THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: The Remake with the English Accents

25 12 2011

Surprise is a tricky commodity when it comes to movies, because it’s so subjective. What surprises me may not surprise you, which is why a Spielblog review of David Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a tough one to write this most Christmasy Christmas morn. I haven’t read the books by Stieg Larsson, but I’ve seen the Swedish films, and I’m not alone in my awareness of their unlikely hit status. At this point, if you aren’t somewhat familiar with the DRAGON TATTOO craze, it’s clear you haven’t set foot in an airport bookstore recently. Or an H&M for that matter. But, if you have managed to avoid spoilers this long and your Swedish is rusty, then by all means this English language version is worth watching.

H&M's officially licensed 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' clothing line. Because evidently, that's acceptable.

Fincher is a stylist over all, so one thing that’s not surprising is that his film looks terrific. Visually it’s dark and intricate in a way the Swedish version isn’t. (The credits sequence set to a Karen O. version of ‘Immigrant Song’ is particularly sick.) But structurally, Fincher’s version hews close to the Swedish film, as it does to the source material – so in spite of its impeccable surfaces, this film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime passed slowly for me. Maybe it won’t for you. Daniel Craig fills the thankless role of Mikael Blomkvist, the disgraced journalist who’s hired to research a decades-old disappearance. But there’s a reason this ain’t called “The Guy who Knows the Chick with that Freaky Tattoo.” Blomkvist’s better half, goth-chick-hacker Lisbeth Salander is the star, and in that role Rooney Mara is slightly more effective than Noomi Rapace was, if only because Mara looks child-like in a way Rapace doesn’t – which makes her brutalization and vengeance that much more disturbing.

Most surprising about the massive appeal of this story is that its most unique and memorable portion, Lisbeth Salander’s self-contained revenge tale, has run its course well before the film and book is through. It’s a bizarrely compelling subplot, and once it’s done, the conclusion of the bigger procedural mystery is much less interesting by comparison. Once that’s all been wrapped up in Fincher’s version, there are still almost fifteen minutes to go, some of which involve characters watching television news to learn about how other plot elements have resolved themselves elsewhere. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, this version and all others, hits its high point in the second act, not the third. That much, Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillain didn’t fix. But if they had, I’d have been surprised.

… Oh, and P.S., the American version contains a HUGE plot hole – which is the one big difference from the novel & Swedish version. Spoiler warning!


M:I-GP – Brad Bird Does the IMPOSSIBLE.

19 12 2011

When lil’ Steven Spielberg found himself with the keys to Hollywood in the post-JAWS late 70’s, one of the first projects he expressed interest in pursuing was a James Bond film. Having grown up on the Sean Connery films, the Bond series must have represented for Spielberg a cinematic rune – timeless, tried and true – and it was to be considered a real honor to carve your notch on it. Following a snubbing by Cubby Broccoli and a Hawaiian vacation with George Lucas, however, Spielberg’s Bond became RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, (it’s no coincidence that Connery plays Indy’s father in LAST CRUSADE.) But what would a Spielberg Bond film have looked like? If you’re anything like me, that’s a question that keeps you awake every single night. But with Brad Bird’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, I think you and I may finally be able to sleep. Because this film strikes me as more or less just the sort of Bond film Spielly would have turned out. And yes, coming from the 100% Official Spielblog, that’s high praise.


Bird, an auteur with a background in animation, has chosen for his first outing in live action to carve a notch not on the Bond series, but on a series whose existence is inextricably tied to Bond (the M:I TV series came about in the spy-crazed 60’s as a direct response to Bond’s popularity.) And Bird, like Spielberg, is a terrific choice to enliven a waning spy franchise, because Bird also understands that when people say they like the gadgets of films like this, we’re not just talking laser wristwatches and underwater cars, we’re talking about the mechanisms of the films themselves: the sequences of suspense constructed around raising stakes and upending expectations – and laser wristwatches. These are the gadgets of the Bond and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series. Luckily, the nifty hand-held gadgets of GHOST PROTOCOL are matched by the sequences in which they’re displayed. The story hurtles precisely from setpiece to setpiece, all novel, and all, more importantly, exciting – not merely explosive. The mid-film Dubai tower heist is arguably the best stand-alone chapter in the whole series, a half hour of pretty exquisite editing and stunt work.

Tom Cruise, People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive (1990)

As a 90’s kid, I enjoyed the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. But that motherfucker was serious, sometimes to the point of dour-ness. DePalma’s trademark over-stylization fit the plot, which amounted to an elaborate ‘through the looking glass’ manipulation by corrupt members of Cruise’s own team; an interesting way to start a film franchise. The second MISSION, as well as the third, were made in an age (so very very long ago) when Tom Cruise still had commercial viability as a romantic lead – so each of them was saddled with a fast-forward-worthy romance element. In the bizarre M:I-2, duties went to Thandie Newton. In the forgettable M:I-3, to Michelle Monaghan. Since about 2005 though, Cruise’s appeal for the ladies has steadily diminished (I can’t imagine why,) and GHOST PROTOCOL wisely doesn’t fight against the tide. It reflects Cruise-as-action-star, and wastes no time on Cruise-as-romantic-lead. Certainly, Cruise himself deserves credit for this choice. As a producer of GHOST PROTOCOL, he could have shoehorned in a love story. And he wouldn’t have been the first aging movie star to insist on casting himself as Casanova past expiry. So, thanks, Tom.

The plot of GHOST PROTOCOL is not worth a sentence summary, we’ve seen it that many times before. (Quick, disable that thingy before the other thingy does its thing!) It meets franchise protocol, let’s just say that – but Bird artfully jumps the expositional chatter, and renders any complaints about the plot more or less moot. Bird’s film is an embodiment of action over words, and in that sense it’s a better MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie than we’ve ever gotten. On its fourth go-round, here is a series that surprisingly, finally seems to have found its proper tone. Humor and tension keep it afloat, as opposed to logic-bending betrayals, excessive angst, or spies-in-love bullshit. And in the case of John Woo’s sequel, dramatic slo-mo pigeons. Not a one here.

Brad Bird cut his teeth on the best seasons of the best television show ever, THE SIMPSONS, from 1989 through 1998. From there, his resume gets only slightly less impressive. THE IRON GIANT. THE INCREDIBLES. RATATOUILLE. His live action debut is nothing more, or less, than a near-perfect James Bond flick – and the world could always use one of those. Where does Bird go from here? Don’t care. Can’t wait.


Arclight Cinerama Dome, Hollywood

Sunday December 18, 5:30pm showing

Academy DVD Screener Round-Up!

5 12 2011

In Hollywood, there are two types of people: those who’ve risen through the ranks, paid dues, gained industry-wide respect and been recognized with membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… and then there are assholes like Steven Spielblog who go over to the homes of A.M.P.A.S. members, and watch all their Oscar-season screener DVD’s. This past weekend, I shamelessly devoured a metric ton of them. Here’s my report:

J.J. Abrams (right) directs SUPER 8

With SUPER 8, J.J. Abrams attempts the acrobatic feat of remaking every single Steven Spielberg film all at once, and again proves that he’s a better student of film than he is a filmmaker. Lose the near-constant lens flare and chock-a-block nostalgia, and the story here barely qualifies as a full one. Not for adults, anyway. As a Spiel-worshipper, I should say that it’s commendable that Abrams made a children’s film that’s meant to be a contiguous addition to the 80’s Amblin catalogue (with the man’s name on it, no less,) and if SUPER 8 turns kids onto CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, well, terrific. But in every other way, this is just a faithful footnote that strikes a grown-up fan as puny alongside the classics.

Johnny Depp as Donald Rumsfeld in THE RUM DIARY

Johnny Depp does Hunter S. Thompson proud in his portrayal of Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Thompson’s long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel THE RUM DIARY. The meandering but likeable film built around him has its highs (Richard Jenkins) and lows (Amber Heard,) but it hangs together – barely – as a result of a few choice lines, some priceless Depp deadpanning, and perfect costuming by the great Colleen Atwood. Still, crack open a Webster’s to the word “rental,” and this is what you’ll see.

Yeah, didn't make it to this part.

I didn’t make it through PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. I shut it off. And no I will not apologize. Next!

The stuffy, overlong biopic J. EDGAR relies on the same narrative framing device as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s last film, MILK. It’s the “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” approach, in which the main character actually says the line “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” (or some minor variation of it,) and we then launch into a series of flashbacks. In J. EDGAR’s case, the flashbacks fare better than the ‘present day’ material, if only because in the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging make-up is so hilariously wrong. The only believable aging anywhere in J. EDGAR is on America’s childhood crush Lea Thompson, who shows up in a small role. Lea, bless her, now without aid looks almost exactly like Lorraine McFly circa 1985 in BACK TO THE FUTURE. For your consideration in the category of Best Makeup: Time!

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is so good, you too may lick your TV screen.

Take Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, turn the ‘that’s fucked up, yo’ meter to eleven and dub it en Español, and you’ve got an idea of the treat you’re in for with Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In SKIN, Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessive doctor whose live-in experiment (the gorgeous Elena Anaya) holds a dark secret… dot dot dot. Only Almodovar could pull something as twisted as this off and still make it so darkly hilarious, which does with typical style. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is weirder than anything he’s done in years, and what it lacks in the empathy of one of his masterworks like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, it makes up for in inspired macabre suspense. I loved it.

When brothers fight, we ALL win.

A manly melodrama, or “man-o-drama,” Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR casts Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who enter an ultimate fighting championship in Atlantic City. Hardy’s the brooding/brawny Iraq vet, Edgerton the family man who can’t pay his mortgage, so he turns to professional bludgeoning. (And what’s more American than that?) The fighting on display is repetitive, but no matter, it’s the brothers’ emotions and motivations that take center stage, and in that arena WARRIOR clicks, particularly when booze-battling father Nick Nolte’s on screen. He makes a believable pops to both, and a believable alcoholic too, turning in his best work since AFFLICTION. But WARRIOR’s a film primarily for guys who think ‘Affliction’ is a clothing brand. Don’t worry, it’s safe to cry here, Ed Hardy Boys. No one will see you weeping inside the UFC cage…

Evil nazi gynecologist Jesper Christensen in THE DEBT

It’s no secret my favorite genre is ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ so John Madden’s THE DEBT lands squarely in my sweet spot. It’s a suspenseful piece that builds to a gripping climax, with a superb cast playing characters in early days and later (Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren, Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds,) a choice on Madden’s part that underscores the sense that our heroes’ dealings with the brutal Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) totally change them as human beings. Even so, the back-and-forth is just this side of distracting, with one too may inconsistent accents – and, you know, the fact that Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciaran Hinds. But regardless of your affection for the ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ this one’s worth your money. Or in my case, it’s worth – free! Ah, the joys of watching someone else’s Academy screeners! Sincerely, boo-yah.


4 12 2011

Like Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne makes films that address the chaos of human experience. And thankfully, they’re funny too. THE DESCENDANTS, his newest, is no exception in either regard. In it George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian attorney whose life is turned upside-down when his wife is thrown from a speedboat and falls into a coma. Complicating matters are King’s adolescent daughters, the elder of whom informs Matt that his wife was cheating on him.

You're entering a world of Payne.

It’s a trailer-happy setup, but THE DESCENDANTS, like Payne’s other films, unfolds in unexpected and poignant ways. Its relaxed pace is underscored by multiple cross-fades and a soundtrack consisting mostly of solo acoustic guitar. But even slow-going, the film’s never dull, thanks to two equally strong performances by Clooney and Shailene Woodley as his teenage daughter Alex. My sister informs me Woodley’s on a show called ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager.’ But because I’ve never seen it and never seen her, I’ll go ahead and call her a newcomer. Anyway, she’s fantastic.

In ELECTION, Matthew Broderick’s attempt to wreak havoc on the student council led to his shaming, but the film’s coda found him, finally, happy; his sins were zero-sum. In SIDEWAYS, Paul Giamatti objected to Thomas Haden Church’s pre-wedding philandering, but ultimately covered for him. And in ABOUT SCHMIDT, Jack Nicholson set out to stop the wedding of his daughter to a mulleted moron only to back off and retreat to his lonely widower’s life. In each of these films, Payne’s leads walk the line between order and chaos, between hanging on to a principle and letting go in the face of alienation. In THE DESCENDANTS, Clooney’s Matt King is unable to get closure following his wife’s accident, and the push/pull between what he feels necessary to create order while staring into the abyss, is the film’s central focus. Does he track down the other man? Can he confront him? Should he? THE DESCENDANTS comes closest to ABOUT SCHMIDT as far as Payne’s back catalogue goes, with King’s crisis of impotence echoing Schmidt’s, and the search for the other man filling the void of grief as did Nicholson’s journey across the U.S. to stop his daughter’s wedding. As in SCHMIDT, the journey becomes the coping mechanism. But what happens when the journey ends?

SPOILERS, that’s what.

George Clooney and Beau Bridges, as Beau Bridges.

When King does finally face his wife’s lover, he’s played by none other than Matthew Lillard, apparently sprung from movie jail. (The terms of his parole, I assume, include staying 500 yards from Freddie Prinze, Jr. at all times.) King asks his foe how it all got started. “It just happened.” “Nothing just happens,” responds King. It’s perfect dialogue. Not only is it just what the cuckolder would respond in such a situation, but at the proper moment it gets right to the core question of THE DESCENDANTS, and of Payne’s films taken in total: if shit happens and all we can do is react, what’s the point of doing the right thing? Payne’s protagonists consistently ask this question of themselves. This, to my mind, is what makes them, and the films about them, so human.