Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Niels Arden Oplev, 2009
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Lena Endre

Back in about 2007, I decided to read Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first release of what would become the very famous Millenium Trilogy. I'm a sucker for murder mysteries and cheapie noir novels, so it was really only a matter of time before I could no longer resist. I saw the Swedish film not long after it came out and was mindlessly entertained, but largely unimpressed, which was exactly my reaction to the novel. In the past week I decided to re-visit the Swedish film to decide whether or not I wanted to bother seeing the American remake. Generally I frown upon or outright blacklist American remakes of foreign language films for the reason that they are, by definition, completely idiotic and basically represent everything I hate about American pop culture. No one needs me to launch into that rant right now, though. After revisiting the original film I decided I had enough to say about it that I had to write a review.

The plot of the book is sprawling with enough subplots to make a film adaptation seem absurd, but screenwriters Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg make a valid attempt. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is about to face a prison term for committing libel against a Swedish businessman, though he is certain there really is something rotten in the state of Sweden. Millenium, the leftwing magazine he started with co-owner and part-time lover Erika Berger, is suffering because of his trial, so he resigns and reluctantly takes on a new position. Henrik Vanger, ex-tycoon of another multi-million dollar family business has hired him to look into the 40-year old case of his missing niece, Harriet, whom Henrik believes was murdered. Henrik suspects many of his secretive family members, all of whom have suspicious past dealings including links to the Nazi party.

Mikael discovers some interesting new leads and receives some unexpected help. When Henrik decided to hire Mikael, he had him investigated by a surveillance firm and their best hacker, Lisbeth Salander. She's a skinny, tattooed, and pierced 24-year old goth chick with a bad family history and possible sociopathy, schizophrenia, or Asperger's. She also has a photographic memory, a genius-level IQ, and is a bisexual chain-smoker. Salander is a ward of the state, whose aged and ill, but kind former guardian is replaced by a vile, manipulative, and sexually predatory lawyer, Nils Bjurman. At first Bjurman asks Salander invasive questions about her personal life and sexual habits, then takes control of her finances. Soon he coerces her into oral sex in exchange for access to her own money, then later viciously rapes her. The ever-thoughtful Salander catches the rape on video and returns to get vengeance. She ties up and tortures Bjurman, anally rapes him with his own dildo, sloppily tattoos his crimes across his chest, and blackmails him.

She continues to investigate Mikael, who fascinates her for no apparent reason. She reluctantly shares information with him and he convinces her to help whim work on the case in the rural, frostbitten region of Hedestad. SPOILERS ABOUND. It turns out that Harriet's disappearance was not an isolated incident. Mikael and Salander discover that Harriet knew about a series of vicious serial murders that targeted young Jewish women throughout the '50s and '60s. The trail of clues leads them directly to Harriet's father, who died in a boating accident the year before Harriet disappeared. Meanwhile, Salander begins an inexplicable sexual relationship with the older, more passive Mikael, though she resents any emotional intimacy. They finally discover that Harriet's father and brother Martin were a team of serial killers and Martin was only too happy to carry on his father's work alone. Martin almost kills Mikael, but he is saved in the nick of time by Salander, who pursues Martin until he dies in a fiery car accident she could have prevented. The police uncover information about dozens of women Martin raped, tortured, and murdered over the years.

Salander finds Harriet living under an assumed name in Australia. It seems she fled the day of her disappearance, convinced that Martin was going to torture and kill her for knowing about the murders -- a reasonable though, as she was repeatedly tortured and raped by both her father and brother. Harriet is joyously reunited with Henrik and finally gets a chance to tell her story. There are two further conclusions. Mikael serves part of his jail time, but is released when Salander discovers solid evidence that Mikael's dirty businessman is far worse than he seemed. Mikael is able to resume his career at Millenium and is back in the public good graces.

A lot of critics seem to enjoy the book and film because of Lisbeth's character, claiming she is more fascinating than the actual plot of the novel and is the first original anti-hero to come along in the thriller/mystery genre in years. For anyone part of a goth/punk/metal subgenre, Salander is basically a culmination of stereotypes from fringe cultures. She has a few piercings, a few tattoos, and dresses all in black. She's fucked up, angry, very smart, and has a deeply troubled past. I think she probably could have been an interesting character, but comes across as a modern day, edgier Bond girl with her high-tech gadgets, seamless disguises, and sociopathic brilliance.

My main complaint about the film is that it is essentially an exploitation film masquerading as a high class thriller. When I watched it recently I thought about the film's potential message and its original title, Man som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women. I also thought about why this title wasn't good enough for an English-language audience, who needed the much catchier Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Almost every female character in the film is a victim of sexual violence or, at best, subjected to male indifference. Even the "normal" characters like Erika Berger have a laundry list of divorce, affairs, and disappointing relationships. Salander is allegedly an avenging angel, raping rapers and catching serial killers and dirty businessmen alike. Her actions, which are all essentially reactions, should have the same sort of cathartic fulfillment I feel from watching Coffy, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, or Lady Snowblood, but because the film pretends to have some sort of serious political subtext and message about sexual violence, this falls flat on its face. It tries to be sobering and thrilling at the same time, but mostly feels like a lengthy, formulaic exercise with two-dimensional characters who are not particularly likable.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will likely be entertaining for anyone who enjoys mindless thrillers, but I can't recommend it any further than that. There's a region 1 blu-ray from Music Box if you're so inclined. I'm not sure what Fincher, Mara or Craig will bring to the remake, but I'm guessing it's just a flashier, more visually appealing version of the original film with tighter editing and a Trent Reznor soundtrack.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


William Brent Bell, 2012
Starring: Fernanda Andrade, Simon Quarterman, Evan Helmuth

Because 2010’s The Last Exorcism wasn’t enough of a piece of shit Exorcist rip-off with a lousy plot and an absurd, abrupt ending about a documentary filmmaker with no concept of how to use a Steadicam, Hollywood decided to start 2012 off right by gifting us with another one of these festering turds.

Isabella, a cute-yet-troubled twenty-something, goes to Rome to investigate whether her mother has a severe psychiatric disorder or whether she is possessed. While Isabella was a child, her mother had a mental breakdown and committed multiple murders, which allegedly occurred during an exorcism. Straining the limits of plausibility, Isabella brings a documentary filmmaker along to capture her tragic story. They are allowed in the psychiatric hospital to interview her heavily sedated and annoyingly crazy mother and in the Vatican’s Exorcism School, where they take a class and hook up with two priests. The priests have secretly gone rogue and seek out cases the church has cast aside, in order to perform helpful exorcisms and save lives. They convince Isabella she has to see an exorcism to really know if her mother is demonically possessed, then, to no one’s great surprise, when they pay a visit to Isabella’s mother the shit hits the fan. Everyone gets possessed, there is a “surprise” ending, blah blah blah.

I knew what I was getting into and I strongly considered not going to see the film at all and instead making a list of religious horror films worth your valuable time (The Confessional, I’m looking at you). But I actually had a great time seeing the film on opening night and I think some thanks are in order.

To the guy in front of me who shouted “THAT’S MY JAM!” during a thoroughly non-creepy rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” thank you. Coincidentally, he was the same one who shouted at the opening credits, “The devil’s inside? Yo, that’s rape! The devil’s gonna rape you!”

To the girls behind me who got into a “You shut up,” “No, you shut up,” “I’ll do what I want,” “Bitch, you ugly” fight, thank you.

To the people who shrieked out loud at a little vaginal blood, thank you.

To all the people talking on their cell phones, sending text messages, and the kind folks in the back who brought the crying toddler, thank you.

And most of all, to almost all the theater patrons who stood, screamed, booed, and had jaws dropped in disbelief at the ending, thanks. I could not have gotten through this film without you. Especially the girl a row in front of me who said to her date as the credits rolled, “No, I’m not leaving, there is no way that can be the end. They’re trying to trick us.”

If you’re planning to go see The Devil Inside, get blindingly drunk and go to the most crowded theater possible with the rudest patrons you can imagine. I promise you’ll have a good time (my only mistake was being sober).

P.S. If you really want to know the end, I will happily tell you. Isabella's mother is not possessed by a demon. She's possessed by multiple demons. They jump from her to one of the priests during the ridiculous exorcism performed inside the psych ward, to Isabella, to the douchebag filmmaker. The surviving priest has kidnapped Isabella from the hospital and is attempting to perform an exorcism in the back of a moving vehicle. So the demon(s) does the logical thing and jumps to the driver, violently crashing the car and destroying the camera. And because this is a "found footage" film, that means that the show's over, kids. Too bad it wasn't sooner.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Deirdre Allen Timmons, 2008

An examination of the Seattle burlesque scene and an exploration of why a normal woman would go into the field, A Wink and a Smile is an interesting, if unfocused look at one of the most popular historical performance arts. Unfortunately, it is also a movie made by a person with a vagina about people with vaginas for people with vaginas to watch when they are feeling sad, unattractive, or have some raging PMS. Not that there isn't a market for this type of film, it just isn't really my cup of tea.

Ten women of varying ages and backgrounds join Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque for several weeks of classes on how to shake it till you make it, followed by a graduation recital. We see a little bit of their time in class, but the documentary is mostly divided between three sections: interviews with Indigo Blue about the history of burlesque, interviews with the women about why they chose to take the class and how it makes them feel, and footage from various burlesque performances. From a technical standpoint, the film is sort of milquetoast in the sense that there are lots and lots of shots of talking heads, where voice over and more clips of burlesque performances would have greatly improved the viewing experience.

Though there are numerous issues, my biggest criticism is that the film has an overtly feminist slant and spends entirely too much time discussing how burlesque performance boosts a woman's self-esteem. While I love and thoroughly support most forms of erotic performance art, burlesque is still all about people getting (mostly) naked to entertain a crowd and then make money. It's not a Lilith Fair hippy circle with hand holding, crying, and talking about feelings. I found most of the women's explanations about their feelings tedious, but the interesting burlesque performances between interviews kept my attention.

There is a fair mix of classic burlesque, raunchier acts, female male impersonators, male burlesque performers, and male-female impersonators. My personal favorite was Lily Verlaine, who, in my opinion, makes the film well worth watching. She is an established performer in Seattle and across the country. Her act in A Wink and a Smile is a Picasso inspired set where she begins the set in white make up and paints herself, quite erotically. Definitely recommended.

The fairest thing I can say about this documentary is that it presents burlesque in its most non-threatening, non-sexual light, avoiding the seedier and more exploitative, financially-driven origins of the art form. And what fun is that? A Wink and a Smile is currently streaming on Netflix, though there is also a basic DVD available from First Run. You can also pop over to the film's official page to find out more.