Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film Review #241: True Grit
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

I confess I was skeptical about the Coen Brothers’ re-make of True Grit. Based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, the 1969 film adaptation starred John Wayne as crusty old marshal Rooster Cogburn, and made a decidedly comedic and reassuring swerve away from Portis’ darker story-line. The Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, as it turns out, bought the screen rights to Portis’ novel from Simon & Schuster even before the novel’s publication, and apparently helped the novel’s success along by sending employees to buy up cartons of the book at bookstores known to be part of The New York Times’ best-seller list calculations. In retrospect, the 1969 film that he and Paramount released, directed by Henry Hathaway, is a little like the Wild West show that a grown-up Mattie Ross visits in 1903 at the end of the Coens’ re-make – a side-show version of wilder events served up for popular entertainment without real menace.

Now, setting the record straight, we have Mattie’s memory-inside-a-memory – that is, from the windswept, lonely hillside of her family’s private burial plot in the early years of the 20th century, the 40-year-old “cranky old maid” recalls her 1903 trip to that Wild West show to see Rooster and, as she alights from the train on her way there, she remembers the trip they made together deep into the “Indian territory” beyond Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1873 in pursuit of Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer, when she was just 14. As it turns out, older Mattie is three days’ too late – Rooster has just died – a span of time the Coens wisely do not make much of but leave to percolate along with their other Biblical references.

As Cogburn the Coens have cast Jeff Bridges, with Matt Damon as the preening bounty hunter/ex-Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, new-comer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, Barry Pepper as the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. There is not a mediocre performance among them, and the bloom is off the rose so far as any romantic notion of frontier life goes. A world of exposition is supplied by attending to the right placement of filthy fingernails, from Dreyer’s long-ago suggestion of how bleak was Joan of Arc’s confinement right down to Mattie’s first encounter with Lucky Ned, into hands and care she falls. That young Mattie, inside the first ten minutes, attends a triple hanging and briskly agrees to share a night’s lodging with the remains – her father’s undertaker has depleted her funds by overcharging her and this is the best hospitality he offers – does prepare us for what she’ll have to take in stride later.

Despite pronouncements every few years that Westerns are dead, the genre has endured and even enjoyed resurrection, often in times of war and political conflict. Westerns, after all, are the template for our national tale – or for how we re-cast that to fit the moment’s challenges – and in the decade since 9/11 they’re back again. Portis’ novel recognizably came out of the Vietnam era. And while its first screen version rode that era’s resurgence of Westerns – the Hathaway film closely followed the release of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and preceded Robert Altman’s even darker 1971 film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (belatedly named this past week to the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Films) – not for nothing do we find John Wayne reassuring the audience that all is well.

And though we’ve waited for the Coens’ re-make longer than Mattie waited to see Rooster again, they give us two boys who torture a tied pack-mule with sharpened sticks, echoing Peckinpah’s opening scene of The Wild Bunch where some laughing kids famously set ants and a scorpion afire just to amuse themselves.

This True Grit is more Deadwood than it is Andy Devine (if you’re old enough to remember that actor’s Aw-shucks Western persona). Like David Milch’s late lamented HBO parable about how the country civilized itself with all its fissures showing, this film takes its central action out of the settled United States proper, reminding us that any sea-to-shining-sea manifest destiny was a lengthy, bloody struggle that still resurfaces. Just as Deadwood depicted an historic renegade town, the lawless “Indian territory” beyond Fort Smith is much like the tribal areas– the “ungoverned spaces” – of today’s conflicts. The same filmmakers who gave us No Country for Old Men three years ago really revisit the genre with this story of a gutsy, whip-smart girl who “earns her spurs” alright in the pursuit of justice and the payment of accounts – the be-spurred LaBoeuf himself bestows that tribute – but did she, or we as a nation, grow up to be happy?

One trait of the so-called “revisionist” Westerns released in times of turmoil has been an overt mention of the Civil War. Traumatized by the national conflict and the immense, often gruesome loss of life it entailed, the country in one sense used settling the Western frontier as a way to simply change the subject. Classic depictions of settling the West on-screen have, depending on the decade and the degree of national consensus, followed suit. Westerns since 9/11 tend, as I have written elsewhere, like the Westerns of the late 60s and 70s, to reject the timelessness of classic Westerns in several ways. They often specifically give us characters with back-stories in the Civil War and who carry that conflict into the frontier. Very early, Cogburn and LaBoeuf clash over this history, though both are former Confederates. The Texas Ranger, after establishing his own credentials as an officer of a Virginia company – implying he was once a gentleman too – accuses Cogburn, who rode with the guerilla force Quantrill’s Raiders, of being a barbaric “marauder” who murdered women and children. Cogburn hotly denies such behavior, but to the end of his life maintains and takes refuge in those ties. Mattie’s visit to the Wild West show leads her to two of Cogburn’s cohorts there: Cole Younger (one of the Younger Brothers who rode with outlaw Jesse James) and Frank James (Jesse’s surviving brother), all of whose associations date from Quantrill’s Raiders. Mattie’s parting remark to Frank James – “You can keep your seat, trash!” – on the surface answers his discourtesy in not standing to speak with a lady. But it’s also about her judgment of his crass betrayal of Jesse, whose grave, history buffs will know, Frank charged money for tourists to visit.

Finally, one of the joys here is the cadenced, vivid and sometimes witty language, with much of the dialogue coming verbatim from Portis’ novel. That bracing speech itself comments on how the frontier was settled. It’s not just that the King James Bible and Shakespeare were the two most familiar books on that frontier – and both available by performance from the pulpit or the traveling stage to those who couldn’t read. Listen to the back and forth between Mattie and the stable owner when she comes to settle her father’s accounts over his string of ponies, his missing gray saddle horse and the saddle itself. Or to Mattie’s explanation in the crude mountain lean-to to Cogburn and LaBoeuf of the difference between natural law and man’s law – she pauses to translate the Latin term for them – or indeed to any of the rapid-fire exchanges in the film. What anchors these exchanges is the language’s precision and rhythmic delivery. It’s not exactly iambic pentameter, of course, but it reminds you of what Shakespeare sounds like on stage; at times you glimpse how the language itself is a civilizing, ordering force in both thought and behavior. And Mattie actually does know her place and its precariousness (“That is a silly question,” she chastises Cogburn at one point, reminding him, “I am fourteen years old.”). In a moment when Orwellian double-speak has returned to much public conversation, the Coens give us a film whose language is anything but vague or accidental.

After True Grit, I quickly took myself to see The King’s Speech too, a moving and gorgeously acted film, also about the role of language in a nation’s survival during crisis. And I highly recommend it. But I think True Grit is a better, and for us yanks, more important film. It just might be the best this year.

A shorter version of this review appears in the December 30, 2010 print edition of “The Eagle” weekly and the full review at
Film Review #240: Black Swan
Director: Daron Aronofsky
Cast: Nathalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell

Somewhere in the vaults of my family’s old home movies, there’s a reel – yes, that long ago – of the ballet recital that climaxed the after-school classes my mother and grandmother made me go to for a single year. I remember the recital, with myself togged up as one of the white swans – white fluff, white satin, silver trim – running in and out of the circles of other girls. I looked as miserable as I surely was. After that, they let me stop.

Quite a few of the audience at Manlius Art Cinema’s opening night screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan looked like they were young dancers themselves. They had the same slenderness and carriage that Natalie Portman (as Nina Sayers) and Mila Kunis (as her rival, Lilly), even though both already had years of formal dance training, spent months of full-time training and dieting to achieve before shooting began. Two of them sat just behind me and throughout the film one or the other would periodically gasp or exclaim at the proceedings on-screen. As we left after the credits, we shared that universally understood combination of sound and gesture – part eye-roll, part shrug and part dramatic exhalation – that made adding the words “I’m exhausted!” unnecessary. Out in the lobby, somebody did say that.

Absorbing, by turn hallucinatory, appalling, gorgeous and deeply sad, and billed somewhat bizarrely as a “dance thriller” in the shorthand of ad-speak, Black Swan contains few lulls and several very fine performances. Besides the principal leads, Vincent Cassell is the controlling, Balanchine-like dance master, Barbara Hershey is Nina’s creepy mother and, somewhere beneath raccoon eyes and a fright wig, an unrecognizable Winona Ryder– who is that? I kept wondering every time this woman appeared – is the waning prima ballerina abruptly and publicly “retired” to make room for younger Nina Sayers to dance the double lead in Swan Lake, who goes round the bend.

Well, she is not the only one. Set in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center – as is New York City Ballet in real life – Black Swan concerns the long-held dream of company dancer Nina Sayers to dance the lead in Swan Lake, a double role of the good Swan Queen and her rival/double/shadow self, the Black Swan. The daughter of a former dancer whose unplanned pregnancy abruptly ended her career, Nina lives with her mother in a maze-like apartment on the upper West Side. Her mother ostensibly lives only for Nina’s success, but of course – we are dealing with archetypes here – jealously and cruelly undermines her at every turn. When Thomas casts Nina as the lead, her anxiety sky-rockets even as she struggles to emerge as her own person, upsetting the delicate see-saw between mother and daughter. In a single scene shows us how vulnerable Nina really is – and signals the rising arc in Portman’s astonishing performance – she races to the privacy of a dressing room to telephone her mother and announce, in the tones a child might to her Mommy, that she got the part.

Lily’s arrival in the company complicates matters further. Between Lily’s own ambitions, Nina’s insecurity and utter lack of experience in discerning what a real adult friendship might look like, and Thomas’ manipulations of both, very quickly it’s hard to tell what really happens and what Nina imagines. As physically demanding as top-flight professional dancing may actually be, Black Swan extends this considerably here, adding physical abuse and humiliation from Nina’s mother, hallucinated self-mutilation, sexual violation real and otherwise, and murderous attacks with shattered pieces of mirror on the triumphant opening night.

On Monday, Black Swan was cited for “Worst Female Images” in a film released theatrically in 2010 by the national Women Film Critics Circle during WFCC’s year-end awards announcements – beating out Burlesque, The Killer Inside Me, and The Social Network. With the sole exception of the unnamed older woman, quiet, focused, dignified, clearly accomplished, who runs the warm-ups and classes for the company dancers during rehearsals – in a film that contains some cinematically brilliant sequences, the comparatively understated moment in which the camera simply watches her back and shoulder muscles for a moment as she shows a dancer a sequence of moves is one of the best – there’s no female character here that we’d want any of our daughters or nieces or godchildren or sisters to take as a role model. And from opening night’s audience, I’d say they pretty much get that.

But Aronofsky wasn’t making a movie about role models. Instead of agit-prop, as he’s said extensively and about which there’s no great mystery, he’s exploring ideas of identity and doubles, how we contain our opposites, how performers use their bodies as their medium and the dangerous nature of images (Plato warned us, after all, to ban the artists), a variation and extension of previous films such as last year’s The Wrestler. For those harrowing, edgy achievements, see this dazzling film.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the December 23, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly in Syracuse and at “Black Swan” continues at Manlius Art Cinema and has also opened at Carousel Mall.
Film Review #239: Fair Game
Director: Doug Limon
Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, David Andrews

Now I want you to drive to Ithaca, in this weather, to see a movie? Right.

So, the plan this week was to present you with that box of Christmas candy otherwise known as The Tourist, with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Then Friday afternoon a couple movie buddies – one an intrepid driver with four new tires – said, "Let’s go to Ithaca and see Fair Game.” Directed by Doug Limon (who did his own cinematography too), starring Sean Penn as former diplomat Joe Wilson, Naomi Watts as outed CIA operative Valerie Plame and a wickedly good David Andrews as Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, this film combines the individual memoirs written by Wilson and Plame to recount how the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq with doctored intelligence evidence about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and then retaliated when Joe Wilson went public in a 2003 New York Times op-ed piece about what he didn’t find in the African nation of Niger.

Well before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA was already investigating the regime of Saddam Hussein, in particular whether he was developing nuclear weapons (or “WMD,” in the parlance of newspaper shorthand of the day). In 2001, also before 9/11, Valerie Plame was made head of operations for the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq. Plame’s husband had been ambassador to Niger during the Clinton administration and therefore knew the country well, so he was in a position to be asked to informally re-check a persistent story that Iraq was buying “yellowcake” uranium from Niger (a form of uranium necessary for the fabrication of nuclear weapons). He determined this could not have happened and so reported back. In one riveting scene, Wilson watches a TV news broadcast of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell telling the United Nations that the CIA had determined that Niger had indeed sold “yellowcake” to Iraq.

9/11 of course changed everything, and some of the most effective scenes in this film involve the fall-out among intelligence agents and organizations once it became apparent that there had been missed clues that, followed up on, might have prevented those attacks. With regard to Iraq and Saddam’s WMDs, agents of the vice-president’s office returned repeatedly to the CIA to press them about the likelihood of various surmises and conclusions, really to change those conclusions to concoct another case. In one such scene a heretofore competent and committed agent is reduced to a stuttering mess by the relentless Libby’s interrogation.

It was Scooter Libby who leaked information to the press that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative – leaked multiple times, as it turned out, for good measure, in case any reporter given this tidbit might have qualms about printing it. Columnist Robert Novak broke the story, which of course cost Plame her career, but – as both her memoir and the film make plain – also cost the lives of many, perhaps hundreds, of civilian “assets” she had developed who were in vulnerable positions and mid-stream operations. The film dramatizes this in the form of the abrupt abandonment of Iraqi scientists whom she had recruited to defect and promised to get safely out of that country along with their families, who were rounded up subsequently and disappeared. And the pressure of Plame’s outing almost cost her and Wilson their marriage, as they each struggled with how to respond publicly, each feeling abandoned and betrayed by the other. In a cameo as Plame’s father, Sam Shepherd burnishes a single scene in which he listens to her anguish and, with all the compact but deeply felt reticence of a career military officer – read, unassailable patriot – answers softly, “What they did [to Wilson and her] was just wrong.”

This is a very, very good movie. Naomi Watts gives her best performance in ages and Sean Penn is now mature enough to deliver the performance he clearly aimed for with All the King’s Men. To some extent, that includes his emerging capacity for restraint at the right moments.

The same applies to Doug Limon, who as a filmmaker has visited espionage cinema before in two very different films – The Bourne Identity (2002), and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, his 2005 re-make of Hitchcock’s 1941 comedy about married spies and notable as the occasion igniting Brad Pitt’s off-stage romance Angelina Jolie. There has been some criticism of Fair Game as imperfectly blending Plame’s memoir with its “personal” bent and Wilson’s, which is more political in focus. I find that not such an issue; instead, I’m pleased that Limon seems to know, first, that this is not another movie fantasy and, second, that he’s stuck to a fairly straightforward time-line that makes some sense of complex events, when his temptation might have been to tart things up. And did I mention that the sound track is superb?

Fair Game, which has just picked up several nominations for year-end awards from the national Women Film Critics Circle, ought to be playing in major multiplexes across the land – and certainly here in Syracuse. If you’ve been wondering, as I have, how come we just don’t seem to be getting some movies very quickly this winter, this one takes the cake. Last Saturday morning I asked on my Face Book page, “Why isn’t this movie playing in Syracuse?” Nat Tobin answered that he had tried to book Fair Game for Manlius Art Cinema but there were simply very few available prints and he couldn’t get one.

Even so, it’s still playing at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis the rest of this week and next – that is, held over twice and available until Christmas Eve, with two evening screenings during the week and two matinees added on the weekends.

The Tourist is a tasty little bon-bon of a movie. But Fair Game sticks to your ribs.

A shorter version of this review appears in the December 16, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly. “Fair Game” continues until 12/24 (held over two weeks) at Cinemapolis, 120 East Green St., Ithaca, behind the Commons,, with two evening screenings weekdays (7:25 and 9:25) and two matinees added on the weekend (2:25 and 4:25).
Film Review #238: Stretching Boundaries: The Life Work of Sculptor Arlene Abend
Director: Courtney Rile
Cast: Arlene Abend et al.

Arlene Abend in her studio. Photo: Courtney Rile, Daylight Blue Media.

If you haven’t seen the Arlene ABEND retrospective, Resin-ating Metal, which opened at Edgewood Gallery at 216 Tecumsah Road on November 5th, you’ve still got all of December to see it, because it’ll be on view through New Year’s Eve. A survey of more than three decades worth of Abend’s sculpture – in cut, cast and incised steel, bronze and other metals plus the later, ground-breaking cast resin pieces – is a lot to shoehorn into such a small gallery, but this exhibition of 33 pieces has been managed pretty successfully. Well, make that 36 pieces – because the three large, circular wall pieces sold almost immediately. Gallery owner and curator Cheryl Chappell asked Abend to make replacements, which she delivered last Saturday – by mid-afternoon two of those sold too.

On Tuesday morning, Abend said, “These were some of the most difficult pieces to do, because they are deceptively simple – every element has such an impact. And it’s a kind of silent conversation between myself and the materials – I pick a hanging point, but they really find their own balance as I make them. And it was a total surprise that people would enjoy them so much! I had thrown these pieces on the floor a couple years ago – they were scrap metal and I wasn’t really doing wall sculptures much anymore. But at Cheryl’s gentle urging I made these.”

Although as curator Chappell picked most of the pieces and decided upon the exhibition’s floor-plan, Abend insisted on including one piece depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (the snake is there too), an almost-life size upright piece made of a single sheet of steel that, bent and folded, presents front, side profile and back views of the couple.

Abend calls it a “big plasma cut,” referencing the torch conventionally used to cut steel, which she has adapted for the intricate, lacey cut-outs of garden vegetation and surface incisions that depict the couple and so resemble drawing with a brush. Years ago, before the need to work in three dimensions overtook her, Abend primarily made drawings and paintings, and this piece reminds us of her facility as a graphic artist.

“Well, I make very good rear ends,” she laughed. “But you do need to be able to draw when you work as much on commission as I have. Your client needs to see what you’re only describing, so I make drawings or maquettes. Then I have to become my own fabricator and make the piece and sometimes that is more mechanical. Although I would say that commissions push me in a way that has led me into new areas – when I have to design in terms of the context where a piece will be and consider things I wouldn’t if I were just doing something for myself.”

Abend also wanted to point out the arresting three-part wall sculpture Remnants, made in 2005, three oblong pieces of cast bronze with parts of her face emerging in pieces from each surface. I remembered seeing this in her studio when I had first visited and found it retains its hold now.

“This started out as wax remnants from something else,” she commented, “and it just wanted to be made. It’s so different from the original piece – really very dark and distorted and emotional. I had an idea of the patina I wanted but I rushed it and it turned green on me.”

Even more emotional for Abend, she says, are the series of cast resins she had made, which may include tiny cast metal figures or clear casts of her own face and hands. They are technically difficult – when she began working on them there was some question of whether the material could even do what she aimed for – and demanding in other ways.

“The resins ask of a lot of you!” she said. “They are mechanically difficult, they are physically hard to do, they are dangerous because the material takes planning and safety measures and time, and the final grinding and polishing is quite a commitment. And I did these alone. I wanted to work with refractions so I gave them many surfaces – that’s why all these pieces are on turntables so you can see through them from every angle – and I worked with the cracks and bubbles that have been part of the process. And they have been the most emotional for me of any of the work. I started with that one, Breaking Out, which has to do with my need thirty years ago to have more than a life as wife and mother, and this last one, from this year, Fascinating Failure, seems like the opposite – my hands are covering my eyes – like the need to keep from seeing what’s ahead. But will I do more? Well, never say never.”

See the movie this Saturday at 2:00 PM

The Edgewood’s opening reception in November also featured a TV monitor looping what documentary-maker Courtney Rile called a “teaser” – you can see that below, at the end of this story – of the documentary Stretching Boundaries: The Life Work of Sculptor Arlene Abend. The film has its premiere this Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM in the Everson Museum’s Hosmer Auditorium at Harrison and State Streets downtown.

Rile and Mike Barletta together comprise Daylight Blue Media. They made last spring’s popular documentary, The 15th Ward and Beyond on commission by Syracuse University’s South Side Initiative. That film had a red-carpet premiere last spring at Syracuse Stage that sold out two weeks in advance and has had several other public screenings since – each of them packed – the most recent on Tuesday night at McKinley-Brighton Magnet School on West Newell St. The 15th Ward and Beyond is eventually destined to wind up on the South Side Initiative’s Syracuse Black History Project’s online “virtual museum,” and there hasn’t been a decision yet among all the parties on whether to make it available separately on DVD.

Last Sunday Rile and Barletta let me watch a rough cut of the new film abut Abend, then a tad over an hour long. Rile said they were aiming for 50 minutes or so in length – they had material to edit out, some to add, decisions about music and transitions – but there was enough there to see that this is an even better film than The 15th Ward and Beyond. It’s an excellent film about how an artist works, and an excellent portrait of an artist in our midst who’s now taking stock on what such a lifetime means.

Around 50 minutes is a good length for television broadcast, though Rile and Barletta haven’t gotten to discussions about whether that will ever happen. But they have gotten to discussions with Abend about making the film available on DVD and one of the pleasures of Tuesday’s gallery walk-through was learning that they’ll take orders after Saturday’s screening for DVDs and also that they plan to make copies available at the Edgewood through the holiday season too.

“Stretching boundaries” is a phrase Abend suggested for the title because she says her entire career as an artist has been about that stretch. She notes for example that when she first turned from drawing and painting to sculpture – she began with ceramics, wedging clay in her bathtub and making constructions rather than throwing pots on a wheel – her adult-ed instructor kept telling her to downsize, that her work was too large for the kiln. In New York City, Abend went on to study at Cooper Union, where she says the entire approach was based on the question, “What if?” After moving to Syracuse and taking up metal sculpture, Abend completed a fine arts degree at Syracuse University with the legendary Roger Mack as her mentor – but she also spent five years in night classes for vocational welding at Central Tech, at a time when one of the instructors thought teaching women to weld was “just wrong.” Abend says that “Pfft!” of a welding torch lighting still excites her after all these years.

“She’s only five feet tall,” notes The Post-Standard columnist Dick Case in an interview in the film. “I have said before that she’s a small woman who works on a grand scale.”

Abend, whose sculpture Earth’s Energy in the World Trade Center was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, also had the commission to turn a salvaged, slightly bowed World Trade Center steel girder into a sculpture for the memorial outside DeWitt Town Hall – she says as a welder she understands the degree of heat that was necessary to bend that girder – and the film has footage of that towering piece, far larger than anything in Edgewood, with Abend dwarfed beside it. She’d like to go that large again, she says.

Case has been following Abend for years and he relates to Rile and Barletta the fate of Abend’s Carousel Mall commission – 17-feet-high polished aluminum horses for the entrances of the mall: a race horse, a zebra, a Pegasus, a unicorn and two smaller horses – now all taken down and stored, except for the race horse and the unicorn.

There are also interviews with Jim Hueber, president of the local steel fabricating company, Mack Brothers, who’s known Abend three decades and speaks about respecting her for her craftsmanship and work ethic. Gallery director/artist Anne Novarro Capucilli of Limestone Gallery in Fayetteville speaks about first meeting Abend in Rochester. Teacher Mary Cunningham relates how Abend tackled the project of teaching welding to public school students. Delavan Center owner Bill Delavan relates how the Labor Day storm of 1998, which destroyed Abend’s studio there, couldn’t destroy her enthusiasm for celebrating her quarter century in his building with a bottle of champagne. Linda Bigness – who pitched in to make the retrospective a success – relates how Abend’s story and example inspired her own leap into becoming a working artist.

The film remains ever cognizant that Abend turns 80 next spring and that the Edgewood exhibition is a career retrospective – as she says on screen, “like a period on a sentence” that she is grateful she’s able to have the time to make. There is footage from Abend’s father’s home movies – amazingly, that toddler is clearly Abend herself, playing in the sand at Brighton Beach and even then, she comments now, making sculpture. And there’s a clip from a television interview that must date to the 70’s, when the knock-out lady welder briskly shows how it’s done.

Yes, I’m going to the annual Plowshares Crafts Fair too, among Saturday’s many travels – but I wouldn’t miss this. This is what “local treasure” is all about.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the December 2, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly in Syracuse, and in entirety at
FILM REVIEW #237: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Director: Daniel Alfredsson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyquist, Georgi Staykov

Last April Nat Tobin brought us the first of the Swedish films adapted from Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy novels, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and in August the second installment duly arrived, The Girl Who Played with Fire. There was a comfortable year's gap in the narrative between the end of the first and the beginning of the second, a feeling that life went on for crusading journalist and magazine publisher Michael Blomkvist (Michael Nyquist), even as the mysterious Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) herself had repaired to some exclusive tropical isle to gather her own forces too.

No such breather this time. Played with Fire ends as a medical helicopter carries Salander, with multiple gunshot wounds including one in the head, grimy from her father's effort to bury her alive, off to a hospital. A second helicopter bears that father, Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), almost dead thanks to the axe she planted in his head. So exhausting and chaotic is the final harrowing sequence that I found myself needing to sort out exactly who was dead and who was still, though barely, alive.

As the third installment begins, those medical helicopters are just arriving at the hospital, and it's a tribute to the power of this story and these characters that the audience's intervening three months – as we have gone back to our lives between films – seem to vanish as we settle into our seats. Like the previous two installments, Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a long movie, almost two and a half hours, and again the time flies past. I even found myself sitting forward in my seat a good deal of the time. Now be honest: how often in a movie theatre are you really on the edge of your seat?

As with any good procedural-action thriller hybrid, trying to summarize the plot's various twists and turns in a paragraph or so is folly. Again Salander is framed for murder; again Blomkvist sets out to prove her innocence; again the forces of evil employ a frightening array of subterfuge, blackmail, intimidation and brute force, and a truly chill mastery of apparently passive public institutions. What's satisfying, especially if you've watched this film's two predecessors, is that the seemingly slow arousal of brave and decent people finally pays off here. In the way this films ties up strands from the previous two films it may be most satisfying. The single lone cop with integrity in Played with Fire, Inspector Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylén) returns with a whole shadowy task force this time, empowered directly by the prime minister and capable of lightening speed when needed (will they race across town in time to thwart Blomkvist's would-be killers?)

There are also moments of mind-blinding terror that repeat like a musical theme from film to film. In an early scene here, Salander – rescued from the grave, on the mend, seemingly well-protected in her hospital bed with a sympathetic doctor who smuggles in both pizza and a wireless device – hears that Zalachenko is down the hall, also still alive. This news triggers a flurry of reflex effort to free herself from her IV lines and flee: this panic is pure brain stem reaction in a universe where survival depends on mastering such impulse. You too may savor the expression that flickers across her face when she learns he's been killed.

Also like musical themes the violations of Salander's life re-play – moments we have seen in each film again – the moment of setting her abusive father afire as a child, her confinement to a psychiatric facility where she is held in restraints (now we learn that the officious Dr. Peter Telorbian kept her in full restraints for 381 days because she would not agree to his sexual advances at age 12), the rape she secretly filmed by her guardian after no official office would take her complaints seriously – though this time expanded upon in a courtroom trial.

Salander's attorney is Blomkvist's sister Annika (Annika Hallin), initially there entirely as a favor to her brother. As someone new to the saga, Annika acts as a reality check for us too – those of us returning a second or third time are perhaps used to Salander's strange ways of relating, already rooting for her – and she has her own posse of fanatically loyal misfits onscreen too – but Annika's reactions are a splash of cold water. How well can this young woman survive in the world, really? And Blomkvist's editor Erika Berger (Lena Endre), whose character has been restrained in the previous films, unfolds here as well.

Trilogy cinema – after all, these three movies were all filmed together – may be the movies' answer to HBO series story-telling, and this film proves the worth of taking the time to let a story mature and ripen through installments. We call it the "final" Steig Larsson because he died suddenly of a heart attack, actually before these three novels were published, though reportedly he left most of a fourth novel on his laptop of the projected ten-book series; his estate is still disputed by his long-time companion and his family. This film suggests that interruption amounts to a greater loss than we might have imagined.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the 11/18/10 print edition of The Eagle weekly in Syracuse, and the full review at