The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The burnt offering isn’t the film reel

Some time ago, I expressed apprehension about the American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I insist on calling a remake, despite the new film also being based upon the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy.  I was certain the rape scenes would be toned down, that there would be little to no smoking, and that Daniel Craig would beat someone up, but in this case, I’m glad to have been partly wrong.  Is David Fincher’s remake as good as the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009?  No.  Is it still a great movie?  Yes.

I talked about the plot last time, but for frame of reference, I’ll retread.  Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is in trouble, having lost a libel case against a wealthy businessman, and all he sees on television is the world shunning him.  His magazine is doomed.  Elsewhere in Sweden, young Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) loses her guardian and is forced under the control of the abusive Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningan).  A phenomenal hacker working for a security firm, Lisbeth completes an extensive background check on Blomkvist for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), former CEO of Vanger Industries.  Henrik then contacts Blomkvist, offering him two jobs: writing the memoirs of Henrik and his dysfunctional family, and discovering the fate of his great-niece, Harriet, whom he believes was murdered by a family member who may still live on Hedeby Island.  The stories of Lisbeth and Blomkvist remain separate until the latter realizes he’s going to need an assistant to help solve the case.  Also joining the cast are Robin Wright, Princess Buttercup herself, as Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s co-editor and lover; and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger, Henrik’s son and current CEO of the company.

Mara’s performance is an incredible breakthrough for her, and is every ounce as brave as Noomi Rapace’s performance as the same character.  Fincher’s version of Lisbeth, however, is clearly more emotionally vulnerable than Oplev’s, and we’ve only our culture to blame for that – American audiences want a vulnerable female.  Yes, she falls for Blomkvist in the novel, but you never get the sense that these two characters are destined to be a married couple, nor that Lisbeth would want that.  You can easily chalk it up to the fact that with her personal issues and emotional obsessions, Lisbeth can’t even stand the fact that Blomkvist associates with another woman, but I guess that’s my fundamental problem right there: it shouldn’t need “chalking up.”  The intention should be obvious.

Daniel Craig’s performance is surprisingly understated, and I respect the fact that Fincher had him playing the actual character instead of relying on Craig’s name (not to mention his roster of characters, which seem to be the same character over and over) to sell the role.  Christopher Plummer is, as always, the sweet, grandfatherly old man, and provides us with characters as sympathetic as they come.  Whenever he cries in a movie, I get choked up.   Skarsgård is charming and seems like a real person, and even when he employs the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, there’s a reason for it.  As I’ve said about this story before, it’s not your garden-variety, plot-driven crime thriller.  This is something special.

Besides the big budget and the undeniably “clean” look of the film (as opposed to the grungy, quiet darkness of the original) and the abrupt change in Lisbeth’s emotional state, the only other standout problem is, as I suspected, the choice of Trent Reznor as composer.  He’s not Hans Zimmer; he’s the guy from Nine Inch Nails.  After an incredibly overlong, overbudgeted, James-Bond-type opening credits sequence, Reznor’s music still proves intrusive, often playing more loudly than the film dialogue.  A half hour into the film, though, this stops being a problem.  Either the music shifted gears or my brain toned it out.

As it is such a close adaptation, I suppose I’d agree with Swedish director Oplev’s reaction to the remake: “Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?”  I have this reaction about 99% of remakes, especially those done by Hollywood.  On the other hand, this story is so real, so gritty, so believable and refreshingly different from every two-bit formula thriller staining the celluloid week after week, that I will not only let it go, I’ll support it.  I wouldn’t necessarily trust Fincher with one of my books (not that he’s asked), but I trust him with Lisbeth, for now.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011); written by Steven Zaillian, adapted from Stieg Larsson’s novel; directed by David Fincher; starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

What happened to Maggie Q?

Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol makes a few more good moves than it does bad ones. It’s funny in the right ways, well-paced, well-acted, jives with the series’ continuity (mostly), and its length makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul with its characters.  And as I said in my Knight and Day review, Tom Cruise and I are “okay” now, so I felt like I could go in with an impartial mind (despite, as always, knowing what I was getting myself into).

The film begins with a Surprise Demise when IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, in his first film role since starring on Lost) is whacked by femme fatale Sabine Moreau (the prolific Léa Seydoux) in Budapest in the midst of recovering nuclear launch codes.  Hanaway’s supervisor and lover, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) then runs an operation to rescue IMF frontman Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from prison.  Why he’s there, we’re not yet told, but he seems to know exactly what’s going on.

In an effort to regain the launch codes from projected terrorist Curt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), Hunt reassembles his IMF team while being pursued as a criminal by Russian intelligence.  Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who debuted in Mission: Impossible III, returns, and along with William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who doubles as a super-agent, joins Hunt and Carter as a four-member rogue cell determined to stop Hendricks from starting nuclear war.

The global stakes are higher than they’ve been in any M:I, and somehow things seem personal, too.  Hunt and Carter have both lost friends.  The team’s exploits take them to the beautiful Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where Tom Cruise performs a stunt that may qualify him as clinically insane.  The film continues the traditions of the “face maker” device and the in-and-out-without-anyone-knowing-we-were-there schemes of the TV show, which didn’t truly surface in the films until the third installment.

The most egregious offense the film commits is cast abuse, which is par for the course when an action movie is given an ensemble cast.  Michael Nyqvist, one of Sweden’s great actors (who starred as Mikael Blomqvist in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays the main villain, but is given less to do than his henchmen.  Josh Holloway, who won a Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television, is given a character we’re allowed to grab hold of, but is eliminated before the opening credits.  Léa Seydoux plays the most interesting villain, a French assassin with whom the film’s deuteragonist has a vendetta, but she’s disposed of halfway through the film, leaving us with the underdeveloped “main” bad guys, who, after the amazingly well-crafted, acted and edited scene on the Burj Khalifa, seem like leftovers.  None of them compare to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain, Owen Davian, from the third film.  Ving Rhames, the only actor to appear in every M:I film aside from Cruise, thankfully appears, but only in a cameo, as does Michelle Monaghan, who plays Hunt’s wife, Julia, a major character in film three and a plot device in this one.  Tom Wilkinson appears as the IMF Secretary, a character never seen before, who gets one short scene.  Again, why?

In addition, the continuity takes a turn for the confusing when Hunt claims “the four of us are all that’s left of the IMF.”  You can chalk it up to the entire team being disavowed because of certain spoilery events, but what happened to Laurence Fishburn’s IMF boss from M:I 3?  How about Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who played Hunt’s loyal team members in that film?  The movie seems to want us to remember them, going so far as using the exact same shot for Paula Patton getting out of a car that J.J. Abrams used in the previous film when Maggie Q, in an equally eye-popping getup, exited a car to perform very much the same role in the operation that Carter does here.

Some have complained to me about the overt humor and gadget absurdity, but lest we forget, the linchpin of the TV series was the sci-fi gadgetry.  When a film in the action genre tries to take itself too seriously, it begins to skirt self-parody, and Bird wisely avoids this, though it’s easily achieved by giving Simon Pegg tons of lines.

In a nice twist, the film also refers even to the first film in the series.  Somehow, Bird found the actor who played Max’s (Vanessa Redgrave) Fabio-lookalike bodyguard in the original movie, who forced Hunt to wear a black mask while meeting with his boss, an arms dealer.  Hunt meets with a different arms dealer in this one, and is confronted with the same black mask by the same bodyguard, who regards Hunt with a charmingly knowing eye.

Stumbling here and there, the film is worth its run time.  The actors don’t all get their due, and the tone is sharply changed from that of the first film, but it’s the only installment in the series to feature a fight between two important female characters (a barefoot scrap on the umpteen hundredth floor of the Burj Khalifa).  The wisest move in the film, though?  Using a hyphen instead of two colons.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; written by André Nemec and Josh Applebaum; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner.

My Week With Marilyn

Falling in love for ninety minutes

Forget the Mayans: when there comes a generation of boys who don’t fall in love with Marilyn Monroe, that’s when you know the world is truly ending and human sensibilities deteriorating.

My Week With Marilyn is not so much a biopic about Marilyn’s life as it is a slice of Colin Clark’s (if his memoir is to be believed), and a drive-by look at the contrast between how Marilyn was regarded and treated not only in Hollywood, but overseas.  The story follows Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he takes a chance on becoming third assistant director (a glorified errand boy) for The Prince and the Showgirl, a film which despite being unsuccessful and panned by critics propelled Marilyn and Laurence Olivier (played expertly by Kenneth Branagh) into the heights of their respective careers.  During the shoot, Marilyn is on her honeymoon with new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and being the proverbial “stranger in a strange land,” struggles with the conventions and pressures of Olivier’s world.  Clark attempts to acclimate her into British society, and the two develop what Clark thinks is a blazing romance.  But it isn’t.  We know that.  Marilyn knows that.  She is lonely, afraid, drugged up (not by choice), and sporadically ill, and Clark is the only person who is nice to her.

The film, directed by Simon Curtis, paints a fair picture of Marilyn from the beginning.  Hollywood follows her everywhere.  She is fed pills by assistants who are supposed to be taking care of her, and their only reasoning is that she’s difficult to “control.”  This animal treatment extends to every extremity of her life, from the way her entourage simultaneously parade her around and shield her from the public to the way they cage her in temporary homes with constant surveillance.  Furthermore, they refer to her sweet, jovial personality as an “act.”  But we’re fully convinced.  She doesn’t even seem to know she’s “sexy” until Olivier blurts out on set that her portrayal of Elsie Marina isn’t utilizing her “natural talents.”  These scenes, while beautiful, also hurt.  Here was a woman idealized, abused, and misunderstood by virtually everyone she came into contact with.  Her depressions were misinterpreted as entitlement, her acting methods conflated with confusion.  The phrase “no one else understands you” is spoken to Marilyn by various characters, but they, we must suspect, are farthest from understanding.

Kenneth Branagh shines as Olivier, and is allowed to be a dedicated artist and a commanding boss, but also a bit of a blowhard and a relieving presence.  His feelings about Marilyn transform completely over the course of the film, and less than a month in her presence contorts his life in vicious ways.  Branagh even quotes Shakespeare at one point – he just can’t seem to get away from it.  Also in the supporting cast are Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike; Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s overprotective acting coach who clashes with Olivier in some excellent banter-laced scenes; and Emma Watson (finally ditching Hermione) as Lucy, a young woman working in wardrobe, who begins as Clark’s love interest but turns out to be a backup plan.  Refreshingly, she seems to always be the one calling the shots in her scenes with Redmayne, even in the end.  Scott’s portrayal of Arthur Miller is exactly how you’d think Hollywood people look at writers: frustrated, bothered, weathered in the face, and perpetually grubby.  Who would have known he was about to write The Crucible?

The film’s best sequence is Clark and Marilyn’s first real day together, which begins when Clark, who has been banned from being near Marilyn, is ushered into a car by Marilyn’s bodyguard.  As he sits down, afraid, unsure, and the car begins moving, Marilyn pops out from under a blanket and claims that this is “the getaway car.”  It’s the one scene in which we bear witness to, perhaps, Marilyn’s real personality, free of her caretakers and feeling like she’s having an adventure of her own design.  The scenes that follow rival any romantic film of the year.  The drama is slightly lessened in that we know they don’t end up together, but there is a certain fascination involved: Clark, mistaking infatuation for love, forgets that he’s seven years Marilyn’s junior and that she spoke to him like a child earlier.  The shift in relationship dynamic is staggering, but Clark seems to be the only one who doesn’t see it (of course, later, he must).

The Oscar for Best Actress may already bear the scent of Michelle Williams, the spitting image of Marilyn not only in the film makeup and wig, but even more so in voice and aura.  If she wins for this film, it will be a well-deserved victory for her, but also, considering the material, a victory for Marilyn.

My Week With Marilyn (2011); written by Adrian Hodges; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Redmayne. 

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Hedgehog goulash, anyone?

I find it interesting that Noomi Rapace’s American film debut occurred within a week of the release of not only an American film featuring Michael Nyqvist, but a remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  It’s like an excellent-actors-out-of-type party.

Rapace’s Hollywood debut comes in the form of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the second (and final?) in Guy Ritchie’s series, loosely based on the cozy detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.  Although the anachronistic fighting and quota of explosions are still present, Ritchie (director of such powerhouse films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and RocknRolla) makes at least a small effort to use material from Doyle’s original stories (which should have been part of the plan all along).  The story once again follows Holmes and Watson (Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, the latter of which would have made a better Holmes had they based him on the character from the books) as they attempt to take down their greatest adversary, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), whose motivations are far less murky and Bond-villain-ish in text form.  His plans involve the brother of Sim (Noomi Rapace), a fortune teller who tags along with Holmes and Watson and runs through the woods with them a few times.  Also in the cast are other characters taken from the original stories: Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother; Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler; and Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, a villain from the books who was defeated but never killed off, and whom Ritchie wisely doesn’t kill off in the film (y’know, in case there’s another one).

If there is one thing Ritchie is consistent about, it’s style.  As he does in Snatch, he shows us bareknuckle fights percussed with beautiful folk music.  The steampunk overtones remain prominent, and the entire landscape seems to be washed green.  The banter between Downey and Law hasn’t quite staled yet, and there is enough to go around in the two hours twenty minutes that this film runs, but we also get something we didn’t get before: personal drama for Holmes.  When he loses someone important to him, the search for Moriarty goes from a gentlemen’s game to a quest for revenge, and when they finally confront each other atop a waterfall that will look all too familiar to anyone who has read Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” it truly feels like the final scene.

Funnily enough, the phrase “no loose ends” is repeated several times in the film, yet the film itself has quite a few (Moran being one of them).  I won’t spoil the background details of the story, but after you see it, try to explain to me what everyone’s motivations were and how everything got resolved.  In addition, Rapace is criminally underused, and Anderson overused considering how things turn out.  Fry, however, finds a happy medium, and aside from when he’s walking around nude, is a refreshing presence, and his character gets some truly funny moments.

Ritchie is well documented for his lack of ego, and it’s plain to see why actors like to work with him.  With the way this movie’s story turned out, however, there’s no need for a third one.  He’s said he plans on making the sequel to RocknRolla, so let’s see that happen.  After all, Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes so he could focus on more serious literature, but he eventually gave in to his fans and wrote more stories after “The Final Problem” (whether or not we acknowledge the preposterous circumstances under which Holmes “survived” the incident).  Ritchie already jumps that particular shark in the end of this film, but it’s still enough.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011); written by Keiran Mulroney (based upon the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle); directed by Guy Ritchie; starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace and Jared Harris.

Take Shelter

There’s a storm comin’

2011_take_shelter_003Take care when choosing what company to bring along for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, the writer/director’s first film since 2007’s Shotgun Stories, which also featured Michael Shannon.  This is not to say the film should be avoided by anyone – after all, it’s nonviolent, passionately delivered, expertly directed, and has respect for its characters – but folks who scare easily may be burying their faces when the lightning strikes.

I don’t think I took a single breath during this film.  Billed as a “thriller,” Take Shelter casually swats any attempts at genre pigeonholing.  The story centers around Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a couple living on the outskirts of a small Ohio town.  They are the parents of a hearing-impaired child, Hannah (Tova Stewart), planning a cochlear implant operation, which will require the aid of Curtis’ health insurance policy.  Curtis has a good job in construction, where he not only enjoys excellent benefits, but works with his best friend, Dewart (Shea Whigham).  As the film begins, Curtis begins having terrible dreams.  The dreams begin with a storm, and then chaos ensues.  Rain becomes motor oil.  Tornadoes rip his house from its foundation.  Black birds swarm overhead.  Hannah is taken from him.  His dog attacks him, and the pain lingers throughout the day.  Curtis fears that these may not be just dreams (he describes them as “feelings”), and begins to prepare for the worst.

The tension in the film lies in the fact that Curtis does not give Samantha the chance to understand what he’s feeling: he hides it from her, even when he takes out a risky bank loan to pay for an addition to his storm shelter.  Still, he isn’t arrogant or self-important enough (as male movie protagonists often are) to consider himself a prophet: he knows his family has a history of mental illness, so he visits his mother (Kathy Baker), who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was Curtis’s age.  Curtis takes books on the subject from the library, sees a counselor at a free clinic, tries a prescription medication for sleep, and (illegally) borrows equipment from work to dig his shelter.  Dewart, concerned but a friend first, helps however he can.  Eventually, Curtis must reveal what he’s seen to Samantha, and the real tests of faith begin.

Michael Shannon gives one of the strongest performances of the year.  What a step away from his other current role (that of Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire).  His voice sparks with power, and even in his possible madness, he deserves the highest degree of sympathy.  Jessica Chastain, an actress I cannot say enough about, shines in her seventh major role this year.  The story of Take Shelter is just as much about Samantha dealing with Curtis’s problems as it is about Curtis dealing with it himself, and Jessica stifles absolutely no emotion.  She, more than anyone, makes the viewer want everything to work out in the end.  What an amazing collection of characters she is assembling.

Nichols exercises a subtle, yet absolute, mastery over his domain.  As I mentioned earlier, he has an undying respect for his characters, and this comes through in every scene (e.g. no one is killed by zombies or turned into a child-napping maniac, regardless of what Curtis’s dreams may suggest).  There are no abrupt genre exercises or contrived “twists.”  The family feels like a family.  There are long, hovering shots that seem to challenge the viewer to find something wrong, something off, something that should not be there (as Curtis is).  A scene in which Curtis loses all sense of reticence at a community benefit and throws a histrionic fit feels obligatory, but his pontificating is so genuine, so desperate, that it’s not only acceptable, but necessary.  The lens stays expertly focused on Curtis while we wait to see the most important shot: Samantha’s face.  Can she continue to deal with this?

It should also be noted that Samantha, not Curtis, is given the responsibility of making economic decisions for the family after Curtis’s situation jeopardizes his job.  “I’ve made a decision,” she says.  Eventually, a real storm starts.  Without spoiling anything, what follows is a scene scorched with drama, the most genuine display of trust between film characters I’ve seen all year (and after Another Earth, that’s saying something).

Take Shelter (2011); written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.

The Descendants

Please press the red button

For the sake of keeping precious brain cells, I will refrain from trying to figure out why The Ides of March received an immediate wide release and The Descendants, a far superior film, had to wait a week.  Of course, my system of reasoning is by way of staunch idealism, and the only real connection between the films is the appearance of George Clooney, who gives us much more to believe in his characterization as the struggling single parent than as the mustache-twirling politician.

The Descendants is a dramedy by Alexander Payne, director of Sideways and About Schmidt.  Normally, when walking out of a film in which the dram trumps the edy, I get a bitter and unsatisfied taste in my mouth, but in this film, it’s the dram we relish.  Even in its funny moments, The Descendants never loses sight of its goals.

The story follows Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer descended from a nearly endless lineage of Hawaiian royalty and white missionaries, living in Hawaii and acting as the sole trustee on 25,000 acres of land on the coast of Kaua’i.  He and his numerous cousins have decided to sell the land for development, which will net them a fortune even their royal ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of.  The main line of tension in the story, however, is the predicament involving Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), recently rendered comatose after a boating accident.  Matt, who refers to himself as the “backup parent,” is now in charge of his two daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), who, with their respective personal issues (which range from profanity to underage alcohol abuse) don’t give him much chance to be a good dad (at least not immediately).  When Matt finally gets Alex, the older of the girls, to sit and speak to him, he not only breaks the news to her, but receives a shocking bit of news himself: before her accident, Elizabeth had been cheating on him.  From here, the film becomes not quite an exodus, but an adventure of sorts, involving Matt and Alex’s journey to discover the identity of the other man, while the land-selling situation, (which Matt actually wants no part of since the land is full of not only rich history, but also many memories with his family) looms overhead.  Scottie comes along, as does Alex’s seemingly simple-minded surfer friend, Sid (Nick Krause).

The screenwriters wisely forgo the antagonistic relationship between Matt and Alex in favor of making the latter a sympathetic character.  Tension remains, as their views differ on certain things, but being family, they have almost no choice but to gel as companions and to root for each other.  The performances of Clooney and Woodley steal the screen, and Woodley, to my understanding, has already begun collecting supporting actress awards for her portrayal of Alex.  Rightfully so.  An inexplicable beauty lies in her voice, and her every movement, every switch in posture, reveals multitudes.

Beau Bridges, the older brother of Jeff, appears as Cousin Hugh, the eldest of Matt’s money-grubbing family members.  His presence is soothing when he’s being friendly, and rather uncomfortable when he displays his ruthless side.  Bridges creates a memorable character who knows his limitations in film but not in his own world, and given the fact that he appears in only two full scenes, this is an accomplishment.

The Descendants is many parts drama and charm, but also respect and love.  When it became a road movie, I wanted to be in the car.  When Matt and Alex confronted the other man (Matthew Lillard), I wanted to be part of the family distraction team.  Most of all, when the tearful goodbyes finally came, I wanted to put my arm around every character and tell them “it’s going to be okay,” regardless of how many times I have to be told that myself in real life.  Having suffered a death in the family this week, I had trouble maintaining composure during certain scenes, but the final shot, a long one, ended on such a moment, so perfectly understated yet glimmering beneath, that I definitely do not regret seeing this film so soon after.  It’s beautiful.

Alternately, if you want this post to end on a more cheerful note, you’ll be glad to know that March of the Penguins is now old enough (or wholesome enough) to be a metafilm.

The Descendants (2011); written and directed by Alexander Payne (based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings); starring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley.

P.S. I just found out I’m only two degrees from the author of the original novel, Kaui Hart Hemmings: we share a mutual friend, writer Mayumi Shimose Poe.