The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Flickan som lekte med elden,” or “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” was the second installment from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series which took place about two years after computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) solved their first mystery. A freelance writer (Hans Christian Thulin) was hired by the “Millenium” magazine because he claimed to have names of high-ranking officials within the government who were involved in sex trafficking. But prior to the anticipated publicity of the article, the writer and his girlfriend were murdered in cold blood. Lisbeth was framed for their murder. Despite the film not having the same level of tension and intrigue as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” I still highly enjoyed it because it did not feel like a carbon copy of the first film. Instead, we had a chance to observe the two main characters apart from each other and see how they attempted to solve problems laid before them. Its strength remained in being a character-driven, gritty crime procedural. More importantly, it answered big questions I had about Lisbeth’s past and why she did not enjoy the company of men who saw and treated women as less than their equal. Furthermore, the story remained fresh. In some ways, it was a nice surprise. Since the mystery involved sex trafficking, I thought the protagonists were up against some sort of an underground society where a number of interconnecting companies were involved. Instead, the climax felt small and when key information were revealed, it almost felt muffled and understated. It also had enough time to introduce fiery new characters such as a prostitute, a professional boxer, and a hitman with a rare genetic disorder. However, there were some plot points where I thought the picture could have improved upon. I was curious about Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and her obvious sexual and possible romantic relationship with Mikael. When she was on screen, I could not help but feel like there was something about her character that was overlooked or did not translate from novel to screen. I hope she will become a prominent character in the final installment because Endre had such elegance about her. “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” directed by Daniel Alfredson, successfully separated itself from its predecessor in terms of tone and pacing. Nevertheless, it made itself necessary by giving us new information which complemented pieces that did not quite fit prior.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The first part of the “Millennium” trilogy originally titled “Män som hatar kvinnor” or “Men Who Hate Women” focused on a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) who was sentenced to three months in prison for libel and computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) assigned to keep tabs on his activities. A wealthy man who established the Vanger company hired Mikael to investigate a 40-year-old case involving a disappearance of his niece who he believed to have been murdered. The more Mikael and Lisbeth differentiated between truths and lies about the case, the more they risked their lives because they had no idea who to trust since the killer might be a member of the Vanger family. I loved the way the movie started off with the two main characters dealing with the challenges in their own lives and slowly their paths eventually converged. It worked for me because we had a chance to see them in their respective elements, and when the two finally got together, we saw them work together while being out of their elements. It was fascinating to watch because the strong acting perfectly complemented the strong characters but at the same time the material was more than willing to explore the more sensitive sides of the characters, particularly Lisbeth’s history of abuse and violence. Lisbeth’s tortured past was the heart of the film alongside her complex relationship with Mikael. As for the murder mystery, there was nothing particularly new about it but the slow burn of the material mixed with small twists involving varying perspectives made a gripping, edge-of-your-seat product. (At times I caught myself trying to cover my eyes.) There were a handful of haunting images dispersed throughout which somewhat reminded me of the “Saw” franchise if it was more like David Fincher’s “Zodiac”-like procedural than mainstream torture porn. Despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time, each scene had a sense of urgency so when the climax was reached, the revelations made sense instead of the audiences feeling cheated. Yes, the material consisted of scenes involving brutal violence against women but at the same time I thought it empowered women instead of disrespecting them which was reflected by Lisbeth’s creativity, resourcefulness, intelligence and strength. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev and based on Stieg Larsson’s novels, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was a fantastic start of the “Millennium” series and exhibited potential to get better because it purposely left chilling loose ends concerning the characters’ histories. It left me wanting more in the best possible way.
★★★ / ★★★★
The plot of “Devil,” based on the story by M. Night Shyamalan, is simple: five people (Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O’Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Logan Marshall-Green) are stuck in an elevator and a cop (Chris Messina) tries to save them. But here’s the first twist: one of the five is the devil and it is up to us to determine who it is. I know it’s strange to mention but I really liked the opening credits. The images were upside down which suggested that what we were about to see was not ordinary and we should expect the unexpected. The film was not particularly scary. I was more curious than scared. Since the movie is only about an hour and twenty minutes, it had no choice but to get to the meat of the happenings beginning with a suicide that supposedly signaled that the devil was coming. Since the material wasn’t too scary, I wished it was more character-driven. Instead of merely mentioning the characters’ respective backgrounds, I wanted more flashback scenes. By showing us actual images regarding where they come from, the audiences become active participants and it allows us to interpret what we see. It also allows us to judge whether the characters deserve to be in their current situation. Since the film had religious overtones (Jacob Vargas had some funny moments which were nice breaks between intense scenes), allowing us to judge implies that we are gods and it is up to us to categorize the sinners. The movie gave me the creeps. The characters trapped in the elevator were observed by the cops and the maintenance people through a camera. (The film could have commented on the nature voyeurism and the difference between experiencing something first hand versus through the lens, but it didn’t.) In one of the scenes, the devil’s face appeared on screen. That didn’t do much for me. But for one barely noticeable split second, as a person who likes to relish every frame, I saw that one of the characters had horns on his/her head. It led me to the correct answer regarding the identity of the devil. Indeed, I questioned whether I was right again and again because I had this feeling that the filmmakers were trying to trick those who saw the minute detail, but it was nice that they didn’t. I desperately wanted a rewind button to see if my mind was simply playing tricks on me because I was very into the moment. In the end, I had a plethora of questions left unanswered. For instance, I didn’t quite understand why the devil gave one of the characters a chance to come clean but the others weren’t given the same chance. If the devil, as it claimed, really wanted this particular person’s soul, why give that person a chance? But perhaps I’m just being too analytical. I am aware that “Devil,” directed by John Erick Dowdle, is the first of “The Night Chronicles” trilogy. Hopefully, the series continues not only for the purpose of possibly answering some of the questions in my head but also because I thought the film was a nice treat. It had a concept that reminded me of situational horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a refreshing break from the torture porn so-called horror movies like increasingly uninspired “Saw” franchise. What “Devil” lacked in blood made up for its curious nature.
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Intended to be a trilogy, “Mongol,” directed by Sergei Bodrov, painted a beautiful but often complex picture about a man’s (the future Genghis Khan played by Tadanobu Asano) journey on how his experiences from when he was a child shaped his ideals and eventually came to a decision to force such ideas to all Mongolian people. I don’t know much about the history prior to Genghis Khan’s ascension to power so I’m not the right person to ask about whether or not it’s historically accurate. Instead, I’ll review this film from a tabula rasa perspective. After reading some of the critics’ reviews, I finally decided to watch the movie and had high expectations. While I did expect scenes that consisted of ferocious bloodbath, I got exactly that and more. I was surprised by the amount of heart that this film had to offer. I liked the fact that it showed more of Genghis Khan’s failures than his victories. Despite his unfortunate circumstances, he kept getting up and wanting to fight again so it was not difficult at all to root for him. There’s something truly inspiring from watching a person’s inner drive accumulate in spite of extremely difficult situations and be able to pull through. What didn’t work for me, however, were the mythical scenes. I found it frustrating whenever the picture would cut the scenes whenever Genghis Khan’s life was in danger. It would then jump to another scene when he would be perfectly okay and somehow evaded the situation. I get that faith was an important aspect of Genghis Khan’s life (and the fact that this film was being told in a first person point-of-view, which, as we all know, is not always objective) but I felt that there were too many of those scenes and it took me away from the situations. Regardless, there are still a lot to see here such as the stunning background imageries and well-defined (as well as graphic) battle scenes. If one is into historical epics that humanize a warrior’s journey to power instead of glamorizing it while at the same time dealing with issues such as the fragility of alliances, this is definitely the film to see. It goes to show that an epic film doesn’t need to come out of Hollywood as long as it is ambitious, while at the same time still able to deliver the elements that ultimately convince the audiences why they should care for the lead character.
★★ / ★★★★
This second part of the trilogy confused me. It started off with promise because it focuses on the ugly divorce between Julie Delpy and Zbigniew Zamachowski. Even though I thought the story would revolve around Delpy, Zamachowski is interesting because he’s vulnerable but he’s not above not taking revenge for the hateful things that Delpy did to him. After the divorce, Zamachowski ended up back in Poland and began acquiring wealth. He then hatched a plan to answer the questions that have been bothering him and decided to return to Delpy’s life. The first and last part of this picture were effective because it embraced its atypical way of telling the story. One moment it’s a marriage drama but the next it’s a well-told dark comedy. However, the middle portion was too aimless for my liking. I constantly found myself trying to figure out where the story was going or if it was even planning on going anywhere. Zamachowski’s character who has been kicked around like a homeless puppy by a handful of individuals spent too much time feeling sorry for himself. It works in some segments of the film because it makes the audiences root for him, but spending too much time in a depressed state can lead to audiences’ ambivalence. Even as he started to gain wealth and power, he still felt sorry for himself. Whatever happened to a depressed but strong protagonist like from its predecessor (played with such craft by Juliette Binoche)? I also missed the astute use of music and color in order to reveal certain layers of a character. This one barely had any and that frustrated me. If one is looking for an unconventional film that straddles the line between drama and dark comedy, this is the one to see. But if one is looking for something that’s rich in implications and technical ways of revealing certain aspects of characters without using words, avoid this one because it will disappoint.
★★★ / ★★★★
I think this film is very mysterious. Writer and director Krzysztof Kieslowski tells the story of Julie Vignon (played by the exquisite Juliette Binoche) who survived a car crash as her husband and daughter perished. After trying to commit suicide, she decides to sever everything from her past life and start over. Upon introspection, she realizes that the only way she can achieve true liberty from the past is to embrace it. I can understand why a lot of people would completely dismiss this film after one viewing. Perhaps the most common complaint is that the story unfolds too slowly. I personally didn’t find that a problem because of the way Binoche carried her character from beginning to end. Her frustrations range from obvious to subtle. I thought there were two stand-out scenes: when Binoche decides to eat the candy that belonged to her late daughter (and the manner of which she ate it) and when she discovered a mouse taking care of its babies. Those two scenes defined this film because metaphor is one of the most crucial factors that drove the story forward. Nothing may be going on at first glance but when one really looks at Binoche’s subtle facial expressions and body language, one will come to the conclusion that she’s going through an inner turmoil that cannot be mollified with words like “I’m sorry.” I also found this film to be very technical. The use of color is outstanding because it tells the audience how a character is feeling or what the character might be thinking. As for the music, the movie becomes that much more alive whenever the orchestra would play on the background. The colors and music work together to highlight certain emotions that Binoche is going through. This is the first part of an ambitious trilogy and I’m excited to see what the second and third films have to offer.