The huge success of the series of novels beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bit bewildering. How did America get hooked on these Swedish thrillers? Based on my reading of the first one over Christmas break, the books (pleasantly) lack the breakneck pacing and thinly drawn characters of John Grisham or Dan Brown's thrillers nor do they contain a single tweenage vampire or boy wizard or any other element one might expect from a runaway bestseller these days. Basically, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a clever variation on what's often called the "locked room" mystery (except this is a "locked island!") with two well-drawn characters at its center. And one of these, the titular "girl," is likely the reason for the series' success. Lisbeth Salander is definitely a fascinating character, a punk tattoed pierced bisexual Swedish computer hacker, and the film could not have worked without finding the perfect Salander. Luckily, they did. For the first few minutes, the woman on screen (Noomi Rapace) didn't quite coincide with the image of Salander I had in mind, but that vanished quickly enough. It's a very strong performance, and Lisbeth remains as interesting on-screen as on the page, a strange mix of fragility and toughness. The film streamlines the over-stuffed novel, jettisoning much of a storyline about financial intrigue in favor of the murder-mystery plot. It's a smart decision, but still a long film, with a few too many last minute revelations (typical of the genre) that try the patience a little. Still, take a look at this beside any "serious" mainstream American thriller (for instance, Gibson's comeback revenge-thriller Edge of Darkness) for a lesson in what's missing from those films: namely, character, atmosphere, suspense, etc). One is left wondering how badly the American remake of Girl will screw things up. But there are rumors that David Fincher is attached. So maybe it won't be as bad as imagined.
Jon Favreau's first Iron Man was a pleasant surprise: a kick-ass superhero film with a light touch and an intriguing, somewhat complex character in Tony Stark (played to the hilt by a wisecracking Robert Downey Jr.). Unlike so many summer blockbusters, it was a film where dialogue and character were not totally secondary to expensive action sequences. Much of this is still true of the sequel, but yet it often feels too much like its sagging under the weight of genre expectations, with bigger battles and characters that mainly exist to set up other films in the ever-expanding cinematic Marvel universe. Even so, there's fun to be had with new characters such as Mickey Rourke's Whiplash (that man loves his bird!), Scarlet Johannsen (can't we please keep her in that skintight suit just a little longer?), Garry Shandlings' sleazy politician (can we please have EVERY Larry Sanders' episode on DVD), and, perhaps especially, Sam Rockwell (watch that funky little James Brown shuffle-dance late in the film when he's taking the microphone). The film seems, for awhile, as if it might push its way beyond its comic book surface into a darker riff on the corrupting power of celebrity (RDJ's Stark, seeing himself as the sole savior of world peace, has let his power go to his head). Those ideas never press very far, naturally enough: after all, this is Favreau, not Christopher Nolan. And, in the matinee screening that I attended, the geeks seem pleased: "Dude, I TOLD you there was going to be something after the credits!" shouted one of them to his friends. But of course all of us geeks knew that already, which is why we had remained seated through these (very long) credits in the first place.