Tag Archive: Sweden


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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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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+

 

Forget Twilight. Forget  True Blood, and forget Anne Rice (I can now see hordes of rabid Anne Rice fans wanting my head on a platter for putting her work in the same category as those other pieces). If you want a thought-provoking, artistic, and downright beautiful film about a vampire, you need look no further than what is easily and single-handedly the greatest vampire film ever made. I am, of course, referring to 2008’s Let the Right One In, an import from Sweden and a film that makes you thankful we live in an age where it’s simple to have access to great foreign cinema.

Let the Right One In follows the tale of 12 year old Oskar, a boy who lives with his mother in a small apartment in Sweden. Oskar is viciously bullied at school and is not, generally, of the healthiest mental state, as he has an unnatural pre-occupation with grisly murders and acts out revenge fantasies against his tormenters at home with a knife. Eli (played in one of the best children performances that I can think of by Lina Leandersson) is a girl that has moved in next door to Oskar who is hiding a large secret. She’s a vampire. What follows is one of the most heart-breaking and sincere tales of childhood, loss, one’s first love, and growing up that I can possibly think of. While this is a horror film about a vampire, more than anything else this is a film about what it means to be a child and to love, and those themes mixed with the dark and horrific nature of the vampire tale leads to easily one of the best horror films of all time.

I can’t begin to say enough good things about Lina Leandersson’s performance as Eli. Her stage presence and natural delivery skills (as far as I can posit from a performance in a language I don’t speak) are absolutely astounding. I really hope that she is a future huge star in her homeland. Her performance ranks among the all-time great performances by a non-adult like Anna Paquin in The Piano, Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, or Haley Joel Osment in A.I. or The Sixth Sense. The same can’t be said for Oskar’s actor but anyone would look less than stellar compared to the performance of Eli.

The only thing keeping this film from perfection for me are the scenes that don’t focus on Eli and Oskar’s relationship. They distract from that beautiful tale and are unnecessary at enforcing the major themes of the film. That’s probably one area in which the recent American remake Let Me In actually succeeds more than this one. Really, I can’t think of a single type of person that I can’t recommend this movie to. It’s dark and atmospheric for the people who prefer that, but it also tells a hauntingly beautiful take of love and loss as well.

Final Score: A