Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire [Flickan som lekte med elden] (2009)

Daniel Alfredson's The Girl Who Played with Fire is a very good follow-up to a great beginning for Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy books, Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The cast have returned, most notably Michael Nyqvist as Millennium magazine editor/investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the stunning Noomi Rapace as abused-by-the-system hacker Lisbeth Salander. Director Alfredson is the brother of Tomas Alfredson, director of the awesome vampire film Let the Right One In, remade in an American version for this year as Let Me In.

This second film pretty well picks up where the last left off, about a year later. But Lisbeth, after a brief respite from "guardianship" in Sweden, still has quite a few loose ends to tie up in her life which were only hinted at in the first film.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomqvist is checking up on Lisbeth periodically, though he has not been able to find her, apparently, since the end of the last film's events. His magazine is also vetting a series of stories about corruption in all levels of Swedish government which involves him with a young journalist and his girlfriend who are passionately committed to the story.

Also returning is Peter Andersson as Nils Bjurman, the evillest, slimiest person in the world, who has the misfortune to keep getting his hands dirty bothering Lisbeth, among other not-very-smart criminal involvements. It's hard to even want to praise the actor who plays such a man, but Andersson is effective. His character is a believable holdover from the first film, as well, and works here.

New characters who appear feel organic, and include Micke Spreitz as a mysterious blond giant with a medical condition so winningly named that I'll leave that for now and let you hear about it yourself, Yasmine Garbi as Miriam Wu, a sometime girlfriend and kickboxing mate of Lisbeth's, and, very good as Lisbeth's and Miriam's kickboxing mentor, Paolo Roberto, kickboxing mentor Paolo Roberto.

This movie uses clips, or recreated scenes, from the plot of the first film, in useful if not ingenious ways. They fit in pretty well despite a slight shift in tone between the two movies. They might be slightly overdone in places, but generally serve their purpose for this film's story.

While this film uses the visual palette of the first film effectively, the framing, editing and rhythm are all markedly different. This does not produce a clash, but feels like necessary or at least natural progress for a slightly different type of story. This film is much less meditative and longer on action and dramatic, violent conflict.

Also, without spoilers, but just to whet your whistle, there are several views of the famous dragon tattoo, fight and chase scenes, secrets revealed about Lisbeth's past, classic motorcycle jackets, misplaced fingerprints, "the lottery trick," blackmail, guns and tasers, atavistic face-painting, paparazzi, kimonos and more. Writing this paragraph makes even me want to see it again; I've seen it twice.

The Girl Who Played with Fire does have the disadvantage of following a very great first film, and it does suffer mildly by comparison. Pulpier, slightly less persuasive, it's a solid entry in what can reasonably be hoped to be a solid trilogy. The final film, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, was also directed by Daniel Alfredson. I'm working on reading the books, probably soon, maybe not before I see the final film.

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Review: Takers (2010)

John Luessenhop's Takers is an action/drama built on the bare bones of many, many better movies. It's flashy, but without much plot or emotional interest. There are a few times when it seems to pick up steam, but depicting anything truly involving seems somewhat beyond it.

The film centers on a bank heist team, apparently the best in the world. They run tight heists, then retire to smoky leather-couched backrooms with cigars, Scotch and ladies and live it up, before retiring to their secret smoky leather-couched penthouses where they stare pensively at mistress L.A. That's it, that's the reason we're supposed to think they're cool customers and about all we get to know about them as characters, despite some strained and clipped sideplots. There's a minimalist style which can bring such shorthand through quite successfully--think Michael Mann's Heat--but this film is not made in that style.

The team consists of Idris Elba (much better in The Losers) as Gordon Jennings, Michael Ealy (Seven Pounds) as Jake Attica, Chris Brown as his brother Jesse, Paul Walker as John Rahway and my cousin (not really) Hayden Christensen as A.J. in the Porkpie Hat. Elba has a sister, Naomi (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), in rehab, and they get to show off their native British accents together, which is kind of cool. Once, she wakes up funny.

Not-so-hot on their trail are Matt Dillon as detective Jack Welles and his partner Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez). I'm not sure whether to blame the complete lack of success of Hernandez's character on him or the filmmakers, but he seems out-of-place, uncomfortable and his character just doesn't work at all to advance the story.

More complications ensue when "Ghost"--so named because he seems to appear and disappear from secure locations at will, except prison--played charismatically (thank goodness!) by rapper T.I., also a producer of the film, is released from prison looking to set up a big job quick with his former partners and the Russian mob. The camera loves T.I., and he smiles and loves it back in a persuasive performance.

To be fair, Elba, Ealy, Walker, Jean-Baptiste and Dillon do work above the general level of the material, and, along with T.I., save the film from total boring oblivion. Just.

I figured Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen would be playing brothers, since they look just like brothers, but if they're brothers in the movie, I don't know. This is the kind of thing I wondered about during the boring parts. I just discovered Chris Brown and Michael Ealy are supposed to be brothers in the movie researching this. Doesn't seem to make much difference. Christensen looks cute in his porkpie hat and has a fight scene. Brown runs in traffic.

Zoe Saldana is completely wasted as a put-upon member of a team love triangle, and that is not really okay with me. I'm not even sure how they accomplished hiding her so well, some kind of rare combination of questionable taste and misguided filmmaking. Steve Harris nor Johnathon Schaech get much play either, despite their unique presence and talents.

If you're a big fan of action movies and/or any of the actors, especially Ealy, T.I. or Matt Dillon, you might want to see Takers, but most others could take a pass, though the film is passable. It steps on its own story and potential a bit too often and leaves you rather cold.

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Review: The Last Exorcism (2010)

Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism is a well-acted, interesting vérité-style exercise, sort of in the style of "The Office" or District 9. It has some solid laughs, okay effects and is quite watchable, but might not be everybody's cup of tea.

If you wish to avoid spoilers altogether, you should stop reading this now and head to the theater. I will describe the basic set-up and characters here, but leave major surprises intact. If you really, really want to see it, probably do save this for later, because it's better cold.

The film is told as a documentary-style record of an exorcism. Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian, excellent in a performance which defines "breakout") is not your typical movie exorcist, we find out pretty quickly. A Christian preacher and expert on the gospel of John in Baton Rouge who uses magic and other entertaining diversions to hold a crowd in his sermons, his own faith has undergone some transformations. He's been preaching since he was a boy, and comes from "generations of exorcists." He even has an ancient Latin book of demons he and his father have used in many purported exorcisms.

Marcus has some strong principles concerning the proper performance of exorcisms. He has a young son, and stories about failed exorcisms resulting in violence or death turn his stomach. He hopes to do better than those he considers frauds or worse.

Somehow he's got a documentary crew (played well by Iris Bahr and Adam Grimes) who are interested in filming one of these efforts. Fabian is so charismatic as Marcus that it's really not that hard to believe. So Marcus picks a request for his spiritual assistance off the top of the pile and they head to the Sweetzer farm in Ivanwood, Louisiana, to kick some demons to the curb.

At the Sweetzer farm they get an iffy welcome from Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones of No Country for Old Men, perfect) and higher hopes from patriarch Louis (Louis Herthum, great), whom Marcus had assumed was the possessed party, and Nell (Ashley Bell, also perfect), who may, instead, be.

The film does deal with issues of faith, belief, spirituality, hucksterism, evil, and more. But it fails to make a strong case for much of anything. This is not necessarily a big failing, just putting these issues in play and watching them develop is pretty fascinating here. Still, it feels like these issues are sort of left on the table in a lot of ways. The film seems to come up a bit short on any kind of bigger thematic promises.

There are probably one or two too many twists or major surprises at the end. The film doesn't exactly cheat, depending how you define that for a fake (supernatural?) documentary. But some entertaining ridiculousness near the end and some abrupt about-faces don't quite sustain a horror or suspense thriller feeling. Not that it ever stops being creepy.

If you're looking for pure terror, this isn't exactly a horror film. It's funny, pretty bright, and doubles back a few too many times to sustain major scares or much suspense. But it's fun, original, tries hard to be more groundbreaking and mostly fails at that. Still, it's surprising and entertaining, just worth seeing if you think you might like to.

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Review: Piranha 3D (2010)

Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D is a pretty shocking, crazy movie. It's both better and worse than one might expect. It has no taste or pity, but quite a bit of ingenuity and courage in the face of absolute absurdity. Do not watch it if you get queasy at movie violence. Do watch it if you like this sort of thing.

North American piranha in an inland lake? There's a bare scientific cover which convinces no one, but gives the excuse for a not-particularly-outstanding Christopher Lloyd cameo, and is of course the necessary incantation which materializes this jolly, bloody breasts-and-jests fest.

Lake Havasu City, Arizona, plays Lake Victoria, Arizona, in this schlocky, plama- and waterlogged spring break terror tripe, and that's a hint of the range required from all of the stand-ins. The piranha are the stars, indisputably, though a lot of their impact rides beneath the surface, necessarily. We see a lot of their toothiwork.

There's no acting in this film. The actors are cogs in the effects machine, lucky if they hang on to any credibility at all. Some do. It's nice to see Elizabeth Shue in an action role, she should get more (and better). Ving Rhames is criminally underused, but his part is priceless. The device of little kids in danger, while an overused staple, does build a good bit of needed suspense to mix things up between the carnage, cleavage, gasps and laughs. And Jerry O'Connell goes all in on smarminess as a clone of the "Girls Gone Wild" guy, I forget his name.

Like in The Final Destination, there are a lot of Rube Goldberg-ian death machines made up out of common objects here, and indeed that's a lot of the point of both movies, just to see that, and in 3-D. But in The Final Destination, that's pretty much all that's going on, entertaining as much of it is.

There's a bit more meta-play in Piranha 3D, and some of it's pretty skillful. If you can think of a way a piranha could kill or injure someone, you're too late, they're all here. If you can think of a way to connect a piranha injury in two or three easy steps to much more serious injuries, just face it, you got beat.

The ridiculous scientific explanation for these darn killer fish provides a vehicle for the film to be colder, funnier, stupider and more violent than the vague but overdissected-in-dialogue survivor curse from the Final Destination films. It allows the film to be positively dancingly amoral, and blame it on science. What's a mere filmmaker to do? These fish are hungry.

Despite the fact that I am giving it my slightest recommendation, after careful consideration, I must say that there are some stunning sequences in this film which will live for all time. One character's boyfriend thinks he'll ride to the rescue, and that is sort of complicated and funny. Ving Rhames has a very wacky scene with a boat motor in ankle-deep water, set to comically heroic strains on the soundtrack; it reminded me of the floppy monsters in Ed Wood (and the actual Ed Wood films) and Steve Martin in All of Me. There are a couple of other notable and amusing cameos besides Christopher Lloyd's that I won't spoil. Eli Roth, in particular, probably could have had a V8.

Piranha 3D is some memorably terrible b.s., nearly impossible to place on any known scale of irony, camp or horror. It is not great, but it is a gory thrill ride. I may never erase some of the terrible images from this film from my mind. I can feel them unsubtly rotting my brain and soul already. Ah, well, occupational hazard. Take your own chances. In a situation like this, it's every man or fish for himself.

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Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley (which I have not read), is a geek heaven love/video-game duel story which rocks and rolls, references everything computer-y and pop-cultural and mostly works. If you have lived through any of the past twenty or thirty years of media geeking out--over cinema, music, comic books, video games--you will probably laugh, recognize the film's palette and have a great time.

You already know from reading the graphic novels, or at least from the trailers, that Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, very good) has kind of a unique problem. He likes Ramona V. Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, also very good), but dating her is a little complicated. She has "seven evil exes" who are determined to fight and kill anybody who wants to try dating her. This is a metaphor.

Scott already has some issues. He's in transition, 22 and living in a small apartment in Toronto filled with stuff he doesn't own with his "gay roommate" (as it is frequently stated) Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), playing in a band, Sex Bob-omb, with an ex-girlfriend and more friends and "dating a high schooler" (also frequently repeated), Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). And Scott has some iffy exes of his own.

Scott meets Ramona in a dream, wakes up and apologizes (literally). Times with Knives are fun, but he senses destiny calling in the form of this American delivery girl with punky hair. He really likes that punky hair. He bumps into her in real life a few times, and finally scores a date and her digits.

Ending things with Knives isn't so easy, but before long Scott and Ramona are officially dating, which also marks the beginning of the official notifications of impending duels Scott must fight with the exes. I don't really want to ruin the order, delivery or outcomes of any of the duels, as they make up the bulk of the film and rely on surprises, hidden layers of meaning and humor and work well. But I can say a few things. My favorite ex is played by Brandon Routh, and his part plays off of his recent notable roles. He's very good. Most of the duels are A+ affairs, visually and metaphorically. The one exception might be the Katayanagis, who don't register much, but that duel is still fun to watch.

The whole cast is dedicated and working at a high level, making possible conflicts between the acting and an effects-heavy story no real concern. Cera, Winstead, Culkin, Wong and Routh are stand-outs, but even more minor characters like those played by Anna Kendrick as Scott's sister, Alison Pill as Kim, Sex Bob-omb's drummer, Mark Webber as Stephen Stills, "the talent" of Sex Bob-omb, and Aubrey Plaza (Funny People) as Julie are sketched well and amusingly. (Where's our Aubrey Plaza starrer, Judd Apatow? You're late.) Johnny Simmons (Jennifer's Body) as Young Neil deserves his own sentence of praise, since despite having a minor role and existing along the edges, he delivers a clever supporting turn which brought to mind for me Brad Pitt as Floyd in True Romance or De Niro as Louis Gara in Jackie Brown. Dude is in character, and quite effective. An indie music soundtrack with video-game computer music (and more good music) interspersed accompany the action vividly.

Reservations? I've got a few. While the film works moment to moment, there is a very slight sense of hollowness which, I'll admit, may have been unavoidable given the way the story is told. Everything's "media-ted," and that does create emotional distance. I can't say exactly how I might have tried to avoid that, maybe it's not even necessary, part of the point. "Pilgrim" should make you think of John Wayne, and yes, also John Bunyan, video game nerds. The key metaphor generally comes across without being hokey because of the wealth of idiosyncratic detail.

I also felt some of the female characters were given somewhat short shrift, but a similar counterargument could be made that this is common in the geek world, again, part of the point. I didn't detect a particularly intelligent comment along those lines being made, however. And a few seemingly anti-Chinese comments seem wildly out of place. Despite being uttered by an evil character, and a character trying to think of something, maybe anything to say in an awkward situation, they're a bit jarring exactly as handled. The movie's not racist or filled with offensive slurs by any stretch, but if you're looking to identify with some fully realized non-white or non-male characters, maybe wander into another theater. This is one of the whitest, malest movies ever, but fortunately seemingly mostly out of immaturity, and not in a troubling supremacist sort of way.

That said, if you've got any interest in seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you have my recommendation. It's more than the sum of its parts, it's very smart and entertaining despite some minor flaws. Nice work Edgar Wright and all. There's a lot of priceless talent on display here. I've seen it twice and may do again.

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Review: The Expendables (2010)

Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables is a kind of hip, referential, silly, relaxed, somewhat overhyped movie which represents what should be a welcome return to action stardom for the multitalented film veteran. Eschewing many action tropes, and lionizing others, it's a simple, fun movie about chivalry and ultra-manliness which is ridiculous and kind of wonderful.

For all I know, Stallone already made this return with his most recent two films, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, but I didn't watch them. The Expendables is pretty cool, though, and I hope it's a hit for him, it's good.

The Expendables is of course notable for the number of huge action stars in the cast. Looking back at similarly staffed films of the past, this can be a warning sign of bad things to come. But Stallone plays off of the action personae of his various players ably and intelligently, using their collective hundreds of years of experience in action films for jokes, meaningful monologues and dialogue amid the explosions, and more surprises.

The plot revolves around a band of mercenaries led by Stallone's mysterious Barney Ross (all the characters are mysterious). Stallone's worst films have featured him as a grunting dreadnaught plowing through pointless, boring plots with little emotional impact to accompany the explosions. Also, some of his better films. The Expendables is one of his better films.

Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin are all used quite well, but I don't want to say much more about any of them, because it's fun to see for yourself. I will say that Mickey Rourke is kind of priceless, as usual lately, Statham's charisma, as it has in a lot of his own starring films, goes a long way without straining and the already-spoiled Willis and Schwarzenegger cameos are funny and effective. There are a number of excellent fights featuring two or more of these dozen or so great action stars in opposition which make the price of a ticket seem so cheap.

I don't mean to overhype it myself too much. Three stars for me means a solid recommendation for anybody, not that it's a great all-around film. But it works on a few levels and subverts some conventions while providing solid, interesting, entertaining versions of others. It's worth seeing for action fans.

It's as bloody and gory, if not more so, as any war or action violence ever, so if that disturbs you, skip this one. If that doesn't bother you, it's light, slight, fun and fast. The soundtrack booms too much, this seems to be the hot trend in soundtracks, and like The A-Team, it has a rather unintelligible action climax which, in The Expendables, almost achieves the ecstatic, Zen level of boredom a lot of these sequences seem to be aiming for. The Expendables isn't really an A-Team movie, but it is better than The A-Team, which leaves The Losers the best A-Team movie of the year.

And I'd call it a Stallone action comeback, again, not having watched his last two. He's likable and cool in the film, he's likable and cool for making the film. He's been writing and directing and acting and having comebacks as long as anybody working, and he's still at it, and probably will be longer than some working now. This is solid Stallone. I thought he was pretty good in Spy Kids 3-D.

The Expendables is dumb fun, and also dumb fun from smart people, which makes it a little cut above plain dumb fun. Some of what may look like eccentricities, I think, actually points the way for action film plots in an innovative way. I did not expect to be writing that going in to the film. But ditching a lot of tired, lousy, technical explication in favor of just watching action characters' actions speak for themselves is usually right. The Expendables is smarter and more likable than your average bore, like, say, oh, I don't know, Salt. Or Assassins. Daylight.

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Review: Despicable Me (2010)

Despicable Me is a very respectable, warm, funny film about a supervillain who's lost his mojo, and how it ends up changing his life as well as the lives of three little girls he adopts from an orphanage in furtherance of one of his evil plans.

Gru, voiced by Steve Carell, is a Charles Addams-looking bad guy with visual and other shades of Uncle Fester, Gomez Addams, Gargamel from "The Smurfs" and Boris Badinov (mostly for the voice), along with other classic grouches and baddies, with a cartoonishly Holmesian aquiline nose. He's instantly iconic, and the audience already has a pretty good idea who he is from the beginning, if only from various previews which showed extended clips from the film.

Usually, such a strategy can spoil the fun a bit, but the episodes still seem fresh when they come up in the film, and they still work in context as well or better than they did in the previews. The film creates a flimsy little world, but it's light, flip, blithe and well-realized enough. Gru is a supervillain with mommy issues. Nothing he's ever done has impressed his sarcastic, withholding mother (voiced by Julie Andrews). And now he's being crowded out of the supervillain business by a young upstart named Vector (Jason Segel), who has his own parental approval issues.

Gru is happily bad to the bone, and the moments which illustrate this are classics. The animation, visual design and visual jokes are seamless. And Steve Carell's vocalization of the role is a master class in voice acting, he makes Gru real and hilarious. Nothing really makes Gru want to make any changes in his high-flying life of rather pointless crime until he comes up against the little orphan girls, who are cute and wide-eyed kids to the bone. This is the film's chief conflict.

The girls, Margo, Edith and Agnes, voiced respectively by Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Geier and Elsie Fisher (most outstanding) are, to be fair, cutesy cut-outs and not much more, but are still cannily presented for relatively flat characters. They have just enough differentiation and development. Either more or less of them probably would have been detrimental.

The same could be said of Gru's army of yellow pill-shaped minions, some kind of robots or clones or robot clones. They're kind of annoying on their own, but within the story they're quite functional, malleable and ultimately integral to the film's absurd elements. Russell Brand is outstanding as the voice of Gru's slightly doddering mad-scientist partner in crime, Dr. Nefario.

Segel's Vector is the silliest and least interesting character, but he serves his purpose as well. Vector looks like the son of Edna Mode from The Incredibles and sounds as gleefully annoying as he probably should. You can sort of hate him, but he's too ridiculous and judiciously deployed to seriously grate on the nerves. Which reminds me that the film also manages to squeeze in its obligatory kids-movie flatulence joke without being overly scatological. That's kind of a good trick, if you're not going to excise your obligatory kids-movie flatulence joke (which you probably should anyway).

Like a good light comedy should, the film ends with lots of redemption, reconciliation and a pretty funny dance number. A lot of what could have been cheesy or boring ends up being a pretty charming, whimsical, fun ride. Pharell Williams's title track works well, it's funny and story-packed on its own, complementing the fine score by Heitor Pereira and summing up the film nicely.

Despicable Me manages to walk the tightrope between being overly sappy and sentimental on the one hand, or stupid on the other, without breaking a sweat. Everything's right where it should be to keep the movie economical, light, brisk, funny and still touching and human. It's good in 3-D, and it's good in 2-D. I watched it both ways. It's very, very good, very entertaining for anybody and great for kids.

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Palin leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for July

Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) led July voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

July 2010

#1 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 21.2%
#2 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 14.5%
#3 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 12.1%
#4 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 10.3%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 9.1%
#6 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 7.9%
#7 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 6.1%
#7 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 6.1%
#8 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 4.8%
#9 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 2.4%
#9 - Other ... 2.4%
#10 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 1.8%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1.2%
#12 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 0%

165 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Jeb Bush said he won't run, so he's left the poll at least unless and until he says he will run. You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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