Saturday, December 24, 2011

Shotguns & Dragons

Merry Christmas y'all! I'm sure no one cares, but a MONEYBALL post isn't likely to happen until sometime post-Christmas. For now, I'll just say that I enjoyed it for many the same reasons I enjoyed THE IDES OF MARCH–it's entertaining, mostly well written, and a surprisingly interesting portrait of process about one of the most boring sports in the world. Unfortunately, it veers too often into cliched sports movie territory, which holds me back from loving it, but when it's on it's really sharp and, of course, Brad Pitt gives a typically great performance. It's not really top 10 worthy (the only thing I'm thinking about when I see a film this time of year, for better or worse), but it's solid enough for a nice time at the movies.

I've seen a plethora of classics recently, but I'm neglecting them all in favor of writing about two modern films I've seen recently. I guess because that's where the debates happen.

Jeff Nichol's SHOTGUN STORIES probably won't be too conducive to debate because I loved it. How could I not? Nichol's film, like BALLAST and WINTER'S BONE, is incredibly successful at elevating itself above mere poverty porn to the heights of moving, human microcosm. There are so many great scenes of warmth, humor, and humanity that give the film a real beauty and captivating sense of Life. The violence and doom are vicious Shakespearean circles that remind you that vengeance is always hollow and that what's always at stake are human lives, not just ideas. Nichols, as he does wonderfully with TAKE SHELTER, knows how to give you some life to hold onto so that you actually care about his story and his characters. He's a very smart and talented filmmaker. Can't wait for him to go the way of his once very talented buddy David Gordon Green and bring us YOUR HIGHNESS 2....No, fellow Jeff, don't do it! Resist the money! It's not worth it!

Moving on.

David Fincher is someone who, post-ALIEN 3 hardship, has remained true to his aesthetic whether working with passion project (ZODIAC–still his masterpiece), big budget Hollywood drama (BENJAMIN BUTTON), or enormous international best-seller adaptation. No matter the subject matter, budget, or screenwriter, Fincher's stamp is always unmistakably present. He is one of the finest American auteurs working today. I respect and admire the hell out of him both for his consistency and uncanny ability to make the most banal minutia or technical jargon thoroughly fascinating (it's that "Fincher touch," baby!).

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is undeniably a David Fincher film. I can't disagree with Brandon or any other critics who call this obsessive filmmaking from one of modern cinema's most obsessive and meticulous directors. Fincher's desire to dig through the details and include us in the procedure is very much apparent here, just as it is in his best films about finding the truth. Feel free to disagree, but no one shoots procedure better than Fincher (hell, few people shoot anything better than Fincher ). He's a master stylist and expert in collusion: his films are visually immaculate, but his real strength is in reaching out and sharing with the audience (he loves the details of his films and he thinks they will too). Kindness and consideration aren't words one would normally associate with Fincher's films, but he is a director who I think is capable of giving both. He absolutely trusts his audience; he knows how to entertain and absorb without pulling punches or condescending. In a sugar-coated world, Fincher gives it to you straight–and I love him for it.

Obviously, I appreciate THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO for all of Fincher's touches. He's the best man for the job, and he makes the film the best it could possibly be. Unfortunately though, I'm one of those people who can't get over the material enough to really be blown away by the picture. I saw the Swedish version and didn't like it because it was too much of a generic thriller–an empty potboiler without even the visual or tonal flair to distract you. Fincher's version gives an ample supply of the latter ingredients. It's immaculately filmed and tonally more ominous and absorbing. In terms of filmmaking, it's miles ahead of the Swedish version. But in terms of story, they are both right on par.

I don't want to completely bash the Larsson material and I certainly don't begrudge anyone for digging it–if it's good trash then awesome–but I didn't respond to it the first time I saw it on film, and seeing it again only reminded me how much I didn't like it the first time. Brandon, I think you obviously have more invested in the material because you've read the book. There was something in it that reached you and you are looking for it to be captured in the film version–I get that. But, I also think that having read the book, you bring a bit more romance to the material than I ever could (anything read as opposed to seen is automatically more romantic because of the differing levels of imagination). All I have is what I'm seeing on the screen. Perhaps if I hadn't seen the Swedish version I would have liked this a lot more or disliked it a lot more, I don't know. All I could do was think about how similar or different it was to this other movie that I didn't like; it felt like a better copy of something, but still a copy. And that's my main problem. Beyond the craft involved it is too similar to the Swedish version, which means they are both too similar to a book that I don't care to read.

I liked all of the performances. Mara especially, who rocks one of the best t-shirts in history in one scene, is really great in the title role. There are several awesome scenes of merely poring over the investigation that recall Fincher at his best. I didn't mind the brutality of the film either. The two big scenes are incredibly nasty (I actually think the rape scene here is worse than the one in IRREVERSIBLE–it's much shorter, but it's grosser for its suggestiveness, its use of sound, and for the dialogue the rapist utters before committing the deed). I think Brandon does a good job of explaining why this scenes are necessary and not just excessive. I also really like how the film oscillates between the extremely brutal and graphic and the exquisitely polished and ordinary. This juxtaposition is essential if you are making a mystery about digging through glossy exteriors to reach the seed of evil that dwells beneath. But again, the problem is that the story is not surprising or really absorbing the way you need it to be to really feel something special. I was intrigued but not fully hooked. And the ending drags needlessly. Like with the Swedish film, once the Wagner mystery is solved, the film looses a lot of steam unless you really, really care about the characters (I didn't so much, but I'm sure fans of the books do).

Overall, the film is good, not great. I rank it along side BENJAMIN BUTTON as a visually beautiful and at times very good Fincher work that is unfortunately overlong for its material and somehow lacking in the necessary immersion that makes a great film. I still don't think that Fincher has ever made a bad film, but I wouldn't this rank among his very best. ZODIAC is a better portrait of obsession and endless investigation, SEVEN is more shocking and gritty, And FIGHT CLUB is a better love story. Still, if you are a Fincher fan, then absolutely see it (his films are always worth seeing). However, I have to disagree with Brandon and say that unless the next two books in this series are exponentially better, I hope Fincher moves on to something else instead of completing the trilogy. He's the best man for the job (and the best the series could hope for), but he deserves better material to work with.

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