Terrence Howard On His Future As An Actor and ‘Dead Man Down’

Dead Man Down Terrence Howard photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place in 2013.

It was so infinitely cool to hang out with actor Terrence Howard during the Los Angeles press day for “Dead Man Down.” Hearing him speak was endlessly fascinating because, on top of being an actor, he is also very knowledgeable on the subjects of science and the Bible, and his intelligence has led him to make a number of interesting choices in the roles he has played. Throughout the interview, he talked about how he chose to portray crime lord Alphonse Hoyt and what the future holds for him as an actor.

Now when you hear about crime lords in movies, you usually expect actors to give scenery-chewing performances which are way over the top. But at the same time, many actors fall into the trap of making these characters seem like comic book characters as opposed to fully developed human beings. The beauty of Howard’s performance in “Dead Man Down” was that it was never over the top, and he allowed himself to portray Alphonse in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In his conversations with the film’s director Niels Arden Oplev (who made the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“), Howard came to realize he wouldn’t be playing the same old crime lord we have become all too familiar with.

Terrence Howard: That man (Oplev) told me, “I’m going to change your life. I’m going to make you a bad guy that nobody has ever seen before,” and he gave me all the tools necessary to accomplish it. I think he’s a genius for that. What he did in creating these characters where all of them were compromised from the start was a beautiful, beautiful thing. There’s no good guy, there’s no bad guy in the movie. Everyone makes a crucial mistake in trying to make you pay for what you did yesterday with the resources of today.

Having seen “Dead Man Down,” I couldn’t agree with him more. Alphonse Hoyt is a bad guy, but he is also a very complex character who cannot be dismissed as a one-dimensional villain. Even the characters played by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace are in a morally gray area as they have suffered tragedies in their own lives and are out to get revenge in the worst way possible. Howard compared the characters to another movie he co-starred in.

TH: It’s like “Crash;” everyone was a bad guy somewhere along the way. Even Ryan Phillippe’s character, who was the good guy, ends up doing something terrible at the end of it. I think that’s what cinema’s about. it’s supposed to teach you about humanity and the choices that we’re making whether it’s good or bad, and the audience can watch and hopefully gain some type of understanding of how to place the stumbling blocks of yesterday in a way on the path that they become stepping stones for those that will follow us. We are all still one person even though we see each other as separate individuals.

During the interview, Howard made it very clear to us that Alphonse was not born a bad guy. While his character leads a life of crime, we come to understand he never meant to go down the dark path that he did. This may not make any of his deeds in “Dead Man Down” forgivable, but it helps us to understand where he came from. Howard talked about how he saw the character at length and how his own personal experiences came to inform his performance.

TH: He (Alphonse) wanted to fit into society. Now mind you, he was part of a disenfranchised social group as a young black man, and in being a light-skinned black man growing up in the 70’s, black people didn’t appreciate him and didn’t like him and white people didn’t like him. When I was a kid, I was called a no nation motherfucker because I couldn’t hang out with black people and I couldn’t hang out with white people, so I had to find some type of foundation within my own family group. When I went down to Brazil, I found my family because everybody looks like me there. My character just wants to be accepted; he wants to be respected. He’s like Michael Corleone who said, “I tell you within five years we are going to be complete and above board. Just give us those five years and all of the businesses are going to be respectable.” That’s what he’s hoping, but Michael Corleone was never able to achieve that because you cannot gain peace by creating problems for someone else.

It’s natural I suppose to assume Howard based his character on another crime lord or that he did research on kingpins from history, but he actually found inspirations from other surprising sources. Among them were a story by writer Khalil Gibran and the story of King Saul and of how he had been anointed to become the King of Israel but was later denied this honor.

TH: When King Saul thought too much of himself and began to break God’s laws, King Saul had the kingdom ripped away from him. Now instead of accepting that and repenting, he fought against the anointed of Jehovah in fighting David, and therefore he had this evil spirit that was always following him, and he knew that he was going to fall and lose his place. That’s a hard place to exist in. But then Khalil Gibran told this story about the criminal, and in the story of the criminal was a young man strong of body and nature who had gone and knocked on the doors to go to work, but people told him ‘well you need education’ and they closed the doors. So, he went to the schools and they said well, you need money, and therefore he went out to beg and they said you’re a strong man, you’re lazy. So, he ended up on the top of a mountain and he looks down and is angry in his heart, and at that moment a lightning bolt strikes a tree and this club falls on him. He’s angry at God and he raises a club and says, “I asked and it was not given. Now I shall take with the strength of my arm,” and he then descended into that city and became the most notorious criminal of all time. Then two years later, a new Amir took over the city and made him the chief of his army and they dominated and desolated that city, and Khalil Gibran made a beautiful commentary that “of good men do we turn criminals out of our inhumanity towards each other. So, it was a combination of those things and a little bit of King Ahab because he refused to take direction from Jehovah also. There’s a lot of people that made Alphonse.

There are rumors Howard is thinking about retiring from acting, and this is a surprise because he still looks like he has many great performances left to give. He did not say he was going to retire, but I quickly came to respect his reasons for why he is considering it. Howard did not set out to be an actor for fame, wealth and glory, but instead to better himself as a person.

TH: I had a conversation with Sidney Poitier where I asked him, are you gonna do another movie? And he said, “No I don’t want to do an impersonation of myself anymore.” I may have 10 years left in my life and I don’t want to waste it doing something I’ve done before. If I can’t learn from a character, if I’m just going in and taking from a bag of tricks and choices, I don’t want to do it. It’s pointless for me because I have to grow as a human being and I don’t want the safe road. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed working as a chemical engineer for New York when I graduated college. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed in Cleveland, Ohio and been a contractor. I think I have greater things that I can contribute to the world of education and science than just as an actor. Now acting pays a lot, but I feel like I’m walking on water for tips as an actor because I know how to do it. I want to achieve my purpose as a human being and the reason I was put on this planet, so I will follow the course. As a sperm, if I knew which way to go and knew how to do it, I wouldn’t have gotten there because I would’ve been bored with it. But because I didn’t know where I had to go and I had to trust my instincts, I beat a half billion of my own brothers and sisters and hijacked my mother’s body and Terrence Howard has come to be. I like following the river as it flows.

Well, here’s hoping Terrence Howard doesn’t retire from acting for a very long time. While there is no doubt as to how smart a human being he is and of how much he can give in other areas of life, he continues to give one great performance after another. Howard also infuses each role he takes on with a strong intelligence, and it was endlessly fascinating to hear him talk about the things he knows as well as his role in “Dead Man Down.”

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‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ Provides an Imperfect but Satisfying Finish to the Millennium Trilogy

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest movie poster

The journey of Lisbeth Salander came to an end (in Sweden anyway) with the release of the third and last film in the Millennium Trilogy, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Picking up where the last one left off, we watch as Lisbeth (the ever superb Noomi Rapace) slowly recuperates from the injuries inflicted on her by less than caring family members. Soon after, she is forced to stand trial for murders and crimes we all know she did not commit, so Mikael Blomkvist (the late Michael Nyqvist) and his staff at Millennium Magazine work to prove her innocence. Still, Lisbeth’s cold bastard of a father Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov) vows to silence his daughter for good, and he threatens to expose the corruption he is fully a part of. All the while, Lisbeth’s panzer tank of a half brother Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) is on the run, laying waste to everything in his path.

Of the three films in this trilogy, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is easily the weakest. This one has more talk than action and, like the second film, it keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart from each other more than we would like. But if you get past the problematic things about this third movie, there’s still a lot to appreciate. We have traveled along with these characters for two movies now, so it should be clear as to how emotionally invested we are in their collective fates. While society may view them from a distance, we see them for the individuals they are.

At the center of attention is Lisbeth Salander, far and away one of the strongest female heroines in literary history. We see Lisbeth beaten to a pulp, left for dead, and we watch as she endures a slow and painful recovery and seeks a long overdue justice for all the wrongs inflicted on her throughout her lifetime. With this third movie, we see fully why she is such a damaged human being and how she was rendered a victim through false imprisonment and abuse which forever wrecked the trust she could allow herself to put in others. We started this trilogy off by looking at her from a distance, thinking we knew what kind of person she was at first sight. By the end, we saw her as a very complex human being who will no longer be manipulated against her will. Lisbeth no longer cares if you like her. She just wants you to know that if you mess with her, the payback will be vicious as she demolishes you without any remorse.

Watching Noomi Rapace in her last go around as Lisbeth is a never ending thrill. Once she heads into the courtroom, all decked out in full punk regalia with a mohawk to boot, we cheer her on as she spits in the face of a world which has tossed her out like garbage. Those intense glares she shoots off at the prosecutors across the room penetrate right through the silver screen and pin us to our theater seats (which were hopefully comfortable to sit in). Throughout this trilogy, Rapace has walked a fine line with Lisbeth in making her both brilliant and being just one step away from becoming a full-on sociopath. Whatever you make of Lisbeth, Rapace makes us care deeply about this deeply wounded character, and we revel in her persistent abilities to outthink those who wronged her. Seeing those who deluded themselves into thinking they had her under their complete control get their just desserts is immensely satisfying.

But as great as Rapace is here, we shouldn’t forget to mention Michael Nyqvist and his understated work as the relentless reporter Mikael Blomkvist. Instead of making Mikael out to be this heroic figure searching for truth and justice for Lisbeth without fear of reprisal, Nyqvist makes him completely human with all the flaws we like to think we don’t have. Not once in these films do you ever really catch Nyqvist acting this role as much as he inhabits it. Michael gets the audience to be fully invested in this character as Mikael struggles for an end to Lisbeth’s unfair character assassination while risking his own livelihood as well as those who work for him. We root for him on his quest, but we also feel his pain and confusion when these escalating threats threaten to tear his magazine apart.

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” also features other strong performances from its supporting cast. Annika Hallin is great as Mikael’s sister Annika who agrees to represent Lisbeth at her trial. This is another strong female character who holds her own with her anti social client and a group of corrupt men who are about to be justifiably obliterated during her very direct cross examination.  Anders Ahlbom exudes the Bjurman-like slime of his character Dr. Peter Teleborian, the man who changed the course of Lisbeth’s life and unforgivably so. Lena Endre also returns as Millennium Magazine editor Erika Berger who acts as the conscience Mikael needs to hear from time to time. Her face a mask of devotion and fear, Endre gives life to another strong female character in a movie full of them.

But yeah, overall this does feel like a weak ending to this film trilogy which was thrust into American movie theaters all in the space of a year. It’s not an utterly frustrating conclusion the way “The Matrix Revolutions” was (I’m still trying to get over that one), but it feels like “The Hornet’s Nest” could have been stronger even if it meant taking liberties with Stieg Larsson’s novels. It also would have been great to have Rapace and Nyqvist share more time onscreen together as their chemistry and tension were among the main reasons “Dragon Tattoo” was so damn good. Plus, the character of Ronald Niedermann is left to wander around the movie without much of a reason to be there, and his need to eliminate his half-sister feels somewhat unmotivated.

Still, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is a very engrossing experience which is anything but boring, and there’s no way fans of this trilogy can pass this one up. The fully developed characters give this film its dramatic power, and we are with them all the way to the end in the hopes of finding some fairness in a world crueler to some more than others.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’ Reminds Us Not to Mess with Lisbeth Salander

The Girl Who Played With Fire poster

Studios are always trying to get sequels out quickly, and they hate keeping the audiences in limbo. As for myself, I have developed a lot of patience throughout the years to where if a filmmaker says it’s going to take time to get things right on a sequel, then I should be able to handle the wait. I find this is a much better prospect than having a sequel, or any other movie, rushed into production without a finished script.

The Girl Who Played with Fire” came to America just mere months after its brilliant predecessor, “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,” did. For once, we didn’t have to wait an infinite amount of time for a sequel. Of course, this may have to do with the fact parts 2 and 3 were already filmed and completed by the time the first movie even made it to the United States. Noomi Rapace returns as Stieg Larsson’s female antihero and brilliant computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander. From the moment she walks onto the screen to when the credits roll, Rapace owns this movie without question. Also returning is Michael Nyqvist as Millennium Magazine investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, and it’s great to see him back as well.

“The Girl Who Played with Fire” takes place one year after the events of “Dragon Tattoo” with Lisbeth in the Caribbean reviewing her investments and about to return to Sweden after her time abroad. Meanwhile, Mikael is still working at Millennium where a new reporter is on the verge of exposing prostitution and human trafficking, and he has tried to get back in touch with Lisbeth with little to no success. Things then go downhill quickly when Lisbeth is framed for three murders and quickly becomes the subject of a massive manhunt, but Mikael however is convinced of her innocence and stops at nothing to prove it before the police get their hands on her.

Having witnessed the events of “Dragon Tattoo,” we now have a better understanding of Lisbeth and the dark places she is coming from. But throughout “Fire,” we get to dig even deeper into her history along with Mikael as he uncovers more secrets involving her deeply troubled childhood which was filled with endless abuse. It is amazing she didn’t turn into a full-blown sociopath as a result of experiences no one should never have to endure as a child. Any kindness she gives to others is often rebuked as those who know her don’t even try to hide the fact of how she can give off an endlessly cold vibe. As a result, she is a little too late to make amends to them.

Rapace does amazing work in bringing to life all the different dimensions of Lisbeth, and she makes us sympathize and root for her in the face of increasing adversity. She never makes the character easily likable, and heroines rarely get more punk or tougher than Lisbeth does these days. Rapace takes the time to make clear how tough of a front Lisbeth puts up to survive in this world, and yet the actress still allows Lisbeth to exhibit a vulnerability which she can only hide from others for so long.  When giving her apartment keys to a friend so she can live there for a year rent free (the dream of any Los Angeles musician who has broken up with their girlfriend), it becomes more about business than friendship. But the moments she shares with her former guardian who has survived his stroke count for a lot as he is one of the very few people she can easily trust, and who knows what kind of person she is and what she has gone through. Rapace is nothing short of a dynamo throughout the movie’s two-hour running time, and she never lets up.

While the late Michael Nyqvist gets overshadowed by his female co-star, I certainly don’t want to leave him out in the cold. As Mikael Blomkvist, Nyqvist never tries to make his character a typical action hero as he does the opposite and makes this reporter a noble man who remains uncorrupted by powerful people and leads a seemingly ordinary life while continually pursuing a well-hidden truth which can only evade the public eye for so long. The beauty of what Nyqvist does is that you never really catch him acting. He is more about inhabiting his role, so you believe him as this character without him having to emote all over the place.

Other key performances in “Fire” come from Peter Andersson as Bjurman, the sadistic lawyer who abused Salander until she brilliantly turned the tables on him. Andersson still oozes slime as well as fear of the person he thought he had control over (as if). You also have Yasmine Garbi as Mimmi Wu, Lisbeth’s close friend and sometimes girlfriend who does not get taken hostage so easily, and Paolo Roberto co-stars as himself and even gets to kick some ass in a scene or two.

The villains in this sequel are deliciously evil, and your hatred for them is immediate upon their slimy arrival. Georgi Staykov plays one of the key antagonists (I’ll leave his character’s identity for you to discover), and he gives us one of the most callous characters I have seen in a film who has nothing but contempt for everyone, especially his family and children. His affection for human lives other than his own appears to be nonexistent, and he doesn’t even try to hide this.

Another villain, and a seemingly impenetrable one, is Ronald Niedermann (played by Micke Spreitz), a man as big as a panzer tank. This gigantic monolith of a human being has a medical condition known as analgesia, which means he is unable to feel pain, and this makes him a more frightening opponent. Even a stun gun to the groin cannot easily subdue this giant who is loyal to the most evil of people.

Taking over directorial duties from Niels Arden Oplev on this sequel is Daniel Alfredson, brother of “Let The Right One In” director Tomas Alfredson. Daniel does a good job of keeping the tension high between the characters, some who are willing to lay down their own lives in order to make things right. The story is at times a little hard to follow (a second viewing will probably make things clearer), but the pace of the movie never lags. Daniel even captures some great moments which had me jumping out of my seat.

“The Girl Who Played with Fire” is pretty much on a par with “Dragon Tattoo,” but if I had to choose, the first one is still the best. I haven’t read any of Stieg Larsson’s books, but I have been told these movies are quite faithful to the source material. Please don’t let whatever prejudice you have over reading subtitles turn you off from seeing this. Besides, they are much more preferable to the hopelessly bad English dubbing which studios often rely on and which makes even the best movies look ridiculously stupid.

And remember, don’t ever mess with Lisbeth Salander!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Stands On Its Own

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 2011 poster

To call David Fincher’s “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” a remake of the excellent 2009 Swedish thriller wouldn’t be fair. Yes, it too is based on the runaway bestseller by the late Stieg Larsson, but Fincher has taken this material and, with the help of ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, made it his own. His version proves to be one which is neither better nor worse than the original, but one which effectively stands on its own two feet to where any comparisons are not really necessary.

Daniel Craig takes on the role of Millennium Magazine writer Mikael Blomkvist who, at the movie’s start, has lost a libel case against the wealthy but corrupt businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, a defeat which will seriously deplete his savings account. To escape the prying eyes of the press, he accepts an invitation from retired CEO Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece Harriet. Vanger believes she may have been murdered by a member of his family, one which proves to be far more dysfunctional than any you may know.

Fincher’s film takes its time in establishing the characters of Blomkvist and Salander, who is played here by Rooney Mara. In fact, they don’t meet face to face until an hour into the movie. While studio executives were probably begging to see these two come together a lot sooner, it gives these actors time to establish their characters to where we feel like we understand them and are eager to see each work with one another.

Stepping outside of the James Bond franchise, Craig is terrific in conveying Blomkvist’s single-mindedness in finding answers which need to be uncovered. This is not a heroic character taking out the bad guys with relative ease, but one who is dedicated to finding out the truth and soon comes to realize just how much danger he is in. But as frightened as he is, Blomkvist is in no position to just give up and go home.

As for Mara, her performance as Lisbeth Salander is nothing short of a revelation. She must have given one hell of an audition for Fincher because very little in her resume, certainly not the bland “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, could have prepared us for how good she is here. That is, except for her performance as Max Zuckerberg’s girlfriend who dumps him without remorse at the beginning of “The Social Network.”

Having watched Noomi Rapace inhabit this character previously, it was hard to think of another actress who could be anywhere as good in playing Lisbeth Salander. Mara, however, is more than up for the challenge, and her commitment in portraying this understandably anti-social character is utterly complete. I kept trying to find traces of Mara in this film, but I came out of it feeling like I never saw her. Instead, I felt like was watching Lisbeth Salander and no one else. Now this is a performance worthy of awards consideration!

Not to take away from Rapace’s star-making performance, but Mara has the advantage here of dealing with this character’s complexities which were not as deeply explored in the 2009 film. While Mara puts up a tough exterior, she simultaneously allows you to see those cracks of vulnerability hiding just beneath the surface. You fear for Lisbeth even though you know she eventually will kick ass.

There are many other great performances to be found here, and the actors have the fortune of playing characters which are given more depth in this version. Plummer has had quite the year with this and “Beginners,” and he gives Henrik a biting sense of humor which has aided him in dealing with the emotionally sordid history of his family. Robin Wright pulls off a surprisingly confident Swedish accent as Blomkvist’s co-worker and lover Erika Berger. Steven Berkoff of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “A Clockwork Orange” fame is a strong presence as Henrik’s lawyer Dirch Frode, Stellan Skarsgård remains one of the most reliable actors in movies with his performance as Martin Vanger, and Joely Richardson is fantastic as Anita.

Director of Photography Jeff Cronenweth does a superb job of capturing the frozen landscapes of Sweden to where you get frigid just looking at the screen. The scene where Blomkvist desperately tries to warm up the cottage Vagner has provided for him pushes this point across than it would ever need to. I haven’t shivered this much since after I finished swimming the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon.

Fincher’s movie also has a mesmerizing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both whom won the Best Original Score Oscar for their work on “The Social Network.” They give the story and its characters a sonic soundscape unlike the typical orchestral score, and it brilliantly captures the growing emotions which get stronger and stronger as the movie reaches its brutal climax.

Speaking of brutal, Fincher never sugarcoats this story or makes it easy to digest down to a PG-13 rating. In retrospect, I’m not sure there was a way he could as it deals with serial killers and features a vicious rape perpetrated on the main character. As with the majority of his movies, Fincher’s vision of the world is a dark one where the characters can be as cold as the snowy weather, but his vision also remains one of the most powerful in today’s cinematic world.

When it comes to comparing the 2009 and 2011 movies, this one has an upper hand in that it’s far more cinematic. The original Swedish film was actually a television miniseries which got shortened when released theatrically. That one remains a great thriller worth watching, but David Fincher’s version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” threatens to be more compelling as it builds on the original without taking away from it. I have yet to see him make a truly bad motion picture, and yes, that includes “Alien 3.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Dead Man Down’ Reunites Niels Arden Oplev with his Lisbeth Salander

Dead Man Down movie poster

The tagline for “Dead Man Down” is “revenge is coming.” But while revenge is a big theme, it’s really about forgiveness. These characters have been forever wounded by a past which will not let them be, and they spend their time trying to avenge it in order to find some form of peace in their lives. What results is a movie which doesn’t break any new ground (few movies these days do anyway), but it is still a compelling one filled with complex characters and twists I didn’t see coming.

We meet Victor (Colin Farrell), the right-hand man to ruthless New York crime lord Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), and he defends his boss in a nasty firefight at the movie’s start. Quickly, we assume Victor is as loyal to Alphonse as any gangland player could ever be and that he will soon get a meteoric rise to the top of the criminal food chain. However, it turns out Victor is actually seeking revenge against Alphonse for killing his wife and child, and he is getting closer and closer to exacting his revenge.

But then Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in an apartment across from Victor’s, enters the picture. Beatrice is still recovering emotionally from a nasty car accident which has left her face permanently scarred. While the scar hasn’t taken away all her beauty, it has destroyed her self-image and left her with a deep-seated rage she is desperate to be rid of.

After a dinner where the two of them make small talk and discover things they have in common, Beatrice makes her real intentions clear to Victor; she wants him to kill the drunk driver who plowed into her car and ruined her face. Moreover, she is willing to blackmail Victor into doing this as she has evidence of him killing another man. Knowing Victor is capable of taking a life, she gives him no choice but to take another. Both have strong motivations for vengeance, but can they tear themselves away from their rage long enough to see the damage they are doing to one another?

Right from the start, “Dead Man Down” is filled with twists and turns which makes this average revenge thriller all the more entertaining to sit through. Even if the twists aren’t entirely plausible, they keep us on the edge of our seats as we can only guess what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, you don’t.

But what I really liked about this movie was how wonderfully complex the characters were. There is nothing black and white about them as everyone exists in a morally grey area. While Victor and Beatrice are clearly justified in having their revenge, we know the ways they are seeking it will do not make them good people. Even Alphonse comes across as much more than an average one-dimensional bad guy as he is someone who certainly wasn’t born evil. While certain characters may deserve some form of punishment over others, no one comes out of this story the least bit innocent.

“Dead Man Down” marks the first English language film from writer and director Niels Arden Oplev, the same man who gave us the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as well as the recent remake of “Flatliners.” Now when filmmakers from a foreign country come over to America, their talents usually get compromised in the process. But Oplev doesn’t appear to have lost any of his skill here as he gives us a strong motion picture filled with fascinating characters. He also gets terrific performances from each of his actors as well as some strong visual moments such as a descent down the middle of a stairwell.

Colin Farrell has gone from doing needless remakes like “Fright Night” and “Total Recall” to terrific movies such as “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” He has become an actor who can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, and this makes him perfect for a character like Victor who could be seen as either. Farrell does excellent work in conveying Victor’s conflicted emotions as he goes about exacting his revenge. As he gets closer to achieving his goal, Victor begins to see how he is becoming just like those who destroyed his life. Seeing the pain in Farrell’s eyes as he makes this clear to the audience without words shows us how great of an actor he can be when given the right material.

Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander, is a powerhouse as Beatrice. Watching Rapace deal with her rage as well as the bad luck life has dealt her is enthralling to take in, and the scenes where she is attacked by a group of children who see her as a monster are devastating to witness. Like Salander, Beatrice is stuck in a moment which forever changed the course of her life, but Rapace gets to showcase more of a vulnerability here she wasn’t able to express as much in her star making performance. She remains a compelling actress to keep an eye on, and it’s great to see her reunited here with Oplev.

But I the performance which most impressed me was Terrence Howard’s as Alphonse Hoyt. Now when you see an actor take on the role of an evil crime lord, you expect them to chew the scenery and give an over the top performance. But Howard doesn’t do this here, and it is clear he has given this role a lot of thought. There is no doubt that Alphonse is an evil dude, but Howard is excellent in giving a method to this man’s madness. Howard left such a powerful impression on us with his Oscar nominated performance in “Hustle & Flow,” and his performance in “Dead Man Down” is a reminder of how he never lets us down as an actor.

In addition, there is a really good supporting performance by Dominic Cooper as Victor’s friend Darcy, and he has a wonderful scene at the start where he is holding his baby and talking about how he hopes being a father will lead him to a better future. The great Isabelle Huppert also shows up as Beatrice’s mom, Valentine, and she remains a remarkable actress even in the smallest of roles. There’s also strong cinematography from Paul Cameron and a wonderfully atmospheric film score from composer Jacob Groth to take in as well.

“Dead Man Down” is not the equal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and its climax is a bit over the top for a movie like this, but I liked how character driven it was and you don’t see many movies like that these days. It is also a compelling story about how the power of forgiveness is more important than the need for revenge. In this day and age, it is important to remember that.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Prometheus’ is Great and I Don’t Care What You Say

Prometheus movie poster

How sweet it is to have Ridley Scott return to sci-fi genre 30 years after giving us “Blade Runner.” His “Prometheus” is a stunning movie to watch and once again reminds us of what a stylistic perfectionist he is. While it is said to be a prequel to “Alien,” it is really separate from the 1979 classic as it deals with a different set of themes and ideas. While the original “Alien” dealt with corporate greed in trying to use the creature as a weapon, “Prometheus” is far more fascinated with the origins of humanity.

Noomi Rapace, Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,” stars as Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist who, along with her boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), discovers a star map in several unconnected ancient cultures on Earth. They come to interpret the map as an invitation from those who created humanity to discover the origins of life on a distant planet. A few years later they are on board the spaceship Prometheus which takes them and several engineers to that location.

When they land on the planet LV-223, not LV-426 from the first two “Alien” movies, they discover a species which appears to be extinct along with a monolithic statue of a humanoid head. In the structure they explore, they also find a large number of metal cylinders which soon start leaking black fluid. Soon after, everything goes wrong and the characters discover how their need to learn about humanity’s creators was a very big mistake.

The smartest thing Scott did with this particular prequel was to not make it the kind which ties up all the loose ends to the original movie that comes after it. This has been a big problem with prequels like “The Thing” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” as they get so concerned about getting the details right to where any suspense or drama gets completely drained, making for a far less effective movie going experience. “Prometheus,” however, takes place several decades before “Alien,” so the filmmakers don’t have to worry about this too much.

“Prometheus” uses the element of mystery to great effect as several characters appear to have ulterior motives they work to hide from others. Charlize Theron is especially effective as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers. Hiding discreetly in the shadows and coming off with a tough as nails attitude, she clearly has her own agenda as you would expect any member of this or any other, corporation to have.

The movie’s most fascinating character, as well as its most enigmatic, is David, an android designed to be indistinguishable from humans played by Michael Fassbender. We first see him looking over the ship while the rest of the crew is in hypersleep, and he models his behavior on Peter O’Toole’s performance from “Lawrence of Arabia.”

David is like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in that he is more human than the humans he works with. But the words of the Borg Queen from “Star Trek: First Contact” of how Data is “an imperfect being created by an imperfect being” kept echoing in my head as we see David gaining an ego to where he is fully aware of how superior he is to humans. With this ego comes a wealth of insecurities like envy and jealousy which wipe away the façade his infinitely polite behavior hides.

Idris Elba co-stars as the captain of Prometheus, Janek, who serves as the movie’s most realistic character. Sci-fi movies need a down to earth character like this because in the midst of all the technical mumbo jumbo, someone has to come out and say, “What the hell is going on?” Elba, so good on the BBC series “Luther,” is a strong addition to this cast even though I found his American accent a little weird at times. Couldn’t he have made Janek British like him? Anyway, he gives what may be seen as this movie’s most underrated performance.

But while much of the acting praise may go to Fassbender, I have to single out Rapace who gives a very strong performance as Elizabeth Shaw. Just watch her in the scene where another character yells right in her face that he wants to go back to the ship. Rapace doesn’t budge or blink at this raw anger, and she is as riveting in this movie as she is in that one scene.

Rapace also has the movie’s most unnerving scene as, upon finding that she has a “foreign organism” inside her body, gets into a robotic surgery device to have it removed. It’s a brilliantly icky scene which shakes up the audience in the same way watching Anthony Hopkins cut off a piece of Ray Liotta’s brain in “Hannibal” did. Rapace sells the scene completely and has you pinned in your seat as she goes through the kind of surgical procedure we’d rather be sedated through. On top of this, she does a practically flawless British accent which is more than I can say for many actors in American movies.

Among the other excellent performances comes from Sean Harris who plays the unhinged geologist Fitfield who never lets his mohawk hairdo upstage him, Guy Pearce who is almost unrecognizable under pounds of makeup as the CEO with a god complex Peter Weyland, Logan Marshall-Green as archeologist Charlie Holloway who goes to extremes in his work for better and for worse, and Rafe Spall as the all too friendly botanist Milburn.

“Prometheus” asks a lot of profound questions about who created us and why those same beings chose to abandon planet Earth. It deliberately doesn’t answer all of those questions, but while many consider this one of the movie’s biggest problems, I think it’s one of its many strengths. To answer all those questions would have weakened this movie tremendously and, as I said earlier, the element of mystery plays a strong part in its overall success.

There’s no real satisfying way to answer all the questions “Prometheus” presents as we have enough trouble answering them on our own. I think the movie’s main focus is on the struggle of faith as Rapace’s character thrives on it, and she spends the story seeing it severely tested. The lack of answers ends up reinforcing the faith she has in those who created human beings, and this keeps her faith from being killed off completely.

Scott gives us a visually sumptuous motion picture with extraordinary visuals and special effects which feel wonderfully unique to everything else out there. With cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, frequent music composer Marc Streitenfeld, editor Pietro Scalia, and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, Scott gives this movie the look and feel the only he can pull off, and it all makes his eagerly awaited return to the sci-fi genre he so brilliantly transcended with “Alien” and “Blade Runner” all the more welcome.

While “Alien” was a masterful combination of the sci-fi and horror genres, “Prometheus” is more sci-fi than horror. “Prometheus” has its thrilling moments, but Scott is not out to scare the shit out of us the way he did back in 1979. He is more cerebral with this film, and it makes you eager to see a sequel to it sooner rather than later. I don’t care what anybody says, “Prometheus” was very much worth the wait and, despite whatever flaws it may have, it had me enthralled from beginning to end.

Actually, one thing you could say about the movie is how it may give ammunition to creationists who claim human life came about through the efforts of a supernatural being. Then again, the very last scene of “Prometheus,” before the end credits roll, features a somewhat familiar-looking creature making an appearance you can’t quite see coming. With that, you can safely say the filmmakers do firmly believe in the theory of evolution.

* * * * out of * * * *

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

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You look at her from a distance, and all you see is just another punk chick who’s nothing but trouble; born under a bad sign. You’d figure she’s pierced her body in lord only knows how many different places, and the mascara applied to her eyes might make you see her as an intimidating threat. Not once does she try to adjust her antisocial behavior or clothing attire in the workplace, and this is a sign of how unwilling she is to compromise her learned set of values.

But once you get to know her, you will find Lisbeth Salander is not your average punk rock girl. In fact, she’s a brilliant hacker and researcher who knows more about yourself than you could possibly realize. Bo Diddley was right when he said you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. I mean you could, but she would just kick your ass because a rough upbringing has more than prepared her for the harsh reality of life.

Lisbeth Salander is the heroine of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a brilliant mystery/thriller based on the best-selling novel by the late Stieg Larsson. Many have said Noomi Rapace gives a star making performance as Lisbeth, and nothing could be more true. She finds the heart of this incredibly intelligent yet mysterious character whose past is hinted at but never explained until the end, but we come to get enough of a glimpse which helps us understand where she is coming from. Lisbeth sets the bar high in terms of compelling characters (and not just females) you can find in movies from any country.

Right from the start, this film absorbs us in its compelling mystery involving the case of a missing girl which has remained unsolved for 40 years. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the publisher of Millennium Magazine, is coming off of a trial where he was wrongfully disgraced, and soon after he is hired by rich man Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) who wants him to look into the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet who was last seen years ago when she was only 16. Henrik believes Harriet was murdered by someone in his family, and it’s a very dysfunctional family filled with those who will fight one other for the whole inheritance without a single thought for anyone else.

Please believe me when I say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” puts so many American movies of this genre to utter shame. Seriously, many of the mystery thrillers I have seen in the past few years are full of plot holes Michael Bay could lead both Autobots and Decepticons through no matter how enormous they are. Instead of being enthralled, we come out of them feeling like they are average at best, but they do allow us to feel smarter than the filmmakers since we spotted all their foolish mistakes.

Compared to all those wannabes, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has a very well-constructed plot to where if it is at all flawed, we certainly don’t realize it because we are too caught up with what’s unfolding onscreen. But where this movie truly succeeds is as a character piece in how deeply it involves us in the lives of two very different people. The two main characters are well developed and are very complex, something I always look forward to seeing. Lisbeth is a wounded person, damaged by life, and the trust she puts in others is exceedingly rare. These two end up coming together as Lisbeth has been hacking into Mikael’s computer as part of his case, and she ends up giving him some clues which have eluded him. While she is hesitant to get involved with Mikael professionally or emotionally, he points out how she contacted him in a way that is easy to track.

Lisbeth and Mikael are indeed an odd couple, and yet perfectly matched to work on the coldest of cases. They are also coming together at a time where they are in a very isolated state, having been largely misunderstood by just about everyone around them. While many view them negatively, they come to see one another as who they really are. The more they work together, the more they gain each other’s trust. In the large scheme of things, these are two people who do not let others define them.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a three-time award-winning director from Denmark. He deserves a lot of credit for keeping us deeply involved in a movie that could have easily overstayed its welcome. Not once did I find myself getting bored or restless while watching it. Oplev balances out the story and the acting to where they are on equal footing and never upstaged by style. Never does he indulge in quirky camera angles or other visual elements which would have taken away from this movie. Some directors just love to show off instead of just trusting what is there, and Oplev has clearly laid his complete trust in the story and the actors cast.

Noomi Rapace brings a powerful life force to Lisbeth Salander, a character destined to become as iconic as Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Beneath her hard exterior is a person whose trust in others is practically non-existent for reasons which eventually become clear. Rapace more than succeeds in making Lisbeth tough as well as sympathetic. Her performance could easily have been a caricature, but she proves to be far too good of an actress to allow this to happen.

Michael Nyqvist does excellent work as Mikael Blomkvist, showing his strong resolve and utter frustration without ever going overboard in his performance. When he is first shown to the audience, it is as a man who has just been found guilty. We don’t know why at first, so we can only assume he had it coming or perhaps he was framed. We see him walking down the street when his picture comes up on television, pretty much defining him in the eyes of those who do not know him personally. But Nyqvist invests his character with a strong moral code which he never surrenders even when it seems smart for him to do so. We sympathize with Mikael as it always seems the wealthiest of people are more than willing to smash down the individual, especially when said individual is correct in what he or she discovers about them. The truth always seems to come at a heavy price.

Peter Andersson doesn’t even try to hide the hideous slime that consumes his utterly immoral character of Bjurman, a sexually abusive bastard who takes advantage of Lisbeth in the worst way possible. Even worse, he is her new legal guardian who takes charge of her trust fund after her original guardian suffers a stroke. Not to worry though, the pain Bjurman inflicts on Lisbeth comes back at him in a most vicious way, showing us once again what you see on the surface does not even begin to tell you the whole story.

Two sequels based on Stieg Larsson’s follow up novels have already been made, and I eagerly await the opportunity to see them on the big screen. They will have a tough act to follow after “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but with Rapace and Nyqvist reprising their roles, they will continue one of the more interesting and unusual partnerships you can hope to find in cinematic history.

It will be interesting to see who will be the next idiotic human being who foolishly thinks they have complete control over Lisbeth. Even more interesting will be in what way Lisbeth lets said person know just how wrong they are. Pray for whoever it is.

* * * * out of * * * *