Tag Archives: films of 2011

Shame (2011)

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Behari

Expressionism & Realism

I don’t really know where to start with this film since it is so beautifully layered. It’s hard to believe that it’s only Mr. McQueen’s second feature. The level of accomplishment and the confidence that exudes from each frame is astonishing. Perhaps it’s what Orson Welles attributed to the artistic cinematic success of his first two features: the brash ignorance of film technique married to the proficiency and success in another visual art medium (theatre for Welles, photography for McQueen).  The resulting Shame is the type of film and the kind of film-making you wish was more popular or acceptable but, at the same time, understand why it is not. With it, Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender and, to a lesser degree, Carey Mulligan have crafted an exquisite piece of film art that blends realism and expressionist subjectivity (like Mr. Welles particularly did in his first film, Citizen Kane)  to powerful, resonant effect.

On the surface, the subject of this film is Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) sex addiction, but this seems more of a categorizing and way of promoting the film. Sure, Brandon has a sex compulsion to the point of it controlling the way he lives his life. The sex is not wanton or erotic. Like all addictions it leads Brandon to loneliness and isolation. His apartment is stark, his nakedness spartan and fitting in to the minimalist aesthetic; his job is nondescript and his habits are those requiring solitude (Internet pornography and masturbation).

The loneliness is drawn out by the expressionist qualities of the film. The opening scenes in Brandon’s apartment are especially expressionist with frigid and sterile blues and greys. The opening shots of Brandon lying on his bed make his face skeletal and his form dismembered in the way the sheets cover his body. Brandon’s clothing is plain and muted (pale glen plaid coat, pale grey scarf, pale blue shirts). His state of mind is as washed away and as dead as the environment he lives in. It’s not until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in that colour disrupts his world. Upon coming home to discover Sissy in his apartment, Brandon picks up her purple-pink boa with the end of a bat rather than with his hands. Red is the colour that becomes most explicitly linked to Sissy (her Annie Hall-esque hat and her lipstick as she croons “Ney York, New York” ).

The suggestion of the colour is not as a contrast to Brandon’s sterility in terms of vibrancy, but instead it suggests danger and sex. Sissy is, of course, a danger to herself as well as to Brandon’s mode of living. Toward the end of the film she attempts suicide and stains Brandon’s environment and his self with blood. Just prior to this Brandon’s compulsion for sexual anonymity has taken him into a gay sex club which is awash with expressionist red. Brandon’s sexual desire and frustration is at its highest, most dangerous point. It could be that red, already associated with Sissy, is being used again to connect Brandon’s compulsion to his desire for and sexual frustration toward his sister. Mr. McQueen’s targeted use of expressionism in lighting and colour draw attention to Brandon’s character and his motivations.

The realism of the film is brought to the fore in Mr. McQueen’s favoured  use of  a single-camera set-up (static, pans, and tracking shots) and long takes. In Hunger (2008), this technique was used most notably in the scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the priest (Liam Cunningham) — one take, one camera, no camera moves. Shame doesn’t use it to such an extreme, but when it is used (such as Brandon’s morning routine or his stalking through his own apartment while Sissy is with his boss in the bedroom or the attempted sexual encounter between Brandon and Marianne) it leaves the audience as transfixed as the camera is on what is happening. I can easily see many viewers being uncomfortable with something so stationary (which is partly the point). There’s no illusion of action, there’s only the person or people in the frame and their sense of confinement and, of course, the power of Mr. Fassbender’s fierce performance. Holding to a single camera and a single take allows Mr. McQueen to take full advantage of his lead actor’s ability to weep out, to sweat out, to excrete the essence of his character through his body, his mouth, and his eyes. How Mr. Fassbender was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (AMPAS) for an oscar nomination is ridiculous.

Shame is a virtuoso example of cinema. It is crafted with confidence and complexity (I haven’t even gotten into the film’s main themes) and uses the full repertoire of cinematic syntax: camera work, montage, light & colour, performance, and sound & music (which I also haven’t dealt with). As long as Steve McQueen continues directing films (and especially if he continues his collaboration with Michael Fassbender) then the type of film that should be more popular and should be seen by adult/grown-up/intellectually mature audiences will continue to be made. It’s the type of film and film-making that demands our support.

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Young Adult (2011)

Director: Jason Reitman

Screenplay: Diablo Cody

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswald, Patrick Wilson

The Agony & the Apathy


You know, of course, the old Klingon saying that revenge is a dish best served cold, but that is rarely true in cinema where the revenge film genre is full of hot-blooded violent male fantasies. It is also true that these films tend to be thrillers in which males become, at least in part, victims of their own drive for revenge for wrongs done to the women in their lives (the subtext being that without women there would be no need for revenge and the male soul would be at peace). Some of these are pretty good movies — Mad Max (1979), Memento (2000),Taken (2008), and  Drive (2011), for example — while others are beyond the pale in their implications and cruelty (and, in my experience, they tend to belong to the rich sub-genre of Korean revenge thrillers).But in the wake of all this blood and gun-play, imprisonment and mutilation, comes a very different kind of revenge fantasy: Young Adult from the director and writer tandem that brought the world Juno(2007). Now, I’m going to abandon my usual (and common) director-biased view of cinema in favour of the writer of this film, Diablo Cody.

It seems to me that Young Adult is a film seeking vengeance not for its main character (Mavis), but on its main character. The film is cold and cruel as it strips away her props and delusions until she is left stained and naked save for the decidedly un-sexy NuBra stuck to her breasts. She perfumes herself with booze, sleeps it off face-down in her own self-negligence, washes it out with diet soda, gorges on KenTacoHut (KFC + Taco Bell + Pizza Hut all in one far too convenient fast-food box store). She is repeatedly pricked, snipped, and re-polished by indifferent manicurists and pedicurists; she plucks out the grey and pins hair-extensions to her head; she smashes her Mini and abandons her Pomeranian. Mavis is a wonder of both projection of loathing and injection of self-loathing. Do I think we are supposed to feel sorry for this character? Yes, that’s where I think the revenge fantasy is seemingly fulfilled. When Mavis finally has her breakdown in public, none of the other character is surprised. They pity her and yet have no mercy for her. But Ms. Cody isn’t done with Mavis yet. Victimized geeks must get their revenge, too, and Patton Oswald’s Matt Freehauf fulfils his fantasy by having sex with the hottest girl from high school whose jock friends beat him to within an inch of his life and left him an emotionally and physically scarred cripple. But the ultimate revenge comes right at the end, after talking with Matt’s sister on the morning-after, the promise of Mavis’s redemption, atonement, and self-awareness is rendered meaningless. Mavis is nudged back toward loathing and she accepts the invitation whole-heartedly. She apologizes to her dog, but to no one else, and heads back to a life of denial and reaffirmation in Minneapolis. I suppose this is the final cruelty to complete the fantasy, and ultimately because she’s a type and not a person, she deserves not to be redeemed; it wouldn’t be true and she clearly doesn’t want it — and neither does the audience.

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Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast:

Mean Streets: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson

Hugo: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invention of Martin Scorsese & the Invention of Hugo Cabret

In 1973, Martin Scorsese arrived on the New Hollywood train and opened up new tracks for himself, his contemporary peers, and the aspiring film-makers to follow. With Mean Streets (not his first feature length film), all the hallmarks of Mr. Scorsese’s craft and visual narrative-style are on display and in development. For me, however, the most notable of these traits is not the slow-motion tracking shots, not the inspried pop-rock soundtrack song selection, not the collaboration with Robert De Niro; it is instead his ability to present deeply personal films with such inviting sincerity as to make the characters and themes accessible to a range of viewers. Sure, there’s low-level gangsters and ejaculations of violence (by men against men and against women) and Catholic guilt and Sicilian modes of family dynamics, and I’ve never had to deal with any of those things. On the other hand, I’ve felt the muddy mixture of ambition and weakness that plagues Charlie; I’ve known people not as self-destructive as Johnny Boy but certainly with those tendencies; I’ve fallen for the wrong girl at the wrong moment. I can find my experience inside Mr. Scorcese’s Mean Streets just as clearly as he can find his in the characters of Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa. The same is true of Hugo, so why didn’t I connect to it? Why didn’t I love it?

Hugo  is personal for Mr. Scorsese in an academic or intellectual way rather than in the visceral way of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976),  Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983). There are some similarities thematically to most of his work: search for redemption, the boundaries of small communities, family and honour, but the over-arching theme of this film is much more self-referential. It is so not to Mr. Scorsese himself, but to the milieu he had a hand in transforming, the world of film. The power of cinema on both an individual and a culture, the art of film-making, the preservation of film, the wonder and child-like adventure associated with the craft and experience, the debilitating struggles of financing and fickle audiences, all of these are apparent in this movie. Film is so important here that the film academy library is housed in a building that appears are grandiose and large as the Paris train station where Hugo lives. The difference is that the library is full of light (and knowledge) it is silent and a place of serious study while the train station is a place of toil and threat for Hugo.

I wanted to love Hugo, but as beautifully crafted as it is, it feels like a clockwork invention or a wind-up movie. I’m sure this was most definitely deliberate: the tightening of the book’s narrative (such as, cutting out the character of Etienne, softening Hugo character, playing up the part of the Station Inspector), the intricacy and depth of 3D composition, and the family-friendly redemption and healing for all at the end certainly point to this conclusion. I hope Mr. Scorsese continues to make deeply personal films, but I also hope they are about life and people rather than work and hobbies.

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Certified Copy (2010) (2011)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell

If you have not seen Certified Copy, then you should immediately stop reading and see the film, and then you should come back and read my thoughts. I really knew very little about this film and do not want to take away the rewards received from it by anyone watching it for the first time. Needless to say, I think it’s marvellous, and I would  encourage anyone and everyone to see it.

The Art (or Forgery) of Marriage & the Art (or Forgery) of Europe

Certified Copy is the type of film that invites you to think rather than makes you think. It’s not because the film is full of big ideas, but it is because the film doesn’t explain itself. In fact, if it did try to explain itself and let the viewer explicitly in to what the characters and/or the filmmaker know, then it wouldn’t work nearly so well. At best it would end up like good M. Night Shyamalan; at worst it would end up like bad M. Night Shyamalan. I’m not suggesting that there is anything supernatural about the events depicted in this film (there absolutely isn’t), but there is something unearthly about the quality of this film. And so, I will attempt to explain the unexplainable and, in doing so, probably destroy the magic of this movie.

Central to the scenario is the relationship between the two leads, Juliette Binoche as the unnamed woman and English opera singer William Shimell as James Miller. This relationship can be summed up in two simple sentences and yet be unfathomable:

They are strangers. They are married.

Of course, these are not exclusive of each other. I’m coming up on eight years of marriage (a drop in the bucket for some, but a lot longer than many), and while I certainly wouldn’t describe my beautiful wife as a stranger, I also wouldn’t be arrogant enough to say that I know her completely and fully (and I think she would say the same about me). If the lead characters in Certified Copy are married (and I have no idea whether or not they are), then the notion of the individual and her/his existence within the environment of marriage is something the film is exploring. Do lives become more individual as marriage elongates?  Do we find excuses in work or the relationships with our children to justify a desire to retain our individuality just as money and child-rearing entangle us with tendrils of practicality and responsibility and love? Is the  nature of love (or a certain type of love) to be simultaneously estranged and intimate, to be hostile and forgiving? These questions and more are brought out not initially in the film, but after one absolutely brilliant scene: in the café where Juliette Bincohe’s character confesses or schemes or employs the ruse of her marriage. The owner of the café sees the couple in one way; it is a perspective we have not yet thought of. To her there is no doubt that they are married, yet for the audience it is the planting of the seeds of doubt since before this point we had accepted them as strangers. For the rest of the film we are not distracted by this question. For the rest of the film our attention becomes heightened to their relationship, and we have our ears pricked to pick out clues to satisfy our curiosity. It’s not a puzzle or a game; it’s a key idea of the movie.

So, are they married?

Their intimacy, Miller’s fluency in French, their shared memories of the night before and her drives from Florence (I think) to Rome all point to them, in fact, being married. There are subtler clues also, such as how Kiarostami brings us into intimacy with these characters as they begin their drive to the village. He starts the camera deliberately outside the car, shooting through the windscreen and then slowly, almost imperceptibly brings us into the car, into their relationship as it becomes more personal and less of a conversation between strangers and about art, but about marriage.

At least equally, however, there is evidence the other way: that this is all a fake and they are not married at all. Miller’s complete lack of memory of the village upon their arrival and the personal landmarks within the village (such as where they spent their wedding night). Also, the son at the beginning of the film displays neither recognition of nor interest in Miller. Does it matter whether or not these characters are married? To me, it does not, and if it does to you, then Certified Copy will leave you frustrated. What seems to matter is the attention placed on their relationship and the tension between the real and the unreal, the original and the forgery, and, in terms of art according to the James Miller character, the value intrinsic to both forms.

Now, briefly on to the other matter this film raised for me… Europe.

Let me qualify this by saying that I don’t think Certified Copy is an overtly political film. But, in these days of the questioning of the legitimacy and the existence of Europe, I think the politics are present with the question of what it means to be part of Europe.

Technically, I am a European… I was born in England. Of course, the UK is not really part of Europe, so for that reason I don’t count myself as European and I grew up in Canada, so that disqualifies me also, and I’ve lived a huge chunk of my adult life in Asia, so I’m disqualified again. So, definitely, I’m not European. Certified Copy, on the other hand, is European; French financed, French star, English leading man, Italian location, and directed by an Iranian. Yes, this is the new Europe, the 21st century Europe.

On one hand this plays into the clear theme of the film: the tension between the real/original and the fake/copy. Who can be a European? An Englishman? An Iranian? The European Union is politically experimental, but based somewhat on the model of the United States of America. How original is it? More than politically or economically, Europe is about culture and why, with its dealings with art and art criticism, I feel comfortable talking about Certified Copy as a statement on Europe even though it excludes the Germans. Clearly my thoughts on this topic are still embryonic and I’m not entirely convinced within myself that there’s anything more to them than just an inclination on my part to have them. But, as Juliette Binoche and William Shimell’s characters were arguing in the restaurant in the final act of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if on some level this film was a statement on the moment of European existential crisis.

If it is or if it isn’t, it makes no difference. Certified Copy is a magnificent, thoroughly enjoyable film. Bravo.

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The Interrupters (2011)

Director: Steve James

Cast: Eddie Bocanegra, Tio Hardiman, Ameena Matthews, Gary Slutkin, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams

Apathy & Empathy

The Interrupters  is the latest documentary feature from Steve James, the celebrated director of Hoop Dreams (1994), which, I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit, I have never seen. The Interrupters highlights the work done by CeaseFire in Chicago and its dedicated violence interrupters as they attempt to mediate peace between individuals and within individuals on the streets and in the neighbourhoods of some of America’s most violence-blighted places. From a rhetorical perspective, the film posits that violence is a disease and, as such, that it is infectious, viral, and communicated in a hereditary manner. Being surrounded by violence creates acceptance of violent behaviour, witnessing violence instigates new violence. being a victim of violence spawns retaliatory responses, and having a violent parent creates offspring prone to violence. The interrupters of CeaseFire step in as social/community antibiotics  or antibodies and, by their own admission, are not trying to solve the root causes of violence in these Chicago neighbourhoods (poverty, education, political disenfranchisement), but the major symptom these factors lead to: violence on the street as it is happening.

The Interrupters is a movie full of emotions; anger, guilt, and regret are the most prevalent for the subjects of the film. For me, there is sadness here, too, and it is derived from my own reflection on this movie rather than the states of the lives depicted within it. Statistics presented in the film, such as more Americans being killed in these neighbourhoods than in the Iraq War, are sad, but sadder still is that it doesn’t shock me; it doesn’t even surprise me. My own apathy to the plight of urban America is also sad. I could excuse myself by stating that Englewood is so far away from me here in Korea and my white middle-class liberal upbringing and lifestyle. It is far away and far outside my experience and it doesn’t touch my daily life.  Could it be that I just don’t care?

Is this movie even asking me to care? I don’t think that it is. It doesn’t feel like a call for action from the intended audience as it is not an overtly political film. But, with its direct cinema style, it strives to present a truth by being in the situation. The film is successful in creating empathy for how these kids, mostly, see themselves and their futures whether it be at a funeral or from a little girl crying in a classroom or a troubled teen receiving a manicure at an up-scale suburban shopping mall. Indeed these most moving and powerful episodes in the film work precisely because the camera is there just as the Interrupters need to be there when violence erupts. The personalities in the film (notably Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie) are strong and wilful. They seem to be the best Interrupters not just because they can relate to the gang and violence stricken youth having come from these neighbourhoods and culture and having spent time in prison, but because they made the hard choice to activate their knowledge and experience to help. They didn’t “get out” of this culture, instead they are seeking to have the culture view itself in another way. The individuals Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie most closely interact with in the movie are being asked to make that choice, too. Mr. James and his documentary don’t offer up any greater answer than this: be there and choose. Or, as Spike Lee so magnificently demanded, do the right thing.  The film shows, in the complement of content and style, that individual actions make a difference to individual lives and if these actions are positive then instead of a cancer you have a regeneration of self, community, and society.

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Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marian Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Léa Seydoux

Woody Allen & the Art of Impression

There are few things  in cinema as delightful as a good Woody Allen comedy. Happily, Midnight in Paris is a good Woody Allen comedy and ,as such, a delightful combination of dreamy lightness and romantic allure. Most of its script breezes by effortlessly, and it’s only when the film attempts satirical digs of cynicism that things fall a bit flat. For example, the entire relationship between Owen Wilson’s Gil and his fiancée Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. I bought this relationship in their scene together in Monet’s garden at Giverny, but once they actually started interacting with each other and with others, I couldn’t understand how they ever got together in the first place. Likewise, the repeated jokes of Gil’s politics and his would-be father-in-law’s Republican ethics also fall flat and feel tired. In fact, by design or not, all of the characters in the present day story are either completely forgettable, one-trick ponies (Michael Sheen and his deliciously wicked smile, for example), or stunt casting (Carla Bruni). Another thing that didn’t work for me is the film’s opening montage of Paris, its streets and corners. It recalls the opening of Manhattan (1979), but lacks the majesty, romance, wit, and drama of that opening. It feels touristy or superficial rather than displaying the intimate knowledge of a native resident.

But, these are quibbles, really, because the charm of the fantasy and its main character completely won me over. Perhaps the reason for this is the film is a kind of pastiche of Mr. Allen’s earlier work. Aside from the allusive Manhattan opening montage, this films share other similarities: both films’ protagonists are successful comedy writers (Isaac Davis a television writer and Gil Pender a Hollywood screenwriter) and, to my eyes, there is a resemblance between Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy in Manhattan and the character of Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) in Midnight in Paris.  There are also pieces of Everyone Says I Love You (1996) — including, a reference to Mr. Allen’s character’s introduction in that film walking the streets of Paris with a baguette under his arm — and, most notably, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) that thread through Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender’s name is suspiciously close to the second Jeff Daniel’s character’s name in Purple Rose, Gil Shepherd. Both films draw the audience into the acceptance of the fantasy through sympathy with the protagonist and our desire to break the fourth wall and join our heroes and icons in a life away from the normal, and both films offer up the same message and conclusion, that life in the present, life in the real is not so much the correct choice, but the only choice. Just as Cecilia cannot join Tom Baxter on the silver screen, Gil cannot really join the Lost Generation or Adriana in the Belle Epoque. The difference is that Cecilia’s life really is miserable and is a much more sympathetic character: she lives in the Depression, a shitty job, and an abusive husband. Gil, on the other hand, is wealthy and successful, and his misery comes from the neglect of his dreams and emptiness of his life. Where we desire the best outcome for Cecilia because we genuinely feel pity for her, we desire the best for Gil because of his innocence, charm, and ability to drop his current life to pursue his dreams; it is an envious position to be in and that’s really our fantasy fulfilment.

Another aspect in which Midnight in Paris is similar to the writer-director’s previous  work, this time I’ll recall Everyone Says I Love You specifically, is the presence of the Woody Allen on-screen persona. Both these films exhibit two of the best Woody personae, but in very different ways. Edward Norton’s performance as Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You is much more of an impersonation of that persona, almost as if Mr. Allen was directing his younger self once again. After watching the PBS American Masters documentary on Mr. Allen, it is made evident that he spends very little time working with the actors trying to explicitly get what he wants from them. It’s plausible that so many of the performers in Mr. Allen’s films receive acting accolades is because the director trusts the actor to do his or her job. If this has been a consistent trait throughout Mr. Allen’s directing career then Mr. Norton’s performance comes from his own decisions to embody the ticks and traits of Woody. Owen Wilson’s performance decision makes the Woody persona a much subtler presence; it’s more impression than impersonation in that it suggests Woody rather than shows him. This allows the Owen Wilson screen persona to shine through and fill out the character of Gil Pender with the winsomeness that has permeated probably all of Mr. Wilson’s roles — my favourites being Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996), Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Hansel in Zoolander (2001). I’m not suggesting that Mr. Wilson’s performance is better than Mr. Norton’s. The latter is probably harder to do well (just watch Kenneth Branagh try it in 1998’s Celebrity), but I do think that Owen Wilson’s performance lifts Midnight in Paris. He endows Gil Pender with anti-gravity so that the audience can float along and away much like Goldie Hawn dancing by the Seine near the end of Everyone Says I Love You.

I’m sorry if I again sound down on this movie by continually comparing it to Mr. Allen’s previous works. I’m not. I really, really like Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen recalling the artistic past of the early 20th century by way of his own past is a cab ride I’ll gladly take for 90 minutes once or twice and probably more than twice. I don’t think Midnight in Paris is a great film, but it is a very good one and a very sweet and earnest one. If it’s your introduction to Mr. Allen’s work and you enjoyed it, then seek out its tonal soul-mates Everyone Says I Love You and The Purple Rose of Cairo (which is the best of these films and one of Mr. Allen’s finest efforts). And, if you enjoy those, go forth and indulge in the wonder of as many of his films, the light and the dark,  as possible.

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Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Main Cast: Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Juilanne Moore

The Camera & Ryan Gosling

I had heard of Ryan Gosling, of course (both of us being good southern Ontario boys), though until Drive (2011) I hadn’t actually seen him in anything. But since that film I have now seen him in two other films, both from last year: The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid, Love. I don’t think he’s all that good in The Ides of March, but his performance in Crazy, Stupid, Love is similar to his, for me, quite fabulous turn in Drive. In both films he is very still and lets his demeanour and sense of cool fill the screen. I think the best example of this is his character Jacob’s date with (the totally fabulous) Emma Stone’s Hanna. Ms. Stone is the performer in the seen how gets to be full of expression and emotions (nervousness, desire, ridiculousness, attractiveness, humour, criticism) and she has, and the audience, has great fun bouncing this expressions of the statuesque farm and form of Mr. Gosling. I have no reservations in stating that the man is objectively beautiful and the camera loves him. As their date progresses to the bedroom, the camera lingers on his body, his lines, his physicality. In a film full of a truly fantastical continuum of beautiful women, it is the male form that the directors choose to exploit for aesthetic, performance, and narrative pleasure.

I found Crazy, Stupid, Love to be funny, well-cast, slightly-inane, and with a refreshing lack of cynicism. Other thing worth noting about the film is Analeigh Tipton (who will feature in one of my most anticipated films of 2012, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) as Jessica the babysitter; she’s really great while the two kid actors are not so great.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) ~ Part Two

Lisbeth & Victimization

Like most members of this film’s audience, I found the character of Lisbeth to be the most interesting aspect of the film. I don’t want to get into a debate as to which actor’s portrayal of this fierce creature is better. Both Rooney Mara in Fincher’s film and Noomi Rapace in the 2009 Swedish adaptation are excellent and both performances reveal Lisbeth in a unique light. I was thoroughly interested in this character in both films and found both actors to be fabulous. Ms. Mara’s take is admittedly softer than Ms. Rapace’s; this allows for the motivation for her actions in the film’s coda (which is much longer in Fincher’s version than in the Swedish version) to be understandable. I got the sense that Lisbeth was acting out not from her sense of right and wrong, but from her feelings for Blomkvist and it shows the lengths to which her loyalty stretch. The very ending of the film, however, collapses the newly emerged structure of security which she has built from her feelings for Blomkvist and Lisbeth is left, once again, betrayed, taken advantage of, and abandoned by an adult male/pseudo-father figure.

Lisbeth is capable, resourceful, technologically hyper-proficient, physical, and she expresses violence (all predominantly male traits). Lisbeth is also a victim, and as such, she engenders our sympathy. At the surface, Lisbeth is familiar, a bad-ass female hacker/assassin – see, Nikita in La Femme Nikita (1990), Mathilda in Leon (1994), Trinity in The Matrix (1999), The Bride in Kill Bill (2003), or, more recently, Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010) and Hanna in Hanna (2011) — and yet she feels rare. Perhaps it is because of this rarity that I feel that the character (not the person who embodies the character) should be nurtured away from narrative victimization. That is, I don’t want this character to be trapped in the narrative desire of making women beholden to men, and I resisted all the moments and devices in this film that put Lisbeth in that box. My main problem is with the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist. As partners (colleagues) their relationship is formidable; as friends, I see the trust and acknowledgement and equality. As lovers, however, things fall apart for me. My concern certainly doesn’t come from the idea of Lisbeth seducing Blomkvist and using him physically. Her motivation is, to my mind, perfectly valid. What I have to question is first the authorial motivation and then how Fincher’s film ensnares Lisbeth in a scenario in which, having gained trust and companionship, she is once again victimized. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the Blomkvist character is partially a stand in for the male author, and subsequently the male reader or viewer. If so, then the character of Lisbeth has no choice; she becomes victim of the desire to express the appeal of her character sexually. Once subjugated to the fantasy she is then, at the end, victimized by Blomkvist’s abandonment of her as companion, sex partner, lover, and colleague. This abandonment is not in the Swedish film adaptation (though it is apparently in the novel).

The passivity of the viewer is mirrored in Fincher’s film by Blomkvist’s disinterestedness in sex. The first mention of his sexual nature comes from Lisbeth when giving the briefing on her investigation of him in which she offers the conjecture of him being a distant or uncaring lover (not enough oral sex, in her opinion) in the sexual relationship with his publishing partner at Millennium (Robin Wright’s character). Later in the film when this character shows up at Blomkvist’s cottage on the Vanger estate, Blomkvist is practically ordered to provide sexual services; he is passive and indifferent towards sex. Again, later in the film, while Lisbeth is having sex with Blomkvist, he is so disengaged that she must order him to stop reading and speaking so that she can climax. On one level this is to enable Lisbeth as the sexual aggressor (I might be wrong, but she does come across as more forward toward the girl she sleeps with from the club, though that encounter is more equal with this character offering to remain as a protective presence when Blomkvist shows up unexpectedly the next morning), but it could also show Lisbeth as needy. In the just mentioned scene, Lisbeth is seemingly in control (she’s on top, her orgasm is of primary importance), but Blomkvist is so impassive that once she rolls off him he just continues with his reading and his vocal thought… who’s in control? In each scene of sex, it is Lisbeth who is depicted as naked, in need, and vulnerable. This works as a reflection of her vulnerability in the rape scene, which is shot with close-up similar to sex scenes later with Blomkvist, and it works as the female lead character pandering to the screen fantasy of female nudity, even if frontal, below the waist nudity is a rarity in mainstream American cinema.

There is certainly a lot going on with the character of Lisbeth Salander in both films of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is too much to gather from a single viewing of each film and my thoughts will become more coherent as the films I process and reflect on them in the weeks and months to come, but it seems clear to me, as always, not to take any film at just the surface level. A film that intends to be about the violent victimization of women should be able to bear such scrutiny. Having seen all of Fincher’s films, I trust that he has made deliberate and purposeful choices in his depiction of Lisbeth.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) ~ Part One

Director: David Fincher

Main cast: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright

I went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last Thursday morning (January 12th) with my wife at Lotte Cinema here in Wonju. We weren’t quite the only people in the theatre, which isn’t surprising for a weekday morning matinée, and I prefer to have as few strangers around as possible when watching a movie.  I’m a bit of a fan of David Fincher’s movies; The Social Network (2010) was my favourite film of last year and his 2011 offering was one of my most anticipated film’s of 2011. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a bad movie, and I do recommend seeing it. That being said, I didn’t like it tremendously, and this reflection is likely to highlight the negatives more than the positives because it’s the negatives that have stayed with me since viewing the film.

The lights dimmed, I cleaned my glasses, and the movie started, and I had problems with it almost immediately. The sound mix in the opening scenes (before and after the title sequence) seemed terrible. Perhaps this was a problem with the theatre’s audio system, but I didn’t notice any problems for the rest of the film. Perhaps it took me a while to become accustomed to the accents of mostly non-Swedish actors sounding Scandinavian or perhaps it was just my brain trying to figure out what was going on. The opening of a mystery should pose a lot of questions, but this film’s opening was disjointed and baffling to me. The scenes immediately before and after the title sequence are thermally cool and slow. That’s fine, but in-between is an eye-catching, pulsating title sequence that is, to my mind, at odds with the tone of the film so far and the film to come. Done in shades of black and punctuated by oily malevolence and a rousing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, the title sequence plays both as homage to and perversion of James Bond. Audio references to Vikings and  lands of ice and snow aside,  it also sets up fetishistic and pace expectations that are not part of the film at all. The song works perfectly well in this trailer, but not in the film itself. One trailer for The Social Network made brilliant use of a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”, but that song was nowhere to be found in the finished film; Fincher should have followed the same practice here. Fincher is well-known for captivating title sequences (Panic Room, Fight Club, and most notably, Se7en), and while the title sequence is memorable and beautiful, it doesn’t have the level of effectiveness as, for example, the muted and tonally relevant title sequence from the aforementioned  The Social Network.

This leads me to another aspect of the film that didn’t sit well: comparison to Fincher’s other work. Now, I believe that every film should be looked at on its own, but I like directors and am a fan of Fincher’s previous work. With The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I don’t think Fincher has added anything new to content he has already excellently covered in Se7en and Zodiac. It could be that the story of Stieg Larsson’s novel owes a lot to the grisly, religiously themed serial murders depicted in Se7en, but that only adds to the lack of necessity for Fincher, in particular, to make this film. Zodiac is a film of completely different tone, pacing, and conclusion. Both Se7en and Zodiac frustrate the viewer by the end in completely different and completely effective, purposeful ways. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo feels like an imitation. I think my biggest problem here could be with the source material and with Fincher’s inability to rise above it.

The mystery central to the plot of the film was not very compelling. One problem was the casting of Stellan Skarsgard; it was a dead give-away as to who the killer was. And, the mystery of Harriet was either tipped off too easily or I was too keyed in to the conventions of this kind of plot. Either way, I was not invested in the crime or the investigation. Credit here, though, to Fincher for keeping me interested with his pacing of the film and his camerawork. The film is never boring and it is beautiful in composition.

Like I stated before, I do think people should seek out this film. It is well-crafted, well-shot, and well –performed; it is thematically interesting and doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. It is a grown up film for grown-ups and the type of movie that should be supported. Even if it is perhaps an unnecessary film from Fincher, a weak Fincher movie is still better than most Hollywood fare.

I have not, so far, talked about the most interesting aspects of the film: Lisbeth Salander and the depiction of sexual violence. I will cover these topics in an upcoming post.

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