Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Arriving fashionably late to the party, David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" is a gripping, taut procedural that hypnotically shreds three hours away while elevating the source material to a breakneck state of breathless storytelling. Obviously aware of the Swedish version directed by Niels Arden Oplev in 2009, Fincher doesn't seek to outdo or compete with it in any way, instead paying respectful homage by utilizing some of what worked in the original and fleshing out some of what didn't. Fincher's resultant film is one more self-contained and narratively rich, especially as far as the main characters are concerned; in Fincher's world the reasons as to why the characters are who they are are explored in greater and more evocative detail, giving us versions of Mikal Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (the fabulous Rooney Mara) that feel more like actual people than harshly drawn archetypes. Appropriately, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has a greater emotional resonance than its Swedish forebear, opening up a new dimension to a story almost everyone knows, as well as a new textural element to Fincher's film work.
The question isn't so much whether this is a good film (it is) or even a necessary one (still not sure, as much as i like it) but rather how it differs from the original. I liked Oplev's film very much, finding it incredibly dark and atmospheric; in my mind it approached a level of quality to that found in Jonathan Demme's masterful "The Silence of the Lambs." I found myself wondering if even Fincher could do any better a job with it, growing more and more excited as its release drew near. I'm astonished at how far apart the two pieces are in composition, pace, and tone-they really do stand as two separate works from two very different directors. It could be argued that Oplev's version already dipped into the David Fincher pool; few modern directors have had so distinct and psychological a take on the serial killer template. Oplev borrowed all the grime of his "Girl" from Fincher's "Se7en" and quite a bit of its exposition from "Zodiac"; in turn Fincher seems to have borrowed the best bits of his "Girl" from another Scandinavian source, Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 film "Insomnia" (later butchered in the Americanization process by Christopher Nolan). Oplev's and Fincher's films are mirrors of one another, two faces of one coin; its evident Fincher spent some time with Oplev's film by way of some key set pieces that seem almost identical and by way of his meatier narrative exposition. For all its successes, Oplev's film was lean on plot details. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian correct that and fill out "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" to a point where every scene is crucial; one missed bit of dialogue and the whole thing comes unraveled.
The plot is labyrinthine but remarkably linear. Recently disgraced journalist Mikal Blomkvist is facing public and financial ruin as the result of a lawsuit for libel lobbied against him by a wealthy industrialist suspected of criminal activity. Blomkvist accepts an assignment from the wealthy and retired Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) on his island town of Hedestad, to root through forty years worth of private investigation and find out what happened to his niece Harriet year ago. Vanger suspects someone in his extended family of murdering Harriet; Blomkvist has the necessary skills to root out the truth. The Vanger family tree is a shitstorm of Nazis, misogynists, and abusers; as Blomkvist gets deeper into the truth he hires troubled ward of the state and hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander to assist in his research. Lisbeth, recently self-delivered of her own abusive relationship with her guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), more or less leads Mikal to the reality of what happened to Harriet. Together the two end the taint of corruption that has plagued the Vanger family in the form of prodigal son Martin (the superb Stellan Skarsgard, playing fabulously opposite his character in "Insomnia") and reunite Henrik with Harriet.
The actual investigation really only informs the latter half of the film. The majority is taken up detailing Mikal and Lisbeth's separate paths to their working together. Lisbeth's history is rife with abuse, degradation, and betrayal; her encounters with the sadistic Bjurman are just as frightening to behold here as they were in Opvel's film. Fincher has never shied from violence, preferring a realistic approach to it rather than a stylized one, and here that approach works to ensure a deeply unsettling intensity to Lisbeth's rape and revenge. Mysteriously gone is any retelling of Lisbeth's crime against her father; rather than show it in image Fincher allows Lisbeth to tell Mikal, in about two sentences, how she came to be a ward of the state. The difference in interpretation here is striking, and points to how differently the two directors actually view the character of Lisbeth; Fincher's approach to her is what makes me prefer his version.
In Opvel's film, Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace) is an absolute loner with little use for anyone; her past has so destroyed and shaped her that the only defense is complete and total removal. She is severe rather than awkard, crushingly confident, and infuriatingly distant. Opvel played up all Lisbeth's hard edges and allowed for little emotion in her character; the result is a difficulty in appreciating the complexity of her relationship with Mikal (the two make love once, and it's viewed as a fluke event.) Fincher's Lisbeth is a different thing entirely, a fragile and damaged person who projects a thorny exterior to protect against a deep and continuous hurt inflicted against her by those she trusted most. As played by Mara, Lisbeth is an intensely sensitive person; her actions seems to have far more meaning and her motivations are much more clearly understood by Fincher's focus on the personality behind the facade. Her eventual relationship with Mikal is then seen in a different light, the first time Lisbeth has opened up and chosen to trust another person. When Mikal ultimately betrays that trust (as everyone in Lisbeth's life has) the emotional devastation Lisbeth feels is palpable; Fincher's portrayal ultimately answers the riddle of Mikal and Lisbeth's troubled relationship that made so little sense in the two Swedish follow up films. Mara's stunning work as Lisbeth adds to the empathy; Mara looks both haunted and hollowed, and the few moments of joy that Lisbeth experiences are warming. Fincher's Lisbeth is someone we feel for; Oplev's Lisbeth is someone who we aren't even sure feels herself.
That warmth carries over into Fincher's actual look for the film. Gone are all the harsh angles and deep focus and lurid colors of Opvel's nightmare; instead Fincher washes his Sweden out, painting a country under the throes of near endless winter. Colors are muted and soft, lights are bright and glowing. It's a huge deivatiation from the director's earlier work; even "The Social Network" was more foreboding than "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." This composition is another reference to "Insomnia," Sweden as an eternal blinding white, the ultimate blanc noir behind the Coen Brothers' "Fargo." "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" exists in a dreary haze where even the dark recesses are bathed in sickly white; interesting that so many secrets are hidden amidst so much visibility. Opvel's film had an opulence and austerity that Fincher ultimately rejects; again, his realistic approach frames the story he's trying to tell. Rather than fantasy and exaggeration, Fincher opts for reduction and believability. A character as extreme as Lisbeth cannot be rendered in caricature; Fincher's composition reflects that ideal and effectively allows us in to her world.
Earlier i raised the question of this film's necessity. It's something i'll probably never really be sure of; the issue is complicated further by the fact that i prefer this version over the Swedish one. The more i think about "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" the more i get the layering Fincher has weaved in to it; it's technically flawless film by a director at the height of his craft. Fincher's decision to allow an emotional attachment to his characters further demonstrates his sensitivity and understanding of what makes a great, unique film; while the deeper philosophical concerns found in "Se7en" or "Fight Club" are absent here, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"'s warmth and respect for its main character elevate it to a level those films had a hard time reaching. Fincher usually deals in darkness; with Lisbeth Salander he's letting in a little light. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" may not be definitive, but it's a wonderful start. Here's hoping Fincher chooses to finish out the series.

Monday, December 19, 2011


The opening scenes of Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" introduce us to the banality of human wreckage in the form of binge drinking leftovers, mountains of clutter and waste, and the crumpled form of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) passed out beneath the anonymous arm of a one-night stand. From there the film embarks on a troubling exploration of delusion and personal emptiness, resulting in Reitman's finest work to date and one of the year's better pictures focused on the ennui of modern existence as experienced by the thirty-something set. Questions of expectation and the measures of success as an adult are held up for reassessment, with the suggestion that living in the past is preferable to facing the yawning unknown of living in the present. There is no redemption in "Young Adult," very little hope, and nothing even beginning to approach empathy or compassion. It's a sad, fucked up world full of dead dreams and unfulfilled promises, and for most of us, memory offers the only respite.
In Mavis Gary, Reitman and writer Diablo Cody introduce us to a character who is rapidly approaching the nadir of her life. A ghost writer of a failing series of young adult novels, Mavis spends her days on the couch assimilating youth culture via television and her nights drinking til she passes out. While working on what's to be the final book in her series, she receives an email from her high school boyfriend's wife, announcing the birth of their new little girl. In a blink of her delusional eye, Mavis decides to head back to her hometown of Mercury, MN, and rescue boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) from the shackles of adult responsibility, convinced they're meant to be together and her quest is righteous.
Mavis' campaign to win Buddy back makes up the brunt of the film's narrative, and its appropriately transfixing and unbelievable. As she attempts to insinuate herself into Buddy's life, she enlists the help of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, most likely providing his own wardrobe), a nerdy outcast who still bears the considerable physical and mental scars of a vicious high-school beating; in Matt, Mavis finds a foil for her self-loathing and uses him as a mirror to remind herself of her supposed stature as one of "beautiful" people who've just hit a snag in life. Matt, for his part, enables Mavis even as he tries to get her to abandon her plan, treating her to home distilled whiskey and puppy-dog crush adoration that borders on pathetic. Neither can let go of their high school selves, and in the two of them we begin to see the crippling effect of memory and nostalgia: everyone's an outcast in their own way, but it just sucks way worse for some.
This is a troubling, disturbing film. Mavis's delusion is never exaggerated or apologized for: it simple is, and we have to accept it as a part of her makeup. We know she's troubled (she suffers from trichotillomania alongside her borderline alcoholism) and plagued by self-esteem problems, but her behavious is so selfish and ultimately deplorable that there's no room for pity. Mavis seems determined to destroy herself, and her obsessive crusade to break up Buddy's marriage only leads to an inevitable breaking point. Buddy himself is a bit of an engima; he still has something invested in Mavis, for all his professed love for his wife and daughter. When the two share a brief, drunken kiss on Buddy's front porch i couldn't help but feel he should bear some of the responsibility for Mavis' mental state, but Reitman and Cody let him off the hook. Buddy gets it all, while Mavis and Matt are left wanting for something even beginning to approach happiness.
And what exactly is that "all"? "Young Adult" never really makes it clear, and that's part of the reason for the film's efficacy. If a wife and family are the true measures of success in the adult world, then yes, Buddy has it all-a decent job and the security it provides, a cool wife (she plays in an all-mom band called Nipple Confusion), and a new kid to keep it all alive. We're led to believe that Mavis is fighting this ideal, and that she wants Buddy back to reject this series of expectations. Her parents mourn the dissolve of her first marriage without considering the why; it's frightening to think that the posturing of adulthood comes before the actual satisfaction of their child for some parents (when Mavis matter-of-factly confesses to them that she thinks she might be an alcoholic, their reply is blank stares and denial.) Mavis' mission then becomes an act of rebellion, another grab at the brass ring of youth. Only her tearful collapse on Buddy's front lawn reveals the truth. While a bit of her confessional is over the top (a better screenwriter would have approached it differently, or excised it completely) it does offer some kind of answer for Mavis, an answer that Matt couldn't get at when he tries to get Mavis to view her life in perspective to the world around her. Again, the issue of Mavis' selfishness quashes any hope for empathy; the only person i felt any real joy for in the film was Matt, when he finally gets to realize part of his own dream (as sad as it is) in the wake of Mavis' breakdown.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is Reitman and Cody's decision to allow Mavis to continue her delusion. The final chunk of "Young Adult" reinforces Mavis' view of herself and her world and gives the distinct impression that she'll live her life the exact same way she has, nothing learned. Self-inventory is an impossibility for a character this damaged. It's a bold choice to present someone so flawed and let them revel in their own emptiness; if nothing else Reitman and Cody should get the award for balls in American film for 2011. In that sense this film reflects reality far more effectively than did their previous effort "Juno"; whereas that world became bogged down under the weight of its own pretense and stylization, "Young Adult" seems almost neo-realistic in its portrayal of psychic damage scarring across an entire generation. Maybe it's troubling precisely because it's so correct: the world is full of Mavis Garys and Buddy Slades, and neither represents anything close to what i want.
Reitman and Cody have made an amazing film. It's unsettling but magnetic, over the top in its believability but 100% correct in its illustration of malaise on the cusp of depression. In detailing the virulent strain of sadness that haunts our adult lives, "Young Adult" demands that we consider and reevaluate our expectations, even if none of its characters do. Mavis Gary and Buddy Slade are warnings, archetypes extended to the point of caricature to make a point. There is no right way to be an adult, no matter what the world tells us. We just have to do the best we can, and not hurt other people. It's the only way to really grow up.


All the principals return for Guy Ritchie's late period career revival attempt, trading on the first film's considerable success and upping the ante with more blockbuster action and moody set pieces. Victorian England has rarely looked as beautifully grey and dour as it does in Ritchie's vision, a washed out stage for all of his hero's free-association clairvoyance and rampant ass-kicking. Indeed, it only takes about five minutes before Sherlock Holmes (Robery Downey, Jr.) finds himself in a pickle that only his fists can get him out of, just one of many such conundrums that will befall the beleaguered detective across the film's two hour runtime.
The action picks up almost immediately where the last film left us, with Watson's (Jude Law) nuptials drawing ever closer and Holmes on a debilitatingly obsessive quest to unmask Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as London's "Napoleon of crime," responsible for a number of bombings attributed to anarchist groups within the criminal underground. Holmes is a wreck, getting by on a diet of coffee, tobacco and cocaine; Downey plays up the fatigue beautifully, perhaps fueled by his own past experiences. Holmes is gaunt and hollowed out-his investigations of Moriarty partly responsible, but more wounded by the impending loss of his only friend to domesticity. In the spirit of celebration, Holmes drags Watson out to a stag party and ropes him into one last great adventure spanning several European nations that becomes little more than a cross-country pummeling tour with an occasional wisecrack thrown in.
What made the first installment so much fun was the nitpicking banter between Holmes and Watson; Downey and Law played off each other so quickly and sharply their Holmes and Watson seemed more hotheaded brothers than business associates. Here that back and forth is tossed off in favor of Ritchie's confusing action sequences (more than once i found myself wondering what the hell was going on) and large scale landscape shots (which i don't mind, as the art direction here is meticulous), resulting in a less-than-fulfilling experience as we accompany Holmes towards his inevitable face to face with Moriarty before he ignites World War whatever amidst a Swiss castle full of European dignitaries.
That isn't to say parts of the journey aren't thrilling or fun-they are, and there are still moments of brilliance as Holmes and Watson affectionately grate on one another (Watson's train ride to his Brighton honeymoon is especially entertaining, proving that when he's on Ritchie can fuse lightning action with lightning humor as well as he ever did in "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"), fight (a shootout and chase through a French forest is probably the film's highlight for me, a slow-motion electric carnival of bullets and splintered wood that has to be seen to be believed) and argue their way to the film's finale. Ritchie makes us want to see Homes and Watson end up together; Holmes needs Watson to keep him sane and involved in the real world (his mapping out of potential actions in this film seems almost astral and syrupy) while Watson needs Holmes to make sure he doesn't become just another Englishman, fallen into complacency and squandering a burning talent. There's an investment in the pair that more or less ensures this series can go on indefinitely, and with the addition of an actual arch-villain for Holmes to lock intellects with there's more than enough material to strike paydirt one more time.
It isn't here, though. Ritchie's reimagining plays off witticisms and aristocratic snarkiness, and "A Game of Shadows" doesn't deliver enough of either to elevate it to the status of its prequel. Holmes' final stare down with Moriarty (over a chessboard, of course) is fun, but never quite nails the aura of desperation that we're expecting, especially considering what's at stake. Their previous encounter in an abandoned warehouse fares better, allowing us to see the depth of Moriarty's madness, but still devolves into another explosion-laden destruction spectacle. The emphasis is too much on action, not enough on fun. The big reveal here (as Holmes recounts everything he's taken notice of across the film) is fairly mind-blowing and might prompt repeated viewings to figure out if everything's actually where Ritchie says it is, but it all serves a reckless adherence to the Hollywood formula (something the first film was such an enjoyable antidote to.) I understand sequels are big business; "A Game of Shadows" certainly could have been much, much worse. It simply seems Ritchie is content to keep working, giving audiences what studios think they want, rather than what they've all actually asked for in the context of the first film. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is better than average but disappointing in its ultimate failure to live up to its predecessor's potential. Ritchie can go further. Here's hoping round three reunites everyone again, this time with feeling.