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.

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

You and your mind control thinga-ma-jigomy

Can anyone other than Terry Gilliam make a film that manages to be colorful, imaginative, gritty, funny, and ironic all at the same time?  Well, yes, there are others, but Gilliam has a unique touch, seen in several of his great and wild films including Brazil, The Brothers Grimm, and his latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a mesmerizing journey through (what appears to be) the imagination.

The story involves a traveling performance troupe led by the 1,000 year-old Doctor Parnassus (played by the immortal Christopher Plummer) and which includes Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), and Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).  Since his days as a monk, Parnassus has made several wagers with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a personification of the Devil, and in exchange for eternal life he must relinquish his own daughter (unbeknownst to her) on her sixteenth birthday.  While traveling, the troupe finds a stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging by his neck from Blackfriars Bridge.  Claiming to have amnesia, Tony joins the troupe as a barker, and Mr. Nick soon returns with a new wager for Parnassus: if Parnassus can convert five souls to good before Mr. Nick can make them give in to greed or petty desires, he can have his daughter back. Valentina, of course, while being wild and independent, is the bargaining chip, the subject/object to be bought, sold, traded, and possessed.

The film contains the last footage of Ledger’s acting career, and it’s a strong enough film that if he had to have a final film at such a young age, I’m glad it was this one.  Three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), all good friends of Ledger, take on the role of Tony as he passes through the mirror into the Imaginarium, and Gilliam shoots them in such a way that Tony’s transformations seem like an organic part of the story and not a production issue.  The three have to do very little to look like Ledger, and they do the character justice.  Using Depp as the first was a wise directing decision: in the words of Gilliam himself, “I just thought if it works with the transition to Johnny and if the audience goes for it, they’ll follow the next two. And that’s exactly how it works.”  It does.

Christopher Plummer surpasses nearly everything he’s done, and he even gets a sequence in which he’s reverted to his youth and we’re treated to The Sound of Music Plummer for just a moment.  Lily Cole’s Valentina is a character we can all believe both Tony and Anton would be crazy about – confident, strong-willed, and mysterious in that male fantasy sort of way (which lends itself well to a fantasy film, but is problematic in the usual ways, not least of which is the ratio of women to men in the cast).

As mellowing as the ending is, it’s the only ending, and it’s the only farewell we’ll ever have from Ledger.  Thankfully, it’s Gilliam’s most solid work since Brazil, and although the loss of Ledger is devastating, maybe there’s some solace in the fact that we’re leaving him in a place so full of magic.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); written and directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, and Lily Cole.