Mar 14, 2010

Review Post 68: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / Shutter Island / Green Zone

DIR: Niels Arden Oplev
CAST: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist

Tragically, the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson died just after delivering the manuscripts for the three thrillers that have since become known as the Millennium trilogy to his publisher, not living to see the books take off, or the film versions that premiered in Sweden last year and, throughout 2010, will be coming to the UK (The Girl Who Played With Fire opens in September, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in November).

In a generally very faithful adaptation, Noomi Rapace plays Larsson’s titular heroine Lisbeth Salander; a troubled but brilliant young computer hacker whose backstory is teased a little here, but will be explored in full in the next two films. Here she plays a supporting role, helping campaigning journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Nyquvist) when he is tasked by an aging industrialist to solve the 40 year old suspected murder of his neice. Together Blomkvist and Salander unearth some horrendous crimes, but are they related to the vanishing of Harriet Vanger?

Despite a two and a half hour running time The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the film retains the book’s English title, rather than using literal translation ‘Men Who Hate Women’) doesn’t have the time to include the mass of background detail in Larsson’s book, but, for the most part, the deletions make sense and don’t compromise the narrative. There are only a couple of exceptions. The first is rushing of the last ten minutes of the film, which tie up an important storyline about a corrupt businessman that Blomkvist is attempting to expose, and which impacts on the last two books and the other is the almost total deletion of the important relationship between Blomkvist and his boss and on/off lover Erika Berger (Lena Endre).

These are perhaps nitpicks, but I wonder how they will impact on the next two films. Aside from these minor issues though, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent adaptation. Importantly it preserves both the essential story and the feel of the book. The casting is especially on point. Michael Nyqvist has a care worn look that suits Blomkvist, but he, and the film, really comes to life most when Noomi Rapace is on screen. Rapace clearly took the role of Lisbeth Salander very seriously; she lost weight, cut her hair, started dressing like Salander and even got ear, eyebrow, nostril and septum piercings. This immersion has really paid off, as it really does feel as though, both in look and demeanour, Rapace’ Salander has stepped out of Larsson’s book. Salander is a character who holds her cards close to her chest, and is very emotionally closed off, and Rapace manages the tricky feat of putting this across without being dull, or seeming closed off to the audience.

If you’ve seen a few detective movies then, with the number of suspects reduced from the novel, you may well work out at least part of the answer to the whodunit, but that doesn’t stop The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo being an engaging mystery. The clues (for the most part) come together in a way that is both logical and surprising, and the mystery is nearly as compellingly macabre as that in Se7en. Director Niels Arden Oplev keeps a strong grip on the look and the performances, and he manages to keep the extreme content (including a couple of lengthy scenes of sexual assault) just this side of palatable though the film remains, at times, shocking and challenging to watch. It’s not an especially individual looking film, drawing much inspiration from Se7en and its ilk, but it’s well executed enough to stand on it’s own. Until the last ten minutes Oplev also excels in controlling the film’s pace, keeping it moving fast enough that we never feel the 152 minutes that the film runs but never rushing us through the story too fast, or cutting so deep into the novel that the story is compromised.

There is talk of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo being remade for the US market. It simply doesn’t need to be, this is a thrilling movie, a fine adaptation, and, like the book it is adapted from, a film that should prove highly accessible to audiences all over the world, assuming they’ve the stomach for some of it’s nastier moments. Whether you’ve never even heard of the books or you’ve read nothing else since they were published, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes highly recommended, if for no other reason than you should take note of Noomi Rapace, who ought to be able to spin this great performance into an interesting international career

DIR: Martin Scorsese
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley,
Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer

I always want to love Martin Scorsese’s movies, because for nearly 40 years Scorsese has been at the forefront of American cinema, making more brilliant movies in the seventies alone than most directors could dream of in an entire career. I didn’t love Shutter Island. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of genuine, jaw-slackening, brilliance in it, but the film as a whole ends up, sadly, being really rather ordinary.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane (whose work also provided the starting points for Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone), Shutter Island stars Scorsese’s current leading man of choice Leonardo DiCaprio as US Marshal Teddy Daniels, who has been sent to the Ashecliffe asylum on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a prisoner (Mortimer), but when a storm traps Teddy and his partner (Ruffalo) on the island Teddy begins to suspect a conspiracy involving experiments being carried out on the patients by the chief doctor (Kingsley).

Of course that’s not the full story, there’s a big twist late in the day, and that’s the problem with the film. That twist is, minutes in, so stark staring obvious that however good the rest of the film is (and it is often very good indeed) it just feels rather inconsequential. I knew exactly where the film was going at all times, and the journey simply wasn’t interesting enough, at least from a dramatic standpoint, to mitigate against that. The performances are all of a particular style. The film is Scorsese’s homage to the noirs films of the 40’s and 50’s, and he’s directed his actors towards the slightly bigger than life style that was prevalent then, everyone does well in it (and Ben Kingsley comes off as slightly less of a ham than usual), but it does take a little getting used to. Leonardo DiCaprio has been growing in stature as an actor film by film over the last few years. Here he’s less effective than in The Departed or Revolutionary Road, and his performance makes the twist feel very obvious indeed, but given the complexities of the role and the style of acting that he’s forced into he does rather well.

Among the supporting performances, Mark Ruffalo does perhaps the most nuanced work, his best since Zodiac and Michelle Williams and Patricia Clarkson do well in what are rather thin roles. It’s no surprise that the performer who comes closest to stealing the film is Emily Mortimer, she’s a gifted character actress, and is cast beautifully against type here as insane murderer Rachel Salondo. Mortimer’s natural warmth works well to put us at our ease with the character, though we know what she’s done, and makes the inevitable explosion both credible and scary.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the story and acting, they aren’t really, in a lot of ways, the film’s focus. Shutter Island is very much a showcase for three technical talents; director Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, all three have been working together for some time now, and their talents combine here to create a technically stunning work. Most striking are the dream sequences, shot by Richardson in slightly oversaturated colours, giving a hyper-real feeling to Teddy’s hallucinations, as if they are more genuine to him than the equally nightmarish Ashcliffe.

Despite the fact that all the dreams involve violence of some kind they are all quite beautiful to behold. In the scenes at Dachau concentration camp bodies form nightmarishly beautiful ice sculptures, in one scene with Michelle Williams she burns, and becomes ash in DiCaprio’s arms, in the single most beautiful use of CGI in any of Scorsese’s films. For her part Schoomaker, as ever, finds a perfect rhythm for Scorsese and Richardson’s imagery. The look is also very heavily influenced by 40’s and 50’s noir, resulting in such odd seeming touches as some really obvious rear screen projection in the opening scene and a lot of visual nods in the direction of films and filmmakers Scorsese admires, most notably (and appropriately) the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

Taken in purely technical terms Shutter Island is a masterpiece, but because it is so predictable it is never truly satisfying as drama, and so it left me, unfortunately, rather cold.

DIR: Paul Greengrass
CAST: Matt Damon, Jason Isaacs, Brendan Gleeson,
Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan

I was rather enjoying Green Zone, it was no great masterpiece, but it was a reasonably entertaining action movie, set in the immediate aftermath of the ‘victory’ in the 2003 Iraq war. Then came the ending(s). Two scenes in which the moral was declaimed with such sledgehammer subtlety that I begun to wonder if Aesop had written the screenplay. And that was all it took. From there, as I looked back the movie just began to unravel in front of me. I began to notice all the many flaws. The plot holes, the script problems, the action seemed to work less well. Retrospect, essentially, killed Green Zone.

Green Zone is the latest teaming for Bourne director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon, and it’s easy to tell because they’ve essentially made the same film for a third time running. Okay, this time Damon is Roy Miller of the Marines, and he’s looking for WMD rather than his identity, but that doesn’t change the fact that in form and feel this is basically Bourne goes to the desert. This is something that also carries through in Damon’s performance. It’s a shame because he’s a really capable actor, but with Greengrass all he really does is spit dialogue in a functional manner; there’s no emotion there, no nuance,

A lack of nuance is a problem that pervades the film. Politically it knows exactly what it wants to say, and proceeds to bellow it at us through a megaphone for the film’s entire running time. There’s no room for shades of grey here; all things are blak or white. Miller is the goodie and everyone associated with Bush administration is a baddie. I know that Greengrass has said that he wanted to make a mainstream film about the Iraq war, but that doesn’t have to mean treating the audience as political idiots, or making a film with the depth of a small puddle on a hot day, and this all precedes those two endings.

I have, I think it’s fair to say, a bit of a problem with shaky-cam. Used with consideration (as in the opening chase in Narc, for example) it can thrust you right into the thick of a situation, but Greengrass doesn’t use it like that. Paul Greengrass uses shaky-cam as though the camera will only work if it is moving, and it is incredibly irritating. Rather than draw me in this device called continual attention to itself, practically yelling “you’re watching a movie”. This especially true of the long final chase, in which there’s barely a frame that isn’t in erratic motion, add this to the fact that it takes places at night, in barely lit streets and the effect is incredibly annoying. You can’t see a fucking thing. Geography and sense go out the window, and drama follows with them. It baffles me that Greengrass is considered a good action director, because this shooting technique seems to go out of its way to ensure that you see as little of the action as possible.

There are things in Green Zone that work. Until the out of nowhere final scenes Khalid Abdalla is effective as Iraqui translator ‘Freddie’ and the scenes in the middle of the film before Greengrass has to surrender the film to boring, badly shot, action there are some genuinely tense scenes as Miller tries to discover what has happened to a prisoner snatched from him earlier in the day. There are also effective appearances from Jason Isaacs and his rather magnificent ‘tache as the designated villains of the piece) though, given the shallowness of the script, it is debateable whether Isaacs or the ‘tache gives the better performance.

The further I get from Green Zone the less I like it, but I can’t help thinking that, had it not shot itself in the head with those two awful pieces of moralising at the end of the film this review might have read rather differently.

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