Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

          A Return Ticket to the Dark Night of the Soul
                  Review by Ken Burke
Nothing essentially new in plot or character revelation in this remake of the Swedish version, but Fincher and Mara are worth whatever comparisons you’d like to make.  
            “Adaptation is a profound process,” says John Laroche (Chris Cooper) in Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002).  He was talking about plants and their accommodation to their natural environments, but when the topic is fictional narratives the adaptation discussion is often about fidelity to the original text or comparison of the merits of the versions to be found in various media.  (If you want to explore these concepts in depth, I suggest starting with Desmond and Hawks, Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature [I verify I get no compensation whatsoever from any sales of this book], but there’s a lot more where that came from; if you want an extensive bibliography please send me an e-mail inquiry directly to  

            A recent focus on the adaptation process brings us to the internationally-known narrative The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where we have several versions to consider:  the original Stieg Larsson novel in Swedish (for those of you who can read it in this form), its translation into English (and other languages, which I also don’t read; what’d ya expect?  I’m an American!), its adaptation into a mini-series for Swedish TV (not seen yet by me but available for purchase if you’re interested; I don’t get any kickbacks for that either—in case you haven’t figured it out yet, you don’t write blogs in order to pay your rent), the compression of that long form to a stand-alone film 
and now another adaption of the foundational novel into another film directed by David Fincher.  Trying to determine which of these options is “the best” is like trying to pair a certain cheese, entrée, or dessert with the perfect wine: it all depends on not only the taste(buds) of the beholder but also on what’s available to that beholder in trying to make a decision between comparable options.

             In the case of The Girl … trilogy one of the considerations is how much reading and viewing a person wants to do in trying to decide on “the best,” but the primary focus for many viewers keeps coming back to the depiction of Lisbeth Salander on screen.  Who you gonna call:  Noomi Rapace in the 2009 film or Rooney Mara in the current one? (Photos of each below.)

Noomi Rapace
             My answer, sure to be dismissed by Lisbeth herself as a wimpy copout, is they work equally well in their respective perspectives and both deserve the praise given them for bringing this vivid character to life on screen.  Certainly there are differences in the portrayals, with Rapace’s Lisbeth as a bit more tough and confident in her dealings with those around her and Mara’s Lisbeth as a bit more withdrawn but she still has the fierce sense of self-protection so vital to this character as evidenced by the determined chase and bodily harm she inflicts on her would-be computer thief in the Stockholm subway scene.  I wouldn’t want to antagonize either version of Lisbeth, although I realize that some viewers will see more of what they respond to in one embodiment or the other, as we all operate from varying aesthetics. 
Rooney Mara
            One place where concrete differences arise is in the choices made by Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev for the 2009 adaptation and David Fincher for the current one.  I don’t think anything essential is missing in Fincher’s edition, but some might disagree with me there as well.  As for minor plot points that change, which somewhat reduces Lisbeth’s secret command of her various situations, I’ll focus on these:  (1) in the original film Lisbeth hacks into any computer she’s interested in so she’s online stalking Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig—here and for the rest of the review the actors cited are from the current film) before they ever meet (and not just in her background check of him as shown in Fincher’s version) so she presents more of an interest in his existence than is implied in the new tale; (2) Lisbeth cracks the Leviticus code by herself in the first film, then they investigate together the deaths of women noted in Harriet’s diary whereas in the new one the discoveries are done through mutual inquiry but Lisbeth goes solo on probing the death circumstances so Mikael’s implied as lead detective; (3) when Harriet is located in Oplev’s film she’s working at an Australian Outback ranch rather than as a banker in metropolitan London (probably because this film just didn’t have time to establish and travel to another location, but this is a neutral change regarding the dynamics between Mikael and Lisbeth); and (4) the ending of the first version quickly deals with confident but duplicitous industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström’s (Ulf Friberg) suicide and Lisbeth’s cleaning out of his accounts while the current film gives us not only a detailed view of her final scheme but also the abrupt end of her budding attraction to Mikael when she sees him continuing his liaison with Erika Berger (Robin Wright), the editor-in-chief of Blomkvist’s Millennium magazine (a sexual connection known and condoned by her husband).  Most of Fincher’s changes take us further from the novel, except the last one which is an important connection to the original Larsson story regarding the negotiated alliance of our protagonists and a clue as to how each director is positioning which of them the films really focus on (and for me, it's Mikael in both cases despite the obvious assumptions about Lisbeth).
          Along with the differences noted above, but more significant in its implication, is that in the earlier visualization there’s a bit more at the beginning about Blomkvist’s conviction for libel against Wennerström.  We also get reminders that Blomkvist has a six-month window before he must start serving his sentence and toward the end of the Oplev version we actually see him in jail for a brief time (where he’s visited by Lisbeth, who brings him the evidence he needs to clear himself), all of which gives us a sense of Mikael’s willingness to accept his punishment—even if unjustified—for the sake of not harming his investigative magazine, so we’re given reason to respect his ethics.  Fincher initially acknowledges the conviction but virtually ignores it after that, implying the miscarriage of justice and lack of needed penalty for such.

Therefore, while the focus is different on what we see about Mikael’s life in each film the accumulation of details shows that he is truly the main character despite the title which emphasizes Lisbeth, as well as the advertising images that either concentrate on her (Oplev’s film, shown to the right here) or present a seeming balance between the two (Fincher’s, shown toward the beginning of the review)Given how Lisbeth avenges herself on her “guardian,” Advokat Nils Erik Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), after he brutally rapes her, how she concretely puts the evidence together that identifies Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgård) as the killer they seek then rescues Mikael from Martin’s torture chamber after he intuitively but inadvertently stumbles onto the monster’s lair, and how she delivers the goods on Wennerström so that Mikael can take him down journalistically before she ruins him financially, you’d think that this narrative is mostly about “the girl” (even if Larsson hadn’t suffered his tragic sudden death just as these novels were becoming huge best-sellers, I sometimes wonder if he wouldn’t have received some retribution from an embodied manifestation of 24 year-old Lisbeth, holding him accountable for using that moniker to describe her).  Yet, for all of her skills, resiliency, and self-control she’s the one who continues to live in the shadows of Mikael’s accomplishments and restored public image, who recognizes in him a potential companion that she longs for but cannot explore because of his prior commitment to Erika, and who must satisfy her need for control of the world that has constantly abused and rejected her by clandestinely bringing down social parasites in a hidden, illegal manner.  In contrast, Mikael is a social crusader so that everything about him is public knowledge, more than he cared for it to be during his trail and eventual incarceration in the Wennerström scandal but he’s finally vindicated for it all and suffers no lasting consequences (even his affair with Erika is essentially accepted public knowledge for the people to whom it matters most) while Lisbeth remains an outlaw off the radar. 

The most significant inclusion in the first film that ultimately gives Mikael more prominence in this story is the fact that when he was a young boy Mikael actually knew Harriet Vanger as a babysitter because his father worked for the Vanger corporation—a partial reason why Henrik Vanger recruited Blomkvist to help find his missing niece—although Mikael had forgotten that relationship in the many intervening years but we get to see glimpses of it in flashback shots (our narrative is set in roughly present day but Harriet disappeared in 1966).  Thus, Mikael recalls his fond connection with Harriet, giving him an actual reason to be so concerned about her disappearance and possible death, the driving element of this narrative.  Even Oplev’s decision to briefly include a reference to Kalle Blomkvist, a fictional boy detective (from actual Swedish novels by Astrid Lindgren) whose name is facetiously connected to Mikael by this story’s journalists, hints at more attention to Mikael than to Lisbeth, for those who know or wish to pursue this narrative in more detail in the novel.  Mikael’s disgust at the reference (used at times by Lisbeth to irritate him) is something that recurs in the book, just as we have considerably more details there about Wennerström, his actual crimes, and how he set up Mikael for the libel arrest.  We’d learn little more about Lisbeth by reading the print narrative than what either Oplev or Fincher has shown about her because all of her pertinent details have been included in at least one of the films—although two primary ones oddly not shown by Fincher are the brief flashback of her setting her cruel father on fire when she was a child, then the visit to her mother in a mental institution while on the Harriet-disappearance case with Blomkvist. 

On the one hand, this relative de-emphasis on her backstory furthers my argument that both directors ultimately want us to retain more about the reserved Mikael than the fierce Lisbeth, but it could also be that Fincher knows that many of us are aware of LIsbeth’s stormy past from the previous books and films so he’s saving an emphasis on her until the upcoming sequels in which her past and present travails will properly take center stage.  It’s also likely that Fincher chose to eliminate the Mikael-Kalle Blomkvist joke noted by Oplev because that would take too much explaining to an American audience while a Swedish one would get the reference even without returning to it as Larsson did, but why Fincher eliminated the Mikael-Harriet connection isn’t immediately clear to me.  Still, when we see how passionate Blomkvist is in Fincher’s film to solve her mysterious disappearance as well as find the killer that Harriet has referenced in her diary we’re given reason to admire Mikael’s quest for justice, which may be a bit more abstractly humanitarian than Lisbeth’s angry desire to simply locate and punish yet another crazed brutalizer of women.  (As indicated by her hacker name, Wasp [noted only in Oplev’s version], whose sting proves deadly when given the chance to strike—even in a semi-comic fashion in the Fincher film when she asks Blomkvist if it’s OK that she kills Martin, although fate leaves him instead killed by an oncoming truck as he tries to elude her pursuit.  There's no comic relief at all in the older film where Martin is burned to death in the car accident but she might have been able to pull him out before the fireball explosion; whatever her options, she makes no attempt to save this murderous beast, which clearly troubles Mikael’s moral sensibilities despite Martin’s plan to kill him, again showing Mikael’s structured perception for the audience as occupying the slightly higher moral ground in both films than the justified but retaliatory Lisbeth.)

While I hope you’ve found all of these adaptation/comparison discussions useful in considering the larger context of this immense narrative in its many manifestations, I also need to put attention just to what we encounter in Fincher’s film, because even if someone were to see it with only the vaguest awareness of its predecessors I think it’s still a powerful experience that warrants a high rating, consideration as one of the best films of the year, and some analysis of what it presents about something being rotten in another part of Scandinavia than Denmark (things are pretty rotten there as well, at least in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—reviewed elsewhere in this blog—but that’s more the fault of the impartial cosmos than punishment for the sins of the characters as we get in our sad story of personal debasement in Sweden).  Fincher’s visual power is on display from the first in this film, as we would expect from the director of Expressionistic, noir-ish triumphs such as Alien3 (1992), Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002), and even some aspects of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)—although these films remind us that he’s also effective at conjuring up engaging yet flawed characters as we see in these and less assaultive works such as Zodiac (2007) and The Social Network (2010), the latter where we first briefly met Rooney Mara as the girlfriend who would dare to break up with Mark Zuckerberg and thereby lead to the creation of Facebook as his vengeful anger snowballed long past his unappreciated student life at Harvard.
Compared to the generally more high-key lighting used by Oplev, at least in exterior images of the Swedish countryside and the area around the Vanger compound in Hedestad, even Fincher’s snow scenes in the opening shots are in overcast light, throwing a grey pall over the winter not-so-wonderful land (Mikael’s later relocation to this north country will find him in similar desaturated hues, as if the life has gone out of the Vanger territory, which we’ll learn it has in many disturbing ways).  From there we get into Fincher’s discomforting opening credits where the predominant tone is black and the visual contents are a constantly-moving collage of liquids, mysterious techno elements, and body parts seeming to struggle for escape from the ooze that surrounds them.  As we move into the film, it flows through consistently excellent cinematography, an evocative but often purposefully disturbing soundtrack, and an energetic pace from start to finish (Wait, I thought this was supposed to be Swedish!  Sorry, one of my usual bad puns, but I thought we were due for some relief from all this calculated heaviness).  The editing consistently intertwines the lifelines of Mikael and Lisbeth until they meet and form their tentative partnership, but even then we continue with the juxtaposition of their separate investigative missions.  We also get immediately useful visual characterizations of both of them:  Mikael in his suit in the courtroom, somber at the unjustified verdict; Lisbeth in urban grunge, seemingly surviving on a diet of Coke, ramen noodles, and cigarettes.

Fincher proves masterful in streamlining this story, which for me proved harder to follow in both the novel and Oplev’s adaptation.  Possibly it’s just because it was my  third time through this material, but for once I didn’t have to rely on a genealogy chart (Larsson provides two of them in the book to help us keep the extended Vanger family straight, because even Mikael admits there are so many relevant relatives that they get quickly confusing).  Fincher is skillful at reducing unnecessary detail in what is a content-packed but still long film (158 min.).  He successfully limits the screen time—or even appearances—of most of the Vangers, he creates effective compressions of action such as the efficient scene where LIsbeth relates to Mikael the information she’s found on the women murdered (by Martin’ father, as it turns out), and he uses the seeming cinematic movements of a series of still photos on Blomkvist’s computer exploring Harriet’s last known day with her family in a manner that energizes this progression of images differently from the famous Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) style of successive photos shown singularly in accumulation toward revelation as seen in Oplev’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Fincher also uses more known—the current James Bond (Craig) and the always powerful, often menacing Skarsgård—and in some cases more photogenic faces for his characters, including Christopher Plummer (patriarch Henrik Vanger) and Joely Richardson (key Vanger niece Anita).

What seems very Fincheresque to me, although it comes from Larsson, is the whole demented killing spree of “undesirable” women perpetuated by Martin Vanger’s father and justified by the citations from the Biblical/Torah book of Leviticus.  These harsh prescriptions of punishment for sinners from ancient Israelite tradition are based on concepts of uncleanliness and necessary purification of the offender's community to regain the favor of God.  Martin and his father desecrate anything holy about the intentions of these punishments of sinners by taking it upon themselves to determine who is unclean in our world; further, with Martin’s decision to continue his father’s homicidal lifestyle by “disappearing” a good number of his version of the “condemned” (immigrants, vagrants, etc.) he also continues the embrace of Nazism that has cursed many of the Vanger family.  This kind of vengeful “cleansing” is very reminiscent of Fincher’s Se7en where Kevin Spacey’s unhinged “John Doe” not only kills his victims in the name of the Seven Deadly Sins but also sinks to a greater level of twisted religiosity by bringing his wrath upon himself for the sin of envy of Detective David Mills’ (Brad Pitt) potentially happy life with a wife and expected child by goading Mills to kill him at the film’s conclusion, leaving the cop culpable for murder.  Martin Vanger would never see himself as a sinner, yet Fincher simply allows him to be destroyed by an oncoming truck in his attempted escape from LIsbeth’s pursuit, as if he’s so despicable that he’s not worthy of the revenge she’d love to dish out to him (but he’s directly following Larsson's plot structure here rather than Oplev's). 

This is about the only anticipated horror that Fincher doesn’t explore in this film, but even with all of its perverse darkness it still is worthy of viewing, even if you’re already familiar with its antecedents, because of the marvelous command of characterization and disturbing cinematic talents on display.  It’s certainly not a film for the squeamish, as none of The Girl… books and films are, but you likely knew that already, so while the buyer should beware I do encourage you to buy (despite any lack of commission for me if you do, damn it).

Given her determination to cut the chase on everything, I’ll finish this review with Lisbeth’s likely response to me about her not truly being the central focus of the story (as announced on one of her T-shirts in the film [not shown below, but how could I resist using this as a parting image?]):

                                     F*** You, You F***ing F***

            (The film is rated R; I’m trying to keep my reviews in the PG zone, although it seems that I’m drawn to analyzing mostly R films.  I guess I need some Spielberg in my diet.)

            If you’d like to explore the new version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in more depth here are some recommended links:

            If you’d like to refresh yourself a bit on the first version of this film try this:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

              “Lights, Camera, Action … LOTS of Action!”

                               Review by Ken Burke
                                                    Sherlock Holmes 2
If the only way you can appreciate the concept of the great 19th century English detective is through 21st century non-stop action, then here it is; otherwise, don’t bother.

                                                                Mission: Impossible 4                 
However, if all you want is action without the cerebral intrusion of plot complexity then Cruise and company will leave you appropriately breathless so feel free to dive in.
            In our current economically-challenged society even the normally recession-proof movie industry has hit some hard times recently, so the arrival of the year-end holiday season and the concurrent box-office boost offered by a couple of noisy sequels has come as a welcome relief for studio executives and theatre owners.  I don’t think that either Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows or Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol are films that need that much reviewer energy (they provide their own internal combustion, to varying degrees of success and will survive on their own recognizance no matter what the critics say) but they are worth some commentary, just because of their subject matter, so here goes a combo commentary on both of them.

            The latest addition to the lengthy Sherlock Holmes canon should not be confused with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, despite the latter title’s apt description for what Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and Noomi Rapace are doing to Holmes’ estimable legend.  Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud … also features a cast of well-known actors but put into the service of a very serious and seriously well-regarded drama about events pre- and post-9/11.  Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows shows respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s plot contrivances about the seeming death of the title character, but beyond that it appears that Ritchie wasn’t content to leave World War I to Steven Spielberg’s War Horse so he had to bring in an attempted early version of that insane war as well, whether it serves the Holmes legend or not.  Just as Extremely Loud … would actually be a slightly better comparison to the new Mission: Impossible because of the connections to international catastrophes and conspiracy theories, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 might be a better comparison, at least for me, to the Holmes film because both seem to have nothing but pandering to established audiences eager for more of their expected contents to justify their existence (although I’m sure that Bill Condon’s young lust love with vampires and werewolves story at least does more justice to Stephanie Meyer’s novel—but I’m not going to read it to find out—than Ritchie does to anything ever scribbled by Conan Doyle).

            It’s become a recurring pleasure to see Downey anchor both the Iron Man series (although that sequel—directed by Jon Favreau [2010] as one of the many preludes to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, due in 2012—was also long on effects and short on substance) and the new Holmes series (oh yes, with this kind of return on investment we’re sure to see more of Sherlock and Watson; let’s just hope that the next one doesn’t do a Hound of the Baskervilles-like howl as loudly as this one does).  But, it does seem a waste of the Holmes persona to go so fully into the action-adventure mode in this movie rather than give us more of the mysterious mystery-solver that this character has personified for decades.  Similarly, the latest Mission: Impossible seems to be taking a hint from the recycled Sean Connery remake of Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965) into Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983) by evoking James Bond plot devices from Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971), and Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)Sherlock Holmes 2 (for title expediency) also seems to be borrowing from Bond in upping the ante from merely a London locale to the level of international intrigue, diplomat assassination attempts, and an armaments monopoly maneuver that turns Dr. Moriarty into a 19th-century version of Ernst Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger.  Maybe everyone is just tired of waiting for Daniel Craig to get back from his sojourn in Sweden with that tattooed girl and return as the real Bond but we’ve certainly got plenty of opportunities to remember 007 in these current action attacks.

            “Attack” characterizes the plot of the Holmes film quite well because Sherlock is dodging fists, bullets, and bombs from all sides whether he’s in an alley, an exotic gentleman’s club, a train (with possible memories of Bond again, this time From Russia with Love [Terence Young, 1963]), the Paris opera house, a forest in Germany, or hovering over a dangerous waterfall at an 1891 peace summit.  Toward the end of all of these assaults Holmes even seems to sacrifice himself to avert war by plunging into the waterfall with Moriarty, just as they both were intended by Conan Doyle to die in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” short story, set in 1981, first published in 1893, with the same raging waterfall but a location in Switzerland rather than the film’s Germany.  But the author was persuaded by reader demand (and publisher payments) to bring the master sleuth back so in print we’re just told later by Watson that he didn’t die after all.  In this film’s ending we get a clearer explanation involving Mycroft Holmes’ (Sherlock’s brother) small oxygen mask for asthma (apparently as efficient a breathing device as those used by the Jedi knights on Naboo in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999]), but we also get an explicit appearance by Sherlock, brilliantly camouflaged in Watson’s furniture, assuring us that the game will soon be afoot again.  Hopefully, if Ritchie continues on as the director as he has been with the last two he’ll steer more toward a movie resembling the chess match between Holmes and Moriarty just before their “fatal” plunge rather than your great-grandfather’s adrenalin rush that we get here, where in addition to James Bond memories I also kept flashing on aspects of CSI, The Matrix, and Pulp Fiction as Holmes, Watson, and gypsy Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) hurl toward their final destination.  However, I guess a change of direction is too much to expect from the guy who brought us such cerebral pleasures as RocknRolla (2008), Snatch (2000), and the pulse-pounding Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998).

             Speaking of Rapace (and her Tattoo mate, Michael Nyqvist, whom we’ll get to presently in M:I 4—another necessary title abbreviation), she proves herself to be more conventionally (and alluringly) feminine looking in this film than in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy (not that there’s anything wrong with her being a justifiably withdrawn, yet self-sufficient cyberpunk, a role she totally owns) but she’s also pleasingly tougher than expected for the 1890s (just as Holmes and Watson have more of a “bromance” than we’d expect for those days, but these films aren’t made for an 1890s audience).  Rapace exudes both charm and self-defense successfully, further verifying that we should be seeing her on screen for quite some time in whatever language, maybe even as a future consort for Holmes now that the attractively devious Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) has been dispatched by the dastardly Moriarty.  That would be welcome, but preferably in more of a game of wits rather than the slam-bang fest of narrow escapes served up in this movie.  I may be embracing a long-lost fondness for a slower-paced, puzzle-driven mystery story that doesn’t play to contemporary video-game action mentalities, but I still prefer to encounter Holmes as a mastermind classical detective (he’s practically the archetype of this aspect of the clue-sniffer genre, except for the even earlier 19th century Edger Allen Poe mystery stories) rather than just another of the now more common “hardboiled” variety (first popularized by the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane, embodied in characters such as Sam Spade [The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, 1941], Philip Marlowe [The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks, 1946], and Mike Hammer [Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich, 1955]).  A lot of negative commentary similar to mine has been directed at this film, but reviewers’ criticisms pale in comparison to turnstile tickets so maybe if I want intellectual detectives I’d better watch Columbo TV reruns or a DVD of The Seven- Per-Cent Solution (Herbert Ross, 1976) and let Downey’s Sherlock continue to explore his wilder side for a younger crowd who can appreciate it more.

            On the other hand, when I see a Mission: Impossible film I expect non-stop action, seemingly implausible physical feats, and a plot that just propels me along rather than expecting me to catch its nuances.  In this sense the newest addition to Tom Cruise’s career life preserver is wonderfully fast, expensive, and almost out of control—all in a very good way.  It’s not that these movies are so effectively self-contained that they don’t still need strong direction (which they’ve had in abundance, with Brian De Palma guiding the first one in 1996, John Woo the second in 2000, J.J. Abrams in 2006, and now Pixar’s Brad Bird).  But with their successful heritage from the 1960s TV series, filled each week with fascinating plot contrivances, sophisticated spy technology, and ingenious disguises, the important directorial choice is simply not to make the situation complex in a traditional Sherlock Holmes manner where to truly appreciate the narrative you must eventually understand all of the twists and turns and see how the clues dangled before you come together at the end in a meaningful whole.  With the M:I films, just like the Bonds before and alongside them (sometimes a bit too much so as noted above for Ghost Protocol), what we expect is the effect of a bomb being rolled down a bowling alley lane so that either the pins are sent flying along with the rest of the building when all hell breaks loose or somehow those crafty agents are able to divert the rolling bomb just in time into a bucket of beers behind another lane to prevent the detonation.  Anything more complex than that, despite the requisite number of confusing characters and muddled motivations that don’t have to be understood anyway, would be an unwelcome reversal of formula, disappointing the intended M:I audience—which would now include me—in the same way that A Game of Shadows ultimately disappoints those of us who want to slow down and think a bit with Holmes, just as we do with his far-distant TV cousin in House.  Brad Bird certainly doesn’t disappoint those Impossible expectations and neither does his well-chosen cast, despite the almost unstoppable events that they face this time around.

            In the course of the film’s 133 min. running time we travel to Budapest (probably shot in Prague), Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai, San Francisco, and Seattle (Vancouver was in there somewhere, probably in disguise as the U. S. crown of the Northwest).  The most visually stunning images occur in two of these settings, the first being the bombing of the Kremlin, a terrorist act blamed on Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) IMF team, leading to American disavowal of them and greatly compromising their needed resources to keep a madman from detonating a nuclear warhead, thereby touching off Armageddon just so humankind will have to evolve into a more robust species (see, I told you that you don’t need a lot of plot details: just crazy man, missile, and we gotta stop that!).  A related amazing sequence takes place in a Moscow prison where we begin the film with Hunt incarcerated, only to be sprung by Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), whose skills with computer hacking and properly-supplied escape vehicles convince us that two people are a match for one of the world’s most heavily-fortified jails (the chaotic scene of prisoners running wild as their cell doors suddenly swing open is reminiscent of the jailbreak in Natural Born Killers [Oliver Stone, 1994], although here it’s bodies flying around the screen rather than blood).  Once Ethan’s on the loose (and, based on the images we see of him through the prison system’s video monitors, even he seems a bit surprised when the breakout begins, but not so much that he doesn’t insist on going a bit rogue to make sure that he also saves a needed informant—just wait until the third act, after you’ve completely forgotten about him, to see why this guy is needed), he says “Light the fuse,” which does have minor plot meaning as an eventual aspect of the escape distraction but for us it just leads into the perfunctory but extremely well-executed opening credits montage that’s impossibly active but almost worth the price of admission alone.

            The other stunning aspect of this movie is the exterior tower scrambling on the actual world’s tallest building high above the deserts of Dubai.  We’d never expect something so demanding and dangerous to go well—it doesn’t, until the last possible moment—but that’s all to our advantage as we climb, fall, and swirl along with Ethan high above the city, looking out over a landscape that could easily be from the Star Wars galaxy.  To top this off, we then go through a clever subterfuge in which two separate villains are seemingly bamboozled by the crackerjack IMF’ers, but no victory goes unchallenged here so one baddie finally takes the long-awaited fall from the upper stories of the skyscraper and the other engages Ethan in a wild car chase through a completely blinding sandstorm.  You might think this would already be enough stimulation for any three ordinary action-adventure films (a genre I still say is ill-suited to Sherlock Holmes, even if we do get to see slo-mo previews of how he’s going to outfight his foes), but in M:I 4 all this is just a prelude to the real crisis awaiting, requiring even more split-second timing and last second rescues.  We’d just better hope that the reauthorized IMF team is around on December 21, 2012 to prevent that Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy from being fulfilled (Cruise can finally put his Scientology training to good use instead of using it to form anti-anti-depressants diatribes on talk television). 

In the end, there’s nothing substantial about the narrative qualities of the Mission: Impossible films including Ghost Protocol, but, unlike the original Sherlock Holmes stories, they’re not pretending to be good literature, just a good holiday escape from the harsh realities of paying bills (ironically, including the constantly higher prices of movie tickets), a goal well reached by Brad Bird in his first foray into the world of live action films, in this case extremely “live” action.  We even get to see somber Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) from the Swedish dragon tattoo films transformed into Kurt Hendricks, a Swedish-born Russian more deadly than Lisbeth Salander, in M:I 4 where’s he’s now the mad bomber villain taking Darwinism to ridiculous extremes.  Likewise, Jeremy Renner gets to continue his move away from the serious worlds of The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) and The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010) into the secret agent role of William Brandt, a capable, ultimately compatible partner for Ethan Hunt, so this team will likely endure into even more preposterous but spine-tingling adventures at least until Cruise takes his desire to do his own stunts off one too many a cliff.  Unlike with the Sherlock Holmes films, though, I hope the next one of the Impossibles doesn’t take the intellectual route because this series needs to keep its all-action all-the-time focus to keep from falling off its own cliff of plausible deniability. Accept this Mission but leave Holmes in the Shadows for now.

            If you’d like to explore Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in more depth here are some recommended links:

If you’d like to explore Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol in more depth here are some recommended links:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Young Adult

         Look Homeward, Angel of the Morning
                 Review by Ken Burke

Just because you were all that in high school doesn’t mean there’s any “that” there years later if you assume you can just regenerate your former small-town heat.

        Conventional wisdom says “You can’t go home again,” but one strategy to overcome that dictum is to never leave in the first place or at least scamper back quickly after a required stint in college or an away-from-your-parents job done for no particular reason except social expectations; conversely, there are those who yearn to scamper far away but whose circumstances or lack of courage never allow such a leap into hyperspace.  In one way or another, various parts of that last lengthy sentence get to all of what’s relevant about director Jason Reitman’s new collaboration with Diablo Cody in Young Adult, anchored by a marvelously self-deluded starring role from Charlize Theron.  Reitman and Cody teamed up previously for Juno (2007) for which Cody won her Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (and just about every other award she was nominated for that year), while Theron took her Oscar (and many other of her own awards) in 2003 as Best Actress for Monster.   As far as Oscars are concerned, Reitman’s the groom still waiting at the altar but he was recognized heartily for Up in the Air (2009) for which he could have shared a producer’s Best Picture Oscar in my opinion (sorry, Hurt Locker, although I‘m still glad that Kathryn Bigelow finally cracked the Best Director glass ceiling that year over Reitman and even James Cameron—for the spectacular Avatar).  So, with this much talent in command of the project you’d expect plenty of payoffs, which are well delivered throughout, from Mavis Gary’s (Theron) pathetic beginning to her self-righteous ending epiphany. 

            Now, let’s deconstruct that all-encompassing opening sentence above to see what’s happening with this film.  Mavis’ life personifies the advice about not being able to go home again (although her parents are still there in fictional Mercury, MN to welcome her back to her old, untouched bedroom—when she finally gets around to visiting them after first checking into a local motel).  Even in her later thirties she’s the kind of person who mistakenly thinks that nothing has changed in her old world so that she can just waltz (or whatever the hot dance of the ‘90s was; I’m too out of date to know, but unlike Mavis at least I realize it) back into her former life and everything will be the same as when she left.  She’s also too jaded by her quickly flaming-out success as a ghostwriter for young adult romances to realize how less-than-all-that she’s become or how unalluring her drunken attempts at seduction are to her former high school love, Buddy Slade (affable, befuddled Patrick Wilson).  A legend in her own mind, she’s the complete opposite of her unnoticed, barely remembered ex-classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) who’s painfully aware of his own limitations.  In fact, if these characters were somehow in the same universe and email address book as sex addict Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) in Shame, Brandon would easily recognize the desperate desires of Matt and the shameless wreck of Mavis and send Matt a holiday e-card with altered “Holly, Jolly Christmas” lyrics that say “F*** her once for me,” because all of them would know exactly where their various motivations lie (I had planned to use that line in my Shame review but had no proper place for it, so I just stuck it in here—thereby clearing my short-term memory and once again overriding my Shame[ful] allotment of tacky puns). 

            When we first meet Mavis on a late autumn Minneapolis morning she’s the epitome of living too many years after a film that might have been called Minor Triumphs at Mercury High (apparently she was voted “Best Hair” as her crowning glory).  She’s passed out on her bed then revives herself with a swig from a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke, her apartment’s a mess, her printer’s low on ink, and her life seems to be on auto-destruct.  Later, we find her in her bed with a sleeping guy that she’s obviously bored with because she soon decides to pack and return to Mercury to put her life back in order without even bothering to wake him up.  Visually, we quickly surmise her downfall by her Hello Kitty sweats, which reminds those of us who are Seinfeld-obsessed of the challenge laid down by Jerry to George:  "You know the message you're sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You're telling the world, 'I give up. I can't compete in normal society. I'm miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.'" This is from the episode called “The Pilot,” which, of course isn’t the pilot of the series but a postmodern self-referential plotline within the series; Mavis might be able to appreciate this because her YA stories seem to be nothing but recycled memories and fantasies of her own adolescence but then again she might not be able to sober up long enough to even comprehend the concept.  As she heads toward Mercury (a planet too hot to sustain human life but here a town too dull to sustain Mavis’ self-image) we see two other signifiers of her present state: we can barely see her through her dirty windshield just as she can barely see where or why she is headed, and there are constant closeups of the machinery of her car’s cassette player (!) which keeps repeating the same tunes from her mix tape, helping maintain the perpetual limbo of her stunted existence. 

            Mercury seems stunted as well, with so many of its residents just perpetuating the lives of their parents and its commerce perpetuating the chain stores of the more thriving metropolises—Chili’s, Staples, Macy’s, and the nutritional Nirvana of a combo KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut.  This is the anti-matter version of “can’t go home again,” the forgotten planet of “never left home to begin with” which is on a collision course with Mavis’ world in a manner akin to the cosmic catastrophe we witness in Melancholia and likely on a scale of similar significance for Mavis’ priorities.  In Mercury, Mavis’ past is still alive to welcome her home…somewhat…as she’s easily remembered (but only as the snotty slut of the school), even though the only one she cares to remember is ex-boyfriend Buddy, whom she thinks she can swoop away from his wife and child as if marriage were a drive-through dry cleaners where she can pick up an old drop-off order anytime she feels like it.  Probably her own failed marriage (see the second clip noted at the end of this review) gives her little respect for the institution, but neither Buddy nor his wife nor any of her other new-mother bandmates in the local rock group Nipple Confusion (writer Cody at her best) share Mavis’ attitudes.  About the only characters we meet who understand why Mavis left in the first place are justifiably bitter Matt and his just sadly bitter sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe).

          Matt tries to talk sense to Mavis, even as she refuses to listen.  In response to Matt’s reminder of Buddy’s happy family status all Maris can comprehend is that “I’ve got baggage too.”  Verifying Matt’s command of the situation we see Mavis calling Buddy almost as soon as she arrives in Mercury, laying on the attempted sweet seduction while on his end the camera cuts off his head showing us only his hands and baby bottles as he’s preparing breast milk for feeding time.  Meanwhile, Mavis doesn’t even seem to know Matt despite his locker being next to hers throughout their high school years and his momentary notoriety for having been savagely beaten by jocks who wrongly assumed he was gay (in typically accurate satire from Diablo Cody we learn that once the assault was no longer seen as a hate crime than the media attention disappeared, leaving Matt merely broken and forgotten).  He’s the saddest example of the Mercury residents we see who have decided to just stay put, but he’s got good reason to be and doesn’t have his vision clouded by absurd assumptions as does menacing Mavis, who’s so self-centered that she never even seems to get back to her motel to walk her little dog (see the first clip noted below) day or night.  All Mavis can respect in Matt is his ability with homemade whiskey and his constant availability to listen to her plans for Buddy, given that he’s still sadly enamored of her despite the known reality of her bare acknowledgement of his existence.  Ironically, Mavis berates him for living in the past, in terms of his unrequited passion for her and the anger over his unprovoked attack.  Such a charge against her would be as obvious as the voiceovers that we hear periodically when Mavis is narrating to herself the scenes of the last of her YA books, mirroring the events we’re witnessing in the film as she continues to structure and rationalize what’s happening for her own benefit as least as she wants to understand it.  The main thing that’s not happening, though, is Buddy’s general disinterest in her “princess rescue” scenario, even though his wife, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), makes Good Samaritan-like gestures to Mavis, although with terrible results.

            As far as the opening sentence’s aspect of “those who yearn to scamper far away,” we turn to back to Matt’s sister, Sandra.  After Mavis finally gives Matt the respect (and the sex) that he well deserves, she leaves him asleep in bed, just like our initial introduction to another Mavis one-night stand (you have to wonder if she’s ever had breakfast with any of her conquests).  At this point Sandra gives her the seething “F*** Mercury!” pep talk (Wow! Two distinct uses of our most versatile swear word in one review; George Carlin would be pleased) which sets Mavis on the road again, this time with more purpose than she had after high school (if her car makes it very far after she wrecked it while attempting to park in her motel lot).  For some viewers this may all seem like the related TV story of Quinn and most of her Glee friends in another Midwestern lost destination where perpetuation of past parental choices seems the only option for new generations (New Directions, indeed; not for most of them, by their own admission). However, I trust Diablo Cody to be pulling from her own experiences here, and it’s certainly a situation that speaks actively to millions who wonder what might await beyond the limits of small town/small city confinement.  But invigorated by Sandra, Mavis leaves with only a loathing for the rooted folks of Mercury, finding direction for herself at the expense of respect for any of them (probably excluding Matt, although in this context her night with him could have been community service on her part before her final self-banishment).  Sandra and Mavis agree, “Everyone here is fat and dumb,” which just works as a rationalization again, rather than any real maturing on Mavis’s part.  Mavis may be the older of Cody’s most well-known movie protagonists, but I’ll still give the maturity prize to Juno. 

            Cody’s script might generate some award nominations, though, because it’s a marvelous blend of biting comedy and serious social confrontation.  Things get very uncomfortable when Mavis ruins Buddy and Beth’s naming ceremony for their baby, then detonates the bomb that she was pregnant years ago by Buddy but miscarried.  This shockingly somber tone halts the comic pace, with little attempt to regain it as the film wraps up.  Still, the script effectively calls attention to itself through sharp, penetrating dialogue which is executed well by the entire cast but especially Theron.  Generally speaking, Reitman’s direction of this film is effectively functional with a steady pace and easily conveyed visuals.  A couple of times he indulges in quick energy montages of Mavis primping herself up for meetings with Buddy with emphasis on her pedicure, facial, and hair management, although the second of these adds a bit of humor with shots of equal attention given to the fluffing and hair spraying of the fall she uses to enhance her own follicles (given that she has a couple of bald spots where she’s nervously maimed herself a bit).  Unlike the script, which is notable but not distracting, the direction is intentionally low-key, although the final front-on shot of Mavis’ battered car is a fine choice to end this sad but hopefully useful tale of thwarted obsession. 

It’s clear that Mavis has been through a lot of emotional collisions since her brief glory days as small pond queen of the hop so this car image could just as easily be a metaphor for her.  She’s definitely had the pit stop she needed back home to gather herself—and finally begin the pursuit of a life narrative that wasn’t initiated by someone else, as was the book series that she was given only minor acknowledgment for.  What she does with her reinvigorated third act is not for this story to follow, and she certainly doesn’t have enough fuel to share with desperate Sandra who wants to leave also but it’s not going to be with Mavis who makes the mutual (?) decision that Sandra fits better in Mercury (?).  Like Matt, his sister still is awestruck enough by Mavis to follow her lead and “wisdom,” but it remains to be seen if Mavis yet knows best for herself or anyone else.  

When I attended my 25th high school reunion (quite awhile back, the 50th is fast approaching) I was surprised at how many of my former classmates were still “back at the ranch,” seemingly satisfied to have gone 50-100 miles away for more schooling (for those that even did that) then returned to settle in for the duration.  Like Mavis—and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) in George Lucas’ 1973 American Graffiti, a different take on coming of age stories (or avoidance thereof)—I had to leave, only to return occasionally but with no desire to reclaim anything I left behind and a satisfaction from the reunion that I was on the right path in another place.  Whether Mavis will find such satisfaction in “Mini-Apple,” a nickname for the Twin City she’s quick to tell her hick former friends has no current cachet, is a tale for another film, but it was satisfying in this one to see what she had to confront to be able to get mentally as well as physically out of Mercury.  The day that she can take comfort in that decision because she’s learned she needs more than Mercury can offer rather than just rejecting everything about the place as beneath her own supposed God-given gifts is the day that she truly moves beyond Young Adult fiction.  

            If you’d like to explore this film further here are some suggested links:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.
Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.