Rooney Mara stars in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Daniel Craig (not pictured). Photograph by Baldur Bragason courtesy Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
One of the most anticipated releases of the holiday season is out this Tuesday, and if you need a break from happy holiday music at the mall and cozy heart-warming Yuletide commercials on television, David Fincher has (as it was billed in the bracing first trailer released over the summer) the “feel-bad movie of Christmas” you’ve been looking for. The story follows the paths of a magazine publisher (Daniel Craig) investigating dark events in the past of an elderly billionaire (Christopher Plummer); and a computer hacker (Rooney Mara) with a shadowy past of her own, who carries out her own investigation of Craig’s character before eventually joining forces with him to uncover a decades-old crime.
Normally, a US remake of a foreign film that was released only a couple of years ago, and that was well liked by fans of the hugely popular series of books, would be cause for a fair amount of cashing-in skepticism. After all, when the Swedish version was released in 2009, Noomi Rapace became an international star on the strength of her glowering, tough-as-nails performance. Why would anyone want to try to supplant that portrayal? But Fincher, a modern master of the moody, twisting thriller (he even managed to make a flick about Facebook into a dark tale of betrayal) seems like the perfect choice to put his stamp on this material. The brief clips in that trailer, accompanied by Trent Reznor’s music, give hope that this is one remake that could be just as good as or better than the previous version.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
This is the second adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about frequent le Carré protagonist George Smiley, a British intelligence agent trying to locate a mole within his agency after being forced into early retirement. The previous iteration was a 1979 BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness in the Smiley role, and watching Tomas Alfredson’s new version, it’s easy to see why the BBC version ran nearly six hours: There’s a lot of story here. Alfredson’s overstuffed film teeters right on the edge of too much information, as a large cast of characters come in and out of Smiley’s investigation (the lead role here taken by a fantastic Gary Oldman), and the timeline hops around between the present and various flashbacks to different points in the past. There are so many places where it would be easy for a director to lose control of this material, or allow it to become confusing or unwieldy. Alfredson keeps laserlike focus throughout, creating a grim vision of Cold War–era Europe so vivid that one can almost smell the stale cigarette smoke wafting off the upholstery. There’s zero pandering or simplification here; Alfredson and the film’s writers don’t allow for the viewer’s attention straying for even a moment. Luckily, the movie they’ve created is too engrossing to look away from.
Juno scribe Diablo Cody re-teams with that film’s director, Jason Reitman, for what is probably the best work either of them have done in Young Adult. Don’t for a moment think this bears any resemblance to that film, or to Cody’s forgettable follow-up, Jennifer’s Body. Her writing here is a mature and poignant look at a late-thirtysomething writer of young adult fiction (Charlize Theron) who finds herself fixated on the past when her present and future begin to seem less than appealing. Gone is the ostentatious slang and most of the zippy one-liners. In their place is a darkly comic character study of a woman stuck in a high school mentality because middle age terrifies her. Reitman, who seems to just get better and better with each film, takes the melancholy of his last feature, Up in the Air, and strips away the slick veneer in favor of an often uncomfortably unadorned approach that eliminates nearly all incidental music and places us squarely within her extended meltdown as she tries to woo her now-married high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) while a nerdy former classmate ( Patton Oswalt) tries—with limited success—to act as her conscience and voice of reason.
Far Left of Center: The Fiery Politics of Koji Wakamatsu
Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu started his career pushing the envelope of sex in Japanese cinema with his work in the “pink film” genre—often artful but always explicit films of the ’60s and ’70s that created debate over the lines that separate erotica, exploitation, and pornography. In his later career he’s continued his provocations, but now in the realm of politics (though not completely abandoning scenes of a graphically sexual nature). The two films on display at the Freer this weekend are unapologetically leftist political pieces, examining postwar political movements in the decades since World War II with sharp criticisms of the right wing. 2010’s Caterpillar—which was in competition for the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year—is about a soldier who returns home from the Second Sino-Japanese War, a hero for his brutal acts in battle but badly wounded himself, with severe burns and no limbs left. The brutality he displayed on the battlefield is transferred onto his relationship with his wife. The second, United Red Army, is a more than three-hour examination of Japanese student movements of the ’60s and ’70s, including both documentary and narrative footage.
One, Two, Three
If those offerings all seem a little too dark for you, the AFI has some lighter fare on tap: its annual Holiday Films series (which includes It’s a Wonderful Life and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol), the tail end of the Jim Henson Muppets retrospective, and screenings of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. There’s also a 50th-anniversary re-release of this somewhat lesser-seen Billy Wilder film from 1961. James Cagney, in his last film role until 1981’s Ragtime, stars as a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who gets the unenviable assignment of babysitting his boss’s 17-year-old daughter, who’s visiting Berlin from Atlanta for what’s initially only supposed to be two weeks but turns into two disastrous months. The impetuous teen manages to get involved with an East German Communist and run afoul of the Stasi, and Cagney’s character has to clean everything up without putting his already tenuous position with the corporation at risk. (All of this may sound a little heavy for a screwball comedy—and for audiences in 1961, that was certainly the case, as the film failed at the box office, and many critics maintained that joking about the Cold War was in poor taste.)
DVD Pick of the Week: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
One of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of the year was the fact that the latest entry in the Planet of the Apes franchise not only wasn’t as bad as the trailers made it out to be, but also actually turned out to be a smart, well-made, thoroughly enjoyable piece of sci-fi. What those trailers did wrong—and some of those have to rank among the worst advertisements for a film in recent memory—was to make this seem like a kitschy B-movie with a budget (just take a look at the one where James Franco self-importantly touts a new drug he’s developed, ominously called “The Cure”). That take and that line don’t even appear in the finished film, which imagines the events that will eventually lead to the ape-dominated earth of the original series. Franco is solid in the lead, but the film truly belongs to Andy Serkis and the effects wizards at WETA Digital, who make the character of Caesar, the chimpanzee who first receives the experimental treatment that leads to his advanced intelligence, into a startlingly realistic and emotive character. Don’t be surprised if Serkis becomes the first actor to get an Oscar nomination for a largely digital character this year. This film would also make an excellent double feature with one of the year’s best documentaries, Project Nim (you can read my review here), which will be available on DVD early next year.
Special Features: Two audio commentaries, one from director Rupert Wyatt, the other with the film’s screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. There are 12 deleted scenes, educational featurettes about apes, and production featurettes including what went into creating Andy Serkis’s performance, the writing of the score, scene breakdowns, and trailers.