The Hunger Games

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. Directed by Gary Ross.

For a long time I didn’t understand all the hype for this movie, having not yet read the book upon which it is based. Thanks to a very good friend I was able to correct that egregious error; I finished the book mere hours before heading to the theatre.

What an intriguing story! What memorable characters! What heart-pounding action! This movie adaptation of a book should be the standard by which other adaptations are judged. It stayed true to the original story and characters while also including greater detail that captured the spirit of the novel completely. I was blown away.

There is much more to this story than just the cruelty of making teenagers fight to the death as entertainment in the ultimate reality show. The future inhabited by Katniss Everdeen is truly a bleak place. The one-percenters have taken over and rule the ninety-nine percent with an iron fist. Keeping the populace hungry, fearful, and destitute is a wonderful deterrent to rebellion.

As a teenage heroine, Katniss is a thoroughly refreshing alternative to whiny Bella Swan. No offense to any Twihards (some of my best friends are Twihards!), but Bella really started to grate on my last nerve before the second half of the last book. There is also a love triangle of sorts in The Hunger Games that is integral to the story, unlike Twilight where the love triangle is the story.

If you haven’t read the book first, please do so! If you’ve already seen the movie, please read the book! And then read the next two in the series.

A fellow blogger has written excellent reviews of both the movie and the book. I refer you to (aka Kate) for her review of the movie and the book

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Full Bucket

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Image_square_webby Susan

 2012, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Amr Waked. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Had I read this synopsis of the movie before seeing a trailer for it, I probably would have dismissed it as something terribly boring and never given it a second thought: “A fisheries expert is approached by a consultant to help realize a sheik’s vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the desert and embarks on an upstream journey of faith and fish to prove the impossible possible.”

Huh? Fly-fishing? In the Middle Eastern desert? Government bureaucracy? Faith and fish? What a preposterous combination! As luck would have it, though, I saw a trailer for it quite some time ago and decided to look for it in my local theater. Okay, to be honest, the only thing I remembered about the trailer was that Ewan McGregor was in it. Sometimes that’s enough reason to see a movie; young Obi-Wan Kenobi is in my list of top five to seven favorite actors. (Spots two through seven are apt to shuffle about on any given day; only the number one spot is carved in stone.)

This one looked like it might be a nice respite from CGI-heavy, complicated epics oozing unreality as well as the standard and, quite frankly, these days just plain lame romantic comedies. I couldn’t recall from the trailer if it was supposed to be a comedy or a fantasy; I just knew it looked interesting, it didn’t appear to be a heavy drama, and Mr. McGregor was starring in it. I think I had the vague impression that it was a British movie as well; I was right.

The story goes like this: A hopelessly average, boring (and bored) bureaucrat (Ewan McGregor) in the Department of Fisheries who happens to also be the world’s leading expert on salmon, and by extension fly-fishing, is contacted by a consultant (Emily Blunt) to an incredibly wealthy (stinking rich, actually) Middle-Eastern sheik (Amr Waked) to help him bring the sport of fly-fishing to a dry and barren place. The sheik wants to improve the lives of the locals with public works projects that will help create a more stable economy. Said consultant is a nice-looking young woman who has just experienced the first sparks of romance with a new boyfriend. Said boyfriend is deployed on a secret mission to – guess where? – the Middle East, where he promptly joins the ranks of the missing in action. As the bored bureaucrat/expert insists that the project is doomed to failure before it starts due to numerous ridiculously impossible hurdles to overcome, the government is looking for some kind, any kind, of news in the Middle East that they can spin into a positive story. Bingo! A wealthy sheik who has fallen in love with fly-fishing in the U.K. wants to work with the British government to bring salmon to the Yemen after he has constructed a massive dam that will create a cool, refreshing river in the hot, dry desert. Yes, ma’am, that’s the kind of story the government is looking for and plans are made to create many positive-spinning photo ops.

The sheik is already trying to go against the grain (swim upstream, if you like) with his grandiose ideas of transforming the desert. Can the bureaucrat and the consultant find the courage to do the same? With many ridiculously impossible hurdles that must be overcome in their personal lives, will they be doomed to failure or will hope and faith triumph in the end?

This was a very pleasant little movie with fine performances from the entire cast. Kristen Scott Thomas as Patricia Maxwell, the government PR dragon, provided just the right dash of comedy. When the sheik explained his philosophy of life to the two leads, I had a momentary epiphany in which I actually understood the lure of fly-fishing and why some fishermen become obsessed with it. (That’s saying a lot for someone who would pretty much rather spend a day cleaning toilets than go anywhere near a fishing pole. Okay, just one toilet, but you get my drift – I don’t like to fish.) If you missed it in theaters, it will lose none of its charm if you view it at home on your television. And neither will Ewan McGregor’s Scottish accent.

Two boxes of popcornRating: Double Serving with a box of Milk Duds

21 Jump Street

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

In case you didn’t know, 21 Jump Street was a TV show created by Stephen J. Cannell in the late 1980s. I never watched it myself, although I know a lot of people who looooved it. I think they probably liked it so much because it featured nice-looking baby-faced actors playing cops who could, theoretically at least, infiltrate high schools and blend in as teenagers while conducting undercover operations. How cool is that!? Anyway, I didn’t discover Johnny Depp until the amazing Edward Scissorhands. Yes, that’s right, in case you’ve been living under a rock or a in a moon cave for the past 25 years or so, Johnny Depp was the heartthrob of a TV cop show before he made the big leap to the silver screen. (See how I resisted temptation to use the phrase “jumped ship” which would have called to mind not only 21 Jump Street, but also his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? You’re welcome!)

The only possible way to pay homage to the 21 Jump Street of 80’s television is to make it a parody, and that can be tricky. A good parody must pay homage to its origin story and also be gut-bustingly funny in a warm-hearted, nostalgic sense without going overboard and insinuating that the original was just plain stupid or lame – even if it might have been. The movie triumphs in that regard; it is not only hilarious, thanks mainly to the two leads, but also true to the intent of the original TV show – good-looking grownup cops getting involved with teenagers. (If that wasn’t the original intent of the TV show, I don’t care because I never watched it, as I mentioned already.)

So, getting on with the review… To paraphrase a description of the old TV show: “21 Jump Street is the address of the headquarters for a squad of police officers who specialize in investigations relating to young people. Each of the Jump St. personnel was selected for their ability to pass for high school students, allowing them to operate undercover in areas where it is difficult for regular police officers to blend in unnoticed.” That’s pretty much the same synopsis for the movie, except that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play two police officers who sort of… “complete” each other. Hill was a hopeless nerd and Tatum was a popular dumb jock from the same high school; they discover each other again at the police academy and help each other graduate to become inept police officers on bicycles. Not content with such a lame assignment, they are given a chance to prove themselves when transferred to the Jump Street squad. Hilarity ensues as they revert to their old teenage personas of nerd and popular jock but their undercover identities have them switched; Hill must play the popular guy and Tatum must be the brainy one.

Confused by the social cliques, attire, language, sensibilities, and just about everything having to do with teenagerness of current times, the two cops must find a way to work together to take down a drug ring operating out of the high school before its illicit poison can spread through the city and beyond. Along the way they will become a little too immersed in their fictional roles as teenagers.

Tatum and Hill are both superb in their respective roles, the supporting cast is excellent, the script is sharp and witty, the action sequences are both over the top spectacular and spectacularly uproarious. There is plenty here to help fans fondly remember the old TV show but for those who never watched it – like me – this movie stands on its own, never faltering as it hurtles its way to an explosive climax with a few welcome surprises along the way.

In a word, it’s FUNNY. Go see it.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving

The Artist

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius.

Why would anyone make a black-and-white silent movie these days, you ask? Why not!? Particularly if it’s exceptionally good in its use of the style of a bygone era to tell a familiar story in a way that is fresh and appealing. And that’s what The Artist does so well – use a style of storytelling that is less dependent on dialogue and more about an actor’s ability to convey emotion and sentiment through facial expression and physical gesture.

George Valentin is a silent film star at the peak of his career enjoying all the trappings of Hollywood success: fancy car, big mansion, buckets of money, adoring fans, etc. He also appears to be a self-involved ham, stealing the spotlight from his co-stars (except for his faithful four-legged companion). A young lady, Peppy Miller, bumps into him, literally, at his movie’s premier and when the resulting photo is splashed across the newspapers, she decides to audition as an extra in the movies. Coincidentally she is cast in one of Valentin’s movies and reconnects with him on-set. And so begins the story of Peppy’s meteoric rise to stardom.

In the meantime, talking pictures have seized the public’s imagination and Valentin’s studio decides it must keep pace with the latest technology. Valentin will either make talking movies or get the boot. In a scene that makes magnificent use of sound effects – not dialogue – Valentin realizes that he will never be able to make the transition. The world is filled with sound but it will never hear his voice. One last desperate attempt to prove that the public would still embrace him in a silent film rather than flock to the “novelty” of talking movies ends disastrously.  Valentin is left clinging to the past as he descends into pennilessness and drunkenness. But even as Miss Miller ascends the ladder of fame and fortune, she remains attracted to him.

Another impressive scene uses the metaphor of a staircase where Peppy and George cross paths as some people are climbing up, some are walking down, some faster, others slower, to illustrate how their careers are progressing.  Or stalling, as the case may be. This is the genius that makes The Artist so mesmerizing – rich visual symbolism strategically employed to give depth to the actors’ performances. By its very nature a “silent movie” demands undivided attention; the viewer’s attention is rewarded from start to finish in this film.

The Artist is not about the silent movie era; most of the action takes place after the advent of talkies. It is about an iconic actor who cannot adapt to changing times, an homage to the earliest roots of filmmaking. In a broader sense it is also about an industry that must constantly adapt to new technologies, and the talented artists who might be left behind if they don’t adjust as well. The behind-the-scenes episodes depicting studio executives making business decisions taking priority over artistic sensibilities is a subtle commentary on how some things never change. But in the end, what matters most is the story being told. This one is told brilliantly.

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Full Bucket

War Horse

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Toby Kebbell. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

It can be difficult to sum up a movie that runs for about two and a half hours in a concise way, but I’ll give it a shot.

War is hell; army horses are soldiers, too; war is stupid; horses are generally smarter and possibly nobler than most people. Steven Spielberg is a magician who can make a fantastic movie out of what most any other director would turn into a maudlin, tedious, predictable, war movie.

I was afraid that this was going to be an overly sentimental period piece but I should have known better. Spielberg is much better than that, and he has proved it once again. Yes, there is a lot of sentiment in War Horse, but it didn’t succumb to boring predictability. The first part unfolds slowly with well-defined characters portrayed with great skill, giving the viewer an opportunity to really get to know them and become invested in their futures. The pace shifts when their futures involve trying to survive the savagery of WWI, and we are charging into battle only to discover how horrific war can be. The intense battle sequences might remind you from time to time of Saving Private Ryan, but this film tells a very different tale.

A sweeping, epic saga that deftly focuses on intimate human stories, this movie depicts the suffering and privations that war brings to all soldiers, no matter which side they fight for, as well as innocent civilians caught in the middle. And it does it very well.

Jeremy Irvine, the young man in the role of Albert Narracott, was very good and he is probably going to be a hot commodity for quite some time. I was pleasantly surprised to recognize Toby Kebbell in a smaller, yet pivotal role. I first enjoyed him in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and then also in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; more recently I saw him as John Wilkes Booth in The Conspirator. Kebbell is one of a handful of actors who can really stand out in any role, even a small one. He’s one to keep an eye on.

To sum up, this isn’t Seabiscuit or Secretariat; it isn’t even just a pretty movie about a boy and his horse. This one has heart and depth with gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful score by John Williams. Need a break from loud, mindless overly-CGI’d action flicks or cookie-cutter, overly-CGI’d comic book adaptations? Go see War Horse and experience what a good movie is all about.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving plus TWO boxes of Milk Duds

Red Tails

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Gerald McRaney, Terrence Howard, David Oyewolo. Directed by Anthony Hemingway.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the obstacles they had to overcome back home to be allowed to fight for their country in WWII is truly inspiring. It is a story that encompasses not only the huge themes of racial segregation and institutionalized bigotry in the U.S. armed forces as well as the society at large, but also very personal themes of bravery, perseverance, patriotism, individual excellence, and brotherhood. The movie Red Tails tries very hard to bring these large and intense themes together, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

While the individual performances are good and the recreation of a WWII air base in Italy and the adjacent Italian village are fine, it is the CGI sequences of fighter planes and bombers conducting the air war over Europe that really steal the show. Still, even the amazing aerial feats aren’t enough to balance out the flat, stereotypical “German-pilot-bad-guy,” “racist-white-officer,” or “conflicted-leader-with-self-doubts” characters, not to mention the predictability of the plot. The movie opens with a disclaimer that it is “inspired” by historical events, so we shouldn’t be surprised at how it turns out, but the fictional characters inhabiting this story could have been given less standardized personalities.

Honestly, we were only a few minutes into the film when I started assigning labels like “Dead Meat” or “Maverick” to the main characters. (If those references are confusing, try Googling Top Gun and then the vastly superior Hot Shots.) A serious WWII movie claiming to have historical credibility that features a sequence in a German POW camp should not evoke images of television’s Hogan’s Heroes. That my mind was wandering so far afield can only mean that I was not sufficiently invested in the characters’ eventual fate.

To their credit, the ensemble cast delivered performances that were much better than the material they were given to work with. The depiction of racism and how the black pilots were able to change deep-rooted, ingrained, bigoted attitudes with their valor and determination was handled well, if a little bit stilted. I’m just disappointed that the filmmakers seemed to think spectacular CGI dogfights and explosions would be sufficient to carry the entire movie.

While Red Tails is entertaining and does pay tribute to the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, it just doesn’t accomplish those goals in any unordinary way. That’s a shame, because the real story is quite extraordinary. In the meantime, this is an excellent movie to introduce younger generations to the realities of historical racism in the U.S. military and how a group of black fighter pilots were fighting for so much more than their white counterparts in WWII.

Rating: Double Serving

My Week with Marilyn

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Simon Curtis.

Among the most iconic images of the twentieth century are those of Marilyn Monroe; beautiful, sexy, breathtaking, hypnotic. That’s how most people tend to think of her. Those images, however, are only half the picture; she was also sad, confused, frightened, mentally imbalanced, lonely, overmedicated. My Week with Marilyn offers a glimpse of what the whole picture might have been like.

This movie is based on the real story of Colin Clark, a young film student who landed a job with Sir Laurence Olivier’s production company when he was preparing to direct and star in the movie The Prince and the Showgirl opposite Monroe as the female lead. The film was to be a light comedy designed to showcase Marilyn’s singular brand of “screen presence.” Colin, thrilled even with the lowly position of gopher on the set, is as excited to see Marilyn Monroe as anyone else.

All is not well on set, though, as day after day Marilyn shows up late, if at all, and has to perform take after take after take of her scenes to get her lines right. Olivier is infuriated; as an old-school stage actor he expects the same discipline and professionalism from film actors as he is accustomed to in the serious theater. In the midst of desperately trying to find some way to accommodate Marilyn’s eccentricities and get on with the production, Colin accidentally endears himself to her, his wide-eyed innocence and honesty appealing to her vulnerable side.

So for a brief time Colin finds himself at her beck and call, a rare opportunity to get to know a little about the sad and lonely Norma Jean Baker under the façade of glamorous Marilyn Monroe.

Kenneth Branagh is excellent as Laurence Olivier as is Eddie Redmayne in the role of Colin Clark. As great as they are, the most brilliant thing about this movie is how mesmerizing Michelle Williams is as Monroe. She completely transformed herself into the tragic star from head to toe, scoring a bull’s eye with both the Norma Jean and the Marilyn aspects of the world-famous bombshell. Watching her recreation of several memorable performances, I found myself wondering if footage of the real Marilyn from the 1950’s had been inserted in the movie; no, it was all Michelle Williams.

Colin Clark went on to a successful writing and filmmaking career, mostly documentaries. Among his works are memoirs of the time he spent working on The Prince and the Showgirl from which My Week with Marilyn is derived. In many ways this film is just as much a behind-the-scenes peek at diametrically opposed acting styles and the daily triumphs and frustrations on a movie set as it is about the tragedy that was the life of Marilyn Monroe.

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Triple Serving

Adventures at the Concession Stand

Image_square_web by Susan

As I mentioned in the review of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the friend who accompanied me had a coupon for a five-dollar discount at the concession stand. I insisted on paying for the snacks as it was her gift card that had bought our tickets.

We scanned the menu board, deliberated momentarily, and then decided that a medium bag of popcorn to share and a couple of small sodas would prevent us from starvation until we could exit the theater in search of some dinner. The total charge for this three cents’ worth of popcorn and twenty cents’ worth of soda came to an even 14 dollars. I didn’t feel any less ripped off knowing that the coupon reduced that total to a mere nine dollars. It still felt like $8.77 too much. Alas, I am accustomed to that feeling when I go to the movies. I do manage to hold my tongue in check, usually, except for the odd occasion when I feel compelled to tell the clerk behind the counter that “those prices are so ridiculous that someone will surely be hell-bound for it. Not you, young clerk, but someone.” I smile when I say it, so hopefully they take it as a joke. I’m just not entirely sure I mean it as a joke.

The young gentleman who was clerking at the concession stand that afternoon was tall, good-looking, friendly, polite, and had certainly not set the exorbitant prices for the snacks, so it did not occur to me to let loose with my standard movie concession-counter quip. I handed him the five-dollar-off coupon and a ten-dollar bill. To those who understand basic math, simple addition, that is equivalent to fifteen dollars.

This polite, good-looking, tall young man accepted both the coupon and the bill and looked at us with a faintly worried expression as he said, “I’m sorry, but you know I can’t give back any change when you use a coupon.”

I looked at him. I looked at my friend. I looked back at him. “Why is that?” I asked calmly. The bag of popcorn and two sodas had already been served up and were sitting on the counter right in front of us. As far as I was concerned, they were already ours. When I had said “Why is that?” what I actually meant was “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!” Prices being what they are in a theater, the inability to produce a single dollar in change just because we had used a coupon seemed incredibly stupid to me. I wanted the popcorn and sodas but I also wanted the dollar in change that I was due.

The young man said, very politely, “It’s theater policy. I’m sorry, but I can’t give back any change when a coupon is used.” He was entirely sincere, both in his sympathy for our difficulty and in his determination to uphold “company policy.” This fellow did not present any outward physical sign of mental defect. He was not being rude, impatient, or cocky about anything. He looked like a college student, someone old enough to have learned how to add and subtract round numbers. As I started calculating how much time we had left to get settled in our seats before the movie and estimating how long it would take to get a manager to the concession stand, something clicked in place. I had an “ah-ha!” moment.

I reached for the money and the coupon, taking them both out of his hand. At that point, I suppose both he and my dear friend were assuming that I would refuse to close the transaction, causing the senseless waste of all three cents’ worth of popcorn and twenty cents’ worth of soda. However, that was not my intention.

I looked the clerk squarely in the eye and said, “Our total is fourteen dollars, right?” He nodded in agreement. I handed him the coupon and said, “This five-dollars-off coupon brings the total down to 9 dollars, right?” He nodded again, looking slightly puzzled. I then held the ten-dollar bill out to him and said, “Then when I give you this ten-dollar bill, you owe us one dollar in change. Right?”

For just a heartbeat, the three of stood there like cowpokes in an old western who are waiting to see which one would try a quick-draw of his pistol and start shooting first.

“Oh! Of course – I’m sorry.” He shook his head in embarrassment. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. Here’s your change.” He politely handed me the dollar that had become the single most critical issue in the universe to me over the course of the previous ninety seconds.

What’s wrong with him, indeed, I thought. He could have been dropped on his head as a child, accidentally ingested lead-based paint, stayed up too late and gotten too drunk the night before, had one too many doobies before his shift started, was preoccupied with the crushing debt he was accumulating in student loans, was worried that his bloodwork for the AIDS test might come back positive – any number of things that were none of my business in the first place.

I should have replied simply, “Oh, that’s okay. We all have off days.” I couldn’t help myself, though, the words just burst out of me without any hope of being swallowed before they left my tongue: “You aren’t a rocket scientist, are you.” This came out in the form of a statement, not a question. I was immediately almost sorry for having uttered the sarcasm, but since I was smiling I thought it might be okay.

“No,” he said. “But you know, my brother is an engineer and sometimes he has trouble with the simplest things, too.”

We closed the transaction with smiles all around, no animosity, just a brief, friendly encounter. But I’ve been wondering ever since if his brother the engineer had been dropped on his head as a child, accidentally ingested lead-based paint, was prone to binge drinking… or if it is something that just runs in the family.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton. Directed by Brad Bird.

Anyone who knows me knows me that I’m a real fan of action/adventure – to a point. I like big-budget, thrilling, fast-paced, completely implausible, globe-trotting, good guys vs. bad guys, movies that don’t give me time to stop and catch my breath long enough to question “why did he do that?” But I’m also discriminating; I don’t like to spend my meager funds and precious spare time on less than stellar examples of the genre. It has to hold the promise of being spectacular to get me interested in even watching the previews.

Every now and then a movie comes along that I would ordinarily place on my “must-see in a theater” list – possibly in the #1 spot – without knowing much of anything about it. Sometimes it’s because of a truly talented director, other times it may be due to a particular actor I enjoy, or it could be the latest in a franchise that has delivered great entertainment before and the hope exists that the newest installment will as well.

The opposite is also true. Once in a while I will put a movie on my “avoid at all costs in any format, run screaming from the room if perchance I happen upon it playing on some random television somewhere in the future” list. I think this list is much shorter than my “must-see” list, but it does exist. There are some premises that are so bad, some stories so devoid of entertainment value, and some actors that I despise so much, I will go out of my way to avoid seeing any movie that contains them.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was not in either category, although it almost made it to the “avoid at all costs” list. I confess – I can’t stand Tom Cruise, or as I call him, Mr. Miniature Man.

The last Tom Cruise movie I enjoyed him in was 1992’s Far and Away. The most recent role I enjoyed seeing him play was Les Grossman, the obnoxious Hollywood mogul in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. (By the way, if you haven’t seen Tropic Thunder you’ve missed one of the most hysterically funny send-ups of actors taking themselves too seriously ever filmed. It’s like Three Amigos in Viet Nam. Rent it. Watch it. Laugh yourself silly.) Let’s just say that I recognized the character immediately as Tom Cruise, and had no problem believing that he was playing the part without make-up or hairpiece; I was convinced that he really was actually playing his own, true obnoxious self. That’s how much I don’t care for Mr. MM.

On the other hand, I have become a big fan of Simon Pegg. LOVED him in Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Paul, and 2009’s Star Trek, the excellent reboot from J.J. Abrams. That was one good reason to put Ghost Protocol on my “must-see” list. Another reason happens to be that I was a huge fan of the original Mission: Impossible television series. That’s actually strange, though, as I was much too young to understand what was going on in any of the episodes the first time I ever saw them; my older brothers, however, were enraptured with all things glamorizing espionage during the Cold War. Ahh, the 1960’s…. Well, I may not have understood the big picture, but the music was awesome and the way people kept ripping off full-face masks to shockingly reveal their true identity was something you just didn’t see anywhere else.

So there was my dilemma – Ghost Protocol co-starred one of my favorite comedic actors AND it was based on an old favorite, long-running hit TV show that had already begat three feature films, but it starred obnoxious Mr. MM. My brain froze, locked up tight whenever I tried to determine which list it belonged on.

Miraculously, I was spared the fate of terminal brain freeze (at least for now) when a dear friend of mine suggested we see it. “Uhhh… you know, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is also in theaters, I could see it again,” I ventured. No, it wouldn’t do but for us to see a movie that neither of us had already viewed. The clincher was when she said she had a gift card for the movie theater, plus a five-dollar-off coupon for snacks from the concession. (See the aside for details on the adventure that was our encounter at the theater concession stand.) It only took a microsecond for me to rationalize that with the tickets paid for by a gift card provided by someone else, no one could accuse me of paying to watch Mr. MM, and I could enjoy Simon Pegg in what would hopefully be a real rip-snorter of an action/adventure movie.

I was not disappointed – this latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise takes off like a missile and has you clinging on for the entire thrilling ride! One of the best things about it were the many elements of the original TV show incorporated into this one, like Pegg’s Agent Dunn hopefully begging for the use of those famous full-face masks, infamous “sting” operations to trick the bad guys, foul-ups at critical moments, suspicious behavior from possibly untrustworthy team members, glamorous private parties to be infiltrated, the beautiful yet deadly and seductive female agent. Yet it was thoroughly updated for a modern audience in today’s world; the IMF team was not out to topple a foreign government, they were sent to stop a crazy terrorist. Even though the basic premise of preventing an insane individual from destroying the world is a little hackneyed and threadbare, you can’t have an espionage team with cool gadgets turning up in worldwide exotic locales and getting into impossible situations that only their superior wits and fighting skills can get them out of without it. That’s just the way these super-spy movies, like the super-hero ones, work.

Simon Pegg was definitely one of the biggest highlights of the whole film for me, playing the technical gadget genius. He is perfection itself in a role where he provides some comic relief, delivering lines that make hilariously brilliant observations about the absurdity of the situation as only a “regular guy” can. The exotic foreign locales were lovely, the car chases were thrilling (especially the one in the sandstorm), the fight scenes were flinch-worthy, and I enjoyed getting to see Mr. MM repeatedly get beaten up.

Actually, if we are insisting on total honesty here – not that I know any good reason why we would – I was mentally substituting a different actor for Mr. MM throughout the entire movie. Had they cast my choice of actor instead of Mr. MM, my rating surely would have shot up to Two Full Buckets. Go see it; you can envision any actor you want in the role of Ethan Hunt. Who knows? You might enjoy it even more that way, too.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson.

So I’ve been hearing this title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for quite some time. Well aware that it was a novel long before I ever heard of the Fincher film version, I never had time to read the book. Or maybe I didn’t feel motivated to read an English translation of a Swedish work. Perhaps I never caught a review of the book that piqued my interest or no one bothered to tell me in person just how good a read it really is. Whatever. By the time I realized that I need to read this book, plus the other two in the Millennium series, I was seeing previews for the Hollywood adaptation. Those previews looked very intriguing, if not downright mesmerizing. Besides, if Daniel Craig is starring, you can bet I’ll be there.

Sometimes a Hollywood remake of a foreign-language film can leave a lot to be desired and adaptations of complex popular books, even those highly anticipated by fans of the original, may tend to fall flat. These are my typical concerns with movies based on stories first published in a format meant to be read, not visually ingested. Once I started paying attention to the previews for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though, I reassessed my hesitation. Then came the epiphany: directed by David Fincher. Duh! All of my apprehension dissolved and I couldn’t wait to see this movie. Other films directed by Fincher such as Zodiac, Se7en, The Social Network, etc. are so superior that I had no doubt this would be a great movie. How closely it might remain true to the original source is another topic, but since I had not yet read the book I felt confident that I would enjoy the movie immensely without being hampered by comparisons.

It was with high expectations that I went to see this much-hyped film. All I knew of it was what I had seen in the previews:  it was set in extremely cold Sweden, there was a decades-old mystery to be solved, there would be a young female character sporting some kind of dragon-shaped tattoo, and Daniel Craig would lead the effort to solve the mystery.

Fincher did not disappoint – it was a riveting experience! Even though the beginning felt a little slow at first, it laid the groundwork for fully developing the main characters. To understand this girl with a dragon tattoo, Lisbeth, you had to get to know her, and Fincher made sure we got a proper introduction. Words like tough, independent, clever, fearless, strong, cunning, brilliant – words one would usually associate with a male role – are not even enough to properly describe Lisbeth. A ward of the state, she is at the mercy of her government caseworker for survival. When the caseworker mistakenly assumes he can do whatever he wants to her, she treats him to a dose of his own medicine – tenfold. Then she is free to take on the job of investigator for Mikael Blomkvist, helping him dig up the past of a wealthy family composed of some very strange and scary characters.

Just like other Fincher movies there is some shocking, graphic violence in this one. And though it may be difficult to watch (may actually have you squirming in your seat in discomfort), it doesn’t feel gratuitous. It feels real in a way that lets you sympathize with Lisbeth and understand a tiny bit about what motivates her. Rooney Mara deserves every bit of Oscar attention she gets for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Daniel Craig is excellent as Mikael Blomkvist, the Swedish magazine editor who takes on the assignment of solving the murder of an elderly, wealthy industrialist’s niece forty years before. Christopher Plummer as the elderly gentleman is a real treat.

It is quite a complex story: Does the niece’s murder tie into other old, unsolved murders? Just how crazy is Lisbeth? Is Blomkvist being set up to take an even greater fall than the disgrace he endures at the beginning of the movie? What is really wrong with the Vanger family, isolated on their island estate, protected by their collective silence and their vast wealth? Is there anyone still living who has the answers to the puzzle?

I am told by people who have read the book and seen the movie that the film is a great take on the novel, but much had to be left out. This is not surprising as it is understandably difficult to compress a really well-written and detailed story into appropriate movie length. Also, Rooney Mara may have taken the character of Lisbeth in a different direction than the actress in the original Swedish-language film version. I have no quibble with any of that; this is an excellent, riveting mystery-drama all on its own. Now I have to find time to read the book and see what amazing material had to be left out of Fincher’s version. Then I’ll read the other two books in the series and by the time those movies are made I’m sure I’ll have an opinion about how they compare to the novels.

In the meantime, I highly recommend The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to anyone who enjoys good movies. Just be aware that there is profanity, graphic violence, and nudity in abundance.

Rating: Full Bucket plus an extra serving and some Milk DudsA full bucket of popcorn!One serving of popcorn