Movie Reviews - 2011 postsMonday February 13, 2012
My Top 10 Movies of 2011
In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good becomes very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”
Now people say it of 2011 and my reaction is just as strong. Really? Because I can't squeeze all I want to into my top 10. I think, “Surely I have room for 'Hugo' or 'Midnight in Paris' or 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,'” and I look back at what I already have and I think maybe this, or maybe that, or should I substitute the other? For what it's worth, my top six were decided early. It's the last four that caused hand-wringing.
I love the many connections between the choices below: the ominous, near silent moods of 9, 8 and 7. (“Tinker Tailor” would've fit in well there.) The stubborn, sad persistence of character in 8 and 3. The everyday transcendance of 5 and 4. The search for safety and God in 2 and 1.
Lacking? No, 2011 was a great year for movies. Here is my very, very late top 10.
10. “Bridesmaids”: When I came home from viewing this opening night and Patricia asked me how it was, I said, “It's the funniest movie of the year.” I paused. “And not just so far. I'm saying it'll be the funniest movie I see all year.” That prediction was really only threatened by one film, “Young Adult” (see below). Much of the movie is actually conventional. When her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), gets engaged, Annie (Kristen Wiig) tries to be happy for her but can’t help compare where she and Lillian are both heading. Annie's life is in the crapper but she's her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Jon Hamm), keeps ignoring the right guy, (Chris O’Dowd), is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman). We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
9. “Drive”: Driver (Ryan Goslling) is so laconic he makes Clint Eastwood’s characters seem like blabbermouths. Initially this annoyed me. Initially I felt there was too much atmosphere and not enough substance. I’m not a fan of cool, or profess to be such, since cool is silent and distant, and the most interesting people I’ve encountered in life are the ones who are most engaged. Who talk. I’m a word man. Driver is not. He’s most definitely cool, with his toothpick in his mouth or tucked behind his ear, and so silent, a man of so few words, that I began to wonder, a half-hour in, if there wasn’t something wrong with him mentally. Was he autistic? And yet, despite all this, by the end of the movie I had absorbed him, or he me. I could feel it as I put on my yellow biking jacket, so similar to his silver racing jacket, and my biking gloves, so similar to his driving gloves, and walked out of the theater immersed in the dreamlike silence of the movie. I imagined I was tough and cool and hard-to-read instead of what I am: a tired 48-year-old in need of a shave and a beer. Holden was right. The goddamn movies.
8. “Shame”: “Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy (Carrey Mulligan) tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but writer-director Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.
7. “Margin Call”: J.C. Chandor's debut film is our best dramatization of the global financial meltdown and should be seen on a double bill with “Inside Job” and maybe several “Frontline” episodes, including the ones on Brooksley Born and the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act. It's an ominous, moody, sometimes silent film with a great cast and a kill-or-be-killed message that the film doesn't celebrate but doesn't exactly condemn, either. It's about knowingly selling toxic assets so they infect some other schmuck. It's about how to SURVIVE, as CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) tells the 3 a.m. board meeting. I love how the characters surprise in small ways. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing. What kind of world is Wall Street? The kind where Kevin Spacey plays the moral pillar. Be very afraid.
6. “The Artist”: I think both fans and detractors have gotten this one wrong. They think it's a bit of lightweight nostalgia, a throwback not only to the silent era but to the next generation of filmmakers, which made great films about the silent era (“Singin' in the Rain,” “Sunset Blvd.,” etc.). But to me there are few films more relevant to the United States in 2011 than this silent, black-and-white, French film. For all its charms and zip and melodrama, it's ultimately about a man made irrelevant by new technology. It's about a man made silent by new technology. And in 2011, after 15 years of entire professions being decimated by the digital revolution, that describes too many of us.
5. “The Descendants”: Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, Matt (George Clooney), and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening. The movie's main characters, Matt and his two daughters—plus all of their cousins, including Beau Briddges' own version of The Dude—are the descendants of the title. They’ve been entrusted with this great wealth and the question is what they do with it. But the dynamic and the dilemma filters through to us in the audience. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth. And the question is what we do with it.
4. “Moneyball”: The feeling captured in the opening sentence of my review, written in September, hasn't gone away: I had trouble with the falsehoods but was won over by the poignancy. Slowly I'm forgetting the falsehoods, however, the reduction of the career to one year, and I keep returning to the poignancy: the close-up of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he listens to his daughter singing on her homemade CD with words that fit him. Throughout the movie he wants to be the uberman. He wants to change baseball, and he does, but not the way he envisions, through ultimate victory. He changes it because he hits a mammoth homerun in a losing cause, but the mammoth homerun draws attention. Others steal his stance, his style, and in that way the game changes. In this moment, though, he's not the uberman but the everyman. He's us. Most of us are stuck in the middle; most of us don't know when we hit homeruns, or, if we suspect it, the homeruns go unnoticed and unmentioned. They're before the sparsest of crowds. Most felt “Moneyball” couldn't be filmed because it's about baseball stats, and who beside geeks like me care about baseball stats? But I knew it could be filmed because it's really about underdogs who band together to beat the big boys, the corporation, the evil empire, and that's most of our movies. I just didn't know how they would do the ending. The underdog A's under Billy Beane never won it all; they never even went to the World Series. I thought it was the story's great weakness. In the end, screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and director Bennett Miller make it the film's great strength.
3. “Young Adult”: Mavis Gary is one of the most original characters American cinema has produced in years and Charlize Theron totally embodies her. So why didn't it get out there more? It was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the team who gave us “Juno” back in 2007, but this one isn't so traditionally feel-good. Mavis is an awful person (no empathy or tact), involved in an awful enterprise (winning back her high-school boyfriend at the age of 37), and in the end she doesn't change. She stays on the less-righteous, all-American path of perpetual consumerism and loneliness. Most people won't find it touching or amusing but I thought it was both. I found Mavis sympathetic in her situation and entertaining in her response to her situation. When Paige, Patricia and I saw it in a small, downtown theater with maybe a dozen other people in attendance, we were about the only people laughing; but we were roaring. It's that kind of movie. Its ending is so cynical, I felt something like pure joy wash over me. Most feel-good movies make me feel bad because they aren't any good. “Young Adult,” with its awful characters, made me feel great.
2. “Des hommes et des dieux”: “Of Gods and Men” is a monastic movie. It’s filmed as unaffectedly as the Cistercian monks lived their lives in Tibhirine, Algeria, in 1996. It documents their modest activities in a modest manner. We see them carry firewood and clean floors. They pack honey, miel de l’Atlas, and sell it at the local market. They farm, tend to the sick, help procure visas. They study—both St. Augustine and the Koran. They pray and sing hymns and psalms. Mostly they are caught, trapped, between a growing Islamic fundamentalism and an authoritarian military government. They are trapped between the need for safety elsewhere and the need to do good here. What to do? What to do? At one point, the Islamic revolutionary, Fayattia, tells Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), a tall, bespectacled man who likes to walk in the woods and feel the bark of trees, that he doesn't have a choice in the matter they're discussing. “Vous n'avez pas le choix,” he says. Brother Christian replies: “Si, j'ai le choix.” (Yes, I have a choice.) “Of Gods and Men” is all about the awful, potentially transcendant weight of “J'ai le choix.”
1. “The Tree of Life”: Was there any doubt? It's not only one of the more evocative films about childhood (ball, butterfly, blocks, baby brother arriving and cramping your style); it's not only one of the more honest depictions of coming of age (from fighting father to wishing him dead to becoming him in his absence); it keeps in mind the existential. It doesn't allow us a cultural memory of 10 or 15 or 100 years; it goes back to the beginning of time. It blends religion and science, Job and the dinosaurs. How can bad things happen in Waco, Texas in the 1950s? Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Where were you when I allowed entire species to go extinct? The vast background puts the life, and the questions, in perspective. The fundamental dilemma of the movie, and of life (the movie suggests), is between the way of nature and the way of grace. The short cultural memory, the one presented in most of our products, certainly most of our movies, leads to the way of nature: the “I” standing in this spot and pronouncing dominion over this spot. The long cultural memory, blending science and religion, in which the “I” dissolves against the vastness of time and space stretching behind us and ahead of us, leads, not to despair, but to the way of grace. When the world is shining around us. And love is smiling through all things.
The Five Worst Movies of 2011
In my late twenties I got corrective lenses for the first time, for near-sightedness, and I remember how they not only clarified my vision but polarized the world. The muddy middle disappeared. Both beauty and ugly became sharper: the former's perfections, previously half-hidden, now dazzled, while the latter's imperfections, also half-hidden, were now sadly revealed. The glasses almost seemed unfair. Part of me felt the world would be a kinder place if we all walked around with a bit of myopia.
Writing about movies is in some sense like putting on corrective lenses. It clarifies my vision but it also also polarizes my feelings. The good become very, very good; the bad godawful. The muddy middle disappears.
I think this explains why I'm always a little surprised when end-of-the-year pronouncements are made and the recent year in movies is found lacking. People said 2009 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Summer Hours' and 'Up' and 'A Serious Man' and 'Seraphine' and 'Avatar'?” People said 2010 was a bad year for movies and I thought, “Really? With 'Un Prophete' and 'Restrepo' and 'True Grit' and 'The Social Network' and 'A Film Unfinished' and 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3'?”
Now people say it of 2011.
I'll get to the very, very good movies soon but first here's the godawful: the five worst movies I saw in 2011. Your results may vary.
Keep in mind, as an independent reviewer, I'm not called upon to review just anything the studios put out. So I never saw the following: “Bucky Larson,” “Jack and Jill,” “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son,” “Abduction,” “Atlas Shrugged” and anything starring Nicholas Cage.
5. “Cowboys & Aliens”: The aliens are scouts after our gold, and they’re kidnapping our people to see what it takes to kill us, all of us, but that’s not the problem with the movie. The problem with the movie is this: When deciding between doing what’s true for the characters or what furthers the clichés of the genre, the filmmakers, director Jon Favreau and his six screenwriters, always opt for the latter. Always. They’re not interested in the perspective of their 19th-century characters; they’re only interested in the perspective of their 21st-century audience. Dolarhyde and Lonergan (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) are hard and selfish not because life is hard and selfish but so they can redeem themselves in the end. The town’s name, Absolution, is a giveaway. Lonergan, always on the verge of leaving, always has to return as if it’s a surprise. Dolarhyde, a growling, racist cuss for the first half of the movie, has to bond with the orphaned boy; he has to come to an understanding with his half-Indian, bastard son (Adam Beach); and he has to save the Indian chief so the two of them, in the midst of battle, with death all around, can give each other a nod of understanding.
4. “The First Grader”: Would this have made my list if it hadn't opened the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival? I'm a member, and a fan, of SIFF, and love the fact that they resurrected the Uptown Theater, a block from my workplace, and are showing good movies there; but the organization also has a kind of upper-class, stupid liberal sensibiity that tends to trump, I don't know, aesthetics. That's how you wind up with “First Grader” on Opening Night. It's about Africans, in Africa, so it must be meaningful, even though the good in the movie are way good (and good-looking), and the bad are unjustifiably, incomprehensibly bad (and scowling), and the big reveal is no reveal at all. The movie focuses on an 84-year-old former Mau Mau warrior, Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who fights to go to first grade so he can read a letter on his own that the president of Kenya sent him. His teacher, Jane (a gorgeous Naomie Harris) backs him in the endeavor, but suffers from officials, who transfer her to another part of the country—until Maruge and the other students drive away the new teacher with stones and win Jane back. Yay! And after all this, Maruge has Jane read the letter for him anyway. OK. So what's in this letter we’ve waited the entire movie to hear? Well, the President of Kenya thanks Maruge for his service to his country; he also says Kenya is now independent because of people like him. Then Jane looks at him with proud, shining eyes, and he looks at her with proud, shining eyes, and the soundtrack gives us more generic African music, and we fade to a shot of the real Maruge, who died in 2009, and that’s the movie. To some of the honchos at SIFF this meant one thing: Opening Night. My thought: I got dressed up for this?
3. “War Horse”: Destined to go down as one of the worst movies to be nominated best picture. Detractors accuse Steven Spielberg of being “manipulative,” a criticism I've never really understood, since most directors are manipulative; that's what they do. Spielberg just tends to do it better. Not here, though. Let's look at the film's climax. The horse's true owner, Albert, has been gassed and blinded in the trenches of WWI, and Joey, the horse, after his magnificent gallop through the German trenches, has been injured and is due to be shot, and they’re like 50 yards from each other and don’t even know it. But the sergeant is given his orders and raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head. In that moment, before a familiar whistle is heard that startles Joey, that reminds him of Devon, England, a whistle that’s repeated twice more until the crowd of soldiers parts, miraculously revealing Albert, the man we already knew was there, and the music wells up, and Albert makes his case that the horse is his, that it has white hooves and a white diamond-shaped mark on its forehead, which can’t be seen for all the mud, but which is slowly, miraculously revealed even though we know that that, too, is already there; before all of this, in that moment when Sgt. Fry raises his gun and points it at Joey’s head, I had but one amused thought: I dare ya, Steven.
2. “Green Lantern”: Some movies have absurdly long backstories, but none are more absurd or longer than the one in “Green Lantern.” These are the first words were hear, in voice-over:
Billions of years ago, a group of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower. These immortals, the guardians of the universe, built a world from where they could watch over all of existence: the planet Oa. A ring powered by the energy of will was sent to every sector of the universe to select or recruit. In order to be chosen by the ring, one had to be without fear. Together these recruits formed the intergalactic peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps.
Lord, save me now. And half of it's a lie! Hal Jordan is told he reeks of fear but this turns out to be his strength: the ability to admit fear and act anyway. So we start out with a point of view that isn't ours (who is truly without fear?) only to arrive at one that is (admitting and overcoming fear is a good thing, etc.). Meanwhile, the longstanding heroes of the movie, the Green Lantern Corps, guardians of the universe, are actually like little Nazis: all willpower and no professed fear and shooting their beams into the sky during some kind of intergalatic bund rally. They've spent a billion years searching for the fearless to wear powerful rings when, as Hal Jordan is told during his training: “The ring creates only what you can imagine.” So why don't they choose someone with imagination? Wouldn't that be better? I suppose the same can be asked of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures.
1. “Sucker Punch”: There's a rogue group of critics out there who are trying to elevate this movie into, in Kim Morgan's words, “one of the most misunderstood, feminist, wildly experimental, anti-patriarchy pictures this year.” A critic named Nordling on the Ain't It Cool site seems to agree with her. He writes:
“The film becomes an opportunity for [director Zack] Snyder to wear his influences on his sleeve — from a World War I trench warfare sequence where anime mech meets clockwork zombies to a medieval siege complete with orcs and a really big dragon — think Vermithrax, not REIGN OF FIRE — as our heroines do battle using a World War II Flying Fortress. I imagine everything Zack Snyder ever said 'Cool!' at in passing is in this film in some way or another.”
Question: Aren't they praising the film for opposite reasons? She thinks Snyder is involved in deconstruction, he thinks celebration. Or is he deconstructing on one level (Fantasy I) and celebrating on another (Fantasy II)? A bigger problem is that everything Snyder and Nordling think is cool, I think is crap. “Where anime mech meets clockwork zombies” makes me think: “Mech.”
Both Nordling and I agree that the movie is like a video game but for him this is a huge positive and for me it's a huge negative. He's a gamer, I'm not (STE at Xbox circa 2000-2003 notwithstanding). What he doesn't tell us is why a movie that's like a video game—that tells its story vertically rather than horizontally—is actually worth watching. Isn't the point of a video game to play it? To have some measure of control? To me, there are few things more boring than watching someone else play a video game.
Switching metaphors, Nordling writes:
“You're basically watching Snyder riff on his guitar for two hours. That's okay if you like that sort of thing, because Snyder's one of the best in the business. But if you can't stomach the way Snyder spirals, jazzlike, through the film's setpieces, you're going to be fairly miserable.”
Lord save us from jazz metaphors. The world is full of people who think they can riff, jazzlike, on musical instruments, just as it's full of people who think they can write great free-verse poetry. Most can't. Most need structure and discipline. Snyder is like that. He's the guy who thinks he's a great free-verse poet when nothing he says is close to profound or beautiful.
Bottom line: “Sucker Punch” is a movie in which there's violence without consequence, titillation without release, and a gritty, comic-book surrealism masking as realism. The women are dolled up for sex, prone to violence, and treated as extras in their own story. The only thing more shabbily treated is the whole of human history, which is seen as a backdrop for cool stuff to happen. Tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie—either to deconstruct the worst aspects of our culture or to celebrate them—doesn't change the fact that Snyder is in fact tossing the worst aspects of our culture into one movie. He's created a shit sundae. To critics like Morgan and Nording, words like “meta” are the cherry on top of this sundae. To me, it's still a shit sundae. Who's hungry?
Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
WARNING: SPOIL YOU, YOU SPOILING SPOILERS
I believe in Lisbeth Salander.
The movies offer us a new ass-kicking heroine every other week, it seems: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Zoe Saldana. Even Natalie Portman tried her little hand last year. Even 12-year-old Chloe Moretz.
I don’t believe in any of them. But I believe in Lisbeth Salander.
She’s not fighting men three times her size in hand-to-hand combat. She takes them down with guile and tools and fury and ruthlessness. She either meticulously plans and strikes or just grabs a golf club and strikes.
One of the great moments in the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor”) occurs near the end, with the golf club, after Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) rescues a tied-up and tortured Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and then, on her own, chases down Martin Vanger (Peter Haber), the neo-Nazi serial killer and general sick fuck who was torturing him. Let me repeat that. The bad guy was torturing him and she came to the rescue. Then she didn’t wait for him to recover to go after Vanger. To be honest, he’d just slow her down.
The girl who laid down and died
Here’s how original this concept is. In the 1996 movie “12 Monkeys,” directed by the unconventional Terry Gilliam, Bruce Willis plays a man from a dystopian future sent back to attain an apocalyptic virus in its pure form so an antidote can be made; Madeline Stowe plays the 1990s psychiatrist who initially thinks he’s crazy but realizes he’s telling the truth. Her world will end and almost everyone she knows will die. And they’re chasing the bad guy through the airport when Willis is shot by airport security. What does she do? Does she go after the bad guy who has the virus that will kill five billion people, including probably herself? No. She cries, kneels beside the man, and cradles his dying head in her arms. When the man dies, all movement dies with him—even with the fate of the world at stake.
Barely anyone said shit about this idiocy. It seemed natural to them. Hero falls, girl falls with him. That’s the way of movies.
Here’s what I imagine Lisbeth would say: “Madeline Fucking Stowe.” Here’s what I imagine Lisbeth would say to the movie industry, who perpetuate this kind of storyline: “Fuck you, you fucking fucks.”
So I was worried how Hollywood would handle this aspect of the story. Obviously director David Fincher makes daring movies, but the actor now playing Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig, happens to be the latest James Bond, the ultimate action hero, who rescues women and saves the world. That’s his job. Is it allowable, culturally or legally, to have the current James Bond rescued by a mere wisp of a girl who then tracks down the killer on her own? Because he’d just slow her down?
The girl who does the tattooing
Fincher’s version of “Dragon Tattoo” is like a speed-reader’s version of the Swedish version and it still clocks in at more than two and a half hours; but it’s an improvement in many ways. It gives us a better sense of Lisbeth’s inner life, as well as a better sense of her relationship with Blomkvist and why she becomes distant in the sequels. It also doesn’t stick Harriet Vanger out in the Australian outback; it sticks her right under our noses.
Plus David Fincher’s signature gloom is all over it.
The novel is difficult to adapt cinematically because it really begins with three storylines:
- Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) is taunted by the murderer of his beloved niece, Harriet, 40 years after her disappearance.
- Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Craig) loses a libel suit brought by an industrialist.
- Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her longtime legal guardian for one who demands sexual favors.
The connections between the storylines are initially tangential at best. Vanger investigates Blomkvist, via Salander and her computer-hacking skills, before hiring him to look into the disappearance of Harriet. Then, for almost an hour, Blomkvist and Salander follow separate paths. He traipses about in the cold of the Vangers’ various estates on their private island in Hedestad, digging into the past and searching for Harriet’s killer, while she deals with her new legal guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen, the bad uncle of “Winter in Wartime”), a fat man who demands oral sex before allowing her access to her own money. When her computer is destroyed in an attempted subway robbery and she needs to buy a new one, he invites her to his home where he incapacitates her, ties her up and rapes her.
This is another scene I worried about in translation. The Swedish version is pretty graphic. And while the director of “Se7en” can obviously get pretty graphic, I wasn’t surprised, after the drugging and the tying up, that the camera began to pan out of the bedroom and down the narrow hallway, away from the shutting bedroom door. Yes, I thought. Leave the horror to our imaginations.
Which is exactly when Fincher brings us back into the bedroom for the brutal rape scene.
Did it seem more horrific in the Swedish version? Because I wasn’t expecting it or because it was more horrific? I remember Lisbeth limping home afterwards. We’re disappointed in her, this tough, smart girl who allows herself to get into that situation—until she reveals the camera in her bag and acts out her exquisite revenge. Fincher doesn’t give us the limping home; he reveals the awkward moments immediately after the rape. They’re in Bjurman’s place, after all. He has to untie her, after all. We see him slumped in the kitchen nook with something like guilt in his posture. “I’ll drive you home,” he offers, pathetically. When she slams the door, he thinks he’s gotten away with it.
I wonder what Bjurman thinks when Lisbeth calls and agrees to return to his place for more money. That she’s desperate? An addict? That she liked what he did? That his perversion fits into hers? Instead, he’s tasered, tied up, stripped and sodomized. He’s forced to watch a video of the initial rape and threatened with its internet upload if anything ever happens to her. Finally, she tattoos the following on his chest: I AM A RAPIST PIG. “Lie still,” she says, getting out the needle and promising blood. “I’ve never done this before.”
It’s the tattooing that makes the moment indelible. Up until then, her logic is Old Testament: an eye for an eye. But tattooing him adds something. The movie is about awful people who hide in plain sight, and Lisbeth is making sure they don’t hide too well. She’s handing out nametags. She’s branding scarlet letters.
The girl who is offered a purpose in life
What to make of the Vanger family tree? It’s a backstory better suited to novels. Henrik’s brother, Harald, is a Nazi who still lives in Hedestad, as does his daughter Celia (Geraldine James), while another daughter, Anita (Jolie Richardson), lives in London. Harriet’s father, Gottfried, also a Nazi, died the year before Harriet went missing, while Harriet’s brother, Martin (Stellan Skarsgård), now runs the company. “I’m quickly losing track of who’s who here,” Blomkvist says. Amen.
Of this crew, Martin is the one we see most often, and who’s played by the best-known actor, and who seems a decent sort. Which means, of course ... There’s a dinner over at his place with Celia and Blomkvist, and it’s one of the few moments where the harsh, Northern lighting of Sweden, which Fincher revels in, gives way to a softer, warmer lighting. It feels almost cozy in Vanger’s place—particularly with the harsh weather outside. One can even hear the wind howl. Or cry? Like a distant scream? It’s a subtle bit but people who know the story know it’s not the wind.
Blomkvist does well digging into a 40-year-old, missing persons case. The day Harriet disappeared there was a parade in town, and there’s a picture for the local newspaper of Harriet in the crowd. Blomkvist goes to the paper, retrieves the rest of the photos, digitalizes them, and creates a crude film in which it’s apparent that Harriet sees something, or someone, that stuns her. Another girl is taking her own photos behind Harriet. Might she have taken a shot of what Harriet saw?
The old inspector on the case is still alive. He tells Blomkvist that Harriet’s case is his “Rebecca case,” which is an unsolved murder case. There are several of those. There’s also a list of names and numbers written in the back of Harriet’s Bible: “Magda 32016” and “BJ 32027” and the like. Eventually the web becomes wide enough that Blomkvist feels the need for a research assistant.
Two reaction shots from this movie stay with me. When the Vanger family lawyer, Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), suggests to Blomkvist that they hire the girl who did the background check on him, Blomkvist responds, “The what?,” with a mixture of surprise and annoyance. He’s used to being the investigator, not the investigated. That’s the first one. Then when Blomkvist goes to recruit the girl, which finally brings our disparate storylines together, Lisbeth is wary of him until he says the line: “I want you to help me catch a killer of women.” Her reaction isn’t the blank one in the Swedish version. It’s the look of someone who is finally offered a purpose in life.
The girl who can hack into your soul
Now that I think about it, there’s a third reaction shot I love. It’s earlier in the movie. Lisbeth is meeting her boss, Armanasky (Goran Visnjic), and Frode, in a conference room in a corporate high-rise, where her mohawk, tats, boots and attitude don’t begin to fit. She asks, without worry, sitting at the other end of the long, gleaming conference table, if something was wrong with her initial report on Blomkvist. There wasn’t. They just want to know if there was anything she chose not to include. She turns away, offering her profile, and that great swoop of a mohawk, before adding, “He’s had a long-standing sexual relationship with the co-editor of his magazine.” Pause. “Sometimes he performs cunnilingus on her.” Pause. “Not often enough, in my opinion.” By now she’s staring back at them, chewing her gum, gauging their reaction. Frode, a proper gentleman, looks away. “No,” he admits, “you were right not to include that.”
This raises a point. Once they see how good Lisbeth is, why don’t they just hire her as their investigator? Remove the middleman by hiring the middleman. As good as Blomkvist is, he’s still 20th-century: forced, like all of us, to rely upon interview and instinct to uncover the truth. Lisbeth is 21st century. She can hack into your computer and see your soul. I love the bit where Blomkvist attempts to show her something on his computer, and her impatience with his tentative movements is palpable. It’s all she can do not to grab the mouse and drive.
As for how Hollywood handles the golf-club scene? The breadth of the investigation forces hero and heroine to split up—a trope that, in thrillers, usually plays to the detriment of the heroine. Not here. Alone in Martin’s house, Blomkvist figures out Martin is the longtime serial killer just as Martin comes home. But he manages to get out of the house. Then Martin sees him and calls out to him and invites him in for a drink. Later, when he has a gun on him, when he’s about to torture and kill him, he asks why he accepted the offer, knowing what he knows, then answers his own question. “The fear of offending is stronger than the fear of pain,” he says, amused by human nature. He taunts him about Lisbeth: “I like that one. I can’t thank you enough for bringing her to me.” He’s in the process of suffocating Blomkvist when Lisbeth arrives, swings the nearest weapon, a golf club, and takes off half of Vanger’s face. Vanger flees and Lisbeth attends to Blomkvist for a second before asking a kind of permission: “May I kill him?” she asks. I forget if she waits for a response. Probably not. It would just slow her down.
The girl who rides off into the sunset
Was it worth it? Making this U.S. version so soon after the Swedish version? Fincher’s a better director, no doubt, and the acting is a little better. The script is tighter but misses the creepier elements of the serial-killer investigation. The bit with the cat is a good addition, but... I don’t quite see the point, to be honest. Other than to get Americans, who don’t read subtitles, to see the fucking thing.
As for what happened to Harriet Vanger? It’s not Martin. When he had the upper hand, he confessed to everything but not that. So there’s more unraveling to do, another half hour, really, and Fincher almost, almost, goes the route the novel went. When Harriet turns up alive—in Australia in the Swedish version, in London under her cousin’s name in the U.S. version—and we realize that she did this to save herself from her awful, abusive brother, my reaction was something like disappointment. Wait, I thought. She knew what her brother was and yet let him do what he did for 40 years?
That, it turns out, is Lisbeth’s reaction in the book:
“Bitch,” she said.
“Harriet Fucking Vanger. If she had done something in 1966, Martin Vanger couldn’t have kept killing and raping for thirty-seven years.”
The Swedish version ignored these lines—they didn’t want to disturb the happy reunion between Henrik and Harriet—while Fincher merely alludes to them. “Harriet Fucking Vanger,” Lisbeth says at one point. But she doesn’t go further. Too bad. That’s key to me. Harriet Vanger is pretty but passive. She warns no one, passes out no nametags. She’s no hero. Most heroes, our stories tell us, are men. Most heroes, our stories tell us, save the day and ride off alone in the end.
One out of two.
Movie Review: Shame (2011)
WARNING: TOP-OF-THE-HEAP SPOILERS
In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” it took Daniel Day Lewis four words to get women into bed: “Take off your clothes.”
Piker. It often takes Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), the protagonist of “Shame,” no words. He’ll just look at a pretty girl on the subway, suggest with his eyes, smolder a bit, wait for the tension to mount, and she’s ready. He’ll sidle up to his hyperactive boss, David (James Bade Dale of “The Pacific”), who’s trying to make the pretty one at the bar, say one or two words, and suddenly she’s casting him the kind of glances most men don’t receive in a lifetime.
Normally such a character would be wish fulfillment. Not here. Fassbender, impeccably groomed, is in almost every shot of “Shame” but it’s writer-director Steve McQueen’s movie. He sets the tone, which is moody, atmospheric, full of dread. Every day for Brandon is another day of desperately needing sex but desperately not needing the contact that goes with it. There’s something inside of him that can’t be fulfilled. In this, he’s like all of us, but his need is greater and the moments he’s satiated shorter. The title of this movie could be the title of McQueen’s first movie: “Hunger.”
“Shame” is more portrait than story. It’s a snapshot from a life. Brandon has a business-type, investment-type job in New York, which he apparently does well even though he’s rarely thinking about. He’s a sex addict so he’s always thinking about his next fix. In the toilet stall at work? In his bathroom at home? Via online pornography, magazines, DVDs? With Prostitute A, B, or both? With this girl at the bar or that girl on the subway? At that straight club? At that gay club?
There’s a cool exterior to Brandon, an unknowability and mystery that’s obviously appealing. Who is that man behind the scarf? But the cool exterior hides ... what? His sexual need and what else? A few books line the shelves of his high-rise condo, including, I was happy to see, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”; but one can’t imagine him reading it. How could he sit still that long?
His careful routine, the veneer of respectability hiding his monstrous shame, is upset when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up at his place. She’s a free spirit, a singer at posh bars, and later we hear her rendition of “New York, New York,” the triumphant ode to Manhattan that’s played after every Yankees victory; but she delivers it slow and sad, from the perspective of someone who isn’t A-number-1, top of the heap. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie, one of several moments Mulligan gives us. I still think of the way she bounces with delight on the subway platform after Brandon agrees to hear her sing. She wants to be part of his life—that’s her need—but it conflicts with his need. At one point, she alludes to their fucked-up childhood, and one wonders if there’s more there than the usual fuckedupness; if there wasn’t abuse of some kind. But we never get specifics. We get vapors.
She sleeps with his boss, his married boss, at Brandon’s place, and he can’t deal with it and goes running. She hangs too close to the tracks on the subway platform and he pulls her back. They’re both self-destructive but hers is sloppy and showy—there are scars on her wrists—and his is secretive and shameful and infecting every aspect of his life. She wants to pull him into the light but he reacts with anger. “I’m trying to help you,” she says. “How do you help?” he responds through clenched teeth. “You come here and you’re a weight on me.” After the movie, Patricia said he reminded her of me in this moment. That’s one thing I have in common with Brandon. We both feel easily trapped. We both live life in the exit row.
He makes a feint at respectability. He goes on a date with an attractive co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and reacts to the dinner conversation as if it’s all new and amusing to him. A back and forth ... with words? He admits his longest relationship was just four months. He admits that that’s how he likes it. She doesn’t flee. Maybe, after the usual, first-date bullshit, this straightforwardness is refreshing. Maybe it’s the scarf and the Ewan McGregor smile. All those small charming teeth.
Was he always interested in Marianne as more than just another lay? Or did that idea only emerge when Sissy found him jacking off in the bathroom and found live sex girls on his home computer? After that, he tries to get rid of it all—the magazines, the DVDs, the computer itself—as if getting rid of the evidence of his need will get rid of the need. He wants to be clean again and he sees Marianne as the path to cleanliness. But when they finally fall into bed together he can’t get it up. For a moment we think this is his fate—to overdo it and then be unable to do it—but after she leaves we get a quick cut of him banging a prostitute in the same room, so that’s obviously not the problem. The problem is the cleanliness and the respectability. He can’t have it with any kind of meaning. He can only have it in a way that leaves him unfilled and seeking it again. It’s as if the disease is protecting itself from him. His disease needs to keep him hungry. It’s saying: You’re married to me.
“Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s not even a program he enters. That would be too afterschool special. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.
Movie Review: The Help (2011)
WARNING: EAT MY SPOILERS
In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Katharine Hepburn does it to Virginia Christine. In “Mississippi Burning,” Gene Hackman does it to Brad Dourif. In “The Help,” it’s Allison Janney to Bryce Dallas Howard. They’re the somewhat-enlightened white people who berate the less-enlightened white people in movies about civil rights. They’re the white people who make the white people in the audience feel good about themselves.
Apparently Jim Zwerg wasn’t enough.
The Janney moment occurs near the end of “The Help” and it’s a wholly unnecessary scene in which Charlotte Phelan (Janney), mother of the film’s protagonist, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), does a 180. For most of the movie, she’s had one goal: marry her daughter off. “Your eggs are dying,” she says early on. “Would it kill you to go on a date?” At the 11th hour, suddenly she’s OK with her daughter being the way she is and getting a job in New York and being a modern woman and all; and she apologizes for the way she’s been for most of the movie and most of her life: cowardly and overly concerned aboout societal matters. And to make it up to her daughter, she berates the movie’s villainess, Hilly Holbrook (Howard), a classic “mean girl” from one of the most connected families in Jackson, Mississippi, in language that will end any connection between their families. “Get your raggedy ass off my porch!” she says.
We’re supposed to cheer. Some people probably did. The bad person has been told off, and Allison Janney, whom we loved on “West Wing,” is someone we can love again. And we get that nice mother-daughter feeling going.
Years ago, “In Living Color” did a spot-on satire on Hollywood movies about civil rights. It was mostly lampooning “Cry Freedom,” I think, and a bit of “Mississippi Burning,” both of which focus on well-meaning whites and the problems they encounter (losing jobs and homes, etc.) as they stand up to racism. The black folks around them are being beaten and killed, sure, but it’s the white folks we worry about because it’s the white folks we focus on. Black folks are non-entities: walk-ons in their own story.
“The Help” is an improvement on this kind of historical myopia since it actually gives half-time to its title characters. Okay, 45 percent.
It’s 1962 and Skeeter Phelan is returning from college to her hometown of Jackson, where she lands a job ghosting a household-advice column for The Jackson Journal. (Aside: The actor who plays the editor, Leslie Jordan, steals the scene; he’s so authentic I assumed he was a local.) Catch: Skeeter doesn’t know from household advice; she was raised by a beloved maid, Constantine (Cisely Tyson), who has mysteriously disappeared, and initially she has nowhere to turn. But eventually she relies upon the people who do know housework: the black maids who bus in from the outskirts, and raise the kids and cook the meals and clean the floors of the white folks in town. From this initial contact, she gets an idea for a book. What is it like to raise a child who then becomes your boss? What is it like to leave your own child to care for another? Her editor in New York, Elain Stein (Mary Steenburgen), who has suggestions of a “Sex and the Single Girl” lifestyle in her few moments on screen, is open to the idea, but doubts she’ll get any Southern black maid to trust her and talk. It’s the North reminding the South how the South lives.
Even so, one voice slowly emerges: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who works for Hilly’s friend, Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), raising the little girl that Elizabeth can’t or won’t. You could call Aibileen the soul of Skeeter’s book just as she is the soul of the movie. Davis is able to portray a bone-deep sorrow few actors can. She has a dignity about her but it’s never the proud, Hollywood kind meant for oppressed minorities. In the roles I’ve seen her in—“Doubt,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and this—her characters are often skittish and distracted, as if they were thinking of other, sadder things. Most likely they are, since the movies are never wholly about them. The things she’s thinking about are the things Hollywood doesn’t portray: her life. But through Skeeter’s eyes, we do get a portion of that life.
If Skeeter is a progressive in racial matters, Skeeter’s childhood friend, Hilly, is the regressive. At a time when the civil rights movement is gaining strength, with marches in Albany and Birmingham and Washington D.C., she’s lobbying for a state law requiring separate bathrooms for black maids. “They carry different diseases than we do,” she says.
Hilly’s fears and prejudices lead to the ultimate in just desserts. When she fires her maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), for using the family toilet on a rainy day, then talks trash about her so she can’t get other work, Minny returns with a peace offering: a chocolate pie. But it’s not a peace offering because it’s not wholly chocolate. Hilly, who didn’t want to put her ass where Minny put hers, winds up eating ... no nice way to say this ... Minny’s shit. Literally. Minny planned on keeping this fact a secret, but Hilly is so awful, and Minny so volatile, that they have the following exchange:
Minny: Eat my shit.
Hilly (shocked): Excuse me?
Minny: I said eat... my... shit.
Hilly (still shocked): Have you lost your mind?
Minny: No, ma’am but you is about to. Cause you just did.
One wonders to what extent a black maid could say “Eat my shit” to a white woman in early 1960s Mississippi, let alone make it literally come true, without losing more than an income. The movie suggests that Hilly is so embarrassed by the incident that she’ll do anything to keep it under wraps. But wouldn’t she want revenge? And if she couldn’t tell the truth, what’s to stop her from makin’ up a little ol’ fib? She’d hardly be the first Southern belle to do so.
(Aside I: When did Bryce Dallas Howard become the villainess de rigueur of Hollywood? Not only Hilly here but the worst girlfriend in the world, Rachael, in “50/50.” Who knew the daughter of Ron Howard, Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy, had it in her?)
(Aside II: Does anyone else think of this movie as the battle of the Gwen Stacys? Howard and Stone, squaring off here, have both played Spider-Man's girlfriend: Howard in a bit part in “Spider-Man 3,” and Stone as the main squeeze in “The Amazing Spider-Man” this summer.)
(Aside III: OK, nerd hat off.)
Post-pie, Minny finds work on the outskirts of town with an ostracized white girl with a heart of gold. Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) is from Sugar Ditch, Miss., and is viewed as white trash by the girls in town, particularly Hilly, who once dated Celia’s husband, Johnny (Mike Vogel). Basically Celia is too dumb to be racist, to know all of the things you are supposed to do or say, or not do or say, with the help, and this, combined with a childlike enthusiasm, makes her adorable. She’s the other good white girl in town, and Minny teaches her how to cook, clean, sass other women. Apparently she knew none of these things. One wonders what she was she doing for the first 20 years of her life.
Meanwhile, Yule Mae Davis (Aunjanue Ellis), Minny’s replacement in the Holbrook household, asks Hilly for a $75 loan so she and her husband can send both of their kids to college. OK ... Where to start with this? She asks Hilly for a loan? To send two kids to college? At a time when it took the National Guard to send James Meredith to the University of Mississippi? And she’s shocked when Hilly says no?
Later, while vacuuming, she finds Hilly’s engagement ring behind a couch, pockets it, pawns it, and is eventually arrested. This is the awful, unjust incident that sends all the other black maids in Jackson into the arms of Skeeter and into the pages of “The Help”: the fact that someone who stole something got arrested for it.
But never you mind. The book becomes a huge success, the maids get royalties, Skeeter gets a job in New York, and Hilly, awful Hilly, gets hers. Everyone—from Charlotte to Aibileen—tells her off. It’s a happy ending. How could it be otherwise? It’s now Mississippi 1964. What could possibly go wrong?
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard