Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Man With The Satisfied Smile – “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” Is A Disturbing Must See.

[There be slight spoilers – you have been warned]

Without equivocation, David Fincher is a bad ass director. This is said not so much due to his directorial style but rather his ability to take on controversial, even disturbing, subject matter yet still make it palatably acceptable to the general movie going public; even making heroes out of individuals who under normal societal conceits would be considered “deplorable”. Despite the anarchist nature of Fight Club’s “Tyler Durdan” or the anti-socialism of The Social Network’s “Mark Zuckerberg”, Fincher makes them characters that one can, if not root for, at least understand. He performs the same feat here in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a remake of the foreign film starring Noomi Rapace, both based upon the novel by Steig Larsson (adapted for screen by Steven Zaillian). Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in an arresting performance) is an insane ward of the state. She is also a more than capable investigative hacker. She is also a cypher, brusque beyond rudeness and vicious when called for, and in this film it is more than called for.

But then, in a film laden with misogynistic overtones such as this, such a heroine is demanded, since the plot itself hinges on the investigation conducted by disgraced reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to solve the of the murder of one Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal) at the behest of Vanger patriarch and industrialist Hanrik (Christopher Plummer at his most ingratiating). Set in the dead of a Swedish winter, the story itself is as bleak in tone as the stark, gray weather represents.  The film is replete with situations and imagery in which various women are brutalized, humiliated, and demeaned and it is most epitomized in Salander who suffers indignities of her own. However, she also exemplifies the reclamation of women taking back their lives form the hands of their oppressors (a few scenes had women in the theater I attended cheering and a couple of men squirming in their seats). This is a delicate balancing act that Fincher is able to manage almost effortlessly, aided by Mara’s star making, layered performance. The actress has a balancing act of her own.  Physically waif-ish and pale, her physicality belies the steel at her character’s core (symbolized by her character’s piercings and tattoos). However, Mara also manages to imbue an innate vulnerability to the character, a girl who wants to know love in a world she cannot accept and refuses to accept her. Fincher uses her judiciously. When she is not on the screen, her absence is decidedly felt. When she is, the events crackle. She and Fincher bring to light the more disturbing aspects of the film, putting them in bas relief so that the viewer has no choice but to confront some of the baser desires of a misogynistic nature, but by the same token showing that such things need not be accepted.

However, the film has a top billed star in the form of Daniel Craig. While he does not quite take a back seat to Mara, this is one film that is not completely on his shoulders. In fact, it is an “reverse-Bond” film (despite a) the rather Goldfinger-esque nature of the opening credits and; b) that the film contains a former “Bond” villain in the form of Steven Berkoff and one of Craig’s rival for the “Bond” role, Goran Visnjic), as it is the woman who has all the gadgets, is highly promiscuous, and saves the day. Craig, as a reporter who is disgraced due to publishing an inaccurate expose of industrialist Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), brings a different sort of edge to Blomkvist, one that comes from a place of helplessness. The reactive Blomkvist is a far cry from Craig’s more proactive Bond;  the juxtaposition of which, whether intended or not by Fincher in the casting, makes the performance more effective. When the character is in dire straits, it is much more compelling in spite of Craig’s association with the iconic super-spy. Legend has it that part of the reason that George Miller’s The Aviator (1985) failed because Christopher Reeve’s association with “Superman” was so ingrained that audiences could not accept him as a pilot who could not fly out of his predicament. Craig manages to transcend that particular tightrope here, effectively sublimating his usual on-screen tough guy persona to marvelous effect.

They are supported by a wonderful supporting cast, most notably in the performances of Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff and Yorick van Wageningen. Each character has a moment to shine and all of them deliver.

The film is a taut, suspenseful thriller though not without its slow spots, especially in the first twenty minutes or so; something that should be expected given that the source material is over 500 pages long. However, it is necessary to fully establish what the two main characters are about, what motivates them, what separates them, and what ultimately brings them together. The best part is that it is the characterization and the pace that engenders the suspense. What little there is by way of gunfire and explosions are almost an afterthought and never seemed tacked on for their own sake. The performances and the direction are all that are required to hold the audience’s attention. In fact, is some cases the usual Hollywood violence tropes almost seem as intrusive to the proceedings.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has generated a lot of buzz both within and outside of the industry prior to its release, making it a film with high expectations. The film meets them and more. If you wish to have your sensibilities challenged this holiday season, then this is the film to see.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Get A Clue: Seeing "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is...Academic***

In life, there are rarities. Among them are blue moons, dolphin sightings, Courtney Love in sobriety and, most specifically, a sequel that surpasses the original. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows definitely falls into that latter trend. While a direct sequel from the events of the first Holmes, this is a stand alone outing; the story "assumes" that the audience is familiar with the players, saving introductions only for the new additions such as Holmes' more intelligent (by his own admission) brother Mycroft (played with great deadpan, cheeky delight by Stephen Fry) and the finally revealed Professor James Moriarty (a decidedly Machiavellian Jared Harris). A rule of thumb in great drama is "start small...and build". In comparison to this new outing, the sophomore Sherlock Holmes was the small start. For returning director Guy Ritchie does in a few minutes of prologue what most directors need almost a half hour to accomplish: he changes the stakes of the game by commencing the film in a controversial fashion which will not only undoubtedly enrage Holmsian/Conan Doyle purists, but also establishes the credibility of the villain.

And build it does: Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) is more "on" than ever, his countenance that of a person who has taken mass quantities of cocaine to cram for a final exam (given the shared historical predilection between the literary Holmes and the living Downy, Jr. for this particular drug, an apt metaphor), his mania focused on outwitting and outmaneuvering his arch nemesis. His faithful companion, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is more determined than ever to marry his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly) despite Holmes efforts to thwart same. The explosions are bigger, the action is more frenetically intense and, in another rarity in most actioners of recent memory, the suspense is excruciating. The literary Holmes was fond of string instruments, and Ritchie's tight direction plays the events, and the audience, like a Stradivarius, choosing the right amount of storytelling beats to ratchet up the drama. He is one of the few directors who utilizes the current conceit of slow motion to pulse-pounding, nail-biting effect. He deftly manages all of this while keeping the film going at a brisk clip, accompanied by the ambitious score by Hans Zimmer, who in music mirrors the changing, bi-polar moods of the story, relying on heavy use of percussion to showcase the movie's darker undertones. However, Zimmer never loses sight of the whimsical motif he established for the titular character.

The teleplay (written by Michelle and Kieren Mulroney loosely based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is, for the most part, solid. While it does take the time to explain a couple of clues through exposition, most of the clues are visually explained and left for the audience to extrapolate to avoid slowing down the action or muting the tension. In short, it's yet another rarity: the intelligent actioner.

The performances which carry the film are sublime and highlight a key subtext: Relationships. Downey Jr.'s Holmes' is a study of contrasts: cerebral yet physically centered (and capable), manic yet pensive, superficial yet deep, irreverent yet soulful.  The beauty of the performance is how easy he makes such a juggling act look. His chemistry with Jude Law is akin to that of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman's in the television version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, bringing the complexity of that relationship to beautiful realization. Their performance and banter alone is worth the price of admission. The true problem with Watson's marriage to Mary is that he's already been married to Holmes for years; they play "The Bickersons" with panache and aplomb. 

Of course, the other key relationship is that between the adversaries.  While on the surface their battle is one of wits, it is also a battle between morality and amorality. Harris plays Moriarty as sociopathic chessmaster; one who only shows emotion when he is outmaneuvered. On the flip side, Holmes shows particular resolve when the life of his "bromantic" partner Watson is endangered. Downey Jr. and Harris crackle in their exchanges. One can actually believe that each seeks to destroy the other despite the genteel assertions of respect for the other's intellectual prowess. He tests Holmes on every level (intellectually, physically and even emotionally) so that by the time the have their "final" confrontation, it is climatic, riveting, and uncertain. 

Unfortunately, the film is not without its drawbacks. Rachel Adams' Irene Adler, who plays a very important part in terms of story development, has too little screen time; as does Reilly as Mary Watson. Unfortunately, Noomie Rapace as Romany fortune teller Simza Heron does little to fill the void.  Her character is a blank slate who propels the action forward by story design only and barely elicits audience engagement. There are some instances where deux ex machinas are incorporated, the lead-up to the "The Final Solution's" climax is a tad obvious (admittedly, only for those familiar with the original Holmes stories), and its run time may be a bit long. However, when it seems the film's tone of suspenseful foreboding threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, Ritchie performs a tonal sleight of hand and brings his humorous sensibilities to bear; as in his established Holmes/Watson banter and a little tongue in cheek homage to the Clint Eastwood/Shirley MacLaine classic Two Mules for Sister Sara, for example. It's a bait and switch that works.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is really is a rare feat. It is an intelligent actioner that does not talk down nor bog down its audience. Furthermore, it's also one of those rare films that justifies multiple viewings.  Ultimately, it's one of the most fun movie going experiences this year, a thrill ride that should be partaken of posthaste. What are you waiting for? The game's afoot!

 *** (What, did you think I was going to say "Elementary?" :-P)