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Review – Rock of Ages (2012)

Rock of Ages gave me goosebumps.

I know, right? How stupid is that? Why would a silly little musical with rock songs from the 80s produce goosebumps in anyone? It happened more than once, too. At first, I tried to rationalize it by thinking “Well, it is a bit chilly in this theater, so it has to be because of that.” But the goosebumps returned, and only during some of the film’s many song numbers. Cold air wouldn’t abide by such a pattern, so the goosebumps had to be genuine.

Maybe it’s not so strange, though. I do love the music this movie indulges in, though only really from looking at it in the rear-view mirror. I was born in the early 80s, but I didn’t start caring about music until the mid-90s. By that time, bands like Def Leppard, Journey, and Twisted Sister were long gone from the pop culture spotlight. My love for their music would grow later on. This fondness thus stems from retro rather than genuine nostalgia, I guess you could say. Through hindsight, only the good parts of the 80s hair metal culture has remained in the public consciousness for people like me to latch on to. I don’t much care about the nasty excess and shallowness of the era. I do care about the shallow things, though: the catchy songs and the colorful aesthetics.

This is a mindset that Rock of Ages deliberately taps into. Everything about this movie is glitzy and polished. The songs aren’t so much the best of the era as the Greatest Hits thereof. Most of the singing is clean and lacking in texture – due to the slight autotuning, no doubt. Oh, the movie toys with “darker” elements in its plot, but it’s of little substance. Rock of Ages is all about celebrating the shallow things.

Like all jukebox musicals, the story is built around the lyrics of the songs selected. The year is 1987. Small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a singer. She meets Drew (Diego Boneta), an aspiring rock musician who works at the fabled Bourbon Room club. She too gets a job there as a waitress, and the two fall in love. Then PROBLEMS and OBSTACLES arise, as they tend to do. Dennis (Alec Baldwin), the club’s owner, has trouble making ends meet. He hopes that big-time rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) will revitalize business with a planned gig there, but Stacee is notoriously unreliable. There’s also the right-wing wife-of-a-mayor Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose main goal in life is to rid the city of sinful rock & roll completely.

The story is, to put it bluntly, weak. Clichéed developments run rampant everywhere, and there’s little about the going-ons that could be described as compelling even if one was feeling charitable. It could be easy to describe this as an inherent problem of the subgenre, but that would be to take the easy way out. Others have dabbled with the format and at least shown better intentions, if not necessarily results. Mamma Mia may have been a dud of a movie, but at least it presented a clearly defined mystery (“Which of these tree men is Amanda Seyfried‘s daddy?”) as its hook. Or you could look at Beatles musical Across the Universe, which while following a familiar formula still presents its story in an emotionally effective way. Compared to both these films, the plot of Rock of Ages is thin air. We can reasonably guess how things are going to turn out, and even if we couldn’t, we wouldn’t care.

Luckily for Rock of Ages, musicals can succeed in spite of lazy storytelling as long as the song numbers are good. The ones in this film are certainly passable. Yeah, I could have done with more of a raw edge to some of them, and more esoteric song choices would have been welcome, but there is a lot of joy and energy to everything. Gleeful indulgence in rock music is something I always find thrilling, and a club full of people singing along to a performance can be a thing of beauty. Whether it’s Boneta detailing his rock star dreams through “Jukebox Hero”, a rendition of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” by two unlikely suspects, or any of Tom Cruise’s big stage performances, I found myself with a big smile on my face more than I’d have expected. Not everything is a hit, though. A recurring problem is songs being shortened and hobbled, and others being mashed together into medleys that don’t quite serve their purpose. Then there are some numbers that are just plain bad. Chief amongst them would be Zeta-Jones’ performance of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, complete with awkward kicking choreography that had me cringing.

But the big saving grace of the film is Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx. He has never played a character quite like this one. Stacee is a blend of any number of rock band lead singers; there’s definitely traces of Axl Rose, David Lee Roth and Jim Morrison in the mix. He’s a diva, self-indulgent, hooked on booze and sex to the point where they have ceased being pleasure. He’s weary of a life he has become addicted to, which manifests itself in amusing ways. In one scene he looks eyes with someone important from across the room and makes his way over for what’s sure to be a heart-felt conversation, only to be sidetracked by a random groupie whom he starts making out with. Stacee just looks at his important someone with a semi-apologetic glance. “Sorry, can’t help it. This is who I am. Stacee fucking Jaxx.” There are moments in the film where Cruise is downright mesmerizing, even when the actual events are so ballsy and preposterous to raise many an eyebrow (watch out when “I Want To Know What Love Is” starts playing.) Guy Lodge at In Contention has written a great piece on this performance, and he articulates things much better than I could hope to. I’ll just note that this might well be my favorite performance of the year so far, and probably Cruise’s best work since Magnolia, or at least Collateral.

Compared to him, however, all the other actors fade entirely. Young leads Hough and Boneta are good singers, but they lack chemistry for their required romance. I don’t foresee this film launching either’s career onto the next level. The rest of the cast are filled with familiar names, but with so many actors, there’s not enough room for any to shine. That they all play thin clichées doesn’t helpt either. Other than those already mentioned, we also find Paul Giamatti as Slimy Manager, Mary J. Blige as Kind-Hearted Strip Club Owner, Malin Åkerman as Introspection-Inducing Reporter, and Russel Brand as… well, as Russel Brand, really. Seeing these names and characters, you can probably work out roughly what to expect of the performances. Other than Cruise, none of the actors in the film are likely to surprise you.

If I had to summarize Rock of Ages with one word, it would be “uneven”. There are passages of the film where the songs are really good, the comedy hits its marks, and the hum-drum plot is kept unobtrusive. Then there are other stretches where everything is just groan-inducing. There’s also some degree of filler here, which leads to a bloated running time of over 2 hours. Still, the overall impression I was left with at the end was a mildly positive one, though I fully recognize that this is not a film for everyone. If you despise musicals, Rock of Ages won’t change your mind. If you’re not a fan of 80s rock, there’s little reason to bother either as the main appeal of the film will be lost on you. Not even Tom Cruise’s amazing performance is enough to make this one a must-see. But if you’re like me and love musicals, are fascinated by Tom Cruise, and can’t get enough of Bon Jovi and Poison, you’re likely to find something to like here.

Score: 3/5

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Posted by on 27 June, 2012 in Reviews

 

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Review – Prometheus (2012)

I wasn’t keeping up with all the advertising for Prometheus that arrived before its release. I saw a trailer for it at cinema once, and a friend insisted that I just had to see this one clip of Guy Pearce giving a speech. Neither told me a whole lot. I skipped the rest of all the viral marketing stuff, for the usual reasons. I went in knowing precious little about this movie, and having now seen it, I’m convinced this was the right course of action. There is nothing to be gained by having knowledge of a film where the lack of knowledge plays such an integral part.

Comparisons between Prometheus and Alien are inevitable. Prometheus was first conceived to be a prequel installment in the Alien saga, but then reports came in that no, it wouldn’t be, but it would be like an “embryo” to Alien. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is between those two phrasings, but whatever. Even so, Prometheus is indeed a sci-fi movie made by Alien director Ridley Scott. It isn’t Alien, but there are times where it’s certainly trying to be. Not even counting certain broad strokes in the plot department, there are enough blatant references and callbacks throughout the film that anyone who has seen Alien before will be reminded of it, even if they have no prior knowledge of who directed it.

Set in the end of the 21st century, a science expedition from Earth searching for the origin of mankind arrives at a distant planet. Then stuff happens. How’s that for a spoiler-free plot synopsis? No, you don’t want to know anything more.

There is a lot of things I like about Prometheus, and the part that has really stuck with me these 1.5 days since I saw it is the acting. Two performances in particular stand out. The most immediately striking is that of Michael Fassbender in the role of the android David. Mannered, polite, efficient, and with movements that are just a tad off for a human being. And yet there are depths to the character, both of intent and of emotion. The other strong performance is that of Noomi Rapace, of Millenium trilogy fame. I had been a bit concerned about the Swedish actress’ transition to Hollywood; she did okay in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, but her character was so flat and unnecessary that she might as well not have been in it at all. Not the kind of thing to jump-start a new phase in one’s career. Her Prometheus performance is just what the doctor ordered, however. She plays Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist whose religious beliefs gives her added incentive to take part in the expedition. Particularly in the second half of the movie, Rapace shows a great affinity for the action genre with teriffic sustained power. Here is where her performance rivals her star-making one as Lisbeth Salander, and if this doesn’t lead to more big roles for her, I don’t know what will. That she does this without her character coming off as merely Ellen Ripley 2.0 is all the more impressive.

Without going into spoiler-y specifics, there are scenes in this film that I found almost spellbinding in their own ways. Some parts are pure visual spectacle to ooh and aah at. Others made me clench my teeth in suspense. Above all else, however, it’s the mysterious nature of everything that really got to me. There are times where Prometheus feels really nightmarish in a way, where you’re tossed from one situation to the next and aren’t sure what’s really going on at all. Highly effective stuff, and this is where I’m glad I stayed away from most of the promotional material. It felt like anything could happen. The film also doesn’t shy away from presenting some interesting thematic questions. Why is there this need for these people to find out who their creators are? What does the human-created android think about this? It all adds further weight to the more visceral moments of the movie.

Prometheus isn’t flawless, however. The first third or so of the film is a bit lacking. A movie like this needs a set-up phase to explain some of its key concepts and introduce its characters, but this one doesn’t quite keep things as interesting as one might hope. Compare this to Alien, where a similar portion keeps piling on a sense of foreboding dread more effectively. Another issues I had was with some of the dialogue, which feels stilted and awkward. I’m not ruling out that this was intentional – something to show the difference between our time and the future – but it’s still more distracting than immersive.

The dialogue problem is reasonably easy to look past. But had its first act been stronger, I wouldn’t hesitate to put Prometheus up there with the original Alien film in terms of personal enjoyment. As it is, it doesn’t quite measure up. The atmosphere isn’t quite as thick, and while the plot engages the mind to a better extent, it lacks something of Alien’s sheer gutsiness.

That said, it puts in a more than admirable effort. After all, “not as good as Alien” doesn’t say a whole lot considering what a great film that one is, and I wouldn’t even be comparing the two if Scott didn’t make it clear that he wanted there to be connection between the two. Standing on its own to legs, Prometheus is a thrilling and captivating sci-fi flick, and one well worth seeing in theater to get the full scope of what it wants to show you.

Score: 4/5

A closing note on the 3D: Don’t bother with it. There is a scene or two where it really adds something to the movie, but for the most part, it’s neither here nor there. I wouldn’t shell out the extra cash for it.

 
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Posted by on 4 June, 2012 in Reviews

 

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Rewatch Review – No Country for Old Men (2007)

WARNING: This review contains plenty of spoilers. Proceed at own risk.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 27 April, 2012 in Reviews, Rewatch Reviews

 

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Review – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It seems difficult to review a James Bond movie in a vacuum. There always have to be comparisons to previous and future installments. What does it do differently? What’s the same? How’s this Bond actor compared to the others? As such, it seems relevant to point out that I’m not overly familiar with the franchise. I watched some Bond films back when I was younger, but I don’t remember much of them, save for GoldenEye though admittedly more due to the Nintendo 64 game than the film itself. Since my cinematic awakening a few years ago, I have revisited GoldenEye and seen Casino Royale (the recent one), Octopussy and Live and Let Die for (I think) the first time. Casino Royale is my favorite of these, in large parts due to its effort to humanize Bond. I have little love for the Moore films and their focus on comedy. I have little memory of seeing any of the Sean Connery films. There. That’s my prior experience with Bond.

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond (George Lazenby) isn’t immediately tasked with saving the world. Instead, the plot focuses on his relationship with Tracy (Diana Rigg), a rebellious woman whom Bond saves from a suicide attempt in the opening scene of the film. After a few more encounters with her, he is contacted by her father Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), head of a Corsican crime syndicate. Draco wants Bond to keep romancing Tracy in order to provide stability and control to her tumultuous life. Reluctant at first, Bond eventually agrees when he in exchange is promised information that might lead him to the whereabouts of his arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas). Blofeld is eventually revealed to have another sinister plan in the making, this time determined to blackmail the world with the threat of a sterility virus that could knock out entire species of plants and animals.

Barring the non-canon Casino Royale from 1967, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first James Bond film not to have Sean Connery in the role of 007. Reviews at the time generally weren’t kind to Lazenby’s effort here compared to the original Bond. I’m coming from the opposite direction and have recently watched Roger Moore in the role, and I think Lazenby does an acceptable job. His Bond is not quite as charming as other portrayals of the character, but he brings an effective vulnerability to the part. He’s not infallible. Lazenby handles the action scenes particularly well. It’s fun to watch him fight, while he also makes sure to convey a sense of danger to the proceedings. Lazenby originally signed on for seven films, but following the advice of his agent, he announced during shooting that this would be his only Bond movie. A shame, as while there is some stiffness to his acting, there’s enough promise here to make me believe he would have grown into the role with time.

The brunt of the movie is set in and near a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, where 007 infiltrates Blofeld’s secret base. This setting allows for a number of exciting action scenes. Skis, avalanches, cable cars and bob sleighs all come into play, and there’s also a pretty great chase sequence at a stock car race. The director, Peter Hunt, had worked as editor on the previous five Bond films, and this experience pays off here as the action is fast, impactful and exciting to behold. Rather than relying on gadgets and trickery, Bond here has to use his physicality instead. Barring some obvious bluescreen work at times, most of the action scenes stuff would hold up well in modern films.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is noteworthy for having a Bond girl that Bond actually falls in love with, to the point where he’s prepared to abandon his life as a secret agent for her. This romance is perhaps not handled as well as it could have been. We get a montage as he and Tracy start dating, but there’s not much real spark there. Bond is back to his womanizing ways soon after. Eventually there is realization and declaration of love, and while this works nicely, it would have been better had there been a bit more groundwork laid. Just a shot of Bond’s troubled face after one of his conquests to show the effect that Tracy has had on him would have gone a long way. No matter. I bought into the relationship as the film reached its climax, and the emotional payoff is certainly there at the teriffic ending.

I really enjoyed this movie. Much like Casino Royale, it manages to make James Bond a real human character rather than just an invincible super agent. The villains are effective and memorable, both Savalas’ Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat). I was entertained throughout, and the ending really made me want to find out what would happen to 007 next. This is something neither of the Roger Moore films I’ve seen recently has managed. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ranks among my favorite Bond movies seen so far.

Score: 4/5

 
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Posted by on 12 April, 2012 in Reviews

 

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Review – 2:37 (2006)

Australian ensemble film 2:37 follows a number of teenage students during a day at school. Right from the start, we know something bad happens as we see blood seeping out from under a locked bathroom door. Someone is seriously hurt. Suicide? We suspect as much. What we don’t know is who the blood is coming from. The film then goes back to the beginning of the day as we try to piece together the clues to find out what will happen.

There’s no shortage of likely candidates for self-harm, as all the students we follow have their problems to deal with. Macho jock Luke (Sam Harris) seems care-free enough, but he’s a bully and may be compensating for insecurities. His girlfriend Sarah (Marni Spillane) is obsessed with being in love and has developed an eating disorder. There’s Steven (Charles Baird), constantly teased for his medical conditions that have given him a pronounced limp and partial incontinence. There’s Sean (Joel Mackenzie), resident pothead, outsider and struggling homosexual. Marcus (Frank Sweet) is pressured by his father to always excel at everything he does and shows signs of cracking. And then we have the one person we know isn’t the victim: Marcus’ sister Melody (Teresa Palmer), who’s the one to first spot the blood at the beginning of the movie. Something is not right with her either, though the full extent of it isn’t revealed until later on.

2:37 is the first and so far only film made by Murali K. Thalluri, who was only 22 years old when he completed it. As a debut project, the film shows potential and good intentions. There are problems in the execution, however, and while I don’t presume to know Thalluri, many of them seem to stem from a lack of confidence in his own story. There are gimmicks used throughout the film that serve as little but distractions. The movie isn’t entirely chronological, instead opting for a Memento-ish approach at times by having Scene A followed by Scene B, which shows the events immediately leading up to Scene A. Which is a fine method of creating intrigue, but it doesn’t work here because there are no hooks. It’s the difference between making the audience go “Oh, so that is how they got here”, and making them go “Huh? Okay, so now they’re here?”

Another puzzling inclusion are the numerous segments in black & white where the various students in close-up talk about their lives and thoughts. I don’t see what these are supposed to represent. The characters aren’t speaking to us, because they’re looking off to the side as if being interviewed on a TV show. But the context and what is said doesn’t indicate that they’re actual interviews either. Are they inner monologues? No, because they’re speaking as if revealing past information to the listener, which doesn’t make sense when speaking to themselves. So just what are these segments? I don’t know. A cynic might say it’s laziness. “Show, don’t tell” being ignored. Having recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, I know there is great beauty and mystery to be found in the human face on film. More experienced actors might have been able to provide nuances and intrigue through these scenes no matter what the reasoning for them were. Alas, such is not the case here.

Watching 2:37, my mind often wandered to Gus Van Sant‘s Elephant. Both films deal with an ordinary school day ending in tragedy, and both shift focus between various characters. Much like Elephant, 2:37 employs plenty of long uninterrupted takes showing students walking through the school. Useful for making the setting come alive and feel like a familiar place, but it worked better in Van Sant’s film due to that one’s structure: a normal and uneventful day punctuated by horror to jerk you right out of the lull. In 2:37, we’re in dysfunction junction all the way through, and there’s little reason to make the day feel normal. This could have been off-set by having a character or two who weren’t facing dire issues that culminate on this one day, but there’s no such thing to be had. The impression I got was that everyone in the entire school had earth-shattering problems.

But for all its shortcomings, I find it hard to really hate 2:37. While the characters aren’t terrible interesting, I still found myself caught up in their struggles from time to time, soap opera-ish as they may be. The eventual mysterious happening in the bathroom never left my mind, and Thalluri is smart in setting a number of scenes in there throughout the day. Every time someone enters, I wonder if this is when it’s going to happen. The intrigue is always there, and it’s resolved in a powerful and effective climax. More importantly, the underlying message of the movie is an important one. I’d say this would make the film good viewing for teenagers, although the its graphic scenes of sex and/or violence probably prohibits that.

I can’t give the film that high a score; the flaws in the structure are too numerous and recurring, the acting doesn’t impress, and the tone is uneven. But it’s a movie I would like to have liked, which is a reaction many films fail to instill in me. I hope Thalluri makes more films in the future, so that I may one day look back at this one as the uneasy first steps of a good career. The potential is present.

Score: 2/5

 
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Posted by on 8 March, 2012 in Reviews

 

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Review – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

I often think about genre biases. While I freely admit that they play a large part in my numerical ratings – which are highly subjective to begin with – I wonder how much of it is in play for people in general. It’s no secret that dramas tend to be held in higher regard than most types of film by many. Comedy, action, horror, and other genres can be well-liked too, of course, but it seems rarer for these types of films to reach the same levels of accolade as dramas often do. This of course begs the question: Shouldn’t all films be judged for what they are? Or are there some genres that are inherently “better” than others? If not, why haven’t there been any torture porn movies that have received rave critical reviews? Shouldn’t those too be “judged for what they are”? I don’t have any answers to these questions.

But let’s talk action, as well as the fascinating subject of review scores. How many action films have I given 5/5 to over the years? 10 or so, give or take a few depending on how generous you are with genre classifications. This is a far lower number than the corresponding one for dramas or comedies – though most comedies I love tend to be of the comedy-drama subset. So it’s rare-ish for an action film to well and truly win me over. Does this mean I’m biased against them?

Whether I am or not, I love it when a film like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol comes along. It’s a helpful reminder that I can love a film even if it doesn’t have anything special to say, as long as it’s just really entertaining. And Ghost Protocol is nothing if not entertaining. Truly great action films may be rare in my book, but when they do come along, they become all the more remarkable.

So, the movie. For the fourth time, Tom Cruise steps into the role of IMF agent Ethan Hunt. He’s in a Russian prison as the film starts (for concealed reasons), but is soon broken out of there by co-workers Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg). Soon enough they’re presented with a mission to infiltrate Kremlin and get their hands on some data files. This is the start of a chain of events that will pit the team – along with analyst and newcomer Brandt (Jeremy Renner) – against a radical nuclear strategist (Michael Nyqvist of Millenium trilogy fame). The villain’s goal: to start a nuclear war that will force humanity to grow stronger. The crux is that Ethan and the others, after some plot developments, find themselves without support from the rest of their agency. The fate of the world rests solely on their shoulders.

Nobody sticks around in the director’s chair in the Mission: Impossible franchise; the previous three films were directed by Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J. J. Abrams respectively. For Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird has taken the helm, thereby making his live action debut after many years’ work with animation. His efforts as a director in that artform include The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Watching Ghost Protocol, the fact that the man has never made a live action movie before is hard to believe. There is an assuredness present throughout this film. The action is clear and thrilling, the scenery beautifully captured, and the camera work fresh and inspired.

Everything in this movie just works so seamlessly. The pacing is excellent throughout, moving swiftly from scene to scene with enough exposition to make the plot meaningful but not so much that the film runs the risk of losing steam. The set pieces are all spectacular, with the stand-out being the much-talked about sequence where Ethan has to scale the exterior of Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. This part lives up to all the hype you may have heard, with plentiful gasps and jaw-dropping moments. I get the feeling that Bird’s past in animation worked to his favor when shooting this, as it’s something that could be taken straight from The Incredibles or some other Pixar film. Seeing it unfold in live action is all the more thrilling, though. Don’t hold off on this one for the DVD release; the Dubai part alone makes the film well worth seeing on the big screen.

Everyone on the acting-side deliver satisfactory performances. Cruise thrives in roles like these, as he has enough charm to make them fun even when the script doesn’t necessarily call for it. Nyqvist as the main antagonist feels intriguing, following in the footsteps of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III as a villain who might not look all that imposing physically but who through his actions comes off as a formidable threat regardless. Patton and Renner are rookies to the franchise and manage to slide right in. The former’s character perhaps feels a bit underdeveloped and is at a point or two reduced to eye-candy, but the actress makes the most of what she’s given and more than holds her own with some fiery scenes. Renner seems to be groomed to eventually take over as leading man for the franchise. If Ghost Protocol is any indication, this will be a fine choice. But a special gold star goes out to Simon Pegg, whose role from the third movies has been expanded upon as Benji is now a full-fledged field agent. He serves as the comic relief for the most part and reminds us that this is no easy task, as rarely has this type of character worked so well before. There’s plenty of screen time for him here, and every time he’s shown there’s laughter to be had. Truly one of the most gifted comedians the world of film has to offer today.

Ghost Protocol is, simply put, a damn fine action film. There’s enough hi-tech gadgets and wise-cracking to evoke thoughts of James Bond at times, and the action scenes are as exciting as they come. Slick, stylish, and a little silly every now and then. It is perhaps not the most ground-breaking film out there – although that Dubai scene is one-of-a-kind – but every aspect of it is polished and honed to… not perfection, but something approximating it. I have nothing major to complain about. Hopefully, you won’t either. Go see this film now. You deserve it.

Score: 5/5

 
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Posted by on 14 February, 2012 in Reviews

 

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Review – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

David Fincher has in the past shown that he is a master of the modern thriller, and his films have often been soaked with tangible atmosphere. Seven was so filthy and grim that I felt as though I would never be clean again. The same goes for Fight Club, where further ambience was added by it being viewed by a protagonist whose mind was frayed by insomnia. The Game played the paranoia card, putting me right in there with Michael Douglas‘ character, having me wonder where the danger is and whether it was real or just, in fact, part of the game. The more subdued Zodiac concerned itself more with the mystery of the murders, constantly egging me on and telling me there was more beneath the surface, a lurking darkness threatening to destroy the lives of the people investigating it from both the outside and from within. Even Fincher’s comparatively weaker thrillers like Panic Room and the disowned Alien 3 had tension to spare.

So what the hell happened?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is cold and unwelcoming, yes. This is fine. These can be useful qualities for the genre. What is lacking is a sense of danger, an air of uncertainty, and a driving force to push the story along and me along with it. There are scenes with bite, but for the most part this is a toothless thriller from a man who used to be all fangs.

Set in Sweden, the story of the film revolves around a mystery: Who killed Harriet? The daughter of wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), she disappeared 40 years ago. Henrik is convinced that someone in his family murdered her. This doesn’t seem far-fetched; the Vangers are essentially a bunch of loners and Nazis, says Henrik. The killer keeps sending him a gift every year on Harriet’s birthday: a simple flower painting. Someone is toying with him.

To figure out the mystery, he enlists journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). Mikael, recently convicted of libel againt a corrupt businessman, is reluctant to accept the job but realizes that he needs the money now that his career is in jeopardy. More importantly, the well-connected Henrik promises him information that would prove his innocence. Mikael isn’t the sole protagonist, though. A young hacker by the name of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) also figures into the story. It takes a while before she encounters Mikael proper in the movie, but she eventually helps him with the investigation. Keeping the two leads apart like this for almost the entire first hour is a smart move, as it allows us to get to know their characters and understand what’s at stake for them as individuals, rather than as a unit.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

A big draw of the story – which has been told before in Stieg Larsson‘s novel and in Niels Arden Oplev‘s Swedish film from 2009 – has always been the character of Lisbeth. Dressed in black with multiple piercings and tattoos, constantly on guard against the world, and with a troubled past. Strong-willed but slight in stature, keeping a lid on her words until she needs to make a point. By having a lesser-known actress like Rooney Mara play the role, it’s easy for us to accept her as a proper person. Regardless, I am not fully wowed by her performance. She plays the bottled-up aspects well enough, managing to be oddly intriguing despite her pricklinees. It’s the scenes where she has to show strength and wrath that I don’t fully buy into. Meanwhile, her co-star Daniel Craig has problems of his own. The character Mikael is a more conventional one, almost an every-man albeit with a sharp and honed intellect. Craig is a fine actor, but one who rarely manages to fully disappear into a role. There are times when he comes off as too strong. Too stoic. Too James Bond. I never get the sense that he’s in danger. If this sounds overly harsh, it’s not by intention. Both performances are overall serviceable.

There are bigger issues I have with the film. One is that the solving of the mystery isn’t handled very coherently. We’re introduced to suspects at a rapid pace. Clues are discovered and delved into rapidly. Mikael and Lisbeth interview old witnesses and police officers, examine newspaper clippings and study bible quotes. Often presented in speedy montages, I found it hard to keep track of the connections, the whos and the whats. When they arrive at a likely culprit, I was wondering how they got there. More importantly, I was questioning whether they knew how they got there. For a film where solving the case is the central focus of the story, this is a serious flaw.

The climax of the film is handled well. However, the film sputters along for a good 20-30 minutes after that. Tying up loose ends of the case is fully acceptable, yes, but there is a lot of stuff going on there that seemingly has more to do with the overarching plot of the trilogy rather than the story of this first film. It’s likely that these parts will feel more warranted as the two sequels arrive, but for now, it makes for an odd sense of pacing towards the end. I was ready for the end credits to roll a good 15 minutes before they did.

Again, I fear this review has come off as too negative-sounding. There are things I like about the film. Most of the supporing performances are good, with Plummer as the stand-out. Here’s Henrik, an old man who recognizes the importance of being hospitable even when under personal stress, who has had a successful career and knows how to get things done. And yet there’s a slight glimmer in his eyes that makes me think he knows more than he lets on, no matter how jovial and open he seems. It’s a strong showing from the veteran actor, making me all the more eager to check out his awards-toted performance in Beginners. Another one who impresses is Yorick van Wageningen, who plays Lisbeth’s newly appointed guardian Per Bjurman. His character is not one of nuances but a complete monster, and it’s imperative that we hate him. The script does half the job for him, but there is no denying the sleaziness he brings to the part. You might say a one-note character requires less effort to play, but that one note needs to be played to its fullest possible effect. van Wageningen holds nothing back.

While I didn’t feel much tension in the film, I can’t fault the score for it. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have crafted a solid soundtrack here, one which at times becomes quite palpable and provides a raw texture to the movie. I’m one of the seemingly few who never noticed their acclaimed work on The Social Network while I watched that film. This certainly didn’t happen here. Another thing I need to give serious props for is the way Fincher and company have captured Sweden. Every design choice, every item in every frame is spot-on, from the candelabras in the windows to the news presentations on TV. Everything looks just as it should, so a bravo is in order.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a terrible movie by any means, but it is a lukewarm one. Had this come from a less accomplished director, it would be understandable. But this is David Fincher, a director who has proved himself to be in possession of great talent and a keen eye. Considering this, the film becomes almost baffling. What was he going for here? Why did he choose such a cold and distant tone for a story wrought with intense violence and evil? Why is the investigation process such a mess when he did it so well and intriguingly in Seven and Zodiac? Why why why indeed.

Score: 2/5

There. That’s my formal review of the movie, where I of course have offered my subjective opinion of it but while doing my best to view it from a fair and unbiased point of view. I have refrained from comparing it to the Swedish movie, because there’s no reason to. This is a readaptation of a book I haven’t read, not a remake of a film I have seen, so it deserves to be judged on it own merits. There is a lot more I have to say, however. It doesn’t suit the tone I want in my reviews, but expect another blog post on it either later today or tomorrow.

UPDATE:  Here it is.

 
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Posted by on 26 January, 2012 in Reviews

 

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