The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) Director: David Fincher
Fittingly, this dark and gritty Fincher film falls in line with the modern yearning for less cliche and hopeful main characters, and more sinister plot-lines. The story is based on the famously best-selling novel series by Stieg Larsson. The film stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (sister of Kate Mara). Mara was nominated by the Academy for Best Actress for her performance.
The film takes place in Sweden. A disgraced journalist is being sued for libel by a wealthy businessman. Suddenly, an odd researcher and hacker, Lisbeth Salander, appears offering detailed information on the plaintiff, in exchange for his promise to dig into a 40-year old murder mystery story that had gone cold, on behalf of another wealthy man. He leaves to live in a rural cottage, while Salander is given a new brutally controlling state appointed guardian who assaults her. She secretly records one of their meetings, then she turns the tables on him attacking him in graphic ways, eventually tattooing “rapist pig” on his chest and extorting him for money in exchange for her silence. The events lead our lead investigator and Salander to uncover a terrible abuse and murder plot that had been happening for years, when they confront the villain in the end. At the conclusion, Salander helps to hack the original plaintiff’s bank account and drain it, causing his death. She shows up at the investigators door, only to find that he has re-engaged his old romance. She throws a gift she brought for him into the trash and rides away on her motorcycle.
A Swedish version of the film, which is also excellent, was released in 2009. As with The Social Network Fincher recruited Reznor and Ross to complete a unique soundtrack.
Despite excellent performances by Craig and Mara (particularly Mara), the film is dark, bleak, and depressing. Its subject-matter is all-too common in our day and age, in a greying world of moral ambiguity, wherein good men are hard to come by, and brutally aggressive men rule the world. The theme is tired, but the film is excellently executed, like its Swedish counterpart.
The Help (2011) Director: Tate Taylor
The story of The Help comes from the best-selling novel of the same name. It takes place during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. It was nominated for four Academy Awards.
The Help tells the story of “Skeeter” Phelan, a graduate of Ole Miss, as she tries to document southern black women and their experiences providing care and service to white families as “the help.” Predictably, white southerners are portrayed as vicious and cruel toward their maids. The central conflict stems from one maid who refuses to go out during a storm and use the separate outhouse constructed for black people, and instead she uses the indoor bathroom. She is framed for theft and dismissed, and thus she exacts vengeance on her mistress with a “terrible awful” act of baking her own excrement into a cake and feeding it to her. Needless to say the publishing of Phelan’s book causes quite a stir in the film! In the end the main character pursues her own independent work: the dream of becoming a writer.
The tired Hollywood narrative of the all-powerful villains attempting to crush the noble but powerless victims is all-too common among contemporary films. As to be expected in our present day and age, certain academic quarters found this film offensive, but these resentful voices can largely be ignored. To be sure, The Help is a good albeit predictable film. This is not really a film worth returning to.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Director: Danny Boyle
Slumdog Millionaire is the explosive introduction of modern Indian culture and Bollywood-styled films onto the international stage. This film is just plain good fun.
Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal, played by Dev Patel, a kid from the slums of India as he becomes a contestant on India’s version of the popular television game show, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” He successfully answers every questions correctly, as they all correspond ironically to various moments throughout his life. The film is told through a variety of a flashbacks while he plays the game, and also is questioned by the police. A parallel story is told as Jamal’s harsh gangster brother rises in the underworld of India, but in the end he sees the error of his ways and sacrifices his life for his brother and so that his brother’s lover from many years ago can escape and they can be reunited.
This film was a smash-hit success in the US and the UK, winning a slough of accolades. As to be expected the film received a minor backlash from the halls of academia as well as from various quarters in India, as apparently “slumdog” is now an offensive term, and the film has a certain degree of ‘Western conceit’ -though being a Western film this is hardly news. It is first and foremost a fun rags-to-riches film that uniquely tells its story through the lens of a gameshow, via variety of compelling flashbacks. Slumdog Millionaire is an unexpectedly delightful film, and the parallel love-story is charming.
127 Hours (2010) Director: Danny Boyle
127 Hours is very nearly the documentary of one man’s survival against the elements. The title refers to the amount of time it takes from the main character’s accident to when he was rescued and put under anesthesia.
It tells the story of Aron Ralston, a hiker played by James Franco, who gets trapped in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. It is based on the 2004 memoir by Aron Ralston appropriately called Between a Rock and a Hard Place. He meets a couple of hikers who eventually part ways and Ralston goes off alone only to accidentally tumble down a ravine where his arm gets jammed between rocks. He makes various efforts to wrangle it free, while trying to keep his sanity and ration his food. He makes a video diary of his time at the bottom of the ravine and he hallucinates and has various flashbacks. The film’s story is told brilliantly in this respect. Eventually, he must break his arm in several places and slowly amputate it, then climb down through the ravine, until he finds a random family who searches for help.
Danny Boyle is, of course, the director of other notable British films like 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. Like Into the Wild, 127 Hours is a cautionary tale about the dangers posed by mother nature, a cold and indifferent force to the well-being of mankind. There are some small changes from the story of Ralston, but not many. It is a well-told film that apparently put James Franco through quite a trial.