comedy pushed the boundaries of logic, decorum, and language (not to mention patience of the long suffering Marx “Sister,” Margaret Dumont).  Their MGM picture A Night at the Opera (1935) is general considered their best, but I prefer some of their less polished Paramount pictures from the early 1930s, like Animal Crackers.  The roughness of the filmmaking and uneven narrative works well with the insubordinate and chaotic humor of the Marx Brothers.  The story, such as it is, revolves around a massive party given by Mrs. Rittenhouse (Dumont) for Capt. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), just returned from big game hunting in Africa.  There’s something about a stolen painting and a fairly routine romance between supporting characters, but, like all Marx Brothers’ movies, this picture is a showcase for gags that still work: the absurd genius of the bridge scene, wonderfully zany word play, and Harpo’s shooting spree and a statue that returns fire.

6. Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d’un Poete, France, Dir. Jean Cocteau)

I’m not usually a big fan of surrealism in the movies.  They are often treated so solemnly that it’s a bit hard to take anything seriously.  Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or is considered the surrealist gem of 1930, but I find it heavy and formal.  Buñuel, like most surrealists, thought he was saying something meaningful through obscure symbolism only exciting to the educated, not mass audiences (those you need to truly revolutionize society).  He created some stunning images, but I got to the end and wondered what he thought he had accomplished.  Maybe it was provoking to indict bourgeois society and the church at the time, but it hardly holds up today.  Buñuel’s later movies exhibit a much sharper wit and humor, like Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet isn’t as funny as I would like, but I find it much more watchable.  Some images are striking, some disturbing, some erotic.  Cocteau explores the mind of an artist and his relationship to his work.  The art that he produces begins as a reflection of the artist’s psyche, initially exhilarating to him, but slowly it begins to horrify him, showing him things he never wanted to see.  I was especially struck by the talking sketch, the talking mouth on the Artist’s hand (ew!), the snowball fight that ends in death, and the creepy scenes that the artist spies through the keyholes of the hallway, not to mention the incredibly sexy Enrique Rivero as the Artist, who Cocteau was smart enough to leave shirtless throughout much of his screen time.

7. Earth (Zemlya, USSR, Dir. Alexandr Dovzhenko)

The Soviets might have done a lot of things wrong (like creating a completely unsustainable economic system), but they knew how to make movies, at least until Stalin consolidated his power and moved to use the Soviet film industry to educate the masses “correctly.”  Stalin had little patience for artistic expression or individual vision; everything had to conform to the party line and every film had to tell the truth, as defined by the State (ironically christened as socialist realism).  Dovzhenko’s Earth is the only fully silent picture on this list, and is one of the last great Soviet films before Stalin’s oppression of the film industry really took effect.  Earth is a loving tale, not of people per se, but literally of the soil that sustains them.  The rich local landowners refuse to sell their land to the peasants for a cooperative, so Vasly, the leader of the village, takes it anyway.  He buys a tractor and they thrive, until he is shot by the son of one of the dispossessed landowners.  Vasly’s father sends away the priest in favor of a people’s funeral.   Much of the narrative is cloudy, difficult to follow, but it all comes together in a stunning sequence that intercuts Vasly’s funeral, his naked widow thrashing around a room, his mother giving birth to another child, and his killer running through the fields that he and his family have lost.  The cutting becomes frenetic, but the energy elevates what could have been a tragic tale into one of hope.  Vasly may have been killed but his family and his village will live on through the soil that has sustained them for generations.

Other Notable Movies of 1930:  Hell’s Angels (U.S., Dir. Howard Hughes), The Unholy Three (U.S., Dir. Jack Conway).


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My Yearly Best Lists

Ever since the movie industry took off critics have taken the time at the end of each year to tell the world which movies they think are the best of the year.  Movie lovers exert too much energy debating these choices, especially the choices of the Academy Awards, but I will join the fray.  I will write up my lists of the best pictures and best male and female performances of each year beginning in 1930.  (I want to do a separate list for the silent era.)  I expect a certain amount of time between posts (hopefully not more than 2 weeks) because there are many movies that I need to see and others I need to see again.  I know this project is ambitious, but I look forward to discovering new (old) movies and talking about my thoughts on them.

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Letters to Juliet

Letters to Juliet isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t exactly a good movie either.  It is a romantic comedy that has moments of indisputable sweetness, but it’s so formulaic and empty headed that it never pushes past just being an average romantic comedy.  Romantic comedy is a difficult genre and few movies – especially modern ones – really get it right.  When Harry Met Sally, Arthur, and Moonstruck are only a few that I could think of off the top of my head (and notice how old they all are).  I’m sure there are some decent ones from the past 10 years, but it hasn’t been a genre that I have diligently followed.  The vast majority I’ve seen over the past several years have been plain awful.  Letters to Juliet is refreshing only in that it isn’t terrible, just average.

The screenwriters, José Rivera and Tim Sullivan, (why they needed two to churn this out I’ll never know) follow a tried though not necessarily true romantic comedy movie blueprint.  Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is stuck in a dead end job as a fact checker for the New Yorker when she really wants to be a writer.  She is engaged to a young chef (Gael García Bernal) who is busy putting the finishing touches on his true love, his restaurant due to open in a matter of weeks.  They decide to take their honeymoon before their wedding because he will be so busy with the restaurant.  (Why they don’t just have the wedding several weeks before or after the restaurant opening is never made clear.  Who would plan a wedding to coincide with a restaurant opening?  Bad wedding planning, but great plot manipulation.)  They arrive in Verona where Victor (Bernal) spends all his time meeting suppliers and getting cooking lessons, leaving Sophie to wander the city alone.  On one of her solo outings she discovers the Wall of Juliet, where forlorn and discarded lovers flock to leave letters for the fictional Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet fame).  She also discovers a group of women who collect the letters and answer them.

Sophie joins up with the women, possibly with the idea of writing a story about them.  Through pure luck she discovers a letter left by a woman in 1957 and she decides she has to answer it.  Only a few days later the woman, Clair (Vanessa Redgrave) arrives in Verona looking for the lost love of her life.  Tagging along with her is an overprotective grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan).  Over Charlie’s strenuous objections the three set out on a search for Claire’s lost love.

You could probably fill in the holes about what happens next without seeing the picture.  I don’t even need to tell you that Sophie’s fiancé is cartoonishly self-absorbed, so the “choice” at the end is really false.  And of course she and Charlie hate each other, but you know where that goes.  Though the plot is sickeningly predictable, there is some real chemistry and sweetness between Seyfried and Egan (despite his grating sarcasm early on – I think a better actor could have really done something with those scenes rather than just sounding like a snob).  And of course Vanessa Redgrave brings a wonderful elegance to everything she is in; all she has to do is show up and I’m already half in love with the scene.

Other than the paint-by-numbers script, the movie is undermined by a level of dopiness about love that should only appeal to 12 year old girls.  Love is much more complex than this movie would have us believe.  Love doesn’t mean “wanting to be together all the time,” as Seyfried’s character claims near the end of the picture.  I’m in love, but I don’t want to be with him all the time.  How about 85% of the time.  Love doesn’t mean subjugating your own personality and wants and desires for another – which you would have to do if you followed the philosophy of love per Letters to Juliet.  It is odd that we still have movies that tell us all you need is love.  How many have fallen for this idea and ended up in miserable relationships?  How often have we heard, “But I love him!” when women explain why they stay with abusive husbands or boyfriends.  We need to be reminding people that love is great, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a great relationship.  Falling in love is easy; staying in love and maintaining a healthy relationship is the hard part.  This movie, like most romance movies, completely sugarcoats this reality.  Remember Broadcast News?  That was a strong romance that had the guts not to give us the ending and coupling we anticipated because love and romance are messier than the emotions we feel.  I wish writers and filmmakers (and studios) would have the courage to make romance movies that explore this issue more fully.  Young people – girls in particular – are fed this romantic nonsense and then we wonder why teenagers and young adults make so many rotten relationship decisions.  This concern is nothing new.  In 1752 Charlotte Lennox wrote about a young girl educated by romance novels and the misadventures that result from her readings in The Female Quixote.  Jane Austen revisited the theme in 1818 with her posthumously published Northanger Abbey.  Not much has changed since the days of Lennox or Austen, but we ought to advocate for stories that are less about feelings, which are the easy parts of a relationships, and are more about what makes a relationship truly special.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It occurred to me while watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that director Niels Arden Oplev had achieved the tone and style that Martin Scorsese hoped to match in Shutter Island.  But Oplev omits the hysteria, melodrama, and cheesy chills that we find in Scorsese’s picture for something much more disturbing: a dark world inhabited by plausible characters, but still retaining its popular pulp background.  I haven’t read any of the novels by Swedish author Stieg Larsson (this film is the adaptation of the first in a series), but based on the content (and the fact that I can buy his books in my local grocery store) I don’t believe they are what we would call highbrow literature.  That’s all right because Oplev rescues the potentially exploitative and melodramatic material; he pulls it up to the level of, if not high art, at least a really good movie.  Some great films have been based on schlocky writing, like Double Indemnity, or remakes of bad movies, like Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much.  I always wonder why more filmmakers don’t tackle lowbrow literature instead of trying to make movies out of great books like Madame Bovary or Moby Dick.  There is so much more room for error and disappointment when taking on those projects, but there ought to be a level of creative liberty when making trash.  And when a filmmaker can turn it into a great movie, then there is an accomplishment worth noting.  To me, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or Men Who Hate Women if we were to literally translate the Swedish title) feels like trash made into art.

The picture opens and it is winter is Sweden.  Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just been convicted of libel against a powerful billionaire industrialist.  Blomkvist maintains he was set up, but does not see the point of appealing the decision so in six months he will serve a three month jail term.  He is approach by a wealthy recluse, Henrik Vanger, with a proposition; he wants the disgraced journalist, in the months before he serves his sentence, to help him find his beloved niece who disappeared over 40 years ago at a reunion of the Vanger family.  Blomkvist accepts and embarks on a journey into the bitter, petty and creepy Vanger family and slowly becomes obsessed with the case of the missing girl himself.

Meanwhile a mysterious woman is following Blomkvist.  Vanger wanted to be sure that the man didn’t have any skeletons of his own, so his lawyer commissioned a security company to conduct a background check on Blomkvist.  Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), a goth computer hacking genius with a giant tattoo of a dragon on her back (hence the title), compiles a report and in her own way, for unclear reasons, becomes obsessed with the journalist.  She continues to hack into his computer after her job is complete reading his files and emails.  It is in this way that she finds her own way into the Vanger mystery.  Naturally the two come together for a joint investigation into Harriet Vanger’s disappearance.

The movie runs at 2:40, but the narrative is so tightly constructed that there is very little lag time.  It is so well done that I didn’t even think to look at my watch until about 2:10 in (and that was only because I had to use the restroom in the most urgent possible way).  It is masterful the way Oplev guides viewers through the story and makes all the twists and turns comprehendible.  This is a challenge since so many of the suspects are dead or out of town and we only ever see as pictures on a wall.  But somehow Oplev gives us enough about these absent characters for us to remember who they are (or were), what their relationship to the missing girl was, and what kinds of people they were.  Slowly we get a very ugly picture of what this family is really like: everything from Nazi collaborators to abusive mothers.

Some of the leads Blomkvist picks up on and is able to follow after 40 years are a little silly.  Would it really be possible to track down someone in a photo from 1966 without any information about her?  Hardly, but I didn’t care.  I chuckled briefly and went on with the picture, hoping it didn’t get any sillier… and it didn’t.

Reviews have been largely positive, but some have criticized it for excessive violence.  There are maybe two scenes of disturbing violence but nothing that made me squirm, nothing like Hostel, Saw, or some of these other torture porn movies of recent years.  If we count all violence equally this movie is much less violent than Avatar was which I didn’t hear any squawking about.   But the difference is this movie is grounded much more firmly in reality.  I mean would these critics be howling if it hadn’t been well-written and acted (unlike those in Avatar)?  No one really cared about the characters in James Cameron’s cartoon, so killing them was easy with a minimum of muss.  Cartoon violence produces caricatures of emotions.  Not so here.  I count that as a success, not a failure.

The performances are very good across the board.  I especially like the pained performance of Sven-Bertil Taube as the long suffering uncle searching for his missing niece.  The chilling opening shots are on him opening a package, another taunt, he believes, from his niece’s killer.  It’s a moving moment (even though we still are not sure what is going on.  Michael Nyqvist turns in a solid lead performance despite a thinly written character.  I was a bit turned off by Rapace’s Lisbeth for much of the movie because of her moody and emotionally distant character.  She has been receiving a lot of praise for her performance and through the first half of the movie I was uncertain as to why.  It isn’t terribly endearing for me to see a character ignore questions or avoid handshakes simply because they’re tortured souls.  And it didn’t seem particularly challenging to have to play a woman whose emotions are essentially shut off.  I was afraid she was going to remain an emotional void throughout the picture, but as the movie progresses she does something even more impressive.  She begins to let down her guard, not in any demonstrative way, but quite subtly.  It is often just a gesture or a look in her eyes, but we can see the trace of some sort of feeling under all the posing.  The walls remain there, but we can see that Blomqvist is getting to her; she is beginning to trust him.  She begins to let him into a part of herself that she kept closed off to anyone, including her mother.  She struggles with two impulses: to safely hide behind her emotional barriers or to open up and connect with another human being.  By the end we see in Rapace’s restrained performance that she is, against all her instincts, actually falling in love.  And after everything we have seen in the movie’s world – the institutional corruption, racism, misogyny, and myriad forms of general cruelty – it is a wonder that anyone would be able to love at all.  Good stuff.

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