Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seems like an unusual project for David Fincher to take on. Hot on the heels of his success with The Social Network, Fincher plunged into the depths of the sordid tale of bisexual sociopath computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist and their hunt for a serial killer in the northern Swedish countryside, frozen by Arctic winds and isolation from the more cosmopolitan south. It was this kind of bloody-minded escapade that made Fincher’s name (Se7en remains his masterpiece), but there is also the matter of the Swedish-language adaptation that was released just two years before. Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth therein was seen as definitive and, though flawed, was seen as not warranting a remake (technically, it’s not a remake, but a fresh adaptation of the book). The odds are not in Fincher’s favour.

And yet…

… and yet, he is Fincher, one of American cinema’s modern masters. With his usual blend of style and fierce energy, he upgrades the rather bland visuals of Niels Arden Oplev’s original film whilst still preserving the plot, for better or worse. Following an opening credits sequence reminiscent of a James Bond title sequence, we see James Bond himself, Daniel Craig in the role of Blomqvist, leaving a courthouse after losing a defamation suit taken against him by wealthy industrialist Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). It’s strange to see the man who would be Bond in such a defeated state, yet there he is, reduced to taking leave from the magazine he co-edits (with his lover, played by Robin Wright) in order to escape. Except he’s not escaping; he’s going to work for retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and help him solve the mystery of the disappearance of his grand-niece some forty years previously. Meanwhile, Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is living her own brand of life in Stockholm; working as a professional investigator, being generally provocative and anti-social and being abused by her state-appointed custodian Bjurman (Yorick Von Wageningen). Credit to both Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) for not toning down the sexual violence of Larsson’s tome; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a decidedly uncomfortable watch. As Lisbeth suffers her abuses (and plots revenge), Blomqvist’s investigation of the eccentric Vanger family (including Stellan Skarsgård’s Martin and Joely Richardson’s Anita) exposes old wounds including Nazi sympathies, bitter feuds and abuse. The original Swedish title of the book was ‘Men Who Hate Women’, and this film is full of them. At its heart, however, is a woman who hates everyone, and Mara inhabits Lisbeth with a disconcerting blend of childlike frame and sheer ballsiness. Watching this brittle waif suffer is extremely uncomfortable, but seeing her exact revenge is just as horrific, if not more so. An avenging angel made flesh, Mara is riveting. Craig is convincing as an everyman-type, but both characters ultimately bloom when they finally team up to solve the Vanger mystery. They have a lot of information to cut through, and so do the audience.

Fincher and Zaillian may have kept the more horrific elements of Larsson’s story, but there’s always a feeling throughout Dragon Tattoo that they could have done some more fine-tuning on the script. Fincher has infamously wrangled with the studio over the length of Dragon Tattoo’s final cut, and the finished product (all 157 minutes of it) ends up suffering from the same overload of information that dogged the Swedish version. The depth of Zaillian’s overly-reverential script means there’s just about enough time to give every character his/her due. Fincher wanted a longer cut, but this could have rendered Dragon Tattoo a potential bore. On the other hand, we await a director’s cut that doesn’t reduce the likes of Goran Visnjic (as Lisbeth’s boss) or Embeth Davidtz (as Blomqvist’s sister) to cameos. What we do get, however, is a memorable whodunnit (think Agatha Christie with added torture and nipple piercings) which only really differs from the previous version in its punchier visuals and the change of language. Fans of the book now have two well-acted versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to choose from; either will suffice, since there’s so little difference between the two. Like the Swedish version, Fincher’s Girl is complex, imperfect (the final act, with a changed ending stretches patience.) and displays a uncompromising gusto, the sort that has been missing from mainstream Hollywood since the late 1970s. If a renaissance in R-rated mainstream drama is beginning in Hollywood, it’s off to a solid, though flawed, start.


Review: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam


Some films pay homage, some films get remade and some are like Twelve Monkeys. Chris Marker’s little masterpiece La Jetée gets an expectedly downbeat redux in Terry Gilliam’s film, and proves a good template for remakes/adaptations by being incredibly faithful to the source material. Add in Bruce Willis, and you’re on to a winner.

La Jetée itself is probably one of the biggest proponents of that great cinematic device, the dystopian future. As in Marker’s short, most of mankind has been wiped out by a virus and the survivors that remain have been forced underground to survive. As seen in Brazil, Gilliam is a dab hand at blending the futuristic, the dystopian and the chaotic and, much like that film, the future of Twelve Monkeys is well realized though aesthetically grim. Amongst the futuristic refugees is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who can reduce his sentence by signing up for a time travel experiment and bringing back a sample of the virus to synthesize a cure. When the plan goes awry and Cole ends up in 1990, he is certified as insane when he tries to explain himself. Cole ends up in a mental institution under the watch of Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and where he befriends fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt excels in a barrage of paranoid ramblings and nervous ticks, while Stowe’s initial cynicism melting into care for Cole makes her lack of a consistent career since all the more strange. Meanwhile, Willis turns in one of his best performances as the wronged and battered protagonist. After a few more failed attempts, Cole eventually ends up in 1996 and, with Railly’s help, discovers the truth about the virus and the group who released it, known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, now led by Goines and bent on destruction.

La Jetée was a downbeat film, but it overcame it with beautifully simple filmmaking technique and a runtime short enough to prevent the audience getting too down. Twelve Monkeys does get a little maudlin, but the movies have been telling us for years that the future is done for, so why worry? The future is grim, but Gilliam cleverly doesn’t make the present look much better. The virus was stolen from the laboratory owned by Goines’ father (Christopher Plummer), and once again our present selves become the architects of our future destruction. It’s not terribly optimistic, and key plot turns sometimes hinge on coincidence or happenstance, but Twelve Monkeys is brilliantly brash and bizarre, honouring Marker’s mini-opus whilst making a mark all of its own. Monkey see, monkey do, do see Monkeys.

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam


You have to pity Terry Gilliam. His film projects have an unfortunate habit of going belly-up. From the debacle over the edit of Brazil, to the overbudgeted fiasco that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, to the collapse of the now-in-development-again Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam has faced down a lot of problems and come through bruised, but still standing. Tragically, one man who didn’t come through making The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was Heath Ledger, who died in January 2008, midway through the shoot. With his usual pluck and verve Gilliam, having initially put the film on hold, hit upon the novel idea of having different actors portray Ledger in scenes in which his character Tony ventures into Dr Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer) Imaginarium. With aplomb, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law fill in the gaps in Ledger’s performance, while the scenes Ledger filmed prove the talent he displayed in The Dark Knight and I’m Not There; a wonderful actor was taken long before his time, and he will be missed.

Sadly, the rest of the film doesn’t meet the high standard Ledger sets. To be fair, the supporting cast (Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole (in a breakout role) do fine. They bring enough credibility to their roles. However, the script (by Gilliam and Charles McKeown) doesn’t do their talents justice. The story (involving a travelling show centred on a portal into an alternate world called the Imaginarium and a wager between Parnassus and Waits’ Satan) is nigh-on unfollowable, and is so far-fetched as to rob the audience of any empathy for, or interest in, the characters. Yet, as with much of Gilliam’s back catalogue, the emphasis is not on story, but on visuals, and the trips the the characters take into the Imaginarium are undeniably beautiful. Rivers morph into cobras, and ladders stretch to the sky, yet they can’t make a throwaway script work, and thus the film falls flat. The scenes in the Imaginarium are the most interesting, but there aren’t enough of them to save the film, whose pace sometimes slows to neutral in scenes set in the real world. To paraphrase George Lucas, a special effect without a story is a boring thing.

Kudos must be given to Gilliam for presenting beautiful and original images to us, and for preserving the final performance of a great talent. It’s just a shame that that talent wasn’t invested in a better film before it was taken from us.

Review: Beginners (2011)

Director: Mike Mills


Many times in life, we are forced to compromise our happiness. Then, we are freed from societal pressures and can once again search for whatever may complete us. In Beginners, Hal (Christopher Plummer) and his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) are beginning the search for that completeness. Oliver is embarking on a relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whilst Hal readjusts to life after the passing of his wife. How? By coming out as a gay man at the age of 75. Clearly, happiness is a concept that differs from person to person.

Writer/director Mike Mills (who also directed the underrated Thumbsucker) takes inspiration from his own father, who also came out after a lengthy marriage. Beginners jumps back and forth through time, from Oliver and Anna’s relationship in 2003 back to a few years before, to Oliver’s time with his father from his coming out to his death from cancer (we learn this happens in the film’s opening. No spoilers here!). It’s the bedrock of many an indie movie: characters coping with the most unusual of circumstances. Where Beginners differs is in its refusal to get too maudlin, even when the big ‘C’ lurks in the corner. Like the character of Hal, Beginners takes events as they come with a big smile on its face. Oliver meets Anna shortly after Hal passes, and seeing this depressive guy and this feisty girl hook up is all kinds of wonderful. McGregor gives one of his warmest performances here, whilst Laurent is a delight, filled with sensual charm. Best of all is Plummer, as he embraces life and loves with a wry smile and a distinct sense of mischief. With renewed vigour, his lover Andy (Goran Visnjic) and his dog Arthur (a frequent scene-stealer), Hal fills his days with writing, shopping and laughter. The erstwhile Captain Von Trapp may need to have speeches ready come awards season.

Mills’ script is full of identifiable warmth; for such a happily energetic film, Beginners feels remarkably intimate. As Hal’s condition worsens and Oliver and Anna’s relationship gets rocky, the pace becomes more subdued, but the reaper’s gotta be paid sometime. Mills deftly handles the jumps in chronology, but his direction veers towards brash on occasion. Mopey voiceovers and montages scream indie cliché, but there’s simply too much joy and warmth in Beginners for it to be anything less than beguiling.