The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

For viewers unfamiliar with the Swedish original, David Fincher’s ripping remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should be a knockout. Fincher, a master of uneasy mood and unflinching depravity, is a perfect match for the very raw material of novelist Stieg Larsson’s 2005 bestseller. And while he doesn’t necessarily improve upon director Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 picture, he amps it up in a major way. In this he’s been well-served by his sharp eye for casting: Rooney Mara, who played the wronged girlfriend at the beginning of Fincher’s The Social Network, here gives a spectacular performance as the psycho-punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and for the length of the movie, at least, she obscures the memory of Noomi Rapace, the actress who so fully inhabited that character in the earlier film.

Fincher was right to go to Sweden to shoot this picture—the film has a Nordic chill that seeps into your bones. Once again we are in Stockholm, where crusading magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just lost a libel suit to a corrupt business mogul he had targeted in an exposé. Handing over the reins of the magazine to his colleague and girlfriend, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), Blomkvist just wants to disappear for a while. And on a faraway island off the Swedish coast, an aged industrial titan named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) has just the place for him to disappear to.

Vanger wants to bring Blomkvist in on an investigative assignment. Ostensibly he’ll be writing a history of the Vanger family, many of whose unpleasant members also reside on the island. Actually, however, this hired outsider will be looking into the disappearance of Henrik’s beloved niece, Harriet, who went missing some 40 years earlier. The old man believes that Harriet was murdered by one of his hateful relatives, who include among their number various drunkards and ex-Nazis. Blomkvist accepts the job, unaware that Salander, who conducted a computer-snooping background check on him for Vanger, is taking a continuing interest in him.

The story is a complicated mystery with lurid Silence of the Lambs-style serial-killer trappings. Like Oplev before him, Fincher is faced in the beginning with the considerable challenge of establishing the many characters in the extensive Vanger clan, and their muddled interrelationships. The director finesses this problem in an amusing way: At one point in Steven Zaillian’s script, Blomkvist tells Henrik, “I’m quickly losing track of who’s who,” and Fincher briskly moves along.

After his misadventures in the piddling Cowboys & Aliens, and even the one-note Bond films, it’s good to have Craig back in top form, demonstrating again what a fine actor he is. And the invaluable Stellan Skarsgård gives one of his subtlest performances as Martin Vanger, a family scion whose air of bland bonhomie can shift without warning into unexpected menace.

But it’s the relentlessly hostile Salander, bristling with piercings and tattoos (she has an intricately inked dragon on her back), whose electrifying presence commands the movie. Even with her dead-black hair swept up into a towering mohawk, she seems too petite to pose much of a threat—until we see her in a furious subway scene, definitively butt-whipping a creep who has unwisely tried to rip off her backpack. The more we learn about this woman—that she was once institutionalized for a horrible crime, that she’s been arrested on narcotics and assault charges, that her life is officially overseen by an odious guardian—the more fascinating she becomes. And she’s brought fully into focus in two of the story’s most famously alarming scenes: a hideous extended rape followed by a rousing return bout of horrific revenge. Mara throws herself into these episodes with fearless commitment, and leaves us wondering what future accomplishments she might not be capable of.             

The movie’s score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won Oscars for their work on The Social Network, is problematic. When it strays from atmospheric electro-pulsings into pounding synth-metal excursions, it seems inappropriate to the story and its setting. (Even though the walloping version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs approximating the requisite banshee wails, is admittedly gripping.)

The movie’s most substantial drawback, though, may be that it’s a remake of a film that was already memorably well done. There’s no avoiding the fact that you can only discover this story’s indelible creepiness once. Still, Mara’s incarnation of Lisbeth Salander is singularly thrilling. Those fortunate enough to be making her acquaintance for the first time will want to hold on.

The Adventures of Tintin

It has to be said that Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin represents a new peak in motion-capture artistry. Unlike the 2004 Polar Express, in which we could never shake our awareness of a spectral Tom Hanks imprisoned beneath that glazed digital carapace, the 3D Tintin meticulously blends the smooth surfaces of Pixar-style cartoonery with the complex actions of live performers.

Much credit here must surely go to producer-collaborator Peter Jackson, whose digitally fabricated Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies is the template of excellence in this area. Spielberg and Jackson are both big fans of the Tintin books, and their affectionate enthusiasm is apparent in this very lively distillation. Unfortunately, that liveliness is a problem—it never lets up. And since the movie is a bit too long, and its globe-hopping excitements thus become somewhat repetitive, the picture eventually wears us out.

The story is a classic boys’ adventure drawn from the long-running (1929-1983) comics series by the Belgian writer and illustrator Hergé. Tintin (played here by Jamie Bell) is an avid young newspaper reporter with a quiff of reddish hair perched alertly above his brow and a dog-slash-assistant named Snowy pitching in on his master’s professional investigations. We meet these two in Paris, at an outdoor market where Tintin casually purchases a model ship -- a three-masted man o’ war. When two other parties display an intense interest in buying this item off its new owner, Tintin realizes that something is up. A little research reveals that the model is of an old pirate craft called the Unicorn, which was said to have carried a secret cargo, and that “only a true Haddock” can discover what it was.

This individual turns out to be Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis—Gollum himself), a rum-sodden sailor who is in possession of a second model of the Unicorn. Tintin discovers that both models contain hidden scrolls, keys to the big secret, but before he can cogitate further, he and Haddock and the stalwart Snowy are shanghaied onto a seagoing vessel that has been commandeered by a sinister figure called Sakharine (Daniel Craig). After a long chase sequence the prisoners manage to escape, and soon find themselves in Morocco, with Sakharine in furious pursuit. In due course they come upon a wealthy sheik who is revealed to be the owner of a third model of the mysterious Unicorn.

Also clattering through this populous adventure are a pair of bumbling Interpol flatfeet named Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), an artistic pickpocket named Silk (Toby Jones), a brace of Portuguese aviators, and an imposing Italian opera star named Bianca Castafiore, the “Milanese Nightingale” (Kim Stengel). That’s a lot of people, and all, I’m afraid, with a lot to do.

One of the movie’s great charms is the way in which it echoes elements of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, especially in the water-lashed seafaring scenes and a sun-baked trek through the Moroccan desert. The digitized environments teem with lifelike detail, and the action choreography and acrobatic camera movement can only elicit wonderment.

But the incessant uproar and overextended chases and escapes grow tedious after a while, and the constant presence of the blabbering Captain Haddock (“I know these waters better than the warts on me mother’s face”) becomes a sizable annoyance. Even the kids who are this film’s intended audience may turn out to have their limits when it comes to such clamorous overkill.      

War Horse

Before I embark on my daily round of puppy-kicking and unicorn-strangling, I have to say that in sitting through Spielberg’s second new release, War Horse, I felt as if I were being lowered into a vat of warm tears, there to remain for nearly two and a half freakin’ hours. This is a movie so boldly old-fashioned that much of its true target demographic must be long dead, or nearly enough.

It’s a movie about a noble horse and the boy who loves him. Well, the boy and the girl and a few other people who love him. The horse—one Joey—is conscripted into the British cavalry and dispatched to help fight World War I. Joey has many dangerous adventures, and the picture is in fact most effective in conveying, however discreetly, the horrors of the Great War—the mustard-gassed trenches, the mounted soldiers swinging outmoded swords in the face of enemy artillery. That’s not the problem; the movie is beautifully made. The problem is the story, which is an episodic sprawl, and its dripping sentimentality, a quality that Spielberg is unsurprisingly disinclined to mitigate. 

In the 1982 book on which the film is based, the horse was the narrator, I gather. In the 2007 London stage play that was made from the book (and which has since collected a number of Tony Awards on Broadway), the story’s several horses are depicted by ingeniously designed, life-size puppets. Spielberg rightly decided that real horses would be required for the film version, and his ability to turn one of them (or several, actually) into a lead presence is remarkable.

We first meet Joey as a spirited colt in the rolling green hills of Devonshire, where he bonds with a good-hearted farm boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine). Albert is bereft when Joey is auctioned off to a good-hearted cavalry captain named Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, who played Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris). Transported to the war-torn continent, Joey falls into the hands of a good-hearted young German soldier named Berg (David Kross), and then into the care of a spunky French farm girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens, another newcomer). By this point, we’ve learned that Albert has left his own farm to join the army and scour the continental battlefields in search of his beloved steed. Anyone who has seen the 1943 Lassie Come Home—of which one contemporary critic said, “only the hardest heart can fail to be moved”—will know how this tale is heading.

As shot by Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, War Horse swells with a love landscape, particularly in the early Devon section, that might have drawn an appreciative sigh from John Ford. But the movie’s unabashed weepiness, which John Williams’ syrupy score shamelessly heightens, may prove tough going for viewers unaccustomed to such anachronistic heart-tugging. Compounding that problem, the picture goes on far too long; and while I understand the soggy appreciation of many who’ve seen it, after about an hour or so I found myself unable to go along with it.   

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.