My Pick for Lisbeth Salander

24 July 2010 at 00:37 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

The late Stieg Larsson‘s ridiculously popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novel received the movie treatment in his native Sweden last year with its American release this past March. The film only further popularized the novel with its excellent performances by Noomi Rapace (as title character Lisbeth Salander) and Michael Nyqvist as investigative reporter Mikael Blomqvist. Having recently finished the book, I finally got out to see the adaptation at the Academy Theater in Portland this past week. While some have critiqued the film for its lengthy duration and graphic depictions of violence, I appreciated the ways in which the film condensed the novel. I also found the depictions of sexual assault appropriately disturbing without being exploitative. It may not be the twenty-first century equivalent to The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s not far off.

I hope and expect that David Fincher (director of Seven, Fightclub, and Zodiac) took copious notes while watching the Swedish version, which rides heavily upon Rapace’s brilliant performance. Currently, well-known names like Natalie Portman, Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart, and Ellen Page have been thrown around for the role, along with some more obscure actresses such as Rooney Mara, Emily Browning, and Sarah Snook. Not surprisingly, everyone wants this guaranteed star-making role.

One of the few names mentioned that struck me immediately as a fascinating possibility: Mia Wasikowska. Most filmgoers will immediately associate her with her big-screen role as title character in the Tim Burton directed CGI overdo Alice in Wonderland, but I urge you to please set aside that association and hear me out on this.

Wasikowska has several qualities that make me want to see her in this role. First, she fits the Salander body-type: lithe and petite, she has that boyish quality so essential to the character. What’s more, her smiles seem labored when I see her press-photos–she’s the kind of actress that looks more comfortable wearing a scowl than a grin.

Mia Wasikowska, exuding her trademark intensity. Image taken from http://www.abc.net.au.

One reason for this impression might be her excellent performance in the first season of HBO’s In Treatment, a series following a psychiatrist (Gabriel Byrne) and four of his patients’ sessions as well as his own experience in therapy. Wasikowska played Sophie (a talented gymnast suspected of suicidal impulse) beautifully, showing her to be highly independent but deeply conflicted. A scene below demonstrates Wasikowska’s nuanced performance:

While this particular scene shows Sophie as vulnerable and expressive, others portray her as cold and reserved. Even in those moments of seeming indifference, Wasikowska hints at a deep reservoir of pain lying beneath her steely surface. These are the moments that suggest Wasikowska has the potential to play a kick ass Lisbeth Salander (I’ve yet to see her in The Kids Are All Right but imagine she brings something extra to her role in that indie comedy).

Wasikowska also filmed Restless with one of my favorite filmmakers, Gus Van Sant, slated for release in early 2011. According to Movie Line, the film depicts the story of a funeral crasher and a terminally ill 16-year old who fall in love–yes, a bit Harold and Maude, but Van Sant’s direction and Wasikowska’s involvement give me hope. Wasikowska cropped her locks for the role, giving us a preview of what her Lisbeth Salandar might look like:

With black hair and a few piercings, Mia Wasikowska would make a terrific Lisbeth Salander. Image taken from Celebrifi.com.

While Wasikowska may prove to be a bit high-profile for Fincher (he’s expressed a desire for an unknown actress), I hope he gives her another look. If Noomi Rapace has taught us nothing else, the role of Salander must be cast with great care to an actress with the skills and the looks to make this incredible role believable.

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How Inception Bests The Matrix

20 July 2010 at 17:58 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Is it really necessary to post a spoiler alert here? I guess if you’ve never read my blog you ought to be made aware that I discuss plots in full. Be warned.***

Much has been made of the recently released Inception‘s similarity to The Matrix. Both portray worlds that exist solely in the mind and both use this concept to depict gravity defying action sequences. Despite these similarities, the two films differ dramatically in terms of the ways in which they resolve issues of intellectual uncertainty. While The Matrix may offer a more satisfying end (sequels not withstanding), Inception‘s ending, like the conclusion of the director’s and final cuts of Blade Runner, provokes more questions without frustrating the viewer.

Inception's promotional poster. Image taken from latinoreview.com.

In my Adventures in Auditing series, I discussed the ways in which The Matrix manifested the idea of a text-based reality through formal elements such as color and vertical motion. I concluded that the ways in which the film distinguished between the false, textual reality of the matrix and the “real reality” of the world beyond the matrix actually reinforce the idea that a reality exists behind what Jean Baudrillard and others calls “simulacra.” As a result, the film fails to capture the essence of postmodernism even as it references these theories overtly.

By contrast, Inception lacks obvious references to postmodernism instead exploring these themes in a more cerebral way through depictions of dreaming. Still, the platonic themes of intellectual uncertainty remain pertinent to the film. The movie follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an expert in extraction, which is the process of obtaining information by invading a person’s subconscious through his dreams. This task proves dangerous in part because dreams appear so real that distinguishing between dreamed and lived reality requires certain tricks, such as totems. Totems are weighted objects, such as the metallic top carried by Cobb, that feel or behave one way in the dream and another way in reality. If Cobb spins the top in a dream, it never falls; if he spins it in reality, it topples as it should. This allows Cobb to enter and exit dreams for the purposes of extraction without fear of disorientation.

Cobb assembles a team of dream experts to perform a process called inception for a powerful client. Inception involves the planting of an idea into the subconscious through shared dreaming. While inception initially appears to be a theoretical possibility never before tried, Cobb claims to have successfully performed this task. One of his curious assistants, Ariadne (Ellen Page), discovers that Cobb implanted the idea that reality was actually a dream in the subconscious of his wife Mal (the superb Marion Cotillard) in order to encourage her to exit a lengthy shared dream. Once out of the dream, Mal believes that she continues to dream, mistakenly committing suicide as a means of returning to reality.

Marion Cotillard turns a stunning performance as Mal in Inception. Image taken from celebrity-mania.com.

Or so we are to believe throughout the bulk of the film. The end of Inception, however, seems to suggest that Mal may have been correct. After successfully completing the task of inception, Cobb returns to his family, whom he had been unable to visit as a result of previous crimes. In the final moments of the film, Cobb spins his top, which wobbles slightly but continues to spin before the film ends by cutting to black.

This ending fails to resolve the question of whether or not Cobb actually exited the dream state. The timing of the cut prevents the viewer from knowing for sure if the top will continue to spin or if the top will fall as physics proscribe it should. This beautifully ambiguous open ending elevates Inception to classic status.

Still, Inception cannot be described as flawless by any means. While Dicaprio, Cotillard, and much of the supporting cast deliver strong performances, Ellen Page’s efforts at a more serious role falter. Her character’s presence feels necessary to the narrative (with Ariadne as the dreamer-in-training, we the audience learn the rules of shared dreaming through her tutorials) but awkward and at times unnecessary in the moment of the scene. As a whole, the plot can feel a bit convoluted and the reasons for inception (to encourage a young executive to break up his father’s company) seem trite.

Nevertheless, the film hits its stride about midway through, and these little problems fall by the wayside. The film’s visuals, it’s plotting, its editing, remind you the ways in which cinema defy the spatial, temporal, and physical constraints that limit everyday life. It’s a lovely tribute to the power of film and its ability to mystify the senses and challenge the mind.

A still from Inception featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Image taken from The Atlantic.

While The Matrix most certainly dazzles like Inception with its incredible action sequences and futuristic style, it falters in its attempt at sustaining intellectual uncertainty. Once we know the differences between the matrix and the desert of the real, viewers can feel secure in understanding the distinction. Inception denies us this certainty, instead opting for the discomfort of leaving questions unanswered and mysteries unsolved.

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Buried, The Vanishing, and the latest casualties of war

14 July 2010 at 14:22 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

***Spoiler alert: I reveal the end of The Vanishing in this post. If you haven’t seen that film and want to experience the sucker-punch that is the film’s penultimate scene, I suggest you watch it before reading this post.***

By now, any self-respecting horror fan should have seen a trailer for Buried, the Lionsgate distributed film starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Spaniard Rodrigo Cortes. In case you haven’t, here it is:

Reynolds plays the film’s only onscreen character: Paul Conroy, a truck-driver contracted to work in Iraq circa 2006 and buried alive with only a Zippo and a fully-charged cell-phone. Unable to remember how he arrived in this predicament, the film uses the cell phone device to allow Conroy to come into contact with his captors, family, emergency dispatch, US officials, and his employers, gradually revealing the course of events that led up to the burial through these conversations. It’s a brilliant, minimalist concept, and by early accounts from its premier at Sundance, a successful exercise in suspense.

As Variety reviewer Rob Nelson points out, Buried also clearly draws from the excellent 1988 Dutch film Spoorloos (trans. as The Vanishing). That film involves the disappearance of a Dutch woman named Saskia and the efforts of her boyfriend, Rex, to discover what happened to her. After tracking down the killer–the seemingly normal family man Raymond–Rex agrees to succumb to the same fate as Saskia. We the viewers find out what that is in the penultimate scene. Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments offers a good summation:

The film proved so affective that Hollywood came a-calling for a remake. Despite both films sharing the same director, George Sluizer, the Hollywood version essentially neutralized the original, tacking on a rosy ending in which the protagonist’s girlfriend comes to the rescue. Roger Ebert articulates my feelings pretty well below (though I hate that he uses “slasher” as some kind of insult):

Still, surviving burial doesn’t necessarily make for a cliched plot point. Kill Bill, Volume 2 makes good use of the “buried alive” narrative conflict when the Bride lands herself in a coffin. Rather than limit the action of the scene to the coffin, writer/director Quentin Tarantino uses the Bride’s predicament as a jumping off point for a flashback depicting the Bride’s kung fu training by the legendary Pai Mei. Here’s what happens once the film flashes back to the buried Bride:

Because the Bride’s escape follows a flashback to training in which she gains the skills that enable her to escape, Kill Bill cleverly gives the unbelievable moment credibility within the narrative.

Several signals suggest that Buried will similarly develop its concept, avoiding the pitfalls of a film like The Vanishing remake in favor of a more nuanced approach. For one, the film’s credits suggest that it strictly adheres to the concept; other than Reynolds, cast members are listed as “voices,” suggesting that the film keeps all (or at least most) of the action to the interior of the coffin. The sparse trailer also hints at a confined space for the film’s action. If the filmmakers can pull it off (as reviewers like Jackson and others say they do) it will be an impressive feet worthy of Sluizer’s admiration.

The poster for Buried. Image taken from screenrant.com.

The film’s geopolitical context also suggests a myriad of possibilities. Because the protagonist works for Iraq War contractors, I expect there to be some fascinating commentary on the new civilian role in nation-building as well as the problematic corporatization of war. One might read the concept itself as a critique of the exploitation of the working-class by both sides of the war on terror: in the end, either side will bury you in a box to further their cause.

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Adios Texas – A Tribute

8 July 2010 at 18:36 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , )

Regular readers may have noticed the recent lack of posts. The reason: I’ve spent the last several weeks moving cross-country with spouse and puppy in tow. After several days of ten hours behind the wheel, we finally arrived in Oregon early this week and have been recuperating ever since.

Now that I have landed in the cool, lush Pacific Northwest, I am reflecting upon four years as a Texas resident with mixed emotions. While I certainly detested the dominant conservative views of the state’s populace, I appreciated the brash Texas culture that combined so many influences. I come away from the state with a greater appreciation for western cloths, country music of the Townes Van Zandt variety, spicy foods, and the greatest contraction ever, “y’all.” The place rubbed off on me, and I know that I’ll think back fondly on the many friends I made, SXSW dayshows I attended, bars I frequented (Hole in the Wall!), and daytrips to float the Comal taken over the past four years.

I feel especially blessed to have been in Austin at a time in which horror fandom flourished. I doubt that this blog would exist had I not cultivated my interest in the genre through coursework in media studies, conversations with like-minded friends, and late night b-movies at the Alamo Drafthouse. Because of the Terror Thursday (now Terror Tuesday) series, I saw such gems as The Stepfather, The Hidden, and Silent Night, Deadly Night along with some duds that shall remain nameless. I even saw a few of the genre’s famous faces at special screenings, including Eli Roth, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Joe Bob Briggs.

The Alamo Drafthouse sign. Image taken from toplessrobot.com.

Most exciting to me was seeing the production of such movies right before my eyes. The fall that I arrived in Texas, Quentin Tarantino and crew were filming Death Proof in a neighborhood adjacent to my own. I actually spotted Tarantino at Jo’s Coffee Stand while looking for apartments in Austin. I reacted by quickly walking past, calling my brother so I could tell someone, and then walking back to the coffee shop to get a closer look. Later, I saw the trailer park of stars and crew assembled on South Congress and witnessed some of the shooting of the film in Guero’s Taco Bar, an early favorite of mine as I became acquainted with the area. Jungle Julia billboards dotted major streets in South Austin, and my bus trips home from UT would often include a drive past shooting locations. The next Spring, I scored tickets to see the regional premiere of Grindhouse with some friends, and we all met up at one of the film’s prominent shooting locations, the Texas Chili Parlor, before the screening. There, we ran into a group of roller girls (The Putas del Fuego), decked out in evening wear with beauty pageant sashes. We learned at the screening that the ladies of the league were honored guests. Better company for such an event I cannot imagine.

A scene from Deathproof shot at the Texas Chili Parlor in Austin. Image taken from lifeofandres.files.wordpress.com

What I discovered the longer I lived in Texas was the way in which Grindhouse merely elaborated upon an established connection between the state of Texas and the horror genre. Only after moving to Texas did I discover one of the greatest modern horror films of all time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That film’s director and co-writer, Tobe Hooper, taught at the University of Texas’s Radio-TV-Film Department, where I worked on my master’s. He shot the film outside of Austin, capitalizing upon the dry, central Texas terrain to give the film a desolate feel. Horror films continue to use this kind of setting to illicit the same feelings of isolation in viewers.

A still from the stirring final shot of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Image taken from dragonsheadinn.com.

So, while I may be thrilled to be back home in the Northwest, I will always reflect back upon my time in Texas as particularly formative. It may not have been New York in the fifties or San Franscisco in the sixties, but for me, Austin was the right cultural scene at the right time, and it made me into the horror fan that I am today.

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