Filmnotes – June 2010

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Fresh Breath of Fire — Here’s a film I didn’t think I’d be reviewing, but I believe it will be interesting and fun for libertarians.

“How to Train Your Dragon” (directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders; Dreamworks Animation, 2010, 98 minutes) is an antiwar film of the best kind. It doesn’t demonize the military or blame capitalists and industrialists for everything that goes awry. On the surface, it doesn’t even appear to be an antiwar movie. Nevertheless, it subtly suggests an alternative to war, while artfully folding the antiwar message inside a traditional story of boy-meets- dog, or, in this case, dragon.

The film is set in a Viking town where the villagers are beset each night by hordes of dragons that carry away their sheep, crops, and even children. If there is ever a justification for war, this is it. Contrary to tradition, these Vikings aren’t aggressors; they’re defenders of their homes. Even their dragonslayer training reinforces the idea. “Grab your shield before your sword,” the trainer tells them. “If you can’t reach both, get the shield.” In other words, defense comes first.

Hiccup is a young blacksmith who wants to become a dragonslayer. During his training he reads manuals telling him all about the enemy — their strengths, their weaknesses, their fighting techniques, their moral defects. It’s easier to kill someone if you know he’s nasty and evil.

But Hiccup accidentally meets and befriends an injured dragon and learns that dragons aren’t so scary after all. In fact, he says, “Everything we think we know about them is wrong.” But what about their carrying off everything that isn’t nailed down? Wait, I’m coming to that.

Hiccup uses what he learns from his dragon “pet” to subdue rather than destroy the dragons he meets during training sessions, and they eventually become allies. He even creates a prosthetic device for his dragon’s injured tail, making it possible for it to fly again. As they fly around the nearby islands, Hiccup discovers the reason the dragons are raiding his village: they must deliver food to a huge, tyrannical dragon who demands a daily tribute. Metaphorically, a gigantic, non-producing, heavy-taxing government is sucking the country dry, and one group of citizens is robbing others just to feed the mass. You gotta love that allegory, whether it is intentional on the part of the filmmakers or not.

Eventually the villagers and the dragons band together to overthrow the tyrant, and peace is restored. The groups work together to produce goods and services sufficient for everyone, instead of wasting valuable resources fighting each other. Neither group forces anyone else to join it, and everyone seems to be happily employed. I couldn’t help but think of the quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

Message aside (and it’s easy to set the message aside, since it is delivered with such a light hand), the film is well made and deserves the high critical praise it has been receiving. Meaty enough for adults and fun enough for children, with visual effects that are at times breathtaking, this is animated film at its best.

-Jo Ann Skousen

Swedish Sherlock — Playing now in limited release is an intense, gripping detective thriller from, of all places, Sweden. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”(directedbyNielsArden Oplev; Danish Filminstitute, Nordisk Film, and Yellow Bird, 2009, 152 minutes) was released in Europe late last year under the title “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor” (“Men Who Hate Women”). It was a big hit in Europe. In Norway and Sweden it is the most viewed Swedish movie in history. It is based on the first book of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” published posthumously to wide acclaim.

The two leading characters in the film are Lisbeth Salander (Nooni Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who team up to solve a crime (actually, a series of crimes). Lisbeth — the girl with quite a striking dragon tattoo — plays Sherlock Holmes to Blomkvist’s Dr. Watson. But Lisbeth is something quite novel and hard to describe. Imagine (if you can) a punked-out fusion of Sherlock Holmes, Pippi Longstocking, Chuck Norris, and Lady Gaga. She is a computer hacker and hired investigator with a very dark past.

The film opens with Blomkvist, a middle-aged journalist and publisher of the magazine “Millennium,” being convicted of libeling a business tycoon. Lisbeth, who has been hired by an unidentified company to investigate the case, gives the opinion that he is completely clean, that he was set up — given bogus material that he thought showed that the tycoon was involved in criminal business activities.

Blomkvist, now in disgrace and awaiting prison, is approached with an interesting offer by a man named Henrik Vanger: he wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate a 40-year-old disappearance. Vanger is the elderly former CEO of a family-owned multinational conglomerate, Vanger Companies, and his beloved niece Harriet (Ewa Froling) is the one who disappeared. Henrik is convinced that she was murdered by someone in the large, secretive, and very dysfunctional Vanger family. He feels tormented by the killer. Every year on the anniversary of Harriet’s disappearance he receives a framed flower.

Having nothing else to do, Blomkvist agrees to investigate the case. He moves into a cabin on the family compound, starts to sift what little evidence the police have left after four decades, and immediately hits a puzzle, a kind of code. Here is where the leading characters meet in person: Lisbeth — who has earlier hacked into Blomkvist’s computer files and is monitoring what he is doing — breaks the code for him and leaves an easy-to-trace email. She joins the case, and they work together on its surprising solution, uncovering a lot of family skeletons (literally as well as figuratively) along the way.

The themes that inform Larsson’s original trilogy of novels — the evils of corporate capitalism (remember, he’s Swedish!), misogynist violence, neo-Nazism, and incompetent police work — are present in this film. But so is a bracing voice for free choice and personal accountability. In one scene, after Lisbeth allows a vicious criminal to come to a grisly end, Blomkvist tells her that while he wouldn’t have acted in the same way, he understands why she did. She snaps back that the criminal freely chose to do what he did, and richly deserved his fate.

This is an exceptionally engross- ing thriller, with enough twists and action to please even the most persnickety mystery buff. The cinematography is excellent, and director Oplev keeps the pacing taut and the action engaging. But parents beware: there is quite a bit of graphic violence and sexuality in this film, which makes it inappropriate for younger children — or squeamish adults.

The acting is fine, with excellent performances by Nyqvist and strong support by Peter Haber as Martin Vanger and Sven-Bertil Taube as Henrik Vanger. Especially arresting is Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth. She conveys the intensity that is requisite for this character’s harsh and haunting past to be made believable. While she is not a beauty of the classic Ingrid Bergman sort, she exudes a powerful sexuality, at once frosty, aggressive, and earthy.

Make a date with the girl with the dragon tattoo. She will take you on quite a ride. — Gary Jason

Maternal Instinct — With Mother’s Day around the corner, you may want to skip the treacly sentimental “Hallmark” movies and watch “Madeo” (directed by Joon-ho Bong; Magnolia Pictures, 2010, 128 minutes, Korean with English subtitles), an award-winning Korean murder mystery about a mother’s indefatigable determination to prove her son’s innocence after he is charged with murdering a young girl. When the police declare the case closed after just one day of investigation, she sets out to find the killer herself. Her tenacity is a testament to the lioness in every mother. She ignores personal risks and enters an often seedy and unfamiliar world to close in on the killer. The result is a classic Hitchcockean thriller with a most unlikely heroine.

Mother (Hye-ja Kim) is a tiny, old-world, middle-aged woman working as an herbologist and acupuncturist in a tiny, old-world apothecary shop. She has raised her now 28-year-old son by herself, and he is clearly her entire world. She doesn’t drive a car or use a computer; she wears frumpy suits and traditional sandals; she’s the kind of woman who blends into a crowd, overlooked because she seems old-fashioned and useless. But she is resourceful and audacious. She stops at nothing to track down clues, bravely entering situations that make even the viewer’s heart

pound. Who needs 3D technology when a masterly director is behind the camera, and a masterly musician (Byeong- woo Lee) is writing the score?

What makes this mother particularly protective is the fact that her son, Do-joon (Bin Won), is mentally handicapped, with short-term memory deficit and some additional developmental problems. He can’t remember what he saw the night the girl was murdered, so he isn’t much help in his mother’s search to find the killer and secure his release. When memories do come to him in bursts of cognition, she pursues the leads, impelled by her belief in him.

In some ways this film reminds me of “Call Northside 777” (1948), in which James Stewart plays a skeptical Chicago reporter investigating the possibility that a convicted murderer has been wrongfully accused. He comes to believe in the man’s innocence simply because the convicted man’s mother is so thoroughly convinced he didn’t do it.

“Call Northside 777” highlights forensic techniques that were considered cutting-edge at the time, including a facsimile machine that could actually transmit documents — across telephone lines! — and a lie detector (administered in the film by Leonarde Keeler, who had invented its most widely used version). A key line from the film — “That’s the trouble with being innocent; you don’t know what really happened” — is echoed in Do-joon’s inability to tell his mother what he saw that night. But while “Call Northside 777” is interesting in a scientific way, it doesn’t have the suspense, humor, or horror of “Madeo.”

A more significant difference is that in “Northside,” the sweet, elderly mother sits back and waits anxiously for the reporter to follow the clues and find the evidence. In “Madeo,” Mother has no knight in shining armor to help her, except Do-joon’s hooligan friend Jin-tae (Gu Jin), whom she really doesn’t trust. Nevertheless, this mild-mannered woman will stop at nothing to rescue her son.

Fast-paced and tense, often funny, with ample surprises and a satisfying conclusion, “Madeo” (“Mother”) is an entertaining return to the classic psychological thriller. — Jo Ann Skousen

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