There was perhaps no film released in 2011 that I was more intrigued by than "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

As a huge fan of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel - the first in a three-book series - and the subsequent Swedish film, I was eager to see how an American version of this material would play out.

Rather nicely, it turns out, thanks to the keen direction of David Fincher and a breakout performance from Rooney Mara. This version is true to the source material, a dark and, at times, disturbing piece of work.

For those unfamiliar with "Dragon Tattoo," the story centers on a disgraced journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), and a brilliant, yet troubled, young computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Mara).

When Blomkvist loses a libel case over a story written about a wealthy billionaire, he is hired by a wealthy patriarch named Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of his niece 40 years earlier. Vanger believes his niece was murdered and someone in his eccentric family is behind the murder.

As Blomkvist's investigation starts to uncover a tangled web of lies and deceit, he seeks the aid of Salander to piece together the rather disturbing puzzle.

After grabbing the audience's attention with one of the best title sequences of 2011 (aided by Trent Reznor's pulsating score), Fincher uses the same approach he applied so successfully to one of his previous films, "Zodiac." There is a cold and calculated - almost procedural - feel, which fits the material quite well. Fincher does tweak a few details that will be obvious to those who have read the novels, but it's not a complete overhaul and it doesn't really make much difference in the overall story.

At its roots, this is a film, and a story, in which the central theme is violence against women and the women who fight back. It's not an easy sell, but Fincher never flinches from the uneasy material, allowing it to keep its full dramatic effect intact.

The cast, which also includes Stellan Skarsgard and Robin Wright, is really good, but Mara stands out. Noomi Rapace was so iconic in the Swedish film, it's a credit to Mara that she manages to disappear into this complex character and make it her own. It's a star-making turn for Mara, one that deserves Oscar consideration.

Also opening

Fincher isn't the only high-profile filmmaker with a major release this weekend.

The new family drama "We Bought a Zoo" (C) marks the return of writer/director Cameron Crowe after a six-year absence. I've generally liked Crowe's films, which include "Almost Famous," "Singles" and "Jerry Maguire," but I couldn't quite get behind his latest. While its heart is in the right place, this movie is just too sappy for its own good.

Based on a true story, Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a recently widowed father struggling to raise his defiant teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and young daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).

Benjamin decides a change of scenery is in order and moves the family to the countryside to renovate and reopen a struggling zoo.

This is a movie that covers some of the same family problems as the highly superior George Clooney film "The Descendants" (which I happened to see 24 hours after watching "We Bought a Zoo"), but it pales in comparison. "Zoo" rarely feels authentic - it's the kind of film that relies on the soundtrack to direct the audience how it is supposed to feel.

Damon tries his hardest as the centerpiece of the film, and he is fine. The problem is most of the rest of the cast - which includes Scarlett Johansson as a zoo worker and Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin's brother - are uninteresting characters who are never fleshed out beyond broad stereotypes.

The one exception is Elle Fanning as a teenage girl who also works at the zoo and strikes up a friendship with Dylan. Their relationship feels authentic and is the highlight of the film.

If Crowe could have approached the rest of "We Bought a Zoo" in the same manner, I think it would have worked. Instead, we have a film where it looks like Crowe is trying way too hard to recapture the same feel and goodwill generated by "Jerry Maguire."

"We Bought a Zoo" is rated PG for language and some thematic elements and opens Friday at the Great Escape 12 and Highland Cinemas in Glasgow.


- To get sportswriter/movie reviewer Micheal Compton's up-to-the minute thoughts on all things movies, visit his blog at mcompton.wordpress.com or his Twitter page at twitter.com/mcompton428. You can also email him at mcompton@bgdailynews.com.

 

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