The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010)

The Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor), which is more descriptive, although perhaps it gives too much away. The film, by Niels Arden Opley, is based on the novel by the late Steig Larsson, part of his posthumously published Millennium Trilogy, and it is indeed about men who hate women, and a few of the women they hate. It's also about that girl (a woman, really, and the diminution of her status in the English title is inconsistent with her fierce persona in the film), the one with the large, dark, snaky dragon tattoo on her slender, sinewy back. She is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and she herself has been the object of men's hatred, and violence (sexual and otherwise), for much of her life. It has made her vindictive (and rightly so), and a ferocious fighter.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is also about another girl, one who has been missing for 40 years. Harriet was the scion of a wealthy industrialist family, the beloved niece of the aged Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), and she disappeared under mysterious circumstances when she was 16 years old. Vanger suspects that one of his hateful relatives killed her -- the family tree contains more than a few rotten branches, including three of Henrik's brothers, who were Nazis during World War II. Vanger hires Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to find out what happened to Harriet.

Blomkvist is an investigative journalist, recently convicted of libeling a Swedish tycoon. He has six months of freedom left before he starts a prison sentence (they're tough on libelers in Sweden). As it happens, Blomkvist once knew Harriet -- she babysat for him when he was a young lad, during a family vacation. And as it happens, Lisbeth has been investigating Blomkvist in her job for a security firm. She's a hacker, and something of a genius, and watches Blomkvist's investigation from afar by snooping in his computer. She becomes interested in the case of the missing girl.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is long (152 minutes) and pretty slow going for a while -- there are a lot of pieces to be put in place before the story begins to move forward. After a plodding and fitful start, it does start to move, and when it does, it moves in unexpected directions. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turns out to be about multiple crimes -- Blomkvist and Lisbeth uncover several murders that seem to be connected somehow to Harriet's disappearance. Unlike most films about murders, this one is more interested in the victims of violence than in the perpetrators. Indeed, typical for a murder mystery, it doesn't reveal the perpetrator until near the end, when the various pieces fall into place. What leads up to that, however, is atypical: a twisted, violent portrait of gruesomely dysfunctional families -- including Lisbeth's. The film wants to keep Lisbeth somewhat shrouded in mystery -- she doesn't care to reveal much about herself -- but it provides enough glimpses of her past (and present) to offer some clues about her rage, her damaged state, and the source of that massive chip on her shoulder. But despite the intriguing clues, and one satisfying scene in which she exacts some well-earned revenge on a tormenter, Lisbeth never develops very much as a character, and so the fascination is mostly in the mystery that surrounds her. Lisbeth is a commanding presence nonetheless -- it's impossible to take your eyes off of her. And she's far more compelling than Blomkvist, who is dogged, and nice (where Lisbeth is dogged but definitely not nice), and a bit of a dullard. Perhaps they'll flesh the pair out more fully in the two planned sequels.

What's interesting and unusual about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that the film goes to some pains to avoid fetishizing the gruesome murders, and neither does it make any attempt to humanize the killer. To discover the killer, Lisbeth and Blomkvist have to connect the dots and uncover the motive, but there's never any doubt that they are dealing with a monster, and an especially ugly one at that. It would seem, on the evidence, to be a hard thing for a movie about murder to avoid at some point showing sympathy for the devil. That sympathy seems to play into the public fascination with serial killers and their crimes, although why we find them so compelling (and why they make for such compelling entertainment) is an interesting psychological question, and one that we might be happier not fully understanding. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not terribly exciting or action-packed as thrillers go, but it dares to question the appeal of the murder mystery/serial killer thriller by telling a story that is frequently quite ugly and hard to watch, and which is ultimately compelling because it is about a woman  who is ferociously committed to surviving. The film manages to keep its focus and its sympathies decidedly and unwaveringly with its fierce femme fatale, and not with the men who hate her.


Kick-Ass (2010)

Why, wonders teen schmo Dave Lizewski, don't ordinary Joes such as himself ever try to be superheroes? Surely the lack of superpowers is no impediment, as Batman proves. Ah, but Batman has super gadgets (and millions of dollars), Dave's friends remind him. Dave and his pals spend much of their free time reading comic books, talking about comic books, and thinking about comic books. They are well-versed in the logic and lore of superheroes. Dave (Aaron Johnson), despite his solidly middle class family and scrawny physique, is unpersuaded that his superhero dreams are doomed to fail. So he buys a green and yellow scuba suit, sets out to fight crime and... almost gets himself killed for his troubles. This does not deter him, and when one of his heroic escapades is captured on amateur video, Kick-Ass the superhero goes viral. An anonymous star is born.

That's the basic premise of Kick-Ass, a scrappy, weird little superhero movie directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust), and adapted (by Vaughn and Jane Goldman) from the graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romia, Jr. Kick-Ass is fast, furious, extremely violent, and sporadically funny as it both satirizes and embraces the cliches of action movies. 

Kick-Ass soon discovers that he's not the only DIY superhero in Manhattan. Notably, there's Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who sports a Batman-esque rubber suit, and daddy's little girl Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a leather-jumpsuited spitfire in a mask and purple wig. Hit Girl, it must be said, totally rocks -- she's equally deadly with a katana sword, a switchblade, and a gun. (Moretz, who is now 13, was only 11 when she played the potty-mouthed, super-violent Hit Girl, which has prompted consternation in some quarters about the exploitation of child performers in movies they are not old enough to see themselves. This issue seems to pop up every now and then -- Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman in The Professional -- and aside from hand-wringing, nothing much ever comes of it. Indeed, Shields, Foster, and Portman all seem to have survived both being child performers and Ivy League students. Whether it's the language or the violence in Kick-Ass that's setting off alarm bells, the movie fully and consciously intends to push those buttons. And so it does.)

Hit Girl and Big Daddy are vigilantes who are particularly intent on destroying a drug kingpin named Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). D'Amico thinks it's Kick-Ass who's after him, so his teen son Chris hatches a plan to catch the superhero by inventing yet another superhero, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Before long, Gotham is crawling with superhero wannabes.

Kick-Ass has got the usual complement of teen boy troubles -- he's ignored by girls, except the hottie who thinks he's her gay BFF -- to go along with the  superhero sturm und drang. But never mind him; he's not actually that interesting. Well, okay, what's moderately interesting about Kick-Ass is that he regularly gets the snot beat out of him -- he bleeds real blood, and never develops any discernible fighting skills, yet he continues to fight the good fight until it becomes too much of a drag for him. Hit Girl and Big Daddy are far more compelling. Cage does one of his fun n' creepy weirdo turns here as a father who brainwashes his little girl, creating the perfect avenging angel assassin. He's nuts, and it's child abuse, of course, but he adores his daughter and Hit Girl loves her daddy and seems to be having a good time. Plus, she's got mad skills and the weapons are the neatest. (Cage also has Big Daddy talk in an Adam West-as-Batman voice -- an incongruously funny bit of campy homage for a guy who takes his crime fighting very seriously.) Moretz, with her cutie pie looks and voice, completely holds her own as the wall-climbing, knife throwing, guns-a-blastin' half-pint killer. She and Cage are great together, and, at any rate, aside from a quick backstory that reveals the source of Big Daddy's animus for D'Amico, the movie's not terribly motivated to dig into this nutty and unsettling parent-child relationship. It might be quite interesting if it did, but there's little time for that with so many bad guys to annihilate.

The movie ends with a big blowout, a battle royale in which Kick-Ass has to decide if he's really a superhero, or just a poseur. To end an action movie with a big ol' fight is de rigueur, and Kick-Ass isn't so original that it's going to forgo that tradition. Nonetheless, it's in the denouement that Kick-Ass puts a (slightly) new spin on the superhero story -- Hit Girl was groomed for vengeance from toddlerhood, but Kick-Ass has to will himself to heroism, setting aside fear, ineptitude, and a pretty lame costume if he's going to kick some bad guy ass. 


Date Night (2010)

He's a tax lawyer. She's a realtor. Together they are... a boring suburban couple from New Jersey. Claire (Tina Fey) and Phil Foster (Steve Carell) have a nice, simple life. It's a pretty quiet life, except for the rambunctious kids. Friday night is date night, when the Fosters go to a local eatery where everybody knows their names. Ordinary. Routine. But when they find out that their friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) are getting divorced, it gets them to thinking that maybe their lives are too quiet, and too routine. Which is how they end up at a tony Manhattan hotspot, swiping an unclaimed table reservation, which results in a severe case of mistaken identity. Turns out the no-show couple -- the Tripplehorns -- are wanted by a couple of thugs. Suddenly, recapture-the-romance date night turns into Date Night, the wacky marital action screwball comedy. 

The thugs (Jimmi Simpson and Common) demand a mysterious flash drive, wave guns around, and refuse to believe that the Fosters -- those table thieves! -- are not the Tripplehorns. Suddenly boring suburban routine isn't looking so bad. The thugs turn out to be crooked cops working for a local mafioso (Ray Liotta). Whatever. The plot is quite beside the point. It makes sense, in that each perilously wacky incident follows fom previous perilously wacky incidents, but really, you could throw Carell and Fey into a caper involving a Starbucks murder mystery, or a pencil factory corporate espionage caper and they could probably make it work. (Although come to think of it, Fey played an exec for a Whole Foods-esque company in *Baby Mama*, and it wasn't that funny.) The point is, Fey and Carell are likable, and the Fosters are likable, which makes it easy to care about what happens to them, even when what happens to them -- car chases, gun fights, strip club escapades -- is straight out of the been-there-done-that book.

Fey and Carell are best known for their TV roles on 30 Rock and The Office, respectively. They are both very funny people, but in Date Night, they more or less play it straight, in the screwball tradition. All hell breaks loose around them, and they remain the boring suburban couple from New Jersey, except they're on the lam in the big city, and a little overdressed for people who are crawling through hedges and climbing fire escapes. Almost everyone in Date Night plays it straight. This is not a jokey movie in which sarcastic people trade wisecracks. This is a movie in which the characters behave, for the most part, like human beings. Human beings in a fairly ridiculous and not entirely plausible situation, but believable human beings nonetheless.

Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and written by Josh Klausner, Date Night gets its laughs not from the overworked and half-baked plot, but from the characters. Claire and Phil are not the sort of people you would expect to find in this kind of situation, which is why it's funny that they're in it. They're dazed and confused and scared to death, which is the appropriate reaction to being chased by murderous hooligans. They don't have any remarkable crime-fighting talents, or unexpected skills. Claire and Phil are not in the urban wilderness all alone, however. Claire knows a guy -- a "security expert" named Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg) -- who never wears a shirt, and has a fabulous bachelor pad filled with nifty spy gadgets. Wahlberg is funny just because he's shirtless -- and extremely buff -- which is not in itself an inherently funny thing. He also speaks Hebrew, which is also not really funny, although contextually, both the shirtlessness and the Hebrew end up being funny. Part of what makes Holbrooke funny -- and what makes the Fosters funny too -- is that they don't know that they're funny. The Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis), when Claire and Phil find them, don't know they're funny either. They're more than half baked, and exactly the sort of people one might expect to have unwittingly instigated the current crisis. 

Although really, it was the act of impersonating the Tripplehorns that got the Fosters in over their heads. Suffice it to say that one of the lessons learned in Date Night is that decent people who want to avoid trouble don't steal tables in trendy Manhattan restaurants, no matter how rude and imperious the maître d' is. And the other lesson is that a little boredom isn't fatal to marital bliss, and when you consider the alternative, it might be downright conducive to it.

11 April2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

The title Hot Tub Time Machine is rivaled in its spot-on obviousness only by Snakes On A Plane. A movie called Snakes On A Plane can only really be about one thing, while a movie abut time travel -- even in a hot tub -- could be about just about anything: a little love, a little science, some swords and scorcery. Or not. The titular tub in Hot Tub Time Machine takes three middle aged men, aging ungracefully and badly handling life's little letdowns, and returns them to their salad years, when they were green. Will it be as good as they remember? What would be the fun in that?

Just to make sure it's fun, Hot Tub Time Machine throws in a pile of pop culture references and a whole lot of raunchy humor. Nick, Lou, and Adam are formerly best friends who have drifted apart. Nick (Craig Robinson) is married, with a job in a dog spa -- not exactly the music career he once dreamed of. Adam (John Cusack) has been recently dumped by his girlfriend. The parting was not amicable. His nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) lives in his basement, where he plays Second Life in lieu of having a life of his own. Lou (Rob Corddry) is the most miserable of all -- and potentially suicidal -- which is why his friends decide that it's time for a trip down memory lane. They book a weekend in the ski resort where they cavorted as youths back in the 80s. The place is now a rundown dump with a malfunctioning (or is it?) hot tub that -- I'll spare you the scientific details -- transports them back to their glory days in the 80s, when the mountains were white with equal parts snow and cocaine, and everybody sported brightly colored spandex and really bad haircuts. Nick, Lou, and Adam have fond (if vague) memories of fun and debauchery, and of the girls that got away. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I loathed the 1980s, and I feel not the slightest nostalgia for the Reagan years, which might unfavorably color my perceptions of Hot Tub Time Machine if it turned out that the 80s were even remotely worthy of revisiting in the movie. They are not. The fellas discover that their youthful indulgences were not actually that much fun, and are even worse to relive. Nick, Lou and Adam don't just go back in time -- they are forced to relive a particularly eventful and distressing weekend of break-ups, beatings, and assorted indignities. As the only member of the party who did not yet exist in the 1980s, Jacob cautions them to change nothing, lest the future be irrevocably altered such that he might not exist to spend his days in a dimly lit basement. Such are the rules of time travel, if you believe Stephen Hawking. I say, if you can't change the past, why bother visiting it? (For the record, Hawking doesn't actually say you shouldn't change the past while traveling in time -- he says quantum effects will always conspire to prevent time travel. Quantum effects are like time cops, ruining everybody's fun, but making the universe safe for historians.)

But lo and behold... the guys realize that, as miserable as they are now (or whenever they are), they were pretty miserable back then too. Wallowing in misery and self pity is a skill they've been perfecting for decades. It's pretty obvious that they're in for some old school enlightenment, and male bonding will occur if they survive the sex, the drugs, the rock n roll, and the bullies. Hot Tub Time Machine doesn't let them off the hook -- they are the architects of their own unhappiness, and if their trek through time teaches them anything, it's that. 

Despite all the nostalgia on display, and the overworked crassness, the movie is not, ultimately, nostalgic about either the 80s or misspent youth. I can get behind that. Remember Back to the Future? This movie does. Crispin Glover (aka Marty McFly's father George) shows up in Hot Tub Time Machine as a belligerent, one-armed bellhop. He shows up again in the past as a cheerful, helpful, two-armed bellhop. What happened to his arm, and his temperament, makes for one of the better running gags in the movie. Chevy Chase turns up too, and so does that guy (William Zabka) who played the bully in Karate Kid and a bunch of other 80s movies with bulies. And of course, Cusack is himself a walking, talking allusion to the movies of the 1980s (Say Anything, Better Off Dead). Ready to revisit Reagan-style red-baiting? Hot Tub Time Machine has got you covered. If you miss the homophobic, misogynistic sex comedies of the 80s, well, Hot Tub Time Machine has got something for you too. The movie is totally loaded with 80s pop culture references, visual homages, and stolen snippets of dialogue, but it also aims to be crude, rude, and goofy. Like, totally. Director Steve Pink and the film's three screenwriters (Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris) cram every square inch of the movie with Jheri curl, legwarmers, magic mushrooms, MTV-when-it-still-had-music (now I'm showing my age), and everything else that might send one's hippocampus skidding helplessly back to the dreaded era of Flock of Seagulls. It's overload and overkill, an absurd, slapstick farrago of everything that was sad and ridiculous and mockable and laughably horrible about the 80s (which is a lot), and then some. For all that, Hot Tub Time Machine as experienced is not as much fun as one might think, which is a kind of meta-unfun-ness that mirrors the letdown of traveling to your past and discovering that it was less great than it looked from the distance of time. Is that good? It's kind of a bummer, actually.