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!


THE SOCIAL NETWORK: 1 Person Likes This

4 10 2010

Mark Zuckerberg, the world’s youngest ultra-gazillionaire, founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2003, so the tale goes. Along with his friend and bankroller Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg took a simple idea, that the young people these days want to waste every spare moment of their goddamned time oglin’ at swimsuit pictures of each other on the intertubes (‘intertubes’? Am I saying that right?) and he built a business that would largely re-define popular communication in the new century. So, who is Mark Zuckerberg? And what perspective could anyone have on such an important figure when he himself is barely old enough to embark on his own memoirs? What truth can we gain about a guy whose life is still, arguably, in its opening act?

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg, in one of several scenes of people talking very very fast, in THE SOCIAL NETWORK

David Fincher’s new film artfully sidesteps this question by treating truth as springboard, not blueprint. THE SOCIAL NETWORK takes the idea of Zuckerberg, and builds around it a highly entertaining morality play for the Intertubes Age. Really, who needs truth when you’re ripping such a good yarn? In one scene, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg,) who’s just moved to Silicon Valley, accidentally demolishes his rented house’s chimney by running a zip line over the backyard pool. There’s a knock at the door, and who’s there? Why it’s Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake,) founder of Napster, and precisely the guy Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto to impress! Wow, California is great! Great and small. Parker was across the street, he explains, and saw the chimney explode. Yes, I’m certain that’s exactly how that happened.

Several such moments of coincidence help to propel THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s plot, even as they highlight its fast & loose relationship with reality. An early sequence in which Fincher cross-cuts between an exclusive rush party with Zuckerberg writing code for Facebook alone at his laptop, captures the momentum of the great first act of FIGHT CLUB – but where FIGHT CLUB ultimately sagged under a ludicrous finale, THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s pace never wanes, as it jumps between dueling depositions, a framing device which works much better than it might. (Look for editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall to collect themselves up some statues in a couple months.) FIGHT CLUB, the film closest to this one in Fincher’s CV, was an exploration of masculine self-loathing and aggression, and the director’s newest seems to come away with similar conclusions; Zuckerberg, like Sean Parker, builds his empire to take revenge on a girl. In the absence of emotional connection, the neutered protagonists of both films put into place structures to empower men by degrading others. In FIGHT CLUB, the target of the soap peddlers was a feminizing consumer culture. In THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Zuckerberg’s targets are, more directly, women.

Hahaha, I'm a poorly drawn character! Hahahahaha!

We have essentially two female characters in the whole film, Erica (Rooney Mara) and Christy (Brenda Song.) The former’s rejection of Zuckerberg is painted as the catalyst for his journey to the top. The latter lady is a Facebook “groupie” (read: slllut) who jumps Eduardo in a public restroom, becomes his girlfriend/glommer-on, and then, in the film’s most ridiculous scene, goes ballistic because his relationship status on Facebook is still ‘single.’ Oy vey. THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s approach to the fairer sex is about as complex as those found in any of Fincher’s films – which is, not complex at all. (No offense, Ripley…) Perhaps this remove is meant to convey Zuckerberg’s own mystification with women. But considering the director’s track record… Hey, the guy’s not Almodóvar.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is about Men. And Harvard, an institution still synonymous with old world male exclusivity, turns out to be a perfect context for Fincher’s signature style. With longtime cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Fincher casts deep shadows on Cambridge’s plantation architecture to create a chilly, ubiquitous reminder of such institutions’ founding in an era of very unequal rights – which in turn emphasizes the weight of class ascendancy that Zuckerberg feels all around him. Zuck’s no slave certainly, but he is a shlub, obsessed with gaining access to one of Harvard’s ‘Final Clubs,’ and his Asperger’s-and-sweatshirts style is played against the blazer’d suavity of Eduardo Saverin (the winning Andrew Garfield.) Zuckerberg is portrayed as a kid with a chip on his shoulder about his lot as a Harvard Man. When he doesn’t get into Fight Final Club, he creates one of his own, and alienates everyone he knows in the process.

Joseph Mazzello (right) played Timmy in JURASSIC PARK. Run, Timmy, ruuunnnn!!!

But even as he does, Zuckerberg doesn’t change in any way. He never trades his sweats for a blazer, and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance conveys nothing of what his character might think, or even understand about the ramifications of what he’s doing. Disappointingly though, the film itself also finally draws a blank on Zuckerberg. In its last scene (urrm, spoiler alert,) a token female played by Rashida Jones spells out what we’re meant to take away about our young subject. “You’re not an asshole, Mark,” she says. “You’re just trying so hard to be one.” … The End. No, really, that is the last line of the movie. It’s reductive – not revelatory.  No matter what Peter Travers (or as I call him, Mr. Relevancy) has said about this film defining the last decade with its portrayal of a stereotypical insular narcissist blogger, there’s a big difference between this film’s beat line, and the reveal of, oh, say Rosebud. And I’m not just saying that because I’m an insular narcissist blogger myself.

Though it may ultimately miss the Mark, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is irrepressible; it’s charged with energy and crisp on every level – from the witty and often terrifically unbelievable dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, to the techno-inflected Trent Reznor score, right down to the digital splatter of champagne on a window during a scene of celebration. Each droplet lands exquisitely. It’s a perfect special effect – but it’s not real champagne. David Fincher’s got no interest in making a mess.


Cinemark Theaters, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.A.

Friday, October 1, 9:55pm showing

RED RIDING Trilogy: Fractured Fairy Tales

1 09 2010

Lucky you.

This week marks the DVD release of one of the best films of 2009 – really, one of the best films of its kind ever made – but better still, it’s not just one film, it’s three. Who says you have to sacrifice quantity for quality? Not Steven Spielblog! That’s who not!

The RED RIDING trilogy, first broadcast last spring in installments on the BBC, isn’t a miniseries in the strict sense. It’s comprised of interconnected, but independent feature films, each shot by a different director, featuring different protagonists, but many of the same ancillary characters – characters who disappear, then resurface in other chapters in the most surprising, and shocking, ways.

Andrew Garfield, who, following his Spider Bar Mitzvah, will become a Spider Man. L'Chaim!

The trilogy is based on a series of novels by the author David Peace, who took real notorious British serial killings, and created fictions around them. So, these films aren’t so much based on true stories as they are imagined out, from true tragedies. That combination, that blurred line, is unnerving right from the start – in the best way. Each film takes place in a different year, the year of the crime on which it’s based: 1974, 1980, and 1983. The first of the trio, directed by Julian Jarrold, is perhaps strongest of all, and that’s saying plenty. In it, Andrew Garfield (soon to be your friendly neighborhood Spider Man,) plays Eddie Dunford, a cocky young Yorkshire journalist who becomes obsessed with the disappearances of several local girls. Dunford’s descent is simply hypnotic… The second chapter, by James Marsh, follows Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine,) a detective brought in to conduct an internal investigation of the 1974 events. It’s the least satisfying of the three parts, the middle chapter often is – but it is necessary. A rightly bitter pill. And 1983 by Anand Tucker – you know, I won’t spoil 1983. Let’s just say 1983 was a very good year, and leave it there.

The ambition of this saga is matched by its consistency; though each director brings fresh eyes to his portion of the puzzle, all three pieces are equally well performed, well photographed, and designed. The period costumes are spot-on, and the subtle stylistic shifts between ’74, ’80, and ’83 prove fascinating to parse out, especially on a marathon viewing – as mine was. It’s hard not to draw a comparison to the recent American film that’s come closest to this impeccable crime saga, David Fincher’s ZODIAC, which, though it too spanned decades of investigation, ultimately was a slave to its own exhaustive historical accuracy.


That film, like these three, told the story of men obsessed with uncovering the motives behind unthinkable brutality. But in addition to the asset of not having Jake Gyllenhaal as its lead, RED RIDING benefits by comparison from its source material’s liberated revisionism. Scene for scene, it’s more gripping than ZODIAC, because it’s not bound by the requirements of a factually flawless procedural. The experience of RED RIDING is more subjective, more surreal – and it’s scarier, too. Really, in terms of sheer entertainment value, the last serial killer story that came close to it was Fincher’s breakout film, and still his best, SE7EN.

While RED RIDING takes its name from a fairy tale about a beast (a “Mr. B.B. Wolf,”) swallowing up an innocent, this is less a modern fairy tale itself than a rumination on themes found throughout fairy tales: namely, virtue and cruelty, and the rescue of the former from belly of the latter. Far outside the realm of fantasy, RED RIDING’s many characters fall into shades of grey between the poles of purity & impurity. And the search for objective truth across this spectrum yields results that would make the Grimms proud… Meaning, the results are for the most part pretty black.

So, lucky you! You get to see the RED RIDING trilogy for the first time. What could be better? I’ll tell you what: how about not waiting three days for the DVD to arrive from Netflix’s distribution center in scenic Los Gatos, CA. All three of these haunting films are streaming, care of Netflix’s God-sent ‘Watch Instantly’ feature, right this very minute… Getting freaked the fuck out has never been so convenient.

Foreign Films for Xenophobes

12 04 2010

We at Steven Spielblog – and by we, we mean I – try not to see many Foreignese films. If those foreign filmmakers were so good, they’d have the talent to have been born here in the U.S.A., I always say. Hell, if that Pedro Almodovar had the chops those pinkos at the Jew Yorker say he does, his name would be Pete Adamson, and he’d be hard at work on a Marvel superhero franchise to call his own. (ALL ABOUT MY MUTANT?) But, there’s a place for everything, I s’pose, even foreign films. And at the Spielblog, that’s why we’ve got our ‘Furrin Film Corral,’ where we put a fence around movies from other countries, and poke at them with a pointy stick.

The first detainee in this week’s corral is THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Sweden’s answer to Brett Ratner’s RUSH HOUR series – except instead of a fast-talking LA cop teaming up with a kung-fu’ey Hong Kong detective, it’s up to a badass bisexual hacker and a disgraced left wing journalist to join forces and get to the bottom of a mystery, the details of which I’ll not divulge – because I am both kind, and lazy.

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler in the upcoming American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Word has it that director David Fincher’s already planning a 100% American remake of DRAGON TATTOO , and it’s not hard to see why; this is a work of intelligence, brutality, and style, and Fincher could get his dark groove on in the reworking of it, mining the killer vein he knows well for a film just as entertaining as this; but it’s unlikely he’ll produce a better film, if only because there’s such genre perfection on display here. The look of DRAGON TATTOO is atmospheric but understated, underscoring revelations of banal evil. The plot’s lean and unpredictable, leading to a climax that’s action-packed without being far-fetched (a problem in the finales of many thrillers…) Best of all though, are the characters of the detectives themselves. Director Niels Arden Oplev (furriner) provides just the right amount of background for heroes Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. And what history he does provide resonates with the murder plot they uncover in the present. Here’s an object lesson in how to fashion sympathetic, yet complicated protagonists – neither simple do-gooders nor walking counterpoint caricatures, in the American “two-hander” tradition. After all, what’s the point of engaging in a mystery if you don’t care about the people solving it?

Shheeeeeeiiit! I sounded like a fan of furrin’ films there for a minute, didn’t I? Sorry, folks. What is it about these imports what makes me go all illuminati-pants? Someone, put on a middle-period Stallone movie, quick! Ahhhh, that’s better. You soothe me, COBRA.

Next in the corral, prison epic A PROPHET, from Fraaaaaance. Hey France, you think you can just foux-du-fafa on in here and make a prison movie better than America’s own SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION? Well-! Shit! … You happen to be right, France. This time.

As much as it pains me to admit, Jacques Audiard’s A PROPHET is probably the best movie set in a prison since PAPILLON – a film that sounds French, but is actually American. (Suck it.) A PROPHET is enthralling from the start – and though it is long, I defy you to check your watch. The story follows Malik, a nineteen year-old Arab sentenced to six years in French jail (like American jail, but with baguettes.) As soon as he arrives in prison, Malik’s forced by the head of the Corsican mob to kill a fellow Arab. Malik and the mobster Cesar form a bond built on subjugation and protection; though as Malik begins to pull away and establish himself among his fellow prisoners, Cesar’s hold on his ward becomes tighter and more desperate.

Gerard Butler and Gerard Butler in the upcoming American remake of A PROPHET

What’s so unique about A PROPHET is that unlike most fictions set in the slammer, this one has nothing to do with escape. Rather, it’s about the forging of identity – personal and religious – behind bars. It’s Malik’s violent coming-of-age story, and it’s never less than hypnotic in the telling. The plotting is dense yet clear, thanks in large part to the editing by Juliette Welfling. Even as huge chunks of time are spanned in single cuts, her work propels the story, without ever pulling out to that wide shot of the prison at sunrise, subtitled ‘Two Years Later dot dot dot…

As Malik, Tahar Rahim conveys appropriate fear and naivety in early scenes, then refines that towards the end of his sentence, without hardening beyond recognition or sympathy. His performance is reminiscent of – and worthy of comparison to – Al Pacino in the original GODFATHER. Even as he commits murder, and more murder, Malik is our man. Most amazing of all, is the fact that A PROPHET contains a not-insignificant supernatural element – and, in spite of the skepticism this at first elicited from your Spielblogger, this element works. The power of a film like this is, it’s so vividly and confidently imagined, it can take you anywhere, and you’ll go along for the ride – even if it means meeting a contemplative ghost, and foregoing a big third act jailbreak…

Hey, if you can’t beat American movies at their own game, you might as well try to do something, you know, totally original.