January 26, 2009

BOOKS: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005/US 2008)

It's an odd crime thriller that keeps its two principal detectives from meeting for 250 pages, an even odder one that simply interrupts the action for two months while one of those detectives serves a short prison sentence. But they do things differently in Sweden, it seems, and the constant awareness that we're dealing with a culture that's subtly different from America's is one of the things I liked about this book.

Our protagonists are Mikael Blomkvist, a 40-ish financial journalist who's just been convicted of libeling a prominent businessman (thus that prison sentence), and Lisbeth Salander, a 20-ish genuis hacker with a serious lack of social skills. Due to his libel conviction, Mikael is forced to take an extended leave of absence from the magazine where he works, and is offered an investigative job by the elderly Henrik Vanger, whose family has long been a power in Swedish industry.

Some 40 years ago, Henrik's niece, Harriet, disappeared from a family reunion and was never seen again. Her disappearance is a variation of sorts on classic locked-room mysteries, as there's only one road onto the family's island, and it was completely blocked by a major traffic accident at the time. Henrik has been obsessed with the case ever since, and hopes that Mikael's investigative skills will turn up evidence that he's somehow overlooked.

Mikael eventually hires Lisbeth as his assistant; it takes quite a while, though, for Larsson to work her into the main plot, which is a bit of a drawback, because she's the book's most interesting character. Once they're teamed up, though, Mikael and Lisbeth are a fine pair, and their relationship develops in ways I hadn't expected.

The mystery is a fine one, with a variety of loathsome suspects in the Vanger family, and a satisfying solution. I was a bit distracted by the Swedish names; there are eight or nine suspects to keep track of, and I kept thinking that I'd be remembering them better if they were named Bob and Susan and Frank instead of Gottfried and Anita and Harald.

Larsson finished three novels in this series, but died of a heart attack at a relatively young age before the first was published. The three books have been best-sellers throughout Europe; the second (The Girl Who Played With Fire) will be published in the US this summer. It's reportedly even better than the first, and I'm looking forward to it very much.

January 21, 2009

MOVIES: On the eve of the nominations

The astute long-time reader will have noticed that I haven't done a "best of" list this year. I saw far fewer movies this year, mostly due to some chronic medical problems. Nothing life threatening, just annoying stuff that left me on too many weekends feeling too tired to go out and see movies. And when you see only one or two movies a month instead of five or six, you tend to see the Big Movies and only the Big Movies.

And that means that any Best Of list I could come up with would be made up pretty much of the usual suspects -- Milk, The Visitor, Man on Wire and so on -- and in that case, what's the point? The fun of a good Best Of list is the unexpected surprises, the movies and performances that don't pop up on anyone else's lists. And this year, even the long shots that I'm really hoping to see on tomorrow's nomination list are the same long shots that everyone else is hoping for (Richard Jenkins, Melissa Leo, Rosemarie DeWitt). My one no-chance-in-hell long shot, a nomination that would make me giddy with joy but won't happen, would be a Best Actor nomination for Colin Farrell, who was so unexpectedly marvelous in In Bruges.

So, in lieu of a formal list, a few thoughts on the year:

Expected nominees whose absence would please me: Sally Hawkins and Meryl Streep in Best Actress; supporting nominations for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dev Patel, and Kate Winslet, not because any are undeserving (though c'mon, Dev Patel? Really?) but because all are clearly leads; The Dark Knight in Best Picture.

Let's talk about that last one. There's really only one interesting thing about the movie, and that's Heath Ledger's performance. And as good a performance as it is -- it will win Best Supporting Actor, and probably deserves to -- it is itself widely overrated; it's a good piece of acting, but it's not the master class the Oscar punditry has declared it to be. The hype and the over praise, of course, were unavoidable from the moment of Ledger's death; that tragedy led us to over hype the performance, and that hype led us to wildly over hype the movie, which really isn't all that interesting. It's certainly not worthy of a Best Picture nomination.

Would there have been any surprises on my hypothetical Best Of list for 2008? Well, one, I suppose: I seem to have missed posting anything on it at the time, but I really liked Speed Racer and couldn't figure out what all the complaints were about. Of course it was loud and garish and frenetic; it was a freakin' cartoon, beautifully translated into live action. The effects were astounding; the cast was uniformly fine, capturing the cartoon tone in just the right style. (I particularly liked Matthew Fox, absurdly square-jawed and stalwart as Racer X, and Roger Allam, perfectly hissable as the Evil Villainous Tycoon.) Not a perfect movie, to be sure -- no movie with an adorable urchin and his pet monkey could be -- but destined, I think, to be the Tron of its generation. In twenty years, it'll be recognized as a misunderstood delight, and it won't even take that long for the influence of its effects wizardry to be felt.

January 11, 2009

MOVIES: Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen, 2008)

I'm so used to the standard Woody Allen movie soundtrack -- old jazz standards, crackly opera recordings, and so on -- that it came as quite a shock to see "score by Philip Glass" during the opening credits. It's the first time in at least 20 years that Allen has used an original score (in fact, I'm not sure he ever has before; any Woody experts out there?). Glass's score is highly effective; his short phrases never repeat in quite the same way, helping greatly to keep the audience on edge.

And the score isn't the only oddity here; Cassandra's Dream feels less like an Allen movie than any other I can remember. Entirely gone are his usual loping rhythms; dialogue here is terse, with no extraneous banter. It's a bit annoying at first, in fact, as characters rush on and off screen for just long enough to deliver some key bit of exposition. But once you adjust to the movie's pacing, there's an interesting story being told.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star as brothers who are in desperate need of money (McGregor for an investment he wants to make; Farrell to pay off gambling debts), and expect their dear old Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) to dig them out as he has done so many times before. But this time, Uncle Howard wants a rather hefty favor in return, and the brothers find their moral and ethical limits put to the test.

Allen has dealt with similar themes before, in better movies like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. But the performances are good, especially from Farrell (an interesting companion to his work in In Bruges, another character struggling with his conscience) and Wilkinson, darkly funny as a man willing to do anything to save himself -- well, willing to have someone else do anything to save him, at any rate.

January 10, 2009

MOVIES: The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

Finally overcoming his tendency to indulge in excessive artsy-fartsiness, Aronofsky makes his best movie yet by simply telling a simple story.

The story is that of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), who was one of the best professional wrestlers 20 years ago. Today, he clings to his wrestling career, fighting second-rate opponents on third-rate bills in fourth-rate towns. And that career is all he has to cling to; he's estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and the closest thing he has to a romantic relationship is the occasional bit of mild flirtation with local stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei).

There's really only one big plot point in The Wrestler -- Randy has a heart attack -- and for the rest of the movie, we watch as Randy tries to cope with the ways in which that changes his life. How does a middle-aged man deal with life when the only career he's ever known, the only thing he's ever been good at, is taken away from him?

Rourke is almost always on screen in this movie, and all the good things you've heard about his perfromance are true. It's a performance utterly lacking in vanity; Rourke's own battered face and body -- he spent several years as a boxer during his exile from Hollywood -- are constantly on display.

The rest of the movie is not up to Rourke's level. Tomei does a solid job, creating a full character from the leftover heart-of-gold scraps that Aronofsky has given her, but the movie is none too subtle in pounding home the parallels between the aging Randy and the aging Cassidy (Tomei is still a lovely woman, but as strippers go, she is a bit long in the tooth), or the notion that her strip club is the equivalent of his wrestling ring. The Stephanie storyline is even worse, with lots of wounded "you were never there for me" nonsense, and the standard formulas about Randy buying wildly inappropriate gifts and so on.

And if you're sensitive about movie violence, you should be warned that the wrestling scenes here are absolutely brutal; I found them extraordinarily hard to sit through. Yes, it's important to show us just how Randy has become so battered and damaged, but the point could have been made in half the time with scenes far less intense; these scenes are less about telling the audience something it needs to know than they are about brutalizing the audience, and they are enough to keep me from simply recommending The Wrestler. Yes, Rourke's performance is superb, but I'm not sure any performance is good enough to make it worth being assaulted by unnecessary violence for the first half-hour of the movie.

January 07, 2009

MOVIES: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008)

This is about as good as a late Woody Allen film gets, which is to say there are some amusing moments, you can watch it without cringing (mostly), and it's not going to make anyone forget how much better Allen's early movies were.

This one takes place in several Spanish cities, but mostly Barcelona, where Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) are spending their summer with some of Cristina's relatives. They meet a local painter, the grandly egotistical Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), whose idea of a suave introduction is to invite the two women to join him for a weekend of good food, good wine, and lots of hot three-way sex. Cristina is charmed and agrees to join Juan Antonio; Vicky, who is engaged to a very nice (albeit rather bland) man, is appalled by Juan Antonio's arrogance, but tags along to try and keep Cristina from doing anything too foolish.

Before the weekend is over, of course, Vicky finds herself struggling with her own attraction to Juan Antonio. And because a romantic triangle isn't quite complicated enough, along comes Juan Antonio's ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), a passionate, suicidal, somewhat deranged woman who's never really stopped loving her husband.

Bardem and Cruz are saddled with cliched roles here -- the Latin lover and the Spanish spitfire -- to which they bring as much life and dimension as anyone probably could, but the characters aren't well enough written for either of them to do much. (On a personal note, I confess that I have always been somewhat perplexed by the alleged sex appeal of Javier Bardem. Fine actor, to be sure, and immensely charismatic, but sexy? Really?)

The movie's most interesting performance comes from Rebecca Hall as Vicky, who struggles against her attraction to Juan Antonio, not only to avoid cheating on her fiance, but to keep from hurting Cristina.

It is particularly pleasant to note that this movie does not have an obvious Woody surrogate, saddled with delivering all of his/her dialogue in Allen's distinctive rhythms. It's an Allen screenplay, of course, so those rhythms aren't entirely absent (they're most noticable in the restaurant scene where Vicki and Cristina first meet Juan Antonio), but we're not clubbed over the head with a bad Woody impression as we were by, for instance, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity.

A minor diversion, perfectly harmless, but likely to fade from memory in a matter of hours.