Review: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher

***

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo seems like an unusual project for David Fincher to take on. Hot on the heels of his success with The Social Network, Fincher plunged into the depths of the sordid tale of bisexual sociopath computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist and their hunt for a serial killer in the northern Swedish countryside, frozen by Arctic winds and isolation from the more cosmopolitan south. It was this kind of bloody-minded escapade that made Fincher’s name (Se7en remains his masterpiece), but there is also the matter of the Swedish-language adaptation that was released just two years before. Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth therein was seen as definitive and, though flawed, was seen as not warranting a remake (technically, it’s not a remake, but a fresh adaptation of the book). The odds are not in Fincher’s favour.

And yet…

… and yet, he is Fincher, one of American cinema’s modern masters. With his usual blend of style and fierce energy, he upgrades the rather bland visuals of Niels Arden Oplev’s original film whilst still preserving the plot, for better or worse. Following an opening credits sequence reminiscent of a James Bond title sequence, we see James Bond himself, Daniel Craig in the role of Blomqvist, leaving a courthouse after losing a defamation suit taken against him by wealthy industrialist Wennerström (Ulf Friberg). It’s strange to see the man who would be Bond in such a defeated state, yet there he is, reduced to taking leave from the magazine he co-edits (with his lover, played by Robin Wright) in order to escape. Except he’s not escaping; he’s going to work for retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) and help him solve the mystery of the disappearance of his grand-niece some forty years previously. Meanwhile, Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) is living her own brand of life in Stockholm; working as a professional investigator, being generally provocative and anti-social and being abused by her state-appointed custodian Bjurman (Yorick Von Wageningen). Credit to both Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) for not toning down the sexual violence of Larsson’s tome; The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a decidedly uncomfortable watch. As Lisbeth suffers her abuses (and plots revenge), Blomqvist’s investigation of the eccentric Vanger family (including Stellan Skarsgård’s Martin and Joely Richardson’s Anita) exposes old wounds including Nazi sympathies, bitter feuds and abuse. The original Swedish title of the book was ‘Men Who Hate Women’, and this film is full of them. At its heart, however, is a woman who hates everyone, and Mara inhabits Lisbeth with a disconcerting blend of childlike frame and sheer ballsiness. Watching this brittle waif suffer is extremely uncomfortable, but seeing her exact revenge is just as horrific, if not more so. An avenging angel made flesh, Mara is riveting. Craig is convincing as an everyman-type, but both characters ultimately bloom when they finally team up to solve the Vanger mystery. They have a lot of information to cut through, and so do the audience.

Fincher and Zaillian may have kept the more horrific elements of Larsson’s story, but there’s always a feeling throughout Dragon Tattoo that they could have done some more fine-tuning on the script. Fincher has infamously wrangled with the studio over the length of Dragon Tattoo’s final cut, and the finished product (all 157 minutes of it) ends up suffering from the same overload of information that dogged the Swedish version. The depth of Zaillian’s overly-reverential script means there’s just about enough time to give every character his/her due. Fincher wanted a longer cut, but this could have rendered Dragon Tattoo a potential bore. On the other hand, we await a director’s cut that doesn’t reduce the likes of Goran Visnjic (as Lisbeth’s boss) or Embeth Davidtz (as Blomqvist’s sister) to cameos. What we do get, however, is a memorable whodunnit (think Agatha Christie with added torture and nipple piercings) which only really differs from the previous version in its punchier visuals and the change of language. Fans of the book now have two well-acted versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to choose from; either will suffice, since there’s so little difference between the two. Like the Swedish version, Fincher’s Girl is complex, imperfect (the final act, with a changed ending stretches patience.) and displays a uncompromising gusto, the sort that has been missing from mainstream Hollywood since the late 1970s. If a renaissance in R-rated mainstream drama is beginning in Hollywood, it’s off to a solid, though flawed, start.

Review: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Director: Brad Bird

****

The Mission: Impossible franchise was never more than a pretender to James Bond’s position as the leading purveyor of sexy espionage punctuated by girls, stunts and exotic locales. The first and third films were solid if functional entertainments, while the second one is best forgotten. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol feels like the M:I film we’ve been waiting for. There are the girls, the stunts and the globetrotting, but there’s also an intriguing plot and enough risk to make this Mission worth accepting.

Brad Bird is a fine director of animation, having brought us The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Thus, it was quite a surprise when he came on as director of Ghost Protocol. Sure, action scenes can seem quite slapstick, and most characters get less development than those comedy anvils that tend to squash the like of Wile E .Coyote into a pancake, but could this really justify his taking the helms of a major franchise as his live action debut. From the opening jailbreak scene, the answer is a resounding “Hell yeah!” Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, the world’s favourite punchline) is in a Russian prison, but is helped flee by IMF teammate Carter (Paula Patton, the resident curves) and Benji (Simon Pegg, your comic relief for the evening). Hunt’s behind bars for reasons that are not immediately clear, but then again this is a Mission: Impossible film; are we really concerned about the plot? Only if it gets us into interesting places for stunts and general mayhem. For example, after the jailbreak we see Hunt and Benji impersonating Russian generals and entering the Kremlin. On the surface, they’re there to stop Michael Nyqvist’s renegade Russian warmonger stealing nuclear missile launch codes, but really they’re there to perform ridiculous crowd-pleasing stunts. Ghost Protocol delivers the thrills and spills in spades. A central confrontation occurs in the world’s tallest free-standing building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Of course, both audience and filmmakers know that it happens that way just so we can see Cruise climb up and abseil down the building in a vertigo-inducing piece of bravado that will elicit whoops and cheers from audiences. The tension of such scenes is increased when we know the IMF team are without backup after the US government pins the botched Kremlin mission and subsequent explosion on them (the ‘Ghost Protocol’ of the title); there’s also a new arrival to the team, Jeremy Renner’s defence analyst/covert agent. Renner’s star is on the rise, but Cruise is still the leading man here, performing his own stunts with a smirk and aplomb. It’s that superstar quality that is so rare in Hollywood today.

The script by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec throws in a few nods at character and empathy (where’s Hunt’s wife from the last movie? What’s the real deal with Renner’s agent?), but for the most part they keep our protagonists jetting from place to place, rarely stopping for breath (the final act in Mumbai will frequently send you to the edge of your seat!). Cruise may be struggling to keep his leading man status in place, but if he learns to keep his mouth shut and keep making the likes of Ghost Protocol, he’ll do just fine. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a supreme cut of ‘switch-brain-to neutral’ flavoured entertainment.

Review: Another Earth (2011)

Director: Mike Cahill

**

Having confidence in your film is one thing, and it’s clear that director Mike Cahill has confidence to spare in his debut feature Another Earth. It’s another thing to see that confidence is utterly misplaced, as Another Earth is guilty of delivering far less than its intriguing trailer or beautiful posters promise.

At the centre of Another Earth is, well, another Earth! Specifically, it’s a replica of Earth (imaginatively named Earth 2) that appears in the sky one night, out of nowhere. Your first question is either “How is that possible?” or “Didn’t something similar happen in Melancholia?” The latter can be answered in the affirmative but, as in that depressing snoozefest, this replica Earth just shouldn’t be. For a flick that wears its down-n-dirty grounded indie credentials on its sleeve, Another Earth couldn’t give two hoots about such things as science or logic. We learn that this planet is supposed to be populated by duplicates of every person on this Earth. Again, no rhyme or reason, just shut up and accept it like a good little audience.

Earth 2 first appears on the same night as the graduation celebrations for Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling). She drives home after a drunken evening and ends up causing a car accident that kills the wife and son of university academic John Burroughs (William Mapother), and puts him in a coma for months. Rhoda goes to jail and emerges four years later, just as NASA scientists prepare for first audio contact with Earth 2. She gets a menial cleaning job whilst trying to rebuild her life, but the guilt of the accident constantly gnaws at her. She decides to reveal herself to Burroughs, but bottles it and offers cleaning services for the now-destitute academic. Meanwhile, Earth 2 hovers above like the giant forehead-slapping MacGuffin that it is. Rhoda wants another shot at life, and a competition for a place on the first space-flight to Earth 2 is her chance. Another Earth is preoccupied with the idea of second chances. Yet, when we see her and Burrogh’s relationship developing whilst he remains unaware of what she did, all the talk about Earth 2 starts to seem silly. Another Earth feels like two interesting films smashed together to make an uninteresting whole. The story between Rhoda and Burroughs could have made for a very compelling drama on its own, whilst the discovery of a second Earth could have resulted in something akin to Melancholia on happy pills. Instead, we get a muddled and underdeveloped mess. Cahill and Marling’s script plays down the sci-fi element, either as a willful act of pretentiousness or in the knowledge they’d shoot on a shoestring (or probably a combination of both factors). The lo-fi approach extends to Cahill’s direction and camerawork, which reeks of indie smugness. The score by Fall On Your Sword is over-intrusive, whilst the attempts at depth and mysticism grate (Rhoda’s co-worker is a blind Indian wise man. Er, deep?) The only saving graces are Marling’s and Mapother’s performances, which are heartfelt and involving enough to see you through the film’s choppier elements. However, their relationship is based around the arrival of Earth 2 and, considering how often we actually forget it’s even there, makes their plotline feel like it’s operating without a context. Had Cahill removed the sci-fi altogether, this could have been interesting and emotionally rewarding. As it is, Another Earth is an infuriatingly smug flick, reaching way above its station to the point of near intolerability.

Review: My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Director: Simon Curtis

***

In life, as in death, Marilyn Monroe was an enigma. It’s clear that hers was an existence micromanaged to the finest detail, which was fascinating to the general public but infuriating to those who had to work with her. At one point in My Week With Marilyn, Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) dismisses her ‘little girl lost’ routine, speculating that “Marilyn knows exactly what she wants!” Whether this is true or not, the same cannot be said for My Week With Marilyn; it flirts with being both true story and light romp, but comes across as a strange melange of the two.

1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, though a neat little romp, is hardly the finest entry on either Monroe’s or Olivier’s resumés (My Week With Marilyn acknowledges this fact in its coda). As we learn, Olivier went about it as the frothy comedy it was, but Marilyn (played here by Michelle Williams) was yearning to be taken seriously as an actress, egged on as such by her Method coach Paula Strassberg (Zoë Wanamaker) and her producing partner Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper, doing his best Mark Ruffalo impression). This pressure seemed only to increase Monroe’s self-doubt and paranoia, leading to delays in the shooting schedule and tempers (mostly Olivier’s) flaring. Between her ambitions, her mood swings and her loveless marriage to new hubby Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), Williams captures the cracking façade of Monroe beautifully. Behind the flirty winks and pouty lips lies a paranoid little pill-popper in desperate need of comforting. This could easily have become a spoiled brat of a character, but Williams does justice to Monroe with a gutsy performance. The only person Marilyn seems able to reveal the real Norma Jean to is the third assistant director, the fresh-faced Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). According to the real Clark’s diaries (on which the script is based), Marilyn was attracted to his kind heart and innocence, and it is this goodness that renders Clark such a bland character. Redmayne has one of those eerily young faces that you can imagine him still having into his fifties, and the combination of fresh face and innocence of character make Clark an unmemorable lead. Indeed, the younger members of the main cast (Redmayne and Emma Watson, in her first feature-length role post-Harry Potter) seem lightweight compared to other cast members with smaller roles. Scott, Julia Ormond (as Vivien Leigh) and Dame Judie Dench (as Dame Sybil Thorndike) do much with small roles though others, like Simon Russell Beale, Toby Jones and Derek Jacobi, are wasted on bit parts. Williams may get all the plaudits, but Branagh deserves mention also, as he gets beyond Olivier’s outer pretentiousness to hints of self-deprecation.

It is Branagh’s and Williams’ performances that anchor MWWM. Be assured; it is a film in need of an anchor, as neither director Simon Curtis (TV’s Cranford) or writer Adrian Hodges knows what to make of the material. It veers between sunny escapism (Marilyn and Colin’s day-trip to Windsor, for example) and deathly serious drama (Marilyn’s dependence on pills), and the whole exploit rarely manages to marry the two together effectively. The scenes may work separately, but together they’re rather awkward. MWWM boasts enough good performances and classy visuals to appease the nostalgic in all of us. Like The Prince and the Showgirl, My Week With Marilyn is rarely less than watchable, but chances are director and stars will go on to better things.

Review: Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

**

Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was a pioneer of early cinema, combining special effects and magnificent sets with fantastical narratives to make films that hypnotized audiences on original release, and that still boast a charm that has stood the test of time to today (for proof, click here). Martin Scorsese aims to recreate that charm in Hugo, a combination of heartfelt homage and children’s adventure. As the former, it works. As the latter, it’s intermittently engaging but mostly annoying, misplacing charm and replacing it with over-eagerness. Oh, and it’s in 3D, of which Marty is now a big fan. Has the decline of Western civilization begun?

Brian Selznick’s award-winning book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ is a hybrid of novel and picture book; the narrative is equally dependent on both. Selznick interwove details of the life of the older Méliès with the story of a boy named Hugo Cabret who lives in the walls of Gare de Montparnasse in Paris, where a penniless Méliès owns a toy stall. Hugo is played by Asa Butterfield who, along with his turn in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, has confirmed himself as Elijah Wood’s heir apparent, with his saucer-like blue eyes and constant look of astonishment. His orphaned Hugo (Jude Law plays Pop Cabret, and dies about two minutes after first coming onscreen) maintains the clocks at Montparnasse and constantly evades the eyeline of the station inspector (an immensely irritating Sacha Baron Cohen) and his trusty rottweiler. One day, Méliès catches Hugo stealing from his stall, and confiscates a notebook of Hugo’s as punishment. The notebook contains details of an automaton (wind-up figure) that Hugo and his father were fixing when Pop Cabret died. Hugo tries to get his notebook back with the help of Méliès’ ward Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). For the first hour of Hugo, that’s pretty much all the plot there is. Scriptwriter John Logan (who co-wrote Gladiator and wrote the script for Scorsese’s The Aviator) indulges the more fanciful elements of Selznick’s novel, and often just gives up on the plot altogether. Thus, we are introduced into such characters as Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) the station newsagent, Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour) the café owner and Lisette (Emily Mortimer) the florist. All these characters serve little-to-no purpose except to distract from the plot and add some humour to the potentially drab storyline. Frick and Emilie playfully flirt, as do Lisette and the inspector, but who cares? They may be intended as references to Méliès own works, but they are merely annoying. Scorsese and Logan attempt to replace the charm that Méliès’ films conjured with bucketloads of whimsy, including Christopher Lee as the only character in all of Paris to have a French accent! Meanwhile, Isabelle is a gratingly precocious little madam, and the automaton that she and Hugo try to fix looks decidedly creepy. The biggest flaw, however, are the effects. They’re not especially bad but, considering the simplicity of Méliès’ effects and stories, it’s disheartening to find an old pro like Scorsese toying around with huge CG sets and set-pieces. With designs that look like Tim Burton on a off-day, it feels like the spirit of Méliès’ oeuvre is being smothered by computerized pixels, and the addition of 3D technology is the icing on a particularly bitter cake.

Once Hugo and Isabelle discover Méliès’ past, and wonder why he’s trying to escape it, the film kicks up a notch as the children, with the help of film academic Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), proceed to reveal the greatness of Méliès’ films, not least to Méliès himself. Flashbacks to Méliès’ studio and the filming of his greatest work, A Trip To The Moon, are the best part of Hugo. Here, the imagination and spirit of ‘Papa Georges’ is revealed in full as he, his actress wife (Helen McCrory) and his crew attempt to make movie magic. Kingsley makes for a nicely bitter Georges, but he and Butterfield are working against a pile of overly-sugary dialogue and OTT effects. Hugo’s heart is in the right place, but there’s far too much going on at too slow a pace for us to care. Scorsese could probably have made a compelling and worthy documentary about Méliès (he already made one about George Harrison this year, and it is highly recommended); as tributes go, Hugo is all (misplaced) energy and no restraint.

Review: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Director: Terence Davies

****

Terence Davies, as a director, is devoted to classic filmmaking techniques, even though he uses them to tell very affecting stories that are surprisingly resonant. The Deep Blue Sea opens on the façade of a house in London in 1950. The camera cranes up slowly and elegantly to a first floor window where Hester (Rachel Weisz) stands. She draws the curtains, and then proceeds to open the gas on the fireplace and attempt suicide. A classy sweep gives way to a bitter pill; suicide isn’t a modern phenomenon, and contrasting the unconscious Hester to the creak of the floors and flowery wallpaper may jar with some. Mr. Davies, you have our attention.

Davies’ previous works, whether the bittersweet Distant Voices, Still Lives or the love-letter documentary Of Time And The City, are unashamedly bathed in nostalgia, both in their technique and their setting. Davies was only five in 1950, and he found himself growing up in a strange time in which Britain struggled to define itself. Still scarred by the war, Britain found itself torn between the crippling memories (and debts) of the past, and the enthusiasm of youth for the future. Such is the dilemma Hester faces. Her marriage to Sir William Colyer (Simon Russell Beale) is comfortable and affectionate, if lacking in excitement. The enthusiastic and charming air force pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) is everything William is not: young and devil-may-care, if also hot-headed and temperamental. It’s very familiar territory, not least because Terence Rattigan’s source play has been filmed numerous times previously. However, Davies (both writer and director) and his cast know better than to let this well-written piece descend into déjà-vu. Everyone here is playing to their strengths. Weisz brings the appropriate mix of sensuality and muted elegance to Hester, which grows into a weighed-down sense of regret as events unfold. When we meet her first, she has already separated from William and moved into Freddie’s little flat. As events collude against her, Hester’s regret increases. Regret is the backbone of The Deep Blue Sea, and it’s painted all over Weisz’s pained expressions. Hiddleston flits from giddy to fiery temper with shocking ease and Beale underplays everything to the point where his speech veers on a comforting whisper. Very different men, but both with their advantages and their problems.

Cigarette smoke creates a nostalgic haze in every frame, as Davies’ attention to detail comes to the fore. Despite only a handful of locations, The Deep Blue Sea never feels artificial. Davies nimbly negotiates Rattigan’s prose from stage to screen, avoiding most every pitfall that could leave it feeling staged. Also in evidence is Davies’ canny ear for a good tune; Barber’s ‘Andante’ from his Violin Concerto becomes a notable leitmotif. Like that particular piece of music, The Deep Blue Sea is full of heart, but is never overwhelming or bombastic. It’s a patient and measured bit of elegant filmmaking; it’s proof that passion need not be visceral or angry to make an impact.