Review: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

January 19, 2012

The appeal of late Swedish author Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of mystery novels can be summed up in the new title given to the first book by its English-language publishers: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Larsson’s plotting and writing? Compelling in parts but mostly pedestrian verging on plodding. The character of Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading investigative journalist? Serviceable but bland.

No, the real drawcard is Lisbeth Salander, one of the more intriguing figures I’ve encountered in recent crime fiction.

Not only is the complex and acute computer hacker extraordinaire the smartest person in any room she enters, she’s also someone who neither forgives nor forgets. All of which makes her compulsively watchable.

The magnetism of the character is such that Hollywood snapped up the rights to the Millennium trilogy, even though the three novels had already brought to the screen in Sweden, with Noomi Rapace delivering a strong, rigourous performance as Salander.

The American version, however, has its own share of heavy hitters on both sides of the camera, such as Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian, Social Network director David Fincher and Daniel Craig playing Blomkvist.

But the real coup of Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo is the casting of little-known actress Rooney Mara as Salander.

Best remembered for her fine work in a handful of Social Network scenes, Mara is all but unrecognisable here.

The kind you don't take home to Mother

But the physical transformation pales in comparison to the tough, verging on impenetrable psychology she conveys – her performance is all the more compelling for the way she makes Salander both dangerous and vulnerable.

And she’s well-complemented by Craig, who sheds his 007 persona to make Blomkvist a convincingly genuine character, capable and driven but also impulsive and at times powerless.

The two actors make a fine team, as do the two characters, who come together to investigate a decades-old mystery involving the disappearance of a wealthy industrialist’s young niece, their efforts slowly uncovering a snake pit of sexual abuse and serial murder.

Even with Zaillian streamlining and finessing Larsson’s novel and Fincher adding his trademark icy precision and underlying sense of pain, danger and damage (especially in the arresting opening credits sequence), the lurid, pulpy roots of Larsson’s source material remain evident.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. There’s always room for a gritty (and occasionally unsettling and upsetting) thriller with a slick surface, and that’s definitely what The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo delivers.


Review: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

January 19, 2012

No one scales a skyscraper in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. No one walks coolly away from an explosion. Barely a gunshot is fired.

However, despite all this, or maybe because of it, this adaptation of John le Carre’s celebrated tale of espionage and intrigue is a bracing and gripping thriller, a compelling counterpoint to the secret agent yarns featuring the likes of Bond and Bourne.

Le Carre’s novel, inspired and informed by his own time in the spy game, has been brought to the screen once before, and the 1979 BBC miniseries that starred Alec Guinness as veteran intelligence agent George Smiley was such a quietly and subtly engrossing piece of work that a new version, even three decades on, might have seemed redundant.

But a terrific story like Tinker Tailor is of course open to varying interpretations, and this film does a superb job of not only streamlining the ’70s-era story but deftly exploring new angles and avenues in a way that sheds new light.

It’s top work by screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, and Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (the justly acclaimed Let the Right One In) brings it to the screen with an understatement and elegance that initially disguises its ever-escalating tension.

And having a high-calibre cast of some of the finest British actors currently working – among them Colin Firth, John Hurt, Inception’s Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch (so good as TV’s Sherlock Holmes) doesn’t hurt either.

First among equals, though, is Gary Oldman, taking on the role of Smiley and tamping down his considerable charisma and entertaining flair for overstatement to convincingly portray a man for whom restraint is a key trait and a vital skill.

The 2012 remake of FACE/OFF took the concept to strange new places

Semi-retired from intelligence agency MI6 (dubbed ‘the Circus’ by those in the know), Smiley is brought back into the fold when it becomes apparent that there’s a traitor in the highest ranks of the organisation.

It’s Smiley’s brief to flush out the mole but it soon becomes evident that the Circus is a tangled web of dubious alliances, hidden agendas and betrayals that go beyond the professional into the personal.

Escapism is not on Tinker Tailor’s mind. This is not a clear-cut, us-versus-them yarn with an ending that puts all things right.

Instead, it’s a tense, thoughtful tale that views love as a vulnerability and trust as a weapon. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will stick with you for its two-hour running time, and stay with you much longer afterwards.


Review: THE MUPPETS

January 11, 2012

For a while there, the Muppets were forgotten but not gone.

Sure, they’d pop up on television now and then but their last big-screen outing, Muppets from Space, quickly came and went from cinemas over a decade ago. And their ‘70s and ‘80s Muppet Show heyday seemed to be fading more and more into pop-culture history.

Everybody loves a comeback, though, right? And surely characters as once beloved as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear have earned a second stint in the spotlight after all the joy they’ve provided…right?

Let’s face it, there’s always a chance that a new generation isn’t going to embrace the icons of yesteryear. And what’s so clever about the new movie The Muppets is that it not only recognises that this could be the case, it makes it a pivotal plot point.

Because if there’s something everybody loves more than a comeback, it’s an underdog making a comeback.

Don’t be misled, though, because The Muppets does a lot more than shamelessly cater to the goodwill of the characters’ fans (although let’s be honest, it does do that a bit). It’s a bright, breezy musical comedy that provides plenty of laughs and one or two happy tears.

*sniff*

The story follows average guy Gary (How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the screenplay), his best gal Mary (Amy Adams) and his brother Walter – who just happens to be a Muppet – as they travel together to Hollywood.

A mega-fan of The Muppet Show, Walter is eager to do one thing in Hollywood: visit the studio where the Muppet magic was created.

He discovers to his horror, though, that their studio is empty, run-down and on the verge of being sold to evil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper).

Without $10 million to keep it from falling into Richman’s mitts, the history of the Muppets will be, well, history. But how to come up with the cash? Why, round up the old gang and put on a show, of course!

The crew behind the camera (including Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, whose zingy, catchy songs make him this movie’s MVP) wisely recognise that nostalgia will only get them so far.

So they’ve jam-packed The Muppets with sly celebrity cameos and wry, wisecracking humour (which is actually in keeping with the original Muppets vibe) as well as plenty of nods to Muppet mythology.

Despite what you may heard, this is not Guy Davis and Anthony Morris at a media screening.

The flesh-and-blood cast is great – there are few better at playing the big-hearted galoot than Segel, the only way Adams could be more adorable is if she carried a basket of puppies everywhere she went and Cooper…well, Chris Cooper has a musical number that must be seen to be believed.

Of course, there’s just as much personality in the performance of Kermit, Miss Piggy and their felt-covered friends. It’s nice to have them back.


Wow, modern technology is AWESOME!

January 11, 2012

And here’s why! That Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies documentary I mentioned in my Hugo review? The WHOLE FREAKIN’ THING can be seen on YouTube! If you have four hours to spare, settle in and listen to what Marty has to say. You will NOT regret it.


Review: HUGO

January 11, 2012

In his wonderful documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (something any film lover should track down and watch immediately), one idea the great filmmaker discusses is ‘the director as smuggler’.

By this, Scorsese means filmmakers stealthily sneaking their own personal obsessions and idiosyncratic ideas into seemingly conventional movies.

For most of his own brilliant career, the director of Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and The Departed hasn’t really needed to be much of a smuggler – he’s a skilled and passionate enough artist that he’s been able to reconcile his individual voice with the desires of the audience.

But even on the verge of his seventies, Scorsese is still demonstrating that he has a trick or two up his sleeve.

Based on the book The Invention of Hugo CabretHugo is probably the first film in his dynamic, sometimes violent and confronting body of work that could be called family-friendly.

And while it’s not necessarily a conventional kids’ movie, it’s still pretty impressive (and impressively sly) that Scorsese has been able to weave in a very persuasive argument for one of his passions, the preservation and restoration of classic films.

Even better, he does it in such a way, making it a central part of a truly involving and touching story, that he may convert many viewers to the cause while enthralling and entertaining them.

Transporting the audience to 1930s Paris with one long, gorgeous shot, Hugo introduces its title character, a young orphan played by Asa Butterfield, whose expressive blue eyes say as much as any line of dialogue ever could.

That said, he does look disturbingly like a little Chris Lilley, doesn't he?

Living behind the train station clocks, Hugo spends his days avoiding the local cop (an ingeniously funny Sacha Baron Cohen) and scavenging parts for an incomplete ‘mechanical man’, the only memento he has of his late father.

His search for bits and pieces leads him to an ill-tempered old man (Ben Kingsley, giving a rich and complex performance) and his precocious young niece (Chloe Grace Moretz, effortlessly charming), both of whom hold keys to unraveling the mystery of the mechanical man.

She should get an Oscar for her delivery of the line "Don't you LIKE books?" Adorable!

It’s a mystery that involves the old man’s glorious but sad past, and Hugo presents it as a time of magical invention, a time when dreams could literally come true.

What’s more, Scorsese’s joy in sharing the wonders of this era with the audience is infectious.

Hugo is a movie with so much to give. Visually it’s dazzling (it’s Scorsese’s first venture into 3D, and he revels in it), thematically it’s engaging, emotionally it’s close to overflowing. It’s a marvel.


THE SKIN I LIVE IN-terview: Elena Anaya

January 4, 2012

If you’re at all interested in The Skin I Live In, the latest offering from acclaimed Spanish filmmaker and agent provocateur Pedro Almodovar, you might want to skip this story. Or at the very least put it aside until you’ve caught the movie. Because while enjoyment of The Skin I Live In isn’t dependant on ignorance of a primary plot development involving a central character, it may help if you know as little as possible prior to taking your seat in the cinema. Still here? Okay then, I’ll tread as carefully as possible.

At the core of The Skin I Live In is the unusual relationship between plastic surgeon Dr Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas, working with his Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down director for the first time in 20 years) and Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), the beautiful woman kept captive in the doctor’s home. Vera is seemingly the very image of Dr Ledgard’s dead wife but there’s a lot more to Vera’s identity and appearance than just the surgeon’s experiments with artificial skin. A lot more.

Vera is a tough role, multi-layered and multi-faceted, and Almodovar had Anaya in mind for years while he was adapting French author Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale (a.k.a. Tarantula) into The Skin I Live In. While Anaya has become well-known in her native Spain, throughout Europe and internationally for her performances in films like Sex and Lucia and Room in Rome (or her appearance in the video for Justin Timberlake’s ‘SexyBack’!), she’d only worked with Almodovar once before, having had a small supporting role in his 2002 film Talk to Her.

Yes, she was also in Van Helsing. Everyone makes one or two mistakes

“I had a panic attack of excitement and fear…but nice fear,” says Anaya when she first heard that she’d become the filmmaker’s latest muse. (Very nicely, she gently corrected my pronunciation of Almodovar – the emphasis is on the ‘doh’.) “Then I met with him and he explained the story to me, and I was so impressed. Later on, I read the script and that impression just grew and grew. This film stays with you while you digest it. He offered me such a beautiful and complex role, and it was an incredible opportunity to enjoy and to give the most of myself.”

While Vera initially appears to be the victim, Anaya views her imprisoned character as “a strong person that really chose to live”, adding that the nature of Vera’s identity means she was playing one role inside of another. “Identity is something that we sometimes need to take care of and feed, to not die,” she says. “I played this role as someone who was held captive inside another person’s skin. She’s in an artificial skin that doesn’t belong to her, with a face that doesn’t belong to her. She says barely anything but feels a lot, and she has to be very careful about the emotions she shows.”

Anaya is clearly an admirer of Almodovar, admitting that she happily shaped her performance to fit his vision of Vera. “There’s a certain atmosphere that always happens on any set,” she says. “If a director is very into it, then the crew follows even if they don’t know it. And this is very true with Pedro. People respect him so much. When he arrives on set, people whisper ‘Oh, Pedro has arrived…’ And Pedro explained to me that by taking on this role, there will be a kind of no return. My character lives that journey of not being able to return and in a way I do too. This character has changed my life. I have a beautiful family, but it’s so wonderful to also be a part of his family.”


Review: SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

January 4, 2012

If an hour or so after the end of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, you’re sitting having a coffee or driving home and you suddenly realise you can recall next to nothing about the movie you’ve just watched, don’t be alarmed.

Because something like this sequel to the 2009 blockbuster that refashioned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary literary detective as a sharp-witted sleuth equally at home cracking skulls as he was cracking cases isn’t built to last.

No, it’s meant to be enjoyed in the darkness of the cinema and then forgotten. Oh, it might be remembered fondly when it pops up on the telly in a few years but it’s doubtful this’ll linger too long in the memory once the credits have rolled.

Not that there’s anyone necessarily wrong with that. Not everything is designed to have enduring appeal. Some movies are here for a good time, not a long time, and A Game of Shadows provides precisely that.

Reuniting stars Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law (as Holmes and his grouchy but loyal offsider Dr Watson) and director Guy Ritchie, A Game of Shadows sees the Victorian-era duo applying their detection skills to a fiendish plot that will pit the most powerful nations against one another in an unprecedented “world war”.

Aided by gypsy fortune teller Simza (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Holmes and Watson investigate a series of terror attacks throughout Europe and find that all the evidence points to one mastermind, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), “the Napoleon of crime”.

Unburdened by mercy or morality, Moriarty is every bit Holmes’ equal in terms of intellect. What’s more, he’s ruthless in seeing his plans for global conflict come to fruition.

Of course, that’s really just the set-up for all manner of scrapes, vividly and energetically staged by Ritchie with his usual flair, enthusiasm and technical trickery.

Frankly, though, the chemistry between Downey, Jr and Law, the former’s jaunty irreverence nicely complementing the latter’s sensible exasperation, really gives these movies their kick.

And the casting of the underrated Harris as Holmes’ nemesis is a masterstroke. Subtly conveying a seething contempt and arrogance, he’s a blackly brilliant adversary for our smarty-pants hero.