Rant: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

Before you start reading this, please be aware that this isn’t a review. Even if I loved David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I didn’t), as a fan of both the source novel and the Swedish version of the film, I’m not sure I could have put together an objective viewpoint. If you’re looking for advice about whether or not to see this version, then my advice to you is this: if you haven’t seen the original, then this one might be worth your time. For everyone who has seen the original, there’s really nothing new here aside from a slightly tweaked ending, and a magnificent opening credits sequence (which you can view on YouTube, and I’ve embedded it below. It’s like James Bond’s nightmare, and it’s spectacular). 

So, if I’m not going to review this film, then why am I here writing about it at all? I guess there are a few things I wanted to talk about, and it’s always nice to try and do something different with my writing. So, without further ado, here’s what I was thinking about while watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

First of all, let me say that the film is impeccably constructed. My biggest reason for going to see this at all was to see what Fincher could do with the material, and from a technical standpoint he really cannot be faulted. His framing and shot compositions are right up there with the best in the business, making TGWTDT certainly an interesting film to look at. He uses the hostility of the frozen environment, not to mention the menace of Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ oppressive score, to set the tone very effectively, something that the original Swedish version couldn’t achieve on their limited budget. This is a very unpleasant story, and no-one can set that feeling of unease quite like Fincher.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the improvements made by the remake end. The story isn’t told any better, in fact, it’s almost exactly the same. It seems to me that the reason to remake a film so soon after the

original, particularly a film with a rich source material, would be to fix things that the original perhaps didn’t handle so well. The Swedish TGWTDT is by no means a perfect film, but Fincher has done nothing to the story to put his own stamp on it.  But I get it, American audiences are largely against watching foreign films with subtitles, and the Millenium series of books has a high enough profile that remaking the films must have seemed like a no-brainer for Sony. Sadly, the mediocre box-office performance has proven otherwise, which concerns me not because of how it affects the chances of seeing the sequels, but rather what this film’s performance means in the bigger picture of the Hollywood studio system as it stands today.

Fincher’s TGWTDT represents something we rarely get from Hollywood nowadays, if ever: the potential beginning of a serious, adult-focused franchise. When was the last time we saw that? The Godfather maybe? It was a commendably risky move from Sony, and scoring an A-list director with a couple of outstanding serial killer movies already under his belt (Se7enZodiac) was quite the coup. And in perhaps their boldest move, Sony and Fincher refused to water down the story for the American audience; indeed Fincher’s version is possibly more brutal than the original. Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is the recipient and administrator of some truly horrific acts of sexual violence, and Mara gives a brave, Oscar-nominated performance*. But the unfortunate truth is the film just didn’t perform well enough to be deemed a success for the studio. Yes, it will make back it’s budget, and with overseas box-office and ancillary markets Sony will make a profit.

But TGWTDT needed to be a smash. The bean counters who control Hollywood will not be satisfied with a modest success, and the lukewarm turnout for this film will almost certainly close the door on any future film franchises of this type, perhaps for another couple of decades. Was the Millenium trilogy, a violent, confronting, and at times difficult to watch series the right property to conduct this kind of experiment with? A quick look at the numbers suggests not. I hope I’m wrong about this, and we see other studios branching out past the typical summer blockbuster franchises, but I have my doubts.

Incidentally, Mara’s performance owes maybe 95% to Noomi Rapace’s fearless work in the original Swedish films. Where was her nomination, Academy?


DVD Review: STAKE LAND

There is such a large number of direct-to-video trash in the horror genre that floods video store shelves, and after five minutes of Stake Land, there was no reason to believe this was going to be anything different. Beginning as an almost carbon copy of Zombieland minus the humour, the film introduces us to a post-apocalyptic world overrun by an assortment of undead bloodsuckers, and our two heroes: orphaned teen Martin (Connor Paolo) and tough as nails vampire hunter Mister (Nick Damici). What unravels however is a suprisingly moving and unique road drama, scattered with some genuinely disturbing scenes, and ultimately one of the best horror movies these tired eyes have seen in quite some time.

Tonally, Stake Land hits all the right notes, mostly due to the wonderfully sombre musical score. It’s very understated and completely appropriate for the atmosphere that director Jim Mickle constructs. Martin, Mister, and the various side characters who tag along for various parts of the journey are all fully realised and generate impressive levels of sympathy, and when things go bad the film is genuinely affecting. Just when the slow pace begins to drag a little, the film wraps things up on a suitably bleak note, yet still offers a hint of optimism in the final moments. The climactic battle isn’t perhaps as effective or well explained as it probably needed to be, but so much works with Stake Land that it’s possible to forgive the few flaws. It’s so rare that a largely unknown horror film can surprise like this, and even for people who usually avoid the genre, Stake Land has a lot to offer.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson is nothing if not ambitious. Following the success of 2008’s Let The Right One In (one of the finest films of the past decade), the director turned his attention to John le Carré’s beloved novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, previously adapted into a highly regarded BBC mini-series in 1979, for his English language debut. All of the pieces seemed to fit: a supremely gifted emerging director, the huge potential in the source material, and a cast assembled from the top tier of British acting talent. Surely Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy couldn’t miss, right? Not quite.

The film follows the story of retired intelligence agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman), tasked with discovering the identity of a traitor in the upper echelons of the British secret service during the Cold War. Told largely through conversations which serve as launchpads for a number of flashbacks, Tinker Tailor is, from a technical standpoint, flawlessly crafted, and Alfredson’s meticulous attention to detail rewards viewers who can keep up with the level of concentration the film demands. Oldman gives a stunning performance as Smiley, one which will rank highly alongside his absolute best, not least of all for the level of restraint he displays. Where many of his best characters in movies past required some level of mania or unhinged-ness, with Smiley he is so still and expressionless that it’s something of a revelation. Smiley is an observer, and Alfredson cleverly devotes much screen time to close-ups of Oldman’s face and eyes, framed beautifully with his enormous bifocals (which also serve a more important, audience orientation purpose in the flashbacks). He conveys so much by doing so little, and while the supporting cast are all excellent, it’s unquestionably Oldman’s film.

So Tinker Tailor certainly has a lot going for it, and the look and atmosphere of the film are something to be admired to be sure. So why was it that I walked out of the cinema so confused and frustrated? Clearly, setting tone is something that is important to Alfredson, and the moodiness and creeping sense of dread in Let The Right One In is one of that film’s greatest strengths. With this film however, Alfredson devotes so much to generating an appropriate mood that, in hindsight, he possibly shoots himself in the foot from a narrative standpoint. Tinker Tailor takes its time to build a wonderful tone, yet the story progression is all but impenetrable. Perhaps reading the novel or seeing the BBC series would make the film more accessible, but for those of us who haven’t experienced either it can be incredibly difficult to fathom exactly what is happening for the bulk of the running time. Added to this, Alfredson refuses to use technique to assist the viewer, with the exception of the aforementioned glasses gag. Tinker Tailor demands so much from its audience that many people may find themselves, like I did, frustrated at not being able to closely follow the plot. Films that challenge you to keep up without holding your hand are all too rare, but maintaining such a level of concentration over 127 minutes is not easy for even the most perceptive filmgoer, and while it’s encouraging that Alfredson assumes a level of intelligence in his audience, he may have pushed it a little too far with Tinker Tailor. But then again, perhaps I’m just not as clever as I’d like to think.

WAR HORSE

What on earth has happened to Steven Spielberg? Despite large amounts of negativity surrounding War Horse, I was firmly of the opinion that anything the legendary director had to offer was worth taking a chance on and seeing in the cinema. Now I’m not so convinced.

After not releasing a film since 2008’s widely derided Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a film which even The Beard himself seems content to blame on best friend George Lucas, Spielberg has returned with two high profile releases in the last month. The Adventures of Tintin was underwhelming aside from a handful of spectacular set pieces, but with War Horse he delivers such a contrived, pathetically sappy piece of fluff that I honestly have a hard time deciding whether the films is meant to be taken seriously, or is in fact some kind of bizarre parody. Spielberg has always teetered into an over-reliance on sentimentality, yet in this latest film he turns the attempted heart string pulling up to eleven, and what we end up with is a completely phony and unauthentic set of vignettes all tied together by our hero: Joey the wonder horse. It feels like one of those ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ stories that you would never believe if it didn’t really happen, with one key difference: this story isn’t true. It didn’t really happen. And so, I never believed in any of it for a second.

War Horse takes the entire first act to build up the character of Joey, who we’re told to believe is a special horse for some reason which is never really made clear. Perhaps ‘told’ is the wrong word to use. OK, we’re beaten over the head with how special this horse is. Following the outbreak of World War I, Joey is sold to the military, in the care of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), to be sent to the front to aid the war effort. Given that WWI is likely to remain the last time horses were widely used in combat, there is potentially interesting stuff here, but after a moderately engaging 20 minutes or so Joey winds up in the hands of two German army deserters. Odd choice, but perhaps Spielberg will allow something to develop here. No, 20 minutes later and our two Germans are out of the picture and this increasingly infuriating horse finds himself being taught how to jump by a young French girl. And so we go on, with stories beginning all over the place, only to be abandoned in quick succession. One thing is constant however, which no-one in the film seems to be aware of: this horse is a frighteningly bad omen, and each new person who comes across Joey and immediately falls for his plucky charm is living on borrowed time. But, luckily for Joey, after spreading misery and death throughout Europe there’s always another poor soul waiting in the wings to take up the reins. I’ll stress again, I just don’t know how to take this seriously.

War Horse is going to be remembered as one of the worst films in Spielberg’s catalogue. It is a movie which abandons all logical cause and effect narrative in favour of simply having things happen without reason, in a glaringly deliberate attempt to enamour audiences to this horse. Spielberg tries to work audience emotions like a twisted puppet master, commanding us to feel on cue, but it is my sincere hope that viewers are smart enough to realise when they are being manipulated. I’m sure Spielberg still has interesting movies to make (fingers crossed for Lincoln later this year), but War Horse comes up lame from the opening scene, and I wish someone had the good sense to put it out of its misery with a bullet to the head.

DVD Review: THE DEVIL’S ROCK

Given that New Zealand is such a small film market, at least in comparison with the wealth of content cinemas have available to them from abroad, the number of homegrown films which see a wide release is unfortunately small. It shouldn’t be a reflection on the quality of local film, just simply the reality of existing in a business so completely dominated by Hollywood. Which is why it’s so disappointing when one of the precious few slots allocated to NZ films is filled by something like The Devil’s Rock, a derivative, achingly slow horror masquerading as revisionist history. The concept is not essentially a bad one, yet it’s handled in such a clumsy fashion that it makes one despair for the state of our national cinema if this is among the best that our filmmakers can do.

Playing out on an understandably small scale, The Devil’s Rock runs with the oft speculated idea that during World War II, Nazis were researching and conducting experiments that dabbled in the occult, and in this case have summoned a demon to a small, uninhabited island in the English Channel. There’s potentially interesting ideas here, but director Paul Campion’s attempts to build the suspense necessary for a film of this type reduce the pacing to a crawl, and what should be creepy and unsettling ultimately ends up being painfully boring. The performances don’t do the film any favours either, with particularly disappointing work from Matthew Sunderland (Out of the Blue), whose baffling attempt at an accent leads to much confusion about who is who, and what his motivation is. Before descending completely into the cheap Exorcist knock-off that it threatens to become, The Devil’s Rock admittedly has an unexpected and welcome twist, although it’s best not to consider the implications of what the film is suggesting in any kind of historical sense. The most successful New Zealand films tend to stick to well defined and culturally specific stories, but sadly, in trying to branch out into genre filmmaking, The Devil’s Rock fails to deliver anything more than cheap, direct-to-video level mediocrity.

DVD Review: SUPER

The past few years have seen an emergence of somewhat dark, subversive superhero films, such as Kick Ass and Defendor, with the newest entry being writer-director James Gunn’s Super. Rainn Wilson plays Frank, who takes on the alter-ego of the Crimson Bolt following the departure of his heroin-addicted wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), donning his homemade costume and wielding a tyre iron to fight for justice against the evils of society. After generating some interest from the news media, Frank unwittingly attracts the attention of the young, foul-mouthed sidekick wannabe Libby (an excellent Ellen Page), and the duo begin to formulate a plan to ‘rescue’ the estranged Sarah from the clutches of small-time local drug dealer Jock (Kevin Bacon). Betraying Gunn’s z-grade beginnings working for Troma Entertainment (even featuring a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Troma maestro Lloyd Kaufmann), Super is a micro-budget, violent, and darkly comic affair, putting a unique spin on the real-world superhero formula. Also of note for fanboys and girls is the presence of geek icons Nathan Fillion and Linda Cardellini in small but memorable roles, adding to Supers charm and credibility.

The film is fun, but some may see it as a movie of missed opportunities. So many indie films deal with issues of depression and heartbreak, and with Super, Gunn had the potential to deal with these ideas in a wholly original way, which initially it seems like the film is trying to do. Frank’s transition from loser fry cook to masked vigilante is clearly an escape from his crippling depression, and coupled with the bizarre visions of religious icons, leads to delusions of grandeur betraying a deeply disturbed individual. Indeed, all of his attacks on the criminal fraternity, while arguably coming from a noble place, truthfully make him nothing more than a criminal himself, and perhaps a much more dangerous one than the people he chooses to fight. After lashing out at a couple for doing nothing more than disobeying common courtesy, Frank begins to doubt his ways, but Gunn chooses to abandon any larger questions, instead opting for a more outlandish path for the story. Still, Super is intended to be a comedy, and in that respect it works well. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but personally if the story had continued into darker, more serious territory I think it could have had greater impact.