Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers (2011)
Dir. Ti West
Starring Sarah Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis

    Ti West is a director that entered my radar when everyone and their creepy parents went googoo gaga nuts over HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, an 80’s horror throwback which won raves from people whose opinions matter thanks in a large part to its very slow, gradual build and authentic 80s productions trappings. It sounds so good I haven’t watched it yet. When you watch as many movies as I do, there just aren’t that many truly great ones floating around left to be discovered for the first time, so I’m saving it for a special occasion (presumably the capstone to this year’s Halloween Scotchtoberfestival of Frights*). But I’m assured that it’s great, so when Ti West’s new one THE INKEEPERS came calling, I figured I’d better jump on the bandwagon. Little did I know before I started this review that the bandwagon had actually been rolling for some time -- West had already written and directed four low-profile horror films before HOUSE, including, if wikipedia can honestly be believed on this, CABIN FEVER 2. 

    INKEEPERS is not what you might expect from the director of CABIN FEVER 2, or from the reputation of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Actually it’s not the kind of film you might expect from anyone. It’s a sort of odd fairy tale/slacker comedy/horror movie hybrid, told in three portentously-titled acts with an epilogue. You know, like, Um. Wasn’t there a SAW sequel kind of like that?

    I knew HOUSE OF THE DEVIL famously took its time building up to a big payoff, so I wasn’t surprised, at first, that this one doesn’t start throwing ghosts at us right off the bat. But it IS a horror movie, right? I mean, we will get to them? The movie very cutely keeps hinting that it will, and then never seems to get around to it. So instead, what we get is our two leads Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) as early-20 and early 30s (respectively) clerks at a supposedly haunted hotel on its last weekend of operation. They talk about ghosts a good bit (Luke is creating a website about the hotel and supposedly looking for “proof” of supernatural activity) and every once in awhile the music gets spooky to remind us that something scary is incipient. But then nothing ever happens. And at about halfway through, you suddenly realize that it’s all some sort of weird tease. When the first genuine shock scare happens, you almost can’t believe your eyes. Did that really happen?!

    And that’s the odd magic this thing works on you. It’s the filmatic equivalent of hanging out with your friends, telling scary stories, and finally working up enough courage to peek into the old abandoned house down the road. You’re gonna be scared, but nothing’s really going to happen. And that’s OK. Because it’s fun wasting time with friends and freaking each other out. And you’re going to think of Claire and Luke as your friends, or at least your friendly co-workers, by the end. There’s a real honest charm to their performances and to their unique relationship. I can’t think of another film that really ever explored this particular dynamic with the depth that this one does, and yet it’s something I’m certain every person can relate to. They’re not exactly friends in the sense that they have much in common or would spend time together outside work -- but being stuck at the same boring job all day breeds a kind of easy camaraderie. If they weren’t stuck there, they wouldn’t be together, but they are, so why not spend the time making jokes, giving each other grief, getting drunk, and talking about the issues. The rapport between them feels exceedingly easy and natural, and both Paxton and Healy are utterly believable and likeable. Paxton, in particular, is spunky and adorable in a way which makes her endearing, vulnerable, and hilarious all at once.

Given the relaxed and ingratiating vibe of hanging out late nights in an almost-empty hotel with these two, it’s almost a shame when --with maybe 30 minutes remaining-- West remembers it’s actually a horror movie and has to provide some ghosts. The horror is nothing to be embarrassed about, but it’s a little generic for an otherwise genre-defying film. I’d have been perfectly happy for the whole thing to be a giant tease, but if you’re going to build to a horror climax from such a unique and extended setup, I’d say the horror needs to be a little more shocking than this. What’s more, there seems to be the suggestion that all this has something to say about the inability to escape fate which isn’t exactly backed up by the rest of the narrative**.

It’s not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, it’s simply that the end of the film changes direction enough that it doesn’t quite capitalize on the strengths of the particular dynamic it has built so stealthily during most of the runtime (except that your fondness for the characters makes you want them to survive). Which is not to say that the ending comes out of nowhere; the seeds are being sown since frame one. But the sudden change in tone is a bit jarring, and the scares, though earned, are straight out of Scary Ghost Faces 101. They’d be filler scares in INSIDIOUS 2 or something like that. Creepy, but maybe not flashy enough to hang a horror finale on.

That said, there’s something elegant about the way the film weaves its apparently conflicting tones together, in and out, throughout the whole of its runtime, veeeerrrrryyyy gradually shifting us from normal consensus reality into supernatural horror. And because the characters feel so likeable and real, putting them in scary situations has a different vibe than your usual scenario with six-or-seven disposable attractive thirtysomething college students. Here, the thirtysomething is actually playing a thirtysomething, and the fact that he’s working this job allows him to be sardonic and nonplussed, but with an undercurrent of desperation that his life has taken him here. There are undercurrents of unspoken sadness and resignation all over the film, actually. And it’s grim resignation to fate --more than terror-- that seems to be the aim of the horror. Like all the characters in the film, we’re haunted more by our own lives, our pasts --and maybe our futures-- than we are by spirits. And if the spirits get us in the end, it’s only because they’re the ultimate expression of their own pasts. The real horror is not being eaten by ghosts, but being stuck with them. Or becoming them.

PS: Also, this film has a really boss Poster.

PPS: Also, I suddenly realized that I didn't include this on my best-of-2011 list. I knew I forgot something important. So yeah, It should be there. 

Super Secret PXPS: Also longtime friend of the show Dan P. wrote a little about this one awhile back on his blog, check it out. Read this now.

*working title.

**Although interestingly, I think you can probably read something into the three guests staying at the hotel, and the different ways they are attempting to escape being trapped by their lives. Arguably there’s kind of a REAR WINDOW thing going on here, where we can imagine the stuck central characters becoming any of these people, or maybe all of them. Still don’t quite see how fate factors into it, though.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In defense of GwaDT2011: Alex throws the book at me.

Hey there, sports fans. In response to my (what I hope read as) generally positive but somewhat lukewarm review of Fincher's DRAGON TATTOO movie, Ms. Alexandra Dickinson responds with a fan's passion and a doctoral candidate's diction. She's approaching it as someone who has read the book, and appropriately wrote a book-length response which was too long to fit in the comments section. So here's a differing opinion by the person who convinced me to see the thing to begin with.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ms. Dickinson:
I wrote too much and it won't fit in comments and I'm too lazy to figure out why I can't successfully make more than one comment your blog... but, here are my thoughts:
Being a creeper more than a speaker – this whole commenting business is a little foreign to me. So as a preface I will say: please, dear internet world, treat me kindly as I fumble through this response.
At the end of your review you astutely point out that “If you’re gonna cover a song, you gotta at least know why.” – I really couldn’t agree with that statement more, particularly because it touches on something that I think was missing from your analysis of the importance of cover songs or movie remakes (and in turn, why I think Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was worthwhile, functional and important).
Part of the beauty of a remake of any kind is that it says more about the culture and time in which it was being re-made than it says about the importance or vitality of the work itself. Sure the careful analysis of any replication can help you isolate the structural elements of a piece in a way that makes it possible to more completely appreciate the form in its naked state – but without the context of the surrounding world you’re never going to figure out why it’s being made, or what it’s trying to say.
With that in mind, before I address the films themselves, I feel as though the story needs some defense: I actually think that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (or Men Who Hate Women, if you will) is a serviceable narrative in that it is a decent vehicle for cultural introspection. I definitely agree that Stieg Larsson’s original Millenium trilogy is not the “multifluously rich fount of humanity” that it could have been, but it still provides a decent dose of humanity. Additionally it has clearly endeared itself to millions of people – and why?  Because every day people understand it.  It’s an easy message.  Larsson was a journalist who devoted his life to fighting and exposing extremism and his weapon of choice was this straight-forward, no-nonsense, simple sentence filled style. So basically, Larsson was all about saying: extremism is bad, equality is good – but because he wasn’t going to make any money writing “extremism is bad” over and over again. So he threw in some morally complicated characters, at least one of which is truly unique (Salander),  and some Nazis – which are a pretty big flash-bang taboo topic in Scandinavia (and have not been fetishized in the same way in literature or film there as they have  been here). 
The first book in the trilogy (it’s difficult to say trilogy that, because the second two are really just the same story with a half-time in between them) is obviously the flashiest. It draws the audience in which then allows the rest of the trilogy to really go at it with hammering that extremism point without as much of the flash. We know he wanted to write more – but alas, that whole death thing caught up to him first.  Either way, he was super successful in getting people (millions of them) involved in a story about the cultural ills of extremism, moral ambiguity and relativism and all of this without bringing systemic terrorism into the plot (no small feat for a book written in 2002). And I think any time people are reading a book where they have to really consider any of those things is a good time – and is way more than just a trashy nazi serial killer mystery thriller.
Onto a defense of the film…
The more I think about it, the less I think it makes sense to compare the Swedish screenplay to the American one. In fact, the films themselves are so fundamentally different in form and function that I think the whole comparison business may do a disservice to them both – but that’s for another paragraph.  The Arcel/Heisterberg screenplay - which definitely takes some bold liberties with the plot of the story – is definitely more straightforwardly entertaining than the Zaillian screenplay. Ultimately, I think that the differences exist because they were both written with wildly different intents. I agree that when the Swedish film came out they were interested in getting  the “goods out of the material.
The goods, in this case, being a highly marketable and universally palatable rendition of the story (the plot can lend itself to that kind of treatment) in true Swollywood production, without really addressing what it was actually all about.
Essentially the Swedish screenplay cuts the sinews out of the novel and delivers the beating heart, in contrast the Fincher/Zaillian version provides a full body – sinews & all. The Zaillian screenplay does have all of the appearances of being a closer rendition of the plot of the book – but in reality, they both take serious liberties.  I think the difference lies in the fact that the choices Zaillian made were much bigger statements than the ones Arcel/Heisterberg did.  That black sheep religious daughter? She’s a pretty good complicating factor when considering themes of religious extremism. Comparatively downplaying Salander in the American version? I think it paves the way for some excellent growth in the follow-up films and highlights what the film was actually about.
Which leads me to the next point – while the first installment of the Millenium trilogy is obviously pre-occupied with Larsson’s concern with misogyny – I don’t think that is what it’s all about. It’s truly all about the effect of extremism – extreme violence (the rape), extreme inequality (falling through the cracks of a welfare system), extremist beliefs. So what the Swedish version does is it takes the sexy action and highlights that, while the American version is digging deeper.  Fincher is all about statement stories. I think he has made a brave choice by opting to give this story the kind of treatment he has given it. He is moving beyond the obvious marketable benefits of a badass female heroine, and beyond the obvious offenses of a brutal rape and a f--d* up system - and onto the far darker depths of extremism, which is a story that has a ton of utility in our culture today.
Fincher’s GWTDT was marketed in a way if you hadn’t read the books, or were not already invested in the story in some way  you weren’t necessarily going to hop into theaters (which if you look at the box office – proved to be true.) Which wasn’t such a bad choice if you consider that it allows him to  1) rightfully distances it from the Swedish film 2) tap into the audience of Americans who gobbled up these stories in print and 3)pave the way for a solid first step into what promises to be a really good trilogy.
So, sure, maybe the Swedish version works better as a classic action-thriller, the American version works better as a sleek film with a message. That’s why Rooney “I wish she was my girlfriend” Mara’s performance is really beautiful in its unnerving instability and why it looks so frail compared to Noomi Rapace’s Salander. I think that’s the more interesting choice – and the more worthwhile one when it comes to developing an actual film. I’ll be really interested to see how Daniel “I wish he was my boyfriend” Craig chooses to develop Blomkvist in the subsequent films – while I thought he was obviously brutally awesome (if someone could arrange for him to be typing in his underwear on my macbook for my birthday – uh, I’d be down with that) – I think that Rooney Mara played Salander in a way that will grow way more interesting, whereas I kind of think Craig may have maxed it out this time.
So to sum it all up, while we are talking about essentially the same story – they aren’t comparable products.  For the same reason you cannot just say “well we can compare apples and oranges because they are both fruit” I don’t think it’s fair to say we can compare these films just because they are both based on Larsson’s books. And with that comparative separation taken care of – I think that Fincher’s film is a really decent beginning to what will prove to be a solidly epic (perhaps subtle) reflection of extremist tendencies in America.
In the end sometimes two different covers of the same song are too different to compare, and require the context of the rest of the world to really appreciate what they are doing out there at all.

*fucked -- editor.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Dir. David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan “The Swede” Skarsgard

    I have a weird love of cover songs. Most people seem to get annoyed when they hear another version of something the already love, but to me its endlessly fascinating. I’ve made a long tradition of collecting covers, especially rare ones -- live versions of RATM covering the Clash, Nirvana playing “Smoke on the Water,” Willie Nelson covering Toots and the Maytals. They’re almost never better than the originals, due to the simple fact that the reason anyone knows about the original version to begin with is because it captured some kind of unique magic that made it memorable, made it work. A cover, even a very good cover, is unlikely to recapture that magic, recreate that particular balance, which is why most people don’t seem to like them all that much. They hear what’s not there, and it ends up a very frustrating experience in almost getting what you want. A tease, a persistent reminder of what you’re not getting. But to me, a cover is a fascinating look into the soul and the mechanics of a song -- its a scientific experiment in art, altering the variables and producing a different result. More than just revealing what worked about the original, it can sometimes emphasize different things, bring out hidden aspects of a work which lurk somewhere deep down in the original.

    An adaptation or a remake, at its best, does the same thing: it plays the same notes, but with a different flavor. But I have to admit, I couldn’t see the point in having David Fincher cover this particular song. Let’s face it: Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon Tattoo” novel is not exactly a classic masterpiece of literature. It’s a fun little thriller with some great ideas, but if we’re all going to be honest here I think we all know that it’s not a multifluously rich fount of humanity which we’re all going to revisit every few years and find that it takes on new meaning and offers up new secrets. It’s basically a trashy nazi serial killer mystery thriller with one truly classic character but enough plot for ten books, only one of which is really all that interesting. And it was already made into a perfectly servicable Swedish film not even two years ago, which did a pretty good job getting the goods out of the material. But, both the book and movie were profitable, and wouldn’t you know it, suddenly there’s a big expensive Hollywood version with big stars and a name-brand director. Funny how that works out. I mean, I don’t think Fincher really has it in him to make a bad movie, but it’s sort of hard to imagine this was completely a labor of love and when someone mentioned that it was probably a good business move everyone got all offended and asked indignantly how dare anyone sully the good name of this film by bringing up something as vulgar as money. 

But even so, it’s pretty good. If this seems a little more crass than remaking the equally unnecessary FRIGHT NIGHT, it makes up for it by being solidly classy across the board. And I can’t lie, the different flavors don’t combine quite as well for me as they did in the Swedish version, but at the same time they do exactly what I want a good cover song to do, which is change the balance of the recipe so new flavors emerge. 

For starters, I think it’s time we all got together as a nation and admitted that, all things being equal, Daniel Craig is somewhat more attractive and badass than Michael Nyqvist. I mean, Tom Cruise took Nyqvist down in that new MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie (spoiler) and I’m pretty goddam sure that any fucking James Bond equal to or greater than Timothy Dalton could take Tom Cruise, so by the law of transitive badassery, Daniel Craig is at the very least four times as badass as Nyqvist (that’s right, do the math. Yup, Dalton outranks Roger Moore.) That alone gives the film a very different balance. In the Swedish film, Nyqvist is basically a dorky middle-aged journalist who looks kind of like a doughy, burnt-out version of Jason Bateman. In this one, he’s fucking Daniel Craig, so even though he does the same things he seems way more epic. You’d be interested in watching Daniel Craig do just about anything, even slowly typing on a macbook in his underwear. So, uh, happy birthday to you, I guess.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, on the other hand, is way less Hollywood Epic than Noomi Rapace was in the original. Again, she does the same things, but her performance is more subtle. She acts more like you might imagine a person who has suffered the things that Lisbeth has suffered would act. She’s withdrawn, quiet, won’t look anyone in the eyes. Rapace was all ferocious tenacity in the role: She stares people down, while Mara won’t even look at them. They’re equally oblivious to the usual rules of social etiquette, but with Rapace it seems like an intentionally defiant way of showing how little she cares about their rules. With Mara it seems like she maybe has aspergers. It’s a good performance, but a different one. Also she has bleached eyebrows and bangs personally forged by the devil in the darkest pit of haircut hell, so she looks a little more like a creepy alien child than Rapace did. In the sense that I’m pretty sure that’s what the space baby from 2001 would have grown up to look like. And as realistic and damaged as Mara wants to play her, when she gets naked there’s no mistaking that she has the Body Of A Hollywood Starlet. Rapace was all gristle and sinew; Mara’s just a pretty girl with a bad haircut. 

Anyway, with a more charismatic Mikael and a less charismatic Lisbeth, the balance of power shifts a little bit. Lisbeth’s story is much more interesting, but you sort of want to watch Mikael because he’s fucking Daniel Craig. This makes the two stories a little more equal, but maybe not necessarily better, because even if Craig is a more compelling hero, you’d never really want to watch a movie about his story. Lisbeth is the film’s more dynamic character and story arc, but she’s a little toned down here, which makes her more realistic but also less fun to watch. Except when naked. 

Fincher works the story a little differently, too. For one thing, he begins with, of all fool things, this crazy fucking music video set to Trent Reznor’s version of fucking “Immigrant Song” whhhhaaaaaaaaaat? Sweden is indeed a land of ice and snow, but that’s about as much as that song has to do with the plot. It does, however, signal that Fincher is back in kinetic mode, zipping the film along at breakneck speed and cutting out everything he can. It also signals that this is gonna be a kind of goofy rock n’ roll production which tacitly acknowledges the pulpiness of the original material and has some fun with it. Yes, this grim Swedish tale of Nazi Misogynist Serial Killer Rapists is a pretty good time at the movies. For all his grim themes, Fincher has a oft-underestimated knack for putting a germ of human warmth into his serial killer films, and he succeeds here most completely by allowing us to like our protagonists. Lisbeth actually got some big laughs out of he audience I saw it with, and I think it’s both honest and Fincher’s intent. There’s something kind of adorable about Mara’s intense earnestness, and even though it makes her a little less badass, Fincher manages to make it endearing and vulnerable instead. And Daniel Craig is vastly more emotive and charming than Nyqvist ever was, making their somewhat ill-developed romance at least feel satisfying. Even Jeff Cronenweth’s photography is warmer than the stark blue-black of the Swedish version (hey, does this mean that Fincher Un-Sweded this film?) working in some rusty oranges, moss greens, and earthy browns. 

Fincher’s attempt to streamline things helps the movie zip along with only the things it absolutely needs, but there’s not much he can do to alleviate the central problem, which is that the whole murder mystery thing is essentially a giant red herring thrown into the middle of another, less interesting story. Writer Steve Zaillian (adapting the book instead of the Swedish film) spends more time on Michael’s legal problems and home life, which is sort of necessary considering the ending, but kind of unnecessary to anyone who wants to be entertained. He’s presumably more faithful to the book in including characters like Michael’s black sheep religious daughter, who in this version cues him in to the biblical clues. Only problem is, that even further cuts down on the interaction between Mikael and Lisbeth (the Swedish version has Lisbeth contribute this information), who are completely separate and off each other’s radar for literally half the film, with Lisbeth’s story more interesting but less important to the plot. The Swedish version wisely focuses on Lisbeth’s continued interest and meddling from afar in Michael’s life. Maybe less faithful, but it works better. 

Likewise, Zaillian cuts the murder mystery down to the bone, sparing us most of the complicated genealogy, red herrings, and possible suspects. It streamlines things, but also significantly lessens the impact of the mystery itself. Look folks, I don’t want to spoil this for you, but there are four recognizable names in the cast, and three of them obviously are not the murderer. And the way it plays here, Mikael figures the whole thing out himself, and Lisbeth kind of works as his secretary, doing the legwork on minor details. The poster puts Mikael up front, with Lisbeth behind him in the sidekick role, and that’s pretty accurate to the film’s presentation of them. It works fine, except that fucking Lisbeth is the sole truly classic creation in this whole damn work of fiction. 

I really believe that she’s a classic, unique, and potentially prototypical character (particularly as a female character) in the mold of great larger-than-life film colorful protagonists like The Man With No Name, Han Solo, Sherlock Holmes, even Jack Sparrow. So what’s the point of having her play second fiddle to some bland, hunky do-gooder journalist? He should be her foil, the Watson to her Holmes, her link to the world she’s otherwise too eccentric and extraordinary for. Would anyone give two shits about Mikael’s murky legal and personal problems if Lisbeth wasn’t around to add some electricity to things? Absolutely fucking not. The story is told from Mikael’s perspective to give us an in to her world. But it’s his perspective that’s important, not his story. I’m sure Zaillian faithfully adapted the book, but he would have been wiser to follow it’s intent, not it’s structure.

And so we’re left with a bare-bones murder investigation bookended by some 30 minutes of unrelated goop about Mikael’s life. It’s better integrated and more effective here, but is being better at the worst parts of the thing such a good idea? Zaillian has a long history of writing accurate and serviceable but sometimes meandering scripts like GANGS OF NEW YORK, AMERICAN GANGSTER, and wow, SCHINDLER’S LIST. Ok, so sometimes it works. But here I think he got caught up in adapting the story accurately, and got away from adapting the story’s heart accurately. I mean, the original title was “Men Who Hate Women” -- that’s the whole point of the narrative, and the central theme that ties Lisbeth’s rape, her mistrust, her vulnerability, and Mikael’s philandering together with the ongoing Nazi murders. But although all those elements continue to exist here, they simply don’t add up to any kind of coherent theme about misogyny. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens because it’s in the book. 

The slavish devotion to the detail at the expense of the spirit leads to odd choices which never really pay off in any meaningful way. Case in point? The whole thing is still set in Sweden, but it’s a very awkward Sweden where everyone speaks in accents, but not necessarily Swedish accents, headlines are written in Swedish but documents important to the plot are written in English, and where the villains are Swedish but the Heroes are English. Would it have been too fucking hard to just set the thing in Canada or something? Would American audiences never have accepted that there are emotionally crippled nubile 20-something female hackers on this continent? 

So ultimately, this new adaptation is slicker, more fun, more structurally cohesive, and works better in nearly every way except for the only one which is really important. It does exactly what I was hoping it would do, which is change that delicate chemical formula and help better divine how the parts add up to a whole. But like a perfect cocktail, the beauty of it is in getting the ingredients to add up just so. You can tweak it and explore elements which were previously hidden, but you’re not going to quite get that magic that happens when it all works together. In this case, what you’ve got is a perfectly executed, technically proficient thriller, but I can’t imagine anyone watching it and understanding what all this Dragon Tattoo hoopla is about. It fails to quite realize on screen the elements which are so unique and special about the source material, and instead succeeds quite admirably at nailing the parts which are fine but not especially memorable. The Swedish version might be clunkier on some of the details, but look at the poster: there’s Lisbeth, staring right into the camera, daring someone to ask where Mikael is (hint: not anywhere on the poster). Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev is nowhere close to the technical master that Fincher is, but like a good documentarian he knows to put the interesting thing on screen and get out of its way. Fincher and Zaillian, for all their skill, could learn something from his focus. If you’re gonna cover a song, you gotta at least know why.

PS: Also, is that Julian Sands playing a young Christopher Plummer?! The fuck did he get in there?