Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011): Haven't We Met?

We don’t live in a vacuum.

This makes reviewing David Fincher’s new film more challenging than it ought to be, because, as a global phenomenon, the late Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is the biggest thing since the Harry Potter series. To date, the Trilogy’s first novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, has sold around 30 million copies worldwide, and the first film adaptation (which, you might recall, ended up at #4 on my list of 2010’s best films) set the stage for the adaptation of the rest of the trilogy in its mother tongue.

So, here’s the thing. We know the story, and we know it well.

As such, it’s tough to watch the American interpretation without sitting with a mental checklist firmly at the forefront of the cranium, with telepathic pen ready to mark off what’s improved, unimproved, the same and completely different.

It’s not entirely fair, and I admit that freely. I’d like to have been able to watch the new film without any baggage and be able to report to you on exactly what it accomplishes on its own merits, but that’s just not possible.

So, what do we know?

For one, that the story is mostly the same. I’ve made the assumption that it’s one you know, but, of course, you might have been living under a rock, for which you have my pity and the following: Mikhail Blomkvist, the recently disgraced editor of Millenium magazine, takes a job to solve the 40 year old murder of millionaire tycoon Henrik Vanger’s niece, Harriet. After various twists and turns, he finds himself working with Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant, troubled hacker with a knack for collecting and interpreting information. What neither of them realize is how deeply the trail goes, and how much they will be changed by the journey.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo looks fantastic. Fincher’s attention to detail and commitment to craftsmanship certainly don’t go amiss, even if he doesn’t take the material as far down as he might have. There are some sinister, sinister goings on here, and that Fincher chooses not to linger on, shall we say, certain instances of depravity is a bit of a surprise, particularly given where his sensibilities have taken him in the past. It certainly doesn’t descend to the moral or visual depths that he’s capable of, most notably in his darkest (and I’d argue best) film, Se7en. Personally, I feel that Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film hit harder insofar as shocks go, which is surprising, given Fincher’s skill for unsettling an audience. Ironically, I’d heard that there was talk that MPAA was considering giving The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo an NC-17 rating. It’s an idea that I find laughable, because, if any Fincher film should have an NC-17 rating, it’s Se7en. In this one, the action onscreen never really goes past atypical R-rated content, though it’s certainly a “hard” R.

One of the highlights of the film is the work of editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of the better edited films I’ve seen in years. As the story’s told from both Mikail and Lisbeth’s vantage points, the editors do a terrific job of linking the two when they’re not sharing the screen. What’s more, they take their continuity cues from various sources. A lingering or abrasive sound in one scene can serve as a link to the next, or a moving shot toward one object might be where it jumps off into the next scene with a similar visual. It becomes more natural as the story progresses and Mikail and Lisbeth come closer in both physical and emotional proximity. More than anything, it’s Baxter and Wall who help to provide The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with its strong sense of rhythm. It may be over 2 ½ hours long but moves along very well, if not quite with the zippy pacing of Inglourious Basterds, the single zippiest 2 ½ hour movie I can recall.

Composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor play a big part in maintaining the film’s fluid continuity. Their work here and in The Social Network provide for some of the more exciting advances being made in contemporary film scoring. I think that Ross and Reznor’s two film scores to date continue a trend that began with Johnny Greenwood’s score for 2007’s There Will Be Blood, even if Greewood’s work is nearly traditional by comparison. With Ross and Reznor, their emphasis is on using music as a kind of invisible, referential sequence of sounds rather than as a collection of recognizable themes and motifs. While I don’t think that you’re going to be able to walk out of the theater and hum a single bar of the score, its influence upon the narrative is unmistakable.

The single best thing about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the same thing that stood out in the Swedish original: Lisbeth Salander. She’s one of the strongest characters to hit the screen in years, and, as written, is remarkably compelling regardless of who’s playing her. I’m exaggerating, but it’s almost as though a paper sack could play Lisbeth and be incredibly effective. She’s that well-written of a character. While Lisbeth’s so tightly wound up to try and keep anyone from hurting her, there’s also a twinge of an idealist in there too. She’s the type that keeps her head down so nobody sees her face, but just can’t help peeking up at the stars.

Rooney Mara brings a very different sensibility to the part than Noomi Rapace did, and that’s not something I was quite expecting. For one, Mara’s got a much slighter physique, which, while Rapace isn’t bulky by any means, certainly changed the way I viewed the character. Where Rapace was withdrawn, introspective, and intensely private, Mara has a certain openness that’s unique to her take on Lisbeth. Daniel Craig, on the other hand, is fine, but it’s very much the same brooding action everyman that we’ve gotten used to seeing him play in every film he’s in. It’s not a bad act, certainly, but I’d like to see him branch out a little bit and try and play a few different notes on that piano.

A notable difference between the two films is the chemistry between the two leads. With Craig and Mara, Blomkvist seems to be the dominant one in the relationship, but with Nykvist and Rapace, it’s definitely Salander. Personally, I’d have to give the chemistry edge to Nykvist and Rapace. The way that their relationship evolved seemed more authentic and consistent with who they were and the influence of their life experiences upon their ability to interact with others. Mara and Craig, while a solid pair, don’t quite have the same cohesion, and there were moments when I felt that Mara’s Salander had a dependence on Blomkvist in a way that wasn’t entirely consistent with who I knew the character to be.

There are a few changes in the script that provide for a bit of a different effect than the original had. In particular, there’s a significant change to the story’s ending. Fortunately, it’s one that works, even if the staging of the initial reveal is poorly managed and dilutes what should be a pretty powerful moment. Additionally, where the Swedish film left out the novel’s affecting final scene, writer Steven Zaillian left it in, and ends the film on a poignant note that I think really does it credit.

Ultimately, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is stylishly engaging and a worthy adaptation of a story that now belongs to the world. If it’s not quite up the standard set by the 2009 film, it’s consistently entertaining and I hope it does the kind of box office that will be needed to ensure that Fincher gets the chance to make the remaining films in the trilogy.

I don’t often choose to see a film more than once theatrically, but I’m thinking that I might make another trip for this one. In my book, Lisbeth Salander is such a terrific character that any chance to spend some time following her around is time well spent.

I'm hooked, ok?

starrating-4stars.jpg image by hobster70
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Linkage: Podcasting & Sherlock Holmes

For yours truly, the past few weeks have been busy ones on the cinematic front.

New reviews of some 2011 heavy-hitters coming soon.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Week With Marilyn - The Young Man in the 22nd Row Tells All

When your name is Harvey Weinstein and you’re looking to figure prominently in the discussion around the award show water cooler at year’s end, you push out a biopic. The Aviator. Finding Neverland. Miss Potter. Factory Girl. Nowhere Boy. The King’s Speech. Pick any of those, and you're still not past 2004.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there really aren’t many drawbacks to making biopics. Studios love them because they’re usually able to get a big name actor to play whichever historical figure’s on the docket, stand a very good chance at making some dough, and might get some hardware. Actors love them because if they prove to be particularly good at mimicry, wearing that prosthetic nose, and bringing that historical figure to life, they stand a good chance of gaining a ton of critical recognition and, yes, getting some hardware. Audiences love them because they usually get to enjoy a rags-to-riches story and have the opportunity to feel better about all of the times they fell asleep in high school when they were supposed to be learning about these folks in the first place.

2011, in particular, has so many biopics as to inspire washed-up conspiracy theorists everywhere to come out of retirement. Initially, My Week With Marilyn wasn’t something I was particularly enthusiastic about, particularly when compared to something like J. Edgar, The Iron Lady, or A Dangerous Method. But, as fate would have it, it was the first that I had the chance to see and, for whatever reason, I got pretty excited about seeing it. I think I unexpectedly fell a little bit in love with Michelle Williams after seeing the adverts so many times.

My Week With Marilyn tells the story of Colin Clark, a 24 year old British aristocrat with a dream of working in the movie business. After working his connections, he becomes third assistant director on the set of Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, a starring vehicle for Sir Laurence and Marilyn Monroe. When Marilyn starts to crumble underneath pressures both personal and professional, she and Colin form an unlikely connection and spend a bit of a “lost week” together.

As promising as that sounds, it seems to me that the primary thing that holds the film back is that it's told from the perspective of the young man, Colin, instead of the movie star, Marilyn. I think that it would have been much more effective and infinitely more interesting to have been able to start with her, stay with her, and see exactly what made her tick and what caused her idiosyncrasies.

To that end, while watching the film, there were a ton of times that I really wanted to get some sense of what exactly was in her head. There are moments when she seems so lost and so overwhelmed, and then there are others in which she seems to be in complete control of her image. I wish there had been some dot connectors to point out where the woman ended and the movie star began.

For what she was given, Michelle Williams (who's sure to get a ton of award nominations and maybe a few statuettes) is really good. While she’s a terrific choice to play the actress formerly known as Norma Jeane Baker, sadly, I don’t think the script fully equips her to bring her complete set of talents to bear. It’s not Williams being inconsistent so much as it’s Simon Curtis’ script that’s incomplete.

As for Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Colin Clark, it’s solid, but the half-baked script holds him back too. At the beginning of the film, he seemed to be a bit of a greenback. You know, means well but doesn’t have a lot of practical life or work experience? Well, the kid decides to park his keister on the couch of Olivier’s production company’s office until he’s given some kind of job to do. Good, right? Shows initiative. But when he’s finally given a task by the film producer, he handles it, we’re led to believe, without any problems at all. Uh, hello! He was asked to get NOEL COWARD’s number, which, I might add, he’s told is unlisted. That’s no small thing. How about a moment a la Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada? It’s a real chance to gain more insight into his character. How does he get stuff like that done? While we see him get them into Windsor Castle later through a family connection, we have no idea how he gets that pesky number. Did he rely on another connection? Did he struggle before finally getting it done? Was he really just that good? I’d have liked to have seen that process outlined rather than being given “BOOM, it’s done!” as an answer.

I get it. Boy meets movie star. Boy falls hopelessly in love with movie star. On that level, his performance is very effective, but, as with Williams', more was needed. I know that the scene I’ve described might seem petty and inconsequential in the big picture, but it would have contributed significantly to fleshing out his character and making him that much more three-dimensional instead of relying on such a simplistic character outline.

The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, with particular props going to a scene-stealing Kenneth Branagh as Lawrence Olivier. He’s fantastic, and I hope he gets some much-deserved love at year’s-end. Judi Dench is really good too, and has a wonderful line about how much mascara a woman should wear. However, the one person that completely surprised me was Dougray Scott. It struck me that the guy playing Arthur Miller was really believable, but I had no idea whatsoever that it was Scott until the end credits. Seeing Julia Ormond (one of my favorites!) pop up as Vivien Leigh was a nice surprise too. After The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Temple Grandin, and The Music Never Stopped, it seems like she’s back.

Lastly, I think My Week With Marilyn ends one (or two, if you count the end credit musical sequence) scene too late. There’s a wonderful shot of Colin staring at a blank movie screen in a small theater that seemed announced itself as the film’s final shot . . . and then things continued with a bit that’s supposed to tie things off in a knot when I think, ironically, a messier approach would have served the film better. By that point, by all intents and purposes, the film was done, and to try and spell everything out was the wrong choice.

It’s really too bad. While My Week With Marilyn isn’t a bad film and certainly isn’t unenjoyable by any stretch, a real opportunity’s been missed here. It strikes me as a bit odd that we’ve got a definitive look at the formation of Facebook on the books, but there’s no authoritative piece on the life of one of the cinema’s biggest stars.

There’s a wonderful scene in the middle of the picture. Colin is sent to a much-the-worse-for-wear Marilyn’s dressing room to find out what’s keeping her from the set. He gets starstruck, and ends up revealing that one of his jobs is, essentially, to spy on her. A bleary-eyed Marilyn looks up at him and asks, “Colin, whose side are you on?” He looks back at her, eyes wide with a heart no longer his own, and says, “Yours, Miss Monroe.” I only wish that My Week With Marilyn had been able to say the same thing.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)