Thursday, February 16, 2012

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen
Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 158 min.
Verdict: A case could be made that this is Mr. Fincher’s most ambitious film.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

(Note: If you haven’t seen the Swedish film, or haven’t read the books, there might be some spoilers here. In fact, there are. So yeah, be warned. I would suggest watching the film and maybe then returning.)

                It’s only right that Mr. Fincher stages the narrative’s most significant moment around a door, subtly hinting at the dynamics at play here in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I am essentially a monkey when it comes to using any editing software, not that I have ventured beyond Windows Moviemaker, and I would be much obliged if someone were to make something of a video review that concentrates around the doors here. Or the windows and the panes. Or the walls. Maybe even the tables. Or maybe all of them. I have a hunch that little video might very well capture the essence of Mr. Fincher’s film. There is some remarkable leverage drawn from these spatial dividers almost tempting me to go for my usual framegrab-play. Michel Blomkvist (Mr. Craig) knocks on Lisbeth Salander’s door (Ms. Mara), and the little girl is startled. She cautiously, and maybe even nervously, opens it, just a wee bit, and Michel, in a display of a behavior that is at once both paternal (patronizing) and masculine (self-righteous), pulls the door open wide and walks in. Little Lisbeth, who has had to put up with men invading her space (every which way), is startled and jumps back. For a movie that has been adapted from a book that was titled The Men Who Hate Women (a little harsh, I’ve to say), this pivotal moment, where the multiple narratives join each other, just about says everything. I’m not sure if my categorization of Michel’s behavior is bang on, but dear reader, I hope you get the drift. And he’s the “clean” guy.
                Now, that’s a point for later. What draws our attention upfront is the amount of action that is staged around doors and windows, with characters walking in and walking out or resting on the jambs, or using the separation as a means of protecting their privacy. Michel walks out of a building only to walk into a horde of reporters, walks away from them, walks into a café only to find the news channel flashing his legal problems, and he walks out, and walks into his office only to find all the news reporters staring at him. We think this guy’s privacy is more or less screwed, and just about the time Michel expresses his desire to go home and crawl under the duvet for a week the film quite amusingly intercuts to Dirch Frode examining a file containing a detailed background check on Michel done by Lisbeth Salander (Ms. Mara), who, in her turn, knows a whole lot more than what’s inside the report. I mean, like bank statements and sexual inclinations. So yeah, the invasion of Michel’s privacy is complete, and barely nine minutes into the narrative Mr. Fincher quite neatly sets up not merely the dominant theme but what would be the dominant technique to help read it. And he uses this moment, through Lisbeth’s coiled body (there’s some intercutting here as well, between her walk to the office and the conference room waiting for her), and through orienting the composition around her and allowing her the privilege to sketch her own private space, to establish her and her privacy, which I guess is pretty wicked. I mean, people sitting across long tables protecting themselves over the corpse of another man’s privacy does make you chuckle, no?
                Mr. Fincher does have a lot on his plate to narrate, and it pays to be precise and economic drawing upon so many elements – textual, sub-textual, and extra-textual – and depositing them layer by layer making a film so immense I still have no idea how to structure my piece here. I’m like an ant chewing the bark of a tree, or something to that effect. So what I would do is continue in this direction, maybe for a paragraph or two, who knows maybe even more, and see if it can lead me inside. Michel, running away from his legal problems in Stockholm, finds some sort of reprieve in the case of an old man’s murdered granddaughter. The old man is Henrik Vanger (Mr. Plummer), and the granddaughter was Harriet (Ms. Moa Garpendal), and in one brilliant crosscut that also serves as Soviet montage, Mr. Fincher links Lisbeth leaving and closing the door behind and Harriet sitting under the sun who turns and looks at us, linking not merely the two little girls but probably the past and the present. I suspect, the latter linkage finds a lot more weight in Mr. Stieg Larsson’s novels (I haven’t read them), considering he was so concerned about Right Wing extremism in Swedish society. As for Mr. Fincher, he takes these concerns as a given, and builds his film upon them. Now back to Harriet and Lisbeth, and look at them below and tell me they don’t resemble, especially with their missing eyebrows.

 
                We shall come back to this link-up later, but for now, let us stick with Michel. He accepts Henrik’s proposal to look into the mystery and try and solve it, but not before Henrik promising him to give some sort of smoking gun on billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström (Mr. Ulf Friberg), the guy who has caused his recent legal misfortunes. Michel takes some time away from his magazine, leaving it and its editor-in-chief Erika Berger (Ms. Robin Wright) to fight Wennerström alone, and a certain tension is created here. Not merely the gender thing – Erika and Michel are extra-marital lovers – but the nagging thought that the present is being ignored to salivate over the past, and it assumes its full form during the film’s bleakest hour – while Lisbeth is being brutally raped by her legal guardian provided by the state, we cut to Michel mulling over the information about Harriet and listening to an iPod. I mean, yeah I know, what I’m saying probably doesn’t make much sense, but the tension here is more of a moral argument, a theoretical/ cinematic exercise that primarily causes uneasiness because of this narrative world, a world where crosscuts (agent of irony) are possible, and where the very same crosscutting provides us the necessary comfort that Lisbeth is on her way to save him when Michel is the one hanging by his neck trying to make the most of his final breaths. And maybe, just maybe, a fleeting shot of the cat wanting to get inside and escape from the chilling cold, and Michel too busy in the past to let it in, is some sort of argument in my favor. Never mind.  
                But then, that’s by no means the only thing happening during that moment. For the first time within the film, the accessibility of technology to solve a problem comes to the fore. Up until then Michel is just another helpless agent in Mr. Fincher’s canon, like Mills or Somerset or Toschi or Mulanax or Graysmith, rummaging through diaries and police files, running around chewing the endless bark while having only the faintest of ideas, much like me. And once again, and contrary to the Swedish film where Lisbeth’s revenge on her rapist mostly serves the purpose of, well, contextual gratification, Mr. Fincher causes an almost glorious crosscut from Lisbeth’s tattoo on her guardian, to Michel meeting his daughter Pernilla (Ms. Josefin Asplund), and in a way tell us and Michel about the nature of the mystery that’s being dealt with here. And also, somewhere behind, hints at an uncomfortable thought, linking the two little girls – Pernilla and Lisbeth – that makes the sex between Michel and Lisbeth that much weirder. As opposed to the adolescent nature of the Swedish film, where Ms. Noomi Rapace’s was something of a superwoman, Mr. Fincher and Ms. Mara render the character a tender coconut, a vulnerable little creature in the disguise of a punk, sort of like the grown-up version of Mathilda (Leon). And in case I haven’t yet made it obvious, there’s a flavor of duality in the proceedings – Lisbeth and Michel, Lisbeth and Harriet, Lisbeth and Pernilla, Martin and Gottfried, Martin and Lisbeth’s father, the past and the present.
And then, the most important of all – the exterior and the interior, spaces which are no way limited to the four walls. Henrik takes Michel out in the chilling snow and gives him a lowdown on who lives where on the island, which mostly contains meaningless information but primarily serves to highlight how almost all of the characters within the film are essentially alone. Peering through with those doors and windows, and most importantly crosscutting with the aid of the exterior shots of the various residential places here (causing a smooth transition and lending some serious thematic weight) , Mr. Fincher almost sort of defines his characters through their places, and the size and nature of their “private chambers”.
We meet Henrik Vanger, and in spite of his huge mansion, the old man belongs to that dark room where those flowers hang, and he lets Michel in.

We meet Inspector Morell, and Mr. Fincher takes great care in choreographing the conversation so as to frame him in his private space when he describes a policeman’s obsession with a “missing-girl case” (another example of self-righteous behavior in a patriarchal society?). 

We meet the cops, and they lead Lisbeth into separate rooms to give the detailed information she seeks.  

 
We meet Anita in her office, although we’re never let inside her home. In a way, even her exterior is guarded.

And the woman in the picture, who pulls the honeymoon album from a separate room.

Yeah, enough with these frame-grab shenanigans. The thing is, there’s Lisbeth, and there’s Henrik, and there’re all those family members living alone behind those stonewalls, protecting their lives, much like us. Right from Harald (who, late in the film, leads Michel into his room) to Cecilia to Inspector Morell to Gunnar to Anita to the cat. Everybody in here seems to have their own private chambers, and that these people allow us access is a reflection of both the humanity at the heart of the film and its political stance. In return, Mr. Fincher not once crosses the boundary, always respecting the person’s private space (his cinema is probably the opposite of voyeurism). There’s Martin with his glass walls, the obvious plot decoy, who supports the presence of the protagonist/detective the most, who has a home seemingly built out of glass as if he has nothing to hide, but which is built like an intricate maze having no apparent orientation (especially when Michel sneaks into it), and whose chilly interiors bring to mind Patrick Bateman’s abode, and whose private chamber situated “vertically” rather than horizontally, is not a cliché but a symbolic device, suggestive of whatever the novel’s title wanted to convey. That soft sound of the wind, during the dinner conversation with Martin and his lover, and the little confusion of its source is a lovely little touch, both as a piece of clue and as an indication of the architecture.  
Which brings us to the issue of the big lurid (supposedly) scene, and the absolute invasion of Lisbeth’s private space. Trevor Link, in a rather wonderful essay here, interprets the film as salvation of digital cinema, a stance I might want to argue against, considering that digital cinema itself involves making meaning out of meaningless binaries, which in turn makes it the savior. But Trevor’s argument sure does contain some weight in a Fincher film, considering he passes montage as packets of data, which together create the implied meaning. Especially in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where Lisbeth wanting to track down possible victims from the police files comes across this information. You might want to read the where-clause of the SQL query above (‘rape’, ‘decapitation’ etc.), and the report column of the result set.
 
It is from this flat meaninglessness that the film hopes to escape from, a film where the damning evidence is the most primary weapon, and here, in the Information Age, digital technology sort of becomes the Deus Ex Machina. She walks (hacks) into Bjurman’s private chamber wanting to implicate him using digital means, not anticipating the ensuing behavior at all. Lisbeth thus becomes the film’s principal agent (she would later help in incriminating the film’s other villains as well), the central symbolic figure representing both technology and innocence within the film, and her rape doesn’t merely serve as a cue for what’s to come, but also as symbolic of the actions committed by its sexual predators.
Allow me to explain.
Mr. Fincher, curiously, follows (not immediately) the rape scene with a sequence of Erika in Michel’s cottage, walking into the bedroom while he’s sitting over the sofa mulling over the Vangers’ decision to invest in his troubled magazine, and she calls him to bed, her silhouette in his room.
Now look, how the film both sets up the film’s primary dramatic thread as manifested by this space, and plays with it. Here’s Lisbeth and Michel on their opening night (of the investigation) together.
 And here’s them later on, Lisbeth practically forcing herself upon him, and Michel in turn grabbing the opportunity with at least his left hand. Here’s a man who is in an extra-marital affair that has wrecked his marriage, and is now enjoying this supposed one-night stand after a tryst with danger, much like James Bond (famously described as a sexist misogynist dinosaur).
What’s happening here? Is Mr. Fincher merely replicating the gender-blah from the novel/Swedish-film? Not really. On the contrary, throughout the film he is establishing Lisbeth’s child-like innocence in an increasingly grey-ish world. When her first guardian Holger Palmgren suffers a stroke and is hospitalized, she sits outside like a faithful dog. Her anorexic withdrawn body language suggests she is perennially on the defensive, and Michel’s apparent “cleanliness” is a virtue she is easily attracted towards and falls for. His presence causes her to hope, look forward to Christmas, and maybe even smile and open up a little bit. He, in his turn, exhibits the sort of behavior described in the opening paragraph, explicitly conveyed in a moment where he runs his arm around Lisbeth to access the keyboard. She mistakes his one-night stand for perennial love, and when the film’s final moment finds her little hope blown to pieces, it is a heartbreaking loss of innocence. In many ways, Lisbeth’s equation with Michel represents what Stephen Meyers’ with Mike Morris was misunderstood to be. Oh yeah, I believe Michel and Mike are riding the same boat, although Michel is merely gray – a probable victim of his gender and not actively unscrupulous.       
                So yeah, as opposed to general descriptions of Mr. Fincher’s film being impassive, or even lurid, it is extremely sensitive and tender, and respectful. In this day and age of Wikileaks and News International Phone Hacking scandal and DSK, it identifies with Lisbeth Salander, salvaging her character from the juvenile blandness of the Swedish film and making her vulnerability so palpable we know her better than anybody within the film. And as she rides away disappearing into the city, we cannot help but wonder about the wilderness surrounding the film, the wilderness with which Mr. Fincher opens the narrative, the geographical expanse where a girl can be maimed and buried, and where Lisbeth can throw her wig without worrying about somebody finding it. Is that a reference to the vast expanse of information which Toschi and Graysmith lost themselves in? The wilderness of the past surrounding the present? Sometimes William Faulkner's "The past is never dead, it's not even past" feels so true. The Bible might be scanned and made an e-Book, or the photos could be scanned and zoomed in to extract the last pixel, but then there still remains a hell of a lot to our world that lives beyond 1s and 0s. 

Thursday, February 02, 2012

AGNEEPATH: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Sanjay Dutt, Rishi Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Om Puri, Sachin Khedekar
Director: Karan Malhotra
Runtime: 178 min.
Verdict: Awesome. And Mr. Rishi Kapoor simply knocks it out of the park.
Genre: Drama, Action, Crime

                Unlike Mr. Mukul Anand’s film, what moves us here is its utter purity that distills through its frames into its characters, into its narrative, right down to its themes. I wouldn’t want to be so sure of that order though, and it could easily be the other way around. Behind his suits, his shoes, his sunglasses, Vijay Dinanath Chavan harbored a desire to not merely be accepted but worshipped. A 36-yeard old Vijay Chavan outgrew his childhood just as much as Mr. Bachchan outgrew the character, and the accomplishment was the manner in which Mr. Mukul S. Anand built a film around this individual phenomenon where characters found themselves quickly pushed to the peripheries once it entered (a lot of Agneepath has to do with entering and leaving) those frames. We covet what we see, said a real wise man once, and amidst the banality of the rural the glamour of the urban (Kancha Cheena), and by that definition the western, was probably what installed itself within Vijay Chavan, whose amalgamation is mirrored in the way Jean Michel Jarre was at clash with that traditional melodramatic score, and which also mirrors in Mr. Anand’s aesthetic and oeuvre (he remade Cape Fear before Martin Scorsese).
                Mr. Malhotra, whose film probably appreciates the undercurrents and understands the limitations of Mr. Anand’s film better than anybody else, completely strips away all these layers of deception, these facades behind which its characters hid, and pulls the narrative back to its primal self in an almost declarative manner. The paranoia of the urbanization of the rural owing to foreign investment and the ensuing cultural dilution is not the talking point anymore, and it should not be now that we have a whole range of foreign brands endorsing the film, and what we have here is a rather straightforward tale dynastical/feudal oppression and the ensuing revenge. Mr. Malhotra, as the trailer announces, is concerned only with revenge, and that ways this film is as much a remake of the older Agneepath as it is of M/s Abbas-Mustan’s Soldier. Only that it is a significantly better realized film, with a far greater narrative clarity (the plot might still trouble you but it makes for perfect dramatic sense, in the process alleviating a lot of the problems I had with the original) and some really unsettling compositions, invoking just as much extra-textual stuff as Mr. Anand’s film, and which leads me to suggest ‘correction’ instead of ‘remake’. Here is that age-old story of an ordinary man thrust in an extraordinary situation, a little boy robbed of his forming years, and there’s probably nobody who can convey that combination of sincerity and brainwashed resolve (Fiza, Mission Kashmir) better than Mr. Roshan. He is not the guy who walks into a room and owns everybody around, and Mr. Malhotra rightly stacks larger-than-life figures against him. The film’s narrative, then, assumes its title and the parent poem in a figurative sense, into its very core, unlike Mr. Anand’s where a mostly kitschy (but stylish) literal justification to it is merely appended at the end.  
                It is a rather strange Mumbai that Agneepath creates, with little to no traces of modernization (despite the guns and telephones), with back alleys and stone roads, and what we get is the feel of a medieval world controlled by warlords and where the regime is merely another faction living within its own cocoon. There’s not merely a distinct lack of sophistication but civilization altogether, the only places accumulating any sense of decency being the chawl, and wherever it is his mother and sister live. Rauf Lala (Mr. Kapoor), who controls the city, is probably the closest approximation of Mr. Danny Denzongpa’s materialistic Kancha Cheena, and yet he might be miles away in that he’s out in plain-view. He sells little girls and he is despicable, and there’s a great conviction in there, and although I wouldn’t describe here for you how incredible Mr. Kapoor is, I would leave you with the tease that the resolution of his angle, which quite brilliantly stages the film’s central idea, is intensely awesome. And here I intend to imply the awesomeness of the fist-pumping kind.
Mandwa, that little isle cut away from the motherland, is something of a synecdoche for all the terrorist hotbeds, close enough to cause havoc but far enough to resist quarantine. You almost wonder what the Indian Coast Guard (already born by the film’s timeline) is doing, and I wonder if that was intentional. The strangest weirdest bit though is the archetypical Kancha Cheena (Mr. Dutt), a completely homegrown entity, and who, over and above Vijay Chauhan (Mr. Roshan), returns to his Mandwa. We see the massive figure walking down to the village in a long shot, and just as memories of High Plains Drifter start condensing, Mr. Malhotra provides for a heavily disconcerting over the shoulder shot of the village. The raw scalp in the foreground, and somewhere deep within the subconscious a memory started itching, which turned into a full-blown realization the moment Kancha walks into the village and picks up the salt in his fist (a close-up here). Maybe it is because Jan 30th happened to be just a couple of days before, or probably because Master Dinanath (Mr. Chetan Pandit) invokes Mahatma Gandhi for only the 11,347th time in Hindi cinema history only a little while before Kancha’s homecoming. We’ve had our fair share of Gita-quoting villains (Aks comes to mind), some of them just for the heck of it, but to become the very embodiment of anti-Gandhi, what with Mr. Dutt’s bulky physicality almost spelling out violence. And this was the guy who made Gandhi trend recently. He walks around with a stick and opens the doors for creating cocaine (salt), and I was completely blown away. We don’t get images as macabre as this every now and then.  


And if the Mumbai in Agneepath is medieval, Mandwa is straight out of the dark ages, a sort of externalization of Kancha’s barren ugliness, quite literally the underworld. And again, despite the machine guns, or maybe because of it, there’s the memory of Col. Kurtz floating around, and so yeah, Vijay Chauhan’s walk down Mandwa’s memory lane becomes a tour through the heart of darkness.
                The thing is, Vijay Chauhan is our everyman, innocent more than anything else, pitted against all these heavyweights, all of whom are quite central to the frame. And although my kind of tonal austerity might even suggest downplaying his introduction, it acknowledges the absolute dramatic/thematic idiocy of the mother’s arc in Mr. Anand’s film and justly brands her as the misguided one. And still, despite Vijay knocking off all the bad guys, and their sons, the film doesn’t justify vigilantism of any kind. Any other movie (M/s Abbas-Mustan’s Soldier) and the dude could’ve been an undercover cop, but because he’s not, and because he still has to will himself through all this ugliness is an accumulation of the film’s moral weight (I’m reminded of William Costigan, and even Joseph Pistone without the accompanying righteousness). The physicality here in his film is palpable, and whoever it was that did the sound design (Vijay being banged against the wall had me wincing and hiding for cover) deserves my hat tip.    

**SPOILERS ABOUND, KINDLY SKIP FOR LATER. YOU MIGHT CONSIDER THE NOTE THOUGH**
                A small bother here. Killing off Kaali (Ms. Chopra) is an ill-advised move. I understand where the film is coming from, but it’s a decision that’s a bit of a cop-out. The moment we lay our eyes on the adult Vijay Chavan, we know he’s on a death wish. And the moment he declares his name, and such is the clarity of narration here, we immediately realize all hell is going to break loose. Still Vijay acknowledges her love and reveals his own for her, and they decide to marry despite knowing his eventual fate, and the film here achieves a moment of pure grace. What would simply have been a throwaway character, as is the case with the original, here turns into one of the film’s thematic manifestations (innocence et al.), and by conveniently dumping her off, the film both dissolves and resolves the beauty of it all. I think she should’ve lived on, you know, and a parting shot of her, or the little sister, in the vein of Billie Frechette might have been dramatically devastating. But then, what the heck, you want to draw an estimate of Mr. Malhotra’s filmmaking chops all you need is the opening burst where Kancha distributes money. Agneepath is the sort of blockbuster we’ve absolutely forgotten to make, like Ghatak, and if you were to ask me, Mr. Johar can safely say he’s done his father proud. So yeah, there you go.

Note: No, Mr. Mukul S. Anand’s film is not a classic; it is in fact not even close to being a classic. It is a most interesting film, a film that has influenced me a great deal, and I would be the first to admit that to hail it as something close to holy writ is taking our reverence for a decade that churned mostly nonsense a bit too far. Going by that rule, most of our films in a decade’s time ought to be eligible for the “classic” tag. I mean, we’re so forgiving for the past, we might want to extend that generosity to the present as well.