Category: Scandinavian Movies


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I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.

I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.

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Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.

But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.

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Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.

I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.

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And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.

And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?

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And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.

Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.

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And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.

And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.

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Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.

Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

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Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

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Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

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Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

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For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)

Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.

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Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).

And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.

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Gunnar Bjornstrand  plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.

After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.

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With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.

From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).

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And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.

And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.

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In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Final Score: A+

 

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After watching the somewhat disappointing second chapter, The Girl Who Played with Fire, in the film adaptations of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium trilogy a little less than two weeks ago, I found myself less than enthusiastic to take the time out of my schedule to sit down and watch the concluding chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. And that was a shame because after both the (inferior) Swedish version and the (superior) American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I considered myself a fan who wanted to know how this story played out. And though no one will really know how Stieg Larrson wanted the series to go (there were reportedly seven more books in the work before he died of a heart attack at 50), I can happily say that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a satisfying conclusion to the saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist even if this final entry featured too little Lisbeth.

One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed the Millennium series so much (though I haven’t yet read the books; it’s on my to do list) is that Lisbeth Salander is easily one of the most interesting and well-drawn female heroines in the fictional market today. Take the bad-assery of Katniss Everdeen but then take away the shitty characterization (I love The Hunger Games series but Suzanne Collins is not a good writer) and you have a character half as cool as Lisbeth. Honestly, the only modern female characters I find as intriguing as Lisbeth are Peggy Olson from Mad Men and Buffy Summers from… Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth’s contribution to the active resolution of the overall plot is nil at best, and it was somewhat disappointing to see such a fantastic character take a backseat for practically the entire film.

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This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of The Girl Who Played with Fire (I’ll try to keep the plot spoilers of this entry to a minimum) so if you haven’t seen that entry, you should probably stop reading now and come back later. After surviving being shot three times (once in the head) as part of an attempt to confront her father, ex-Soviet defector and criminal kingpin Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), hacker prodigy and general problem child Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is rescued from near death by left-wing journalist (and her former lover) Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). And although Lisbeth has been cleared of the murder of the two journalists that provided the tension in The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth finds herself in even hotter water as she is now accused with the attempted murder of her father after she nearly killed him with an axe (an act of self-defense).

Much like the last film, the conspiracy at the heart of the movie is propelled forward by a rogue faction of the Swedish government’s need to keep their ties with Alexander Zalachenko a secret. When Zalachenko defected, a corrupt faction of Sweden’s Security Services (which I imagine is functionally similar to the FBI or the CIA. But there was another government police organization in the film, the Constitutional Protection, so I don’t know what equivalency either organization has with American government), known as The Section, took him in, and they sucked off the largesse of his criminal activities for decades in repayment for his anti-Russian information. And as Lisbeth is being prosecuted by the government to keep the Section’s dirty little secrets quiet, it’s up to Mikael and the rest of the Millennium staff to prove Lisbeth’s innocence.

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I’ve said this in my reviews of the two earlier entries in this franchise, but it should be said again that Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were both cast expertly in these roles. And though I slightly prefer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (she captures the vulnerable side of the character better than Rapace does), I pretty firmly believe that Michael Nyqvist commits to the role of Mikael Blomqvist better even than the excellent Daniel Craig. And that’s good because unlike the first two entries of the series (which are more Lisbeth heavy), most of the dramatic weight of this film falls on Nyqvist’s shoulders. And throughout the film, Blomqvist must decide if not only his safety is more important than uncovering the truth but also if the safety of his coworkers and lover is more important. And Michael Nyqvist again makes me wish I had seen more of his work in his native Sweden outside this franchise.

Lisbeth spends 75% of this film (if not more) either in a hospital, in prison, or on trial. The film centers around an investigation by Millennium magazine and eventually Constitutional Protection (which sounds like the ACLU but is apparently a police organization) to prove that Lisbeth is innocent of attempted murder and that there’s been a systematic attempt her entire life to keep her quiet and under control as well as to cover up the misdeeds of Alexander Zalachenko. But, sadly, with her life on the line, Lisbeth isn’t able to contribute in any meaningful way to her own defense. The only real plot contributions she makes in this film either occur at the very end of the movie and aren’t related to the main plot as well as something she did way back in the first film. It sucks to see such a bad-ass and resourceful heroine kept on the bench like that when the series clearly revolves around her.

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Thankfully then, the rest of the film was an enjoyable (if somewhat far-fetched) conspiracy thriller and the same type of journalism procedural that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (even if it doesn’t work on the same great level as other journalism procedurals like Zodiac). Stieg Larrson was a left-wing journalist in his native Sweden before becoming a writer, and he uses these books/movies as a mouthpiece for his views on the exploitation of women and the corruption of government. And as a fellow left-wing socialist, I respect Larrson’s dedication to his politics (even if I have quibbles here and there with his abilities as a storyteller). Having seen the entire series now, I’m once again excited to see this story make its way back to Hollywood and the capable hands of David Fincher. This ending left me satisfied.

Final Score: B

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+

 

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After much delay, I finally sat down to watch the second film in the Swedish cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I have not read the books though I have seen both the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the American adaptation directed by David Fincher. They both have their strengths though I thought David Fincher’s interpretation was clearly the best and Rooney Mara’s frighteningly intense turn as hacker prodigy/deeply troubled young adult Lisbeth Salander still ranks among the best female performances of this current decade. But, for reasons that I am unable to fully articulate I put off watching the first of the two sequels (apparently there were plans for six books but the author died before he could write the last three), and now, honestly, I can say I wish I had waited until the movie had shown up naturally on this list so I didn’t go out of my way to watch it.

That’s not to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire was a bad film. Far from it in fact. The aspects of the franchise that I find compelling remained intact. Lisbeth Salander is still an endlessly fascinating creation of feminist fury. Mikael Blomqvist is also the type of great journalistic character that hearkens back to All the President’s Men. And, as far as tales of shocking luridness go, the Millennium trilogy is hard to top. Add on the fact that this particular entry is much better directed than the original and The Girl Who Played with Fire should be even better than the first film. It isn’t. If both versions of the first book suffered from a rather cut-and-dry procedural crime investigation at their core, The Girl Who Played with Fire makes the look into the Vanger family seem like Sherlock Holmes. Full of gaping plot holes and inconsistent pacing, I am now pray that maybe Fincher and co. can wrest a great film out of this material.

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After absconding with the bank account of the man that framed left-wing journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) at the beginning of the first film, troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to her native Sweden when she discovers that the state psychiatrist that had raped her in the first film plans on removing the damning tattoo Lisbeth forced upon him as revenge for his act of sadism and brutality. At the same time, Mikael begins to assist a young journalist who has a story that implicates many high-ranking Swedish government officials in a sex-trafficking ring. And when that journalist and his girlfriend (who is doing doctoral work on sex trafficking) are murdered with a gun owned by the psychiatrist Lisbeth came back to threaten and then he also winds up dead, it’s not long before the police begin to suspect Lisbeth in the murders and it’s up to her and Mikael to clear her name.

As a procedural crime mystery, I obviously don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot for fear of spoiling anything that happens. But, I hope it’s not a spoiler if I say that the whole arc comes off as criminally disappointing in the end and I don’t mean that simply because the movie just sort of ends as it’s finally beginning to pick up the pace. The writing in this particular entry (and I almost suspect it’s partly the subtitles/translation because there’s no way the dialogue was this awkward in the original Swedish) comes off as lazy and half-there, and by the end of the film, particular pieces of evidence are collected and then there’s one moment that I’m fairly sure was meant to be a flashback but it appears to be a flashback to a moment that never actually happened in the film in the first place, but I may be wrong there. The movie wore me out and I decided to take a quick nap halfway through and start back where I left off so I could have just forgotten that moment.

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Thankfully, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are as great as ever. Though, one of the defining and most enjoyable aspects of the original film (in both its iterations) was the chemistry between Lisbeth and Mikael, and the two (SPOILER ALERT) don’t share the screen together until literally the final minutes of the film. Also, Noomi doesn’t have to carry out any scenes as tough as the multiple times she was raped in the first film though a particularly brutal moment towards the end of the film comes close. And Michael Nyqvist similarly doesn’t have nearly as much to work with. It’s good then that these two are pros and just their presence alone is enough to salvage less than spectacular writing. I’m hoping that by the time I get around to watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, these two will have more time on screen together.

I’ll draw this review to a close. This review comes off as particularly negative but I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy The Girl Who Played with Fire. I did. I find the universe of the Millennium trilogy fascinating and unsettling and overflowing with frightening characters. Just, after the David Fincher version of the first book, I know that there is greatness possible in a cinematic version of this world, and once again, the native Swedish adaptations of the Swedish novel fails to deliver as well as one could hope. Mostly, I finished The Girl Who Played with Fire with a sense of “what could have been” and you never want to leave a movie that way.

Final Score: B-

I’ve gone through a phase over the life cycle of this blog’s existence (which is to say since February of 2011) where I’ve been really into art-house movies. Specifically, I’ve found myself enamored with the films that put a premium on utilizing the visual possibilities of the cinematic medium. Whether they’re going for a near sensory overload in natural beauty (Tree of Life), jamming the film chock-full of psycho-sexual Freudian symbolism (Persona), or turning the camera inward on the illusions of cinema itself (8 1/2), the best films that I’ve watched this last year and a half worked as much as visual poems as they did as stories (and if your name is Terrence Malick, nothing will ever match the sheer visual beauty of your films). So, when I watch a movie that I consider to be one of the most gorgeously shot films I’ve ever seen but I can’t generate the same kind of excitement I can for a Fellini or Malick feature, there’s possibly a problem here. The 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan is simply put, a gorgeous amalgamation of stunning color cinematography alongside brilliant implementation of classical music. Yet, the tragic love story at the heart of the film feels so slight and hurried that I can’t find it in my heart to give this film a full-hearted recommendation.

ElviraMadigan is the true story of two tragic lovers on the run in Sweden. The film begins with text explaining that this is the story of two young adults in love who commit suicide in the woods, and the film is the story of their flight and their ultimate decision to take their own lives (since the movie starts off telling you they’re going to die, it can’t really be a spoiler revealing it). Count Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) is a lieutenant in the Swedish army who goes AWOL and abandons his wife and two children to run away with Elvira Madigan (the hauntingly beautiful Pia Degermark), a tightrope walker from the circus. Hunted by the authorities and unable to stay in one place for very long, Elvira and Sixten’s romance is doomed from its inception. Sixten is unable to work at all (for fear of being recognized) and tragedy strikes every job that Elvira tries to hold. It isn’t very long before Elivra and Sixten realize that taking their own lives is the only way out of their miserable situation.

As I said, the film’s biggest selling point is its astounding cinematography (especially by the standards of the mid-1960s). Whether it’s the endless shots of the stunning Swedish (and also at times Danish I believe) countryside or the way that director Bo Widerberg is able to perfectly frame Pia Degermark’s angelic face, this film might not quite be at a “Malick”-ian level of beauty, but it comes pretty god damn close. Perhaps I have to give credit to the film’s clever implementation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and some Mozart, but this film is just a striking visual poem (even if the substance of the poem is less than substantive but more on that later). It’s easy to forget just how sad and devastated Sixten and Elvira’s lives have become over the course of the film. This movie can make scavenging through the underbrush of a forest for any roots or mushrooms you can eat look like a beautiful ode to life. The film might actually be to beautiful for its own good because the story itself is just so heartbreaking. One last note about the film’s cinematography. The movie’s color palette is astounding. Seriously, for a film from the 1960s, the colors in this film are almost absurdly vibrant and saturated. Okay, that wasn’t the last note. There were also serious elements of the French New Wave where Elvira Madigan was ahead of the pack (alongside its French peers) in the use of handheld shots.

However, the film itself doesn’t have the post-modernist magic (in terms of plot) that describes the works of Lynch, Fellini, or Bergman who marry their fanciful images and symbolism with engaging stories. Elvira Madigan is certainly a tragic love story, but to say that I didn’t find myself invested in the romance between Elvira and Sixten would be the understatement of the century. You never see any of the romance that led up to their decision to risk everything to be together (not even in flashback) so there’s little to no context to why these two are so madly in love with each other. Their romance simply is, and while that has its own beauty, the entire film hinges on their being so desperately in love with each other that they were willing to die for one another. I couldn’t buy it. I bought the romantic chemistry between Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren and so I was able to believe their characters were in love with each other, but I couldn’t buy the giant leap of faith their tragic fates required. It also didn’t help that the film almost moved at a dreamlike pace (and not especially in a good way) where these two lovers would be whisked away from one predicament or another without an especially large amount of closure being given to any one action they undertake (although they never undertake the intelligent action). I love a great romance done well, and unfortunately, I couldn’t invest myself emotionally in their love story.

Despite those complaints, the sheer beauty of Elvira Madigan makes it worth watching for all real cinema fans. As I understand it (and is obvious from the oft-copied imagery of the film), this is one of the more influential romances of all time. However, it’s simply been lost to the ages because of all of the films that took it as influence and then added an actual compelling story to the mix. I may not have cared about the fates of our heroes (though the film’s final moments were truly haunting), but I think I’m always going to look back on this film fondly simply because of how engrossing its imagery was. If you’re not the kind of cinema nerd that doesn’t geek out over cinematography and the visual arts aspect of cinema, you should avoid Elvira Madigan like the plague. You will find nothing of value here. However, I, for one, am glad that this beautiful film has survived the ages.

Final Score: B-

 

Long time readers of the blog may know that for the last couple of months I have opined the lack of a single movie that I’ve felt was worthy of the elusive score of an A+. Yes, I’ve given several books that score recently, but not since I reviewed Gary Oldman’s directorial debut and cinema verite masterpiece, Nil by Mouth, on August 5th has a movie received top marks. As a matter of fact, we are less than a month away from the one year anniversary of this blog’s existence with almost 170 movie reviews (out of my 441 posts), only 7 films have gotten that elusive score. Well, leave it to the Swedes to finally get me to number 8. During my first review for a Federico Fellini picture (the understated La Strada), I mentioned three names as being arguably the most influential in foreign cinema. Those men were Federico Fellini (Italy), Akira Kurosawa (Japan), and Ingmar Bergman (Sweden). Lo and behold, those three men are now responsible for three of the best movies I’ve watched for this blog (and none were films I had seen at any point earlier in my life). Fellini Satyricon has come to symbolize for me the A Clockwork Orange of historical epics, and Kurosawa’s Ran was an absurdly delightful (and visually stunning) amalgamation of King Lear and samurai. Ingmar Bergman’s 1967 classic Persona is much harder to categorize. Alongside David Lynch’s Inland Empire, it is perhaps the most overtly intellectual and symbolic film I’ve watched to date, but at a perfect running time and a marvelous minimalist presentation, Persona had its claws in me from its disorienting beginning to its even more puzzling conclusion.

To describe the plot of Persona to newcomers (such as myself just an hour and a half ago) is to walk a less than metaphorical minefield. Anything short of a scholarly analysis of every scene would belie the inherent complexity of the tale beneath its seemingly simple shell. Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann plays actress Elisabet Vogler, an actress who has suddenly and inexplicably developed a case of complete mutism. She is assigned a beautiful young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) to take care of her. After a brief stay at a local hospital, Elisabet’s doctor decides that it would be for the best for Elisabet to get some fresh air by the ocean, and so Alma and Elisabet move into a secluded beach house completely apart from the rest of the world. As Alma shares every last intimate detail of her life with the wordless Elisabet, the women develop a deep (and dangerous) bond, and Alma slowly grows viciously jealous of any attention and affection the mute Alma could potentially show to others. Without wanting to ruin anything for fear of spoiling the pleasure of this truly classic film, the line between reality and fantasy (and even reality and the film you are watching) slowly begins to unfurl, the tightening bonds between these two women threatens to hurtle them both over the edge.

Bergman (alongside Fellini and possibly Goddard) is responsible for so much of the iconic imagery and shot composition of the last 50 years worth of artistically ambitious cinema. Whether it is extreme and intentionally uncomfortable close-ups  of the actors’ faces (so that every twitch and pang is painfully visible) or the oft-parodied shot of one actress facing the camera directly while the other sits at a perpendicular angle or the combination of a spartan set direction with high contrasts of shadows and light such that half the shot is nearly invisible while the other half is washed out in sunlight, this film was obviously made on a pittance but it remains both a visual powerhouse and one of the most stylistically influential films from one of the most influential directors of all time. David Lynch famously recreated the shot of the two heroines’ faces merging in his neo-noir psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. Similarly, this one of the earliest films I can remember watching where a director clearly reminded the audience that they were watching a film. The movie begins through the lens of a projector and brief flashes of old silent films. Whenever possible, Bergman reflects cinematic artifice right back at the audience in order to strengthen the over-all themes of the fleeting nature of reality even going so far as to have the film completely come apart at the seams during a moment of high psychological stress.

There are only five characters in the film, but only Alma and Elisabet are ever on screen for more than a minute or so. Much like Giulietta Massina for Federico Fellini (who was his wife and long-time inspiration), Liv Ullmann was one of Bergman’s most recurring stars and despite speaking only a dozen words or so the entire film, it was immediately apparent why she was able to inspire one of the most creative minds in cinema history. With just her impressively emotive face (often framed in a jarring close-up), she is able to evoke so much pain and tragedy (as well as a tough resiliency) easier than most actresses could do with spoken words. There is a moment towards the end of the film where Alma delivers a lengthy monologue but the shot is framed squarely on Ullmann’s face, and even more than Alma’s scathing indictment of Elisabet’s life, it is the sheer hurt on Ullmann’s face that makes the scene. In no way do I wish to discredit Bibi Andersson’s performanec. She is forced to do virtually all of the speaking of the film. And her characterization of the role constantly reveals hidden complexities in her character through her inhibitionless retellings of past indiscretions and a youthful broken heart. She also channels all of the jealousy and dangerous attachment with the right amount of build-up and eventual explosive intensity.

Discussing the themes of the film is just as tricky as a concise summation of the plot for anything too detailed runs the possibility of ruining the surprise for first-time viewers (though the surprise may not even exist for some viewers and may only be my interpretation of the plot). At its core though, the film was very reminiscent of the David Lynch film Inland Empire (I want to take back the Fellini comparisons I made in that particular review and replace them all with Bergman references) in that is about the artificial nature of storytelling and the various roles we inhabit whether as a person or as someone in the entertainment business. At one point before Alma and Elisabet leave for the beach, Elisabet’s psychiatrist supposes that Elisabet’s mutism is the result of her being tired of being split between so many different personalities and that her silence is the only way for her to achieve the truth. While that may be true on some level, there are also increasing levels of guilt and shame for obliquely referenced problems in her past as well as her inability to deal with human tragedies (signified through allusions to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War). Similarly, sexual guilt plays a heavy role in both women’s lives and a prolonged discussion of an exhibitionist sexual experience from Alma’s past proved to be one of the turning points of the film.

This is art house cinema at its artsiest. Often films like that can be mentally exhausting (eventually one’s mind stops being able to cope with Inland Empire during its epic three hour run), but at less than 90 minutes, Persona manages to keep your brain (and heart) fully engaged for every frame. Even when the film is at its most inscrutable (mainly the moments when it completely demolishes the proverbial fourth wall), it is a cinematic delight and the work of one of the true geniuses of the medium. For anyone with even the most passing interest in foreign cinema and intellectually demanding movies, this is must-watch. I’m now ashamed that I’m nearly 23 years old and still hadn’t seen an Ignmar Bergman film until just now. Without a doubt, this one of the best films I’ve watched for this blog, and it has actually inspired me to go back to a more regular movie watching schedule rather than the seemingly endless television and books that have taken up most of my writing for the last month and a half. Because if there are movies this great out there and I still haven’t seen them, I need to get back to my cinematic roots.

Final Score: A+

 

So, the last time I watched a Swedish film for this blog was way back on February 10th, a mere three days after my blog was formed. The film was the cult classic, Let the Right One In, a movie I still consider to be the greatest horror film since The Exorcist. While I have watched a fairly vast amount of foreign cinema since then, it’s still taken me ten months to get back to a movie from the homeland of film legend Ingmar Bergman. The particular film I just watched, 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, isn’t actually on my master list for this blog. Instead, it’s a movie I chose to watch because much like the Twilight franchise, Swedish author Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy (finished right before his death) has developed a considerable cult following over the last several years, and one of my favorite directors of the last 20 years, David Fincher, is set to adapt a live-action English version of the novels starring current James Bond, Daniel Craig. Because I’m one of those pretentious assholes who has to see the original foreign version of any American film I watch, I found myself surfing the content of Netflix’s watch instantly service, saw this movie, and thought “What the hell? It’s time I watched this.”Since most of my friends who have read these are college students and/or high schoolers, I was expecting a fairly tame young adult hacker story (based off the plot review). Instead, I got an incredibly disturbing tale involving rape, nazis, serial killers, and lots of sex. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a dark and gritty crime thriller and I only wish the main story had as much substance and weight as the directorial stylings and the leads’ performances.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), an investigative journalist, being sentenced to jail for libel after being framed by a major industrialist he was investigating for gun-running and corporate fraud. Since he has six months before he has to serve his sentence, Blomqvist takes a job offer from a wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of his 16 year old niece, nearly 40 years ago. During all of this, we are introduced to a rebellious but resourceful young hacker named Lisbeth Salander, who looks like something out of a goth/punk handbook. Shown to be in the care of government appointed guardians (initially for undisclosed reasons), Lisbeth does research and info gathering for a security firm while facing the sexual assaults of her newly appointed caretaker. When the company she is hired by investigates Blomqvist, Lisbeth finds herself intrigued by Blomqvist’s investigation of the Varger case, and before long, the two team up on a mystery that will sprawl into a decades long case of religiously motivated serial killings and the dark secrets that a family would rather keep private.

This movie was so difficult to watch at times that I, a film veteran who has seen far more than his fair share of disturbing events on screen, still had to turn my head away at times. This film is most certainly not for kids as there are incredibly graphic displays of sexual assault (and regular consensual sex). The film doesn’t shy away from those moments in the slightest, and if it doesn’t make you unbearably uncomfortable on at least three different occasions, you are a broken human being. It can be shockingly violent and I’m very happy that David Fincher is the individual making the American version of this film, because he’s the only American director I would trust to handle this material right without it slipping into the realm of exploitation cinema. It’s only in these themes of violence or disturbing sexuality though that I find the film attempting to be anything other than a conventional and straight forward adaptation of Larrson’s novel. For the most part, the film is shot in a very standard manner, and it’s only in the most shocking and terrifying moments that the director lets slip a bit of real artistry that scratches past the surface of just the action occurring on screen.

Noomi Rapace was expertly cast in the role of Lisbeth. She fully inhabits this part. Lisbeth is an especially complex part. Mostly because she is nigh inscrutable for the first 3/4 of the film and only a little more understandable at the film’s end. She is one of the most aggressive definitions of a female anti-hero that I’ve seen since the Bride in Kill Bill. Lisbeth is the anti-Bella Swan. Rather than being a helpless victim that relies on others to save her from dangerous situations, she takes charge herself and goes to shocking and brutal lengths to exact revenge. She does some things in this tale as disturbing as what is done to her. Rapace’s performance perfectly nails the mysterious and enigmatic nature of Lisbeth’s personality while simultaneously providing those moments where her armor cracks for a second and we get to see a little bit more than the image she so carefully portrays to the world. Michael Nyqvist was also well cast as Mikael Blomqvist even though his part carried considerably less weight than that of Lisbeth. I’m excited to see Daniel Craig in this part because if anyone has been able to nail moral ambiguity in starring lead roles, it’s been Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond.

The film does have its considerable share of flaws. At two and a half hours, it is far too long and the end runs on a good twenty minutes more than it should have. The actual investigation at the heart of the story is almost incomprehensible and involves such leaps of logic and unfollowable investigative techniques that I eventually started to half pay attention to that aspect of the story because the chemistry between Rapace and Nyqvist as well as those moments when the film truly tried to shock are what carried it to its most memorable moments. I’m definitely going to watch the two sequels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, at some point in the near future, but that will probably have to wait til I’m a little more caught up with my blogging. Ever since Skyrim came out, it’s consumed 80% of my free time. I’m nearing (if I haven’t already surpassed) the 100 hour mark in time invested in that game and it’s only been out for a few weeks. Anyways, for anyone that’s a fan of crime thrillers and foreign movies, this is definitely a must see feature that should get you excited for how the material will be handled by the masterful David Fincher.

Final Score: B+

The very first film that I reviewed for this blog way back in the beginning of February was the 1991 Oscar-winning documentary In the Shadow of the Stars which chronicles a year or so in the life of the chorus members of the San Francisco Opera House. I reviewed two other documentaries around that time, but it has been several months since I last watched a documentary feature to review for this blog (March 25th to be exact with the understated Black Sun). It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid documentary films because it’s a medium that I have much respect and admiration for. Simply put, a documentary hadn’t showed up on my master list for movies since then, but I have another one coming up shortly on my Netflix queue again to make up for lost time. I just finished the quiet and intimate The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, a Danish documentary that may not live up to the high watermark of the other documentaries I’ve watched, but it was a moving and heartfelt film with a story that managed to worm its way into my heart.

The Monastery is the story of the titular Mr. Vig who is an 80 year old man who wishes to transform his beautiful yet rundown castle in the Danish countryside into a monastery for the Russian Orthodox church. Mr. Vig is a lively and intelligent fellow but doesn’t necessarily interact with people very well and he has been a bachelor his entire life. The Russian church sends a group of nuns led by the fiery and uncharacteristically willful Sister Ambrovija to inspect the castle and to see if it can be turned into a monastery. Since the castle has begun to fall apart and is in drastic need of repairs in certain areas, Sister Ambrovija and Vig begin to quarrel over the methods of fixing the castle and various other technical aspects of the transformation into the monastery. It is a simple tale of a clashing of two personalities as well as the devotion of two wildly different individuals to a very a similar cause.

The strength of the film lies in the dichotomy between the relative simplicity of its tale against the backdrop of its eccentric protagonist and his intractable foil. Mr. Vig begins the film as simply a man who wishes to transform his castle into a monastery so that he can create something enduring and seems a man of simple faith. But we slowly learn more about him such as all of the Buddhist imagery he keeps in his house which causes immediate friction with the nuns as well as his complete lack of interest or understanding with women that has existed since his mother who he only ever kissed once. Up until the final frames of the film, we get an even more interesting and clearer picture of Mr. Vig who is far more integral to the success of the film than the story of erecting the monastery. The scenes where he quarrels with Sister Ambrovija are rather entertaining as neither is willing to back down and Sister Ambrovija subverts every expectation of the docile and obediant nun.

Perhaps because I am not a man of faith, I was never quite able to fully engage myself with the story on display here. As much as I found the characters intriguing, the simple building of a monastery was not enough to fully grab my attention, and much of the bickering between the two simply reminded me of the things I didn’t like about religion in the first place. For people that are fans of documentary film-making, this isn’t one of the greatest documentaries ever made, but it’s still quirky and eccentric enough to stand out in its own special way. For those who are especially vitriolic towards religion, you may want to avoid it, but for casual agnostics such as myself, you can still find some beauty and humanity in this picture. For those who are of faith, I’m sure you’ll find this to be a much more rewarding and touching experience than even I did and so to you, I recommend it heartily.

Final Score: B