From the light effervescence of The Artist, Hugo and portions of The Adventures of Tintin we now end the year with the dour, foreboding biopic The Iron Lady and the dour, foreboding thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Talk about holiday hangovers.
The only reason to see The Iron Lady is Meryl Streep's performanceand then, only if you have yearned for Queen Meryl, Our Lady of the Accents, the actress who ruled the serious cinema through the '80s with one important movie after another. In the film Streep portrays, or rather perfectly impersonates, Margaret Thatcher, England's first female prime minister whose conservative economic and pro-war stance wreaked havoc on the lives of Great Britain's "little people" whom she lorded over with her harsh, take-no-prisoner policies in the '80s.
At first, Streep's meticulously crafted exteriorthe impeccable accent and the slow cadences, the steely manner topped by the frosted helmet hair, the proper designer suits with just the right amount of frilliness, and the snaggle toothleaves one momentarily in awe. "How does she do it?" you wonder at the start of the movie, which finds Thatcher as a carefully guarded lioness in winter, out of office but still a powerful, though increasingly doddering presence who, apparently, is slipping into dementia.
However, as the movie shifts back and forth between Thatcher's frail twilight years, her tentative beginnings, her surprising rise to power and the years of her tough-as-nails control of the government, nothing beyond the surface details emerges from Streep's fastidious constructand she offers no entry point for curious audience members, either. We are left to admire her superior impersonation skills while the juice is nowhere to be found.
Out director Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed Streep's pleasing star turn in the whisper-thin jukebox musical Mamma Mia!, now attempts far greater dramatic fare. However, just as in the former, she seems to simply get out of Streep's waya huge disservice to the actress hereand the tone of the movie wobbles about, never landing for long in one place and never really exploring in depth its subject or her relationships. Whether you respond to Streep's supremely shellacked characterization in The Iron Lady is one thing but as in this year's other sour biopic writ large, J. Edgar, one sits watching as Abi Morgan's by-the-numbers script glosses over Thatcher's severe policies and brutal impact on "her people," trying instead to humanize this tough old bird. You think, "I don't care that she was mean-spirited as all get out, but who the hell wants to sit here watching a movie about such a joyless bore?"
No such doubts would seem to exist for David Fincher's take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the U.S. version of the Stieg Larsson Dragon Tattoo literary trilogy that has been a worldwide phenomenon. The books link the Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (played here with confidence in a series of body-fitting vests by Daniel Craig) and bisexual punk-goth princess Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), whose superior computer hacking skills and other research techniques are in high demand by clients willing to overlook her antisocial ways. These two are improbably linked to solve a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance and probable murder of a teenage girl from an island inhabited by a powerful and wealthy dynastic family (think the Kennedys or the Carringtons) now presided over by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer).
The film, which follows on the heels of the 2009 Swedish original adaptation, is perhaps the best match-up to the acrid yet compelling talents of Fincher since 2007's Zodiac or maybe even his breakthrough feature, 1995's Seven. Although ostensibly a mystery, the plot is fueled by the lurid sidebars in Larsson's novel that have remained intact in both versions of the movie: the horrendous rape of Lisbeth by her court-appointed overseer, her just-as-repellent revenge and the even more repellent sexually violent serial killings that Lisbeth and Mikael link to the Vanger's great-niece.
Fincher's movie jumps right in with a queasy, sexually tinged credit sequence that is bound to be as influential as the one created for Seven, and it's scored to the industrial throb music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The primary icy Swedish locale of the movie; the gorgeous but forlorn island with its dark, dense forests; and luxurious homes inhabited by distant members of the family (with Stellan Skarsgaard the most prominent), contrasts beautifully with the smoke-filled, cramped interiors of Lisbeth's urban existence. Early on, we see her bed a gorgeous young woman she's picked up at a bar but with the arrival of Mikael the next morning, it's quickly back to business. (Stay tunedthe girlfriend is prominent in the two sequels that are sure to follow.) Fincher keeps things moving at a furious pace and, not surprisingly, the look, sound and feel of the movie trumps the much punier budget of the 2009 Swedish edition.
However, that versionand its two sequelsboasted the astonishingly gifted Noomi Rapace in the title role. Although Mara is appropriately tough and clearly gave herself over to the character, her mousy physicality doesn't have a tenth of the defiant, in-your-face sexiness of Rapace's portrayal. Also, this new version hasn't solved the problem of the double ending; the movie should finish with the mystery being solved but heads back toward an earlier plot point, meandering on for another 40 minutes.
Stillin the challenge between the iron lady and the girl with the dragon tattoothere's really no contest. Pick the punk chick.
All Ashore That's Going Ashore: This is your last call to board the SS Poseidon on New Year's Eve for Camp Midnight's 4th annual camptacular presentation of the 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. The event sets sail on Sunday, Dec. 31, at 11 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., beginning with a fun filled pre-show ('70s cruisewear costume parade, prizes, general wackiness) hosted by Dick O'Day (my alter ego) followed by an interactive audience screening in which the movie and the audience both "flip over" exactly at Midnight. The evening, co-hosted by David Cerda, Artistic Director of Handbag Productions and members of the Handbag ensemble including Ed Jones, includes party favors, one comp drink ticket, and champagne toast. www.musicboxtheatre.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.