THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Think of it as the "close but no cigar" brand of cinema, where American adaptations of foreign hits prove to be better than expected yet don't quite trump their highly regarded predecessors. Let Me In, Matt Reeves' take on the Swedish vampire yarn Let the Right One In, is one example; The Departed, Martin Scorsese's version of the Hong Kong import Infernal Affairs, is another (Oscar wins notwithstanding). But now there's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which manages the impressive feat of emerging as superior to the internationally admired Swedish version from 2009.
In many ways, this adheres closely to what audiences witnessed in the first version (both films were based on the book by the late Stieg Larsson, the first installment in his Millennium trilogy). As before, two characters leading separate lives find their destinies intertwined: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punkish, bisexual computer expert who's suspicious of everyone around her, particularly men; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a wrongly ostracized journalist who accepts a personal assignment from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-removed disappearance of his niece.
Mikael searches for clues on the sizable Vanger estate out in the Swedish hinterlands, while Lisbeth, still in Stockholm, deals with a series of unfortunate developments, including an ailing friend, a broken laptop, and, most shockingly, a sleazy parole officer (Yorick van Wageningen) who binds and rapes her (her sweet revenge is brutal and brilliant). Only when Mikael realizes he needs an assistant does Lisbeth enter his life, becoming unlikely allies as they solve the mystery together.
The 2009 Swedish version is a fine film, but this one is nevertheless an improvement, right from the dazzling opening credits (perhaps the best I've seen this year) to an epilogue that's unexpectedly poignant. Director David Fincher works in a crisp, efficient manner, and while the original's Noomi Rapace made for a memorable heroine, Mara is even better, retaining this great character's steely resolve and unfiltered intelligence but confident enough to allow us to see the hurt child residing within.
After helming the zeitgeist hit The Social Network, Fincher has been accused by some critics of slumming with this pulpy material, but I beg to differ. Just check out the climactic scene that's set to Enya's "Orinoco Flow" -- perhaps not since Michael Mann employed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the end of Manhunter has a filmmaker so imaginatively, and perversely, merged music with moving imagery.
In an effort to prove she was more than just a pretty face, Charlize Theron was horribly made up for Monster and dowdily dressed down for North Country, consequently winning an Academy Award for the former and a nomination for the latter. In Young Adult, Theron has no need for such transformations: She looks weathered but beautiful, and it's easy to believe that her character, Mavis Gary, was one of the most popular girls at her high school back in the day. Make no mistake: Mavis is ugly, but that unattractiveness emanates solely from the inside. And Theron, ever the trouper, is only too happy to bring it to the surface in this wicked, biting seriocomedy.
The Juno team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have reunited for another movie about an idiosyncratic individual, but Mavis Gary is the polar opposite of the sensible and intelligent character played by Ellen Page in that 2007 gem. An unkempt, hard-drinking ghostwriter for a popular "young adult" franchise now on its last legs, Mavis leaves her Minneapolis stomping ground and returns to the dinky Minnesota hometown she detests, with the sole purpose of landing the one that got away.
That would be her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and what Mavis ignores in her quixotic quest is that Buddy is happily married to the sweet Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and they've just welcomed a baby into the world. Dismissive of the wife and kid ("I've got baggage, too!"), Mavis continues her pursuit, despite the advice of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) to cease and desist.
Theron is excellent in the central role: Never once does she angle for audience sympathy, and she matures even less as a person than Cameron Diaz's boozy instructor in Bad Teacher. Yet the real ace here might be Oswalt, who's terrific as a guy who's endured genuine hardships in his life. Savagely beaten as a teenager by jocks who believed him to be gay (he isn't), the physically damaged Matt becomes Mavis' unlikely pal and sounding board. Like Mavis, he's also trapped in the past and needs to grow up, but his good heart and sensible brain suggest that, of the pair, he's the one who stands a better chance of belatedly snagging the senior superlative, Most Likely To Succeed.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
Finally, here's one seven-year itch that can be scratched. When 2004's The Polar Express made film history as the first animated movie to be created wholly by employing the motion-capture process, we instantly recognized that we were in the presence of something ghastly. Awkward and unsightly, the ersatz innovation rendered all characters stiff, clammy and lifeless -- anything but animated.
Even as recent as two years ago, with the release of the Jim Carrey vehicle A Christmas Carol, it was clear that the format had not yet hit its stride, and it wasn't unreasonable to speculate as to whether it ever would. But thanks to director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson and their crack team of technicians and artists, The Adventures of Tintin emerges as the first motion-capture movie to fully fulfill the promise of this hyped advent in animation.
Based on the internationally beloved comic series created by Belgian writer-illustrator Hergé (I myself enjoyed them as a lad, even though French writer René Goscinny's Asterix was my main Euro-fix), this finds squeaky-clean boy reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), accompanied by his clever canine companion Snowy, acquiring a model ship that in turn is being sought by the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin's curiosity eventually lands him on a real seafaring vessel that belongs to the drunken Captain Haddock (motion-capture superstar Andy Serkis, of Gollum and ape fame), and together, they set out to distant lands to locate hidden treasure.
While the stop-motion process still isn't as pleasing to the eye as either old-school Disney or new-school Pixar, its employment in The Adventures of Tintin still qualifies as leaps and bounds ahead of its use in the unwieldy antecedents in this field. What's more, with the overseer of the Indiana Jones franchise at the controls, this cartoon cliffhanger manages to consistently serve up the breathless thrills.
Even the 3-D, hardly ever worth the effort (or higher admission price), works for the greater good of the picture, at one with Spielberg's kinetic and imaginatively designed set-pieces. Adults looking for a family film among the new holiday outings -- specifically, adults who don't want to be tortured by singing chipmunks (would that be all of them?) -- have found their flick.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL
There's a scene in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice -- it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world.
And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition -- one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window?
It's utterly ridiculous -- and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series -- and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) -- this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. Bird, of course, is the animation mainstay behind Ratatouille, The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, and in making his live-action debut, he demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales.
The plotline concocted by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (both vets of Abrams' TV show Alias) is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist, Mikael Blomkvist in the European Millennium trilogy) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down.
At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome -- the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos -- and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS
If I wanted to see a movie featuring Indiana Jones, I would watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. If I wanted to see a movie featuring James Bond, I would watch Goldfinger. If I wanted to see a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, I would watch -- well, certainly not Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which might as well be a period Expendables prequel for all the reverence given to the legendary sleuth.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Baker Street brainiac remains one of literature's greatest detectives, but because actions always count more than words in today's Hollywood, 2009's Sherlock Holmes reinvented the character as a kick-ass macho man, more Rambo than Miss Marple. Nevertheless, the freshness of Robert Downey Jr.'s exuberant portrayal as Holmes and the measured counterpoint provided by Jude Law as Dr. Watson managed to overpower Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic direction.
Not this time. Ritchie's showoff stylistics are often embarrassing to behold -- this is particularly true in the action sequences, of which there are countless. As he battles his deadly nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) and his minions, Holmes most often applies his formidable smarts not to uncovering clues but to enhancing his advantage in hand-to-hand skirmishes. Is this Sherlock Holmes or Muhammad Ali?
Some silly asides, such as Holmes' camouflage coat, are best forgotten. But the steady bickering between Holmes and Watson has yet to reach the straining point -- thank the ingratiating actors for that -- and it's nice to see the clueless Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) carried over from the first film, even if their appearances are regretfully brief.
And while Rooney Mara adopts the Lisbeth Salander role for the Yank version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the original's Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace, turns up here as a gypsy fortune teller. Her character's services aren't required to predict that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will emerge as an international blockbuster, with audiences flocking to see a dizzying swirl of furious fisticuffs, blazing gunfights, and theater-rocking explosions. Me, I'll be home watching my Columbo box sets.