Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Millenium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire & The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest

We all love that feeling we get when we start reading a book, but then find ourselves unable to put it down. We read it voraciously, consuming the words, plot and characters like a black hole. We suck them in, and they become a part of us. The characters become old friends, and we
cherish their memory.
Rarely do movies afford us this same type of sensation. Only the epic greats like Jackson's Lord of the Rings can come close. And even these can fall victim to producers so eager to profit off of the fans that they end up disfiguring the franchise in such a way that true fans become disgusted, and turn away jaded. (See Star Wars, the Burton-started Batman, and poor Indiana Jones.)

But, just the other day, I found myself sitting on my couch watching three movies back-to-back. Four more than six hours, I watched intently, pausing only for bathroom breaks and small refreshments. At the end of the third movie, I felt a strange sadness. I was sad that there wasn't another movie to watch. I was sad that I would not be hearing more about these characters in the foreseeable future.

I had heard good things about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book had been a best-seller, and the Swedish film adaptation was critically acclaimed. I was thrilled to discover, that Sunday morning, that the film was available instantly on Netflix. I was even more excited because I had a new iPad on which I could watch it. I have the cables that hook my laptop up to my HDTV, but I find the picture on the iPad to be superior.

So, I started the first movie and was so sucked in by it that I searched for the second, The Girl Who Played with Fire- available instantly! And then, if I'm in for a penny I might as well be in for a pound, I searched for the thrid movie, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest- also available instantly! I love living in the future!

The Millenium Trilogy follows two characters: The tireless investigative journalist, Michael Bloomkvist, and the hyper-intelligent, gothy hacker, Lisbeth Salander. They are first brought together when Salander is hired to find evidence against Bloomkvist, and Bloomkvist is hired to solve a cold case disappearance. Salander seeks out Bloomkvist because she suspects that he's been set up, Bloomkvist realizes Salander had the intelligence and skills to help him solve his disappearance case. Together, they stumble upon a web of intrigue that, by the end of the third film, goes deeper and more personal than they could have ever imagined.

Noomi Rapace plays Salander, and she is a revelation. She displays an icy exterior, but her eyes show the bubbling rage that lies within Salander. If only there were more roles like this. Salander is a character so well thought-out and rounded that only the most skilled of actresses could bring her to life.
Salander's story itself is distinctly feminist. It shows how easily women can be oppressed, how even the most steely woman has vulnerabilities that can be exploited. The intended title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. We see how sadism and misogyny are so often overlooked. If a woman is raped by a man, no one's really surprised, and they wonder what she did to provoke it. If a man is raped by a man, then everyone is shocked. If a prostitute or runaway is tortured, raped and killed, the police don't put in a lot of effort into the investigation. Even in the U.S., rape kits sit on a shelf, backlogged, waiting to be processed, while the rapists freely walk the streets.
Salander's antagonists easily use the patriarchal system to take away her rights. So, her vengence seems entirely justified and logical, because the patriarchal system doesn't give her any other options.

There's also some great villain-casting in these movies. All the baddies are so perfectly loathsome that they turn your stomach.

The films themselves are neo-noirs. Every bit as gritty and artistic as Chinatown and Seven. The light is harsh, the colors are cold, and the characters' environments closely mirror their emotions. It's incredible to see how gloomy and menacing the Netherlands can be, when shot in the right way.
Be warned, there is a graphic rape scene that is brought up in all three films. To say that it is difficult to watch is an understatement. Take comfort in the fact that it doesn't go unpunished, and is not glamourized or fetishized. These movies are not date night material.

What I like best about Swedish movies is the casting. Too often, movies are filled with men and women who look like models, or are certainly better looking than the average person. In these films, the people look like regular people. There are only one or two really good looking people, and that's because it's part of the character. It's not just window dressing.

Of course, the stories are what makes these films so great. Stieg Larsson's characters and plot are well developed and incredibly interesting. He's able to construct conspiracies that boggle the mind, but do not defy logic. Your disbelief is totally suspended while watching, and it feels more like a "ripped from the headlines" episode of "Law & Order" (if they had an all-star writing team) than an episode of "The X-files" (the terrible conspiracy episodes, not the awesome monster episodes).

In short, these are three of the best films I've seen in quite some time. They can hold their own up to The Maltese Falcon, The Lady From Shanghai, and any trilogy out there.
They are so successful that I don't quite understand the need for English versions apart from the fact that a lot of people are too lazy to read subtitles. Dub the damn things if you have to, just please don't dumb down these incredible works for mass consumption. Could you imagine if someone dared to do that to The Maltese Falcon?

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile phone

Saturday, February 12, 2011

They don't make 'em like that anymore: True Grit & The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I grew up watching a lot of westerns. My dad had always been a fan of any western, and my mom enjoyed the Clint Eastwood and John Wayne classics.
Western is one of the most challenging genres. They are operettas. They share a great deal with Shakespearean tragedies, old world mythology, and Japanese shogun films. Central themes include honor, justice, and, most commonly, revenge. They explore the complexity of the moral spectrum- sometimes the good guys are pretty bad, sometimes you have to break the law to get justice.

True Grit is about revenge. The shockingly intelligent Mattie Ross is on a mission to avenge her father's death. Trouble is, she's a 14 year old girl. So, she seeks out the toughest, meanest U.S. Marshall she can find: Rooster Cogburn.

I don't know how, but the Coen brothers managed to make a true, classic Western. I didn't think this kind of movie was even possible anymore. Unforgiven was close, but Eastwood was trying to give us something a little more modern. The Coens clearly studied the old movies closely to create something that feels so authentic.
The way the camera moves and the way the characters interact with each other and their environment evokes the atmosphere of the classic westerns. Part of this success may be that they were so faithful to the original 1968 serial. The dialogue is the shining star. People don't talk like that anymore.

It's a shame that Jeff Bridges won the Oscar last year, because the work he does in this movie is incredible. He contorts himself into this rugged curmudgeon in such a way that he is almost unrecognizable. He chews on his words like tobacco and growls like an old lion. His familiar face is the only thing betraying his identity.
Hailee Steinfeld is amazing as Mattie Ross. Her intensity and tenacity are pitch perfect. It is impossible that anyone else could have played this role so believably and organically. The casting here is excellent. The woman who plays Mattie as an adult, Elizabeth Marvel, blends with Hailee seamlessly.
Matt Damon is good here because he is not playing a hero. Damon excels when he is vulnerable, but good-hearted, and he wears the character of LaBoef as well as the buckskin he sports.

The cinematography is breath taking. It draws inspiration from classic westerns like True Grit, The Searchers, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but it mixes in just enough modern technique to make it all seem fresh. The composition of every shot is lovely. It borrows from both the American western of the 50s an 60s, but it also works in the epic scale and sophistication of Leone's spaghetti western.
The story-boarding the Coens did really shows through. They do it for every film, but here you can practically see the panels. It feels like a graphic novel. Like a less-concept-driven 300 or Sin City. The special effects are used sparingly, and they make quite an impression without distracting from the rest of the film.

Apaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma were noble efforts to try and re-capture the romance and drama of the Western, and truly wonderful films, but True Grit hits its mark without feeling pretentious or boring.

The title itself refers to the quality Mattie is looking for in Rooster Cogburn. He is a lawman, he has morals, but he is not what most would call a "good man". Yet, when the moment calls for it, he is honorable. He has "true grit".
If you love Westerns, or just long for a fresh dose of American mythology, go see True Grit.

Now, for a very different kind of classic, the likes of which you will never see again, get your hands on 1968's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Revel in the glory that is Maggie Smith before we saw her as Professor McGonagall in the Potter movies, or Wendy in Hook. She's a grand dame cut from the same cloth as Judi Dench, Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Mirren, but she just doesn't get the same recognition, and that is a sin!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is adapted from a novel of the same name and tells the story of an eccentric school teacher at a private school for girls in Scotland. Her romantic and bohemian ideas about truth, beauty, art and love lead the students she mentors to places they never could have expected- and not always in a good way.

This movie is sort of disturbing because you think it's going to follow the path of Dead Poets Society, or To Sir, with Love, but it goes careening in another direction entirely. It's a dark tale about obsession, about living vicariously through others, and about how our own feeling of invincibility or superiority can damage those around us.

I'd put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the same category as Doubt or Notes on a Scandal. But the thing I liked the most about it was how it embodies everything I like best about movies made in the late 60s. The fashion, the colors, the hair!
There is some great foreshadowing here and there of the fates of the characters. I won't spoil it for you, but we all know that sometimes the games of children reflect their true desires or destinies.