Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Niels Arden Oplev - 2009

The first adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular Millennium novels, the books that can be credited for starting a wave of Scandinavian crime drama that shows no signs of stopping, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrived with a heavy reputation to live up to. Introducing us to nominal hero Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a disgraced journalist whose laconic cynicism towards everyone around him conceals a drive to root out injustice whenever he smells a story in it, the story quickly takes us away from civilisation to a remote island to investigate a forty year old disappearance. With a whole family of suspicious characters to dig into Blomkvist’s quest quickly begins to resemble a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, complete with intriguing clues and exciting twists at every turn before a dramatic final reveal. Except that Christie never wrote about gang-rape, girls locked in basements and quasi-religious ritual murders. Shot through with the dull patina of fading history the story is initially quite slow but as these brutal truths are dredged up from the past the film becomes increasingly engrossing, carrying the audience from disturbed fascination to fear and back again. Mystery aside though the main draw is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo; computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has already become an iconic character in crime fiction and now thanks to an intensely committed performance from Noomi Rapace she’s destined to be an equally significant figure in noughties action cinema. Withdrawn behind a wall of Goth style and bad attitude Lisbeth is the sort of person most of the audience would probably avoid in the street but after we witness her taking a brutal revenge on the guardian who sexually abused her, its hard not to be drawn in by the woman’s intense will to survive. The rape scenes are not important plot-wise until later stories but they are still shot in graphic detail by director Niels Oplev, a device that prepares the audience for the horrors to come whilst introducing them to Lisbeth and Larsson’s world with an intensity that is shocking for those used to their violence wrapped in Hollywood candy. Long and complicated it maybe but happily Oplev’s film lives up to the hype, delivering to cinemas a dark and twisted thriller the likes of which has never been seen before.

The Girl who Played with Fire - Daniel Alfredson - 2009

Picking up the strange and enigmatic friendship between Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Listbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) where it was left hanging at the end of the previous film, The Girl Who Played with Fire finds Lisbeth returning to Sweden after her lucrative trip abroad only to walk straight into a whole mess of danger. A big break for Blomkvist turns nasty when a pair of freelance journalists working a sex-trafficking story are brutally murdered and Lisbeth is implicated, forcing her to go on the run and relive some dirty secrets from her family history, for where Tattoo was a self contained mystery, Fire has a broader aim, painting a bigger picture of Larsson’s world and characters. Lisbeth’s flashback in Tattoo as she watched Martin Vanger burn hinted at her fiery past but now we are granted more details as both she and Blomkvist turn their attention to her father Alexander ‘Zala’ Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a bitter and malevolent old man left deformed by his previous encounter with his daughter. Zala doesn’t appear in person until the climax but his presence hangs over the film like a malevolent cloud drawing the investigative duo into his predictably dark past until they can’t think about anything else (frustratingly the murders are soon pushed aside in favour of a wider conspiracy). In villainy Zala is represented for the most part by big blonde henchman Niederman (Mikael Spreitz), a cross between Sandor Clegane and Jaws who due to a rare disorder feels no pain, a twist that almost pushes the film away from its normal gritty extremes to almost Bondian excess. His action moments though are contrasted with drier scenes as Blomkvist attempts to track down the elusive Zala by bullying a succession of scared and grumpy old men into revealing information they’ve kept hidden for forty years as part of that conspiracy, a plot that rapidly gets a lot more complicated than the Vanger scandal. Naturally this is just as fascinating as the mystery in the first film (although it may take several viewings to fully understand every plot detail) but since Blomkvist and Lisbeth spend most of the film working separately, the emotional appeal that drew audiences in the first time around is somehow lacking, despite Blomkvist winding up his colleagues with his relentless Lisbeth obsession. With an even more dramatic and brutal climax than Tattoo, Fire is certainly a fitting sequel but as the story is left open to be continued in the final film rather than forming a closed arc like Tattoo, the film can never be quite as satisfying.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest - Daniel Alfredson - 2010

Joining an elite group of female action heroes like the Bride and Buffy the Vampire Slayer who clawed their way out of their own graves, Lisbeth Salander returns after the battering she received at the climax of the previous film to fight back against the increasing number of people who want to lock her away. Since this is ostensibly the real world though Lisbeth has to spend the first third of the film in hospital before moving to a holding cell in preparation for the final showdown in court between the conspirators and Blomkvist’s investigation team. Dramatically this is a problematic structure as director Daniel Alfredson can do little but cut between Lisbeth’s cautious recovery, Blomkvist and his lawyer sister (Annika Hallin) looking increasingly harried and the conspirators coldly anticipating their every move. A token action scene with a pair of Serbian gunmen and a shocking moment early on when a sweet old man goes into hospital and shoots a patient in the head shake up the drama but otherwise the film consists for the most part of people talking urgently in rooms. The trial itself is a tense affair as unctuous psychiatrist Dr Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom) tells a string of cruel lies about Lisbeth’s character but the resolution is suspiciously easy given the amount of evidence stolen or discredited before hand and does raise the question of whether evidence acquired by hacking can really be legally used in court. The fact that the film is just as intriguing and engrossing as the previous two has to be then for the most down to the performances. Michael Nyqvist continues to provide a solid centre to the story as the driven Blomkvist, his natural charisma leavened by a dry sense of humour that makes it easy for the audience to root for him even as his staff begins to fall away. Noomi Rapace in what has already become a career defining role continues to inhabit Lisbeth with intense dedication, freezing other characters with single cold stare but absorbing the audience with tiny emotional nuances that hint at the feelings raging beneath the mask she displays to the world. With its insanely complicated conspiracy plot carried over from Fire, Hornets was never going to deliver quite the same intense experience as Tattoo but is still a good enough film in its own right, enjoyably more intelligent than most of the thrillers that emerge from Hollywood.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Three Musketeers - Stephen Herek - 1993

Alexandre Dumas' classic swashbuckler is revamped yet again, this time into a Disney action movie and if the story is weakened by the inevitable Hollywood bastardisation, it does at least succeed as a fun-filled action romp. It doesn't help that Chris O'Donnell is predictably terrible as leading man D'Artagnan, visibly straining to act during emotional scenes but still failing miserably, leaving us with nothing but his big plastic face to look at. The musketeers themselves are more fun with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen having great fun swaggering through the action scenes, although this can't hide the fact that they both clearly get bored every time they're called upon for something serious. By far the most entertaining though is the belligerent Porthos played by character actor Oliver Platt who relishes the rare opportunity to play alongside the stars and brings some much needed genuine comic timing that, given the lack of other talent on display, pretty much steals the whole film. In support Paul McGann is reduced to shrieking in a high pitched voice as an old rival of D'Artagnan but principle villains Tim Curry and Michael Wincott deliver enjoyably menacing and conniving performances despite having played very similar roles many times before. Given the lack of decent character moments and imaginative storytelling the later remake of Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask stands as better film, but an audience simply seeking swashing and buckling could do a lot worse. At the very least it’s far less ridiculous than Paul Anderson’s ludicrous 3D version…

Throne of Blood - Akira Kurosawa - 1957

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa turns his attention to Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth for the story of this samurai epic and in so doing has created a film that must rank amongst the director’s finest work. Wreathed in wonderfully atmospheric fog, feudal Japan makes a neat parallel for dark ages Scotland and a boisterous Toshiro Mifune makes for a particularly enjoyable Macbeth whether he be muttering darkly into his beard or storming manically round the wonderfully named Cobweb Castle and nearby forest. However its the little directorial flourishes that are most memorable; in a piece of wonderfully economic filmmaking Kurosawa reveals that a murder has taken place with a single shot of a rider-less horse returning home - an image that is far more chillingly because we can only guess the cause. Similarly in the silence before the final battle at Cobweb Castle the sound of chopping axes echoing through the night hints at what the invading army plans but by withholding expositional scenes in the camp, Kurosawa lets us be unsettled with Mifune's waiting troops. In fact such is the director's visual flair and imagination that this stands as not only one of his best films but also one of the greatest interpretations of Macbeth ever committed to celluloid and thus is well worth seeing on both counts.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Taking of Pelham 123 - Tony Scott - 2009

Tony Scott knows all there is to know about making classy and (relatively) original action thrillers but it seems that when it came to remaking this story from 1974 about a hijacked New York subway train he had nothing fresh to add. From the very first minute Scott piles on the swanky slo-mo shots and the funky soundtrack to introduce us to the gang of villains but this is de rigueur for a Scott film by now so is hardly enough to pull an audience in. John Travolta treads a fine line between ridiculous and cool as lead bad guy Ryder (Sunglasses in the subway, really?) but rapidly loses our attention with a performance that is so loud and aggressive that it verges on ham. Much better is co-star Denzel Washington who once again excels at playing an ordinary man forced into extraordinary circumstances but he is let down by a script that becomes bogged down in character nuances that could be sketched in a few sentences. Writer Brian Helgeland is clearly interested in the developing relationship between Washington and Travolta over the phone but this is already unbalanced by Travolta's inferior performance before it is dragged out just long enough to lose all the pace and tension requisite to keep and audience interested in a thriller of this nature. As Scott and Washington proved in their next film Unstoppable (a whole twenty minutes shorter), it’s perfectly possible to drop in character beats without losing the pace. A third act runaway train goes someway towards redeeming this - shot with Scott's traditional glossy shaky camera and quick cuts this is the highlight of the film - but Helgeland loses it again in the final moments. A final twist about Ryder's motive is intriguing but hardly shocking while a foot chase across New York relies on too many implausible coincidences to convince. Luckily for Scott and Washington another runaway train was waiting just around the corner...

Taxi Driver - Martin Scorsese - 1976

Arguably Martin Scorsese's first masterpiece and certainly his greatest collaboration with Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver is a brutal and vicious howl against a world that no longer takes care of its own. Whereas in the following two films, New York New York and Raging Bull De Niro would simply play pathetic brutes who can't communicate without violence, his Travis Bickle is rather more complex. Whilst its true that his harassment of Cybil Shepherd feels like an embarrassing forerunner of his treatment of Liza Minnelli in their later film, Scorsese is confident enough here to spend plenty of time alone with his protagonist so that despite his behaviour, we can empathise if not sympathise with the man's tragic loneliness. In support Harvey Keitel makes a rather unconvincing pimp but a young Jodie Foster is astonishing as his prostitute prodigy. Aged just thirteen, Foster delivers a performance of such astonishing naturalness and maturity that it’s a wonder she didn't win more awards. The real success story though is Scorsese himself; the film certainly isn't perfect - the ending feels clumsily tacked on in order to give the film an additional message - but coming in the middle of a decade in which his films were characterised by unfeeling and distancing protagonists, Taxi Driver stands out as something greater, something that resonates rather than repulses.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Michael Clayton - Tony Gilroy - 2007

Michael Clayton is one of the most highly acclaimed thrillers of recent years winning award nominations all over the shop and so it is rather disappointing to discover that for a large part of the running time the film is actually quite dull. Legal thrillers can be great but in order to succeed they have to cater for an audience not familiar with legal ins and outs; unfortunately writer/director Tony Gilroy is trying so hard to balance this with making a film that looks stylish that he ends up failing to do either. The film starts almost at the end the story before flashing back to establish events leading up to this point but its at least another half an hour before anything starts making any sense and so for the audience is left struggling to keep up. Happily the second half picks up with a juicy murder to justify the genre classification and culminates in a well staged sequence that repeats events we saw at the beginning but from an unexpected perspective. Even so its hard not to leave with a feeling that Gilroy has chopped away a lot of plot and character beats in order to bring please the studios and bring in a two hour runtime; why else for example would George Clooney (in serious mode as the titular lawyer) get out of the car at a crucial moment to look at horses for no apparent reason?

The Men Who Stare at Goats - Grant Heslov - 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats is an odd little film, uncomfortably straddling the join between comedy and drama to the point where it’s hard to tell whether it’s being deliberately clumsy or is simply a case of dodgy filmmaking. Purporting to tell the true story of a secret US army unit who trained soldiers with psychic abilities, the film is a scattershot collection of funny but all too brief vignettes full of great character actors kicking back and pretending to be hippies. Jeff Bridges channels his Dude persona as the battalion commander, George Clooney has great fun playing the sort of deluded idiot that could previously be only found in a Coen Brothers film and Kevin Spacey sulks and squirms as his rival before, in a scene of pure comedy gold he gets high on acid and has a conversation with a bug. So far so true, but these moments are only flashbacks in a framing device created especially for the movie in which an older Clooney takes young Ewan McGregor on a quest through the Middle East and teaches him about the battalion. Clooney is clearly trying hard here but McGregor is the sort of vaguely irritating protagonist-out-to-find-himself that we've seen a hundred times before and director Grant Heslov fails to make these fictional segments as sparkly and entertaining as the (ostensibly) true flashbacks. Furthermore Heslov's attempts to comment on current conflicts through various characters that Clooney and McGregor meet along the way feel either clumsy or nonsensical, leaving the audience confused as to how to react to the changes in tone. Regardless of whether the story of the psychic unit is true or not it clearly is one that's worth the telling, but maybe with a more direct narrative structure that doesn't get sidetracked wandering around in the desert.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Missing - Ron Howard - 2003

Potentially a gripping Western thriller, Ron Howard's The Missing has many great scenes and captures some beautiful landscapes but suffers from an uneven pace and tone that hampers the narrative development. After an opening section that focuses purely on Cate Blanchett's hard-bitten frontier wife, establishing her with a family that are subsequently killed or kidnapped, the film suddenly jumps away to follow the villain of the piece, a move that shatters the milieu that Howard apparently took so long to establish. It doesn't help that this villain is an evil Indian witch doctor who as played by Eric Schweig is a fantastically menacing and disturbing presence that lends an intriguing strain of mysticism to the bleakly realistic old west, but also a narrative device that feels horribly stereotypical and regressive, particularly since he isn't granted many lines beyond grunts. That said Blanchett is a striking presence, generating a great chemistry with estranged father Tommy Lee Jones (surely the only actor alive who could convincingly play a white man turned Indian) that powers the drama through the quieter moments, and Howard manages to create some intelligent action scenes that mainly develop naturally from the drama and in the end bring the film to a suitably gripping climax despite the earlier stumbles.

Backdraft - Ron Howard - 1991

An action film about Chicago firemen doesn’t sound very exciting and it has to be said journeyman director Ron Howard fulfils these expectations to the letter. Kurt Russell and William Baldwin are two brothers in the fire service who are continually quarrelling for no apparent reason until they are forced to put aside their differences and work together to fight the good fight and put out those nasty fires gosh darn it, proving themselves to be lovely heroic Americans along the way and so on along those familiar paths. In the meantime J.T. Walsh does his usual thing as a slimy public official, Donald Sutherland steals every scene he can as a deranged arsonist and Robert De Niro investigates the cause of a series of mysterious ‘backdraft’ fires (a phenomenon never properly explained in 130 minutes) in a subplot that starts off very interesting and technical before just petering out in a surprise revelation that can’t seem to summon the energy to be surprising. Along the way the film spends a lot of time following the fire engine crews during their daily business and through the actual mechanics of fire fighting which is always mildly interesting, although they only ever seem to be summoned to epic building sized blazes (do no cats get stuck up trees in Chicago?) and never seem to deal with false alarms of chip pan fires. Howard was still a few years short of Apollo 13 when he made this film but he demonstrates a confident hand directing action that would later put him in good stead for his Dan Brown adaptations, and has some fun throwing around CGI fire like there’s no tomorrow. Doubtless the effects were very impressive in 1991 but with the cynical eyes of twenty years in visual effects advancement there is hardly anything that creates the same terrifying effect Howard was doubtless trying to achieve. Worthy as it is for trying to give firemen more recognition Backdraft has little to make it lastingly memorable.