Saturday, 27 November 2010

Review: The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The final part in the trilogy of Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, starring Noomi Rapace as ‘the girl’ of the title and Michael Nyqvist as the journalist who tries to help her. Although not as enthralling as the first film, it is an improvement on the second instalment. What is notable is the change in genre as the series progresses. ‘Dragon Tattoo’ was more of a crime thriller, with twists and turns, mystery and intrigue. ‘Played with Fire’ had lots of action scenes with our heroine on the run. ‘Hornet’s Nest’ is a slower paced film, a courtroom drama.

There is less interaction between the two main characters, which were enjoyable moments in the first film. Here, Mikael is working hard to make sure Lisbeth doesn’t go to prison, they hardly meet and when they do, you wish more would happen. Saying that, the ending is satisfactorily anti-Hollywood, which stays true to the characters’ personalities and feels natural.

Lisbeth Salander spends much of the film recovering in hospital. A conspiracy against her leads to her being accused of crimes she hasn’t committed and threatened with detention in a mental institution. Mikael’s sister offers to represent her in court. Mikael and his team at the magazine ‘Millennium’ plan a special issue to reveal the conspiracy and bring those behind it to justice. He hopes to clear Lisbeth’s name so she can be a free woman and finally start to overcome the terrible torments she has suffered in her life.

As if to accentuate the fact that Lisbeth is at times morally ambiguous, the other characters in these films seem to be either extremely righteous or completely evil. Mikael, his sister, and the doctor who looks after Lisbeth in hospital are contrasted with the psychiatrist Dr Teleborian, Niedermann and Zalachenko. Lisbeth, our central character in the story, is placed at the centre with totally good and totally bad people surrounding her. This makes her highly complex and conflicting nature all the more fascinating.

Lisbeth and Mikael seem to be given a lot less to do in this final film, than in the previous ones. There are less memorable, stand-out moments where they really impress. Although there are many, more subtle occasions; when Lisbeth glances at Mikael in the courtroom, when a wry smile crosses her lips, and these stay with you too. After growing to care for and understand these characters, you can read every small expression and obtain something significant from it.

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a very fitting end to the trilogy. Although it isn’t as impressive as the first (which works as a brilliant stand-alone film), it is definitely recommended for fans and those wishing to see the story through to its conclusion. The outcome of the trial provides this courtroom drama, and the trilogy as a whole, with a pleasing sense of closure as all secrets are revealed and all loose ends are neatly tied up.

Review: Skeletons

A skeleton in the closet is a “secret source of shame, potentially ruinous if exposed, which a person or family makes efforts to conceal”. Mr Davis and Mr Bennett are men who are hired to reveal these skeletons to people. They enter your home and, after a fastidious ritual of filling out the paperwork, use a device to find the right cupboard and then, with some magic stones, a fire extinguisher and a pair of goggles, they step inside. This transports them back into the past, viewing moments that these people wanted to be kept secret, from prostitutes to salsa lessons. They then disclose what they have learnt to the clients, and then leave them with their secrets out in the open.

The opening sequence of the film is especially good. Two men trudging through the picturesque countryside to their next port of call, a hand-drawn picture showing the house they need to visit, an entertaining argument involving Rasputin, Lord Lucan the Queen and Freddie Mercury, and the jaunty music perfectly fitting the mood.

After a few routine procedures, Davis and Bennett meet with their boss, who is referred to as ‘The Colonel’ (played brilliantly by Jason Isaacs, who at one point stands to attention and puts his cap on straight before even waking up). He offers them the opportunity to prove themselves and move on to jobs of more importance – e.g. politicians and nobility – whose secrets are especially juicy. But Davis’s glow-chasing (becoming addicted to viewing moments from the past) and Bennett’s tendency to care about hurting the feelings of their clients, threatens to damage their chances as they investigate the disappearance of a man who left his wife and two children years before.

This film was a surprise gem and defies clear labelling. It has supernatural aspects, is often darkly comic but touches on grief and loss, and it has elements of mystery and intrigue. The central characters are both wonderful. Andrew Buckley (Bennett) and Ed Gaughan (Davis) are a comedy double act who have written and performed together for the past ten years. Together with their friend Nick Whitfield, who directed and wrote the screenplay, they first came up with a short, which was essentially the first ten minutes of the feature film. This was only meant as something to be shown to a few friends and family members, but after receiving lots of well-deserved praise they decided to develop it into a full-length feature. Made with a small budget, the film took three years to write and two months to shoot, and enticed more well-known actors Jason Isaacs and Danish actress Paprika Steen.

Further proving its success, Skeletons was awarded the title of Best New British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010. The jury, headed by Sir Patrick Stewart, voted unanimously and commented “The Michael Powell Award goes to writer/director Nick Whitfield whose debut feature Skeletons best exemplifies the spirit of Michael Powell in its original vision and dark humour”.

Skeletons is definitely one to watch. It’s a film that proves you don’t need a massive budget, amazing special effects or an all-star cast to make something really entertaining and memorable.

Review: Another Year

With a title that seems to leave itself open for people to say ‘Another Year is another Mike Leigh film’ suggesting you’ll know exactly what you’re going to get from it, Another Year has surprised many by offering something more. Rather than being just another Mike Leigh film, his emotionally-charged latest effort is his most affecting and effective to date.

The film chronicles the major events that take place during a year for married couple Tom and Gerri (Yes, they’ve learned to live with the whole Tom and Jerry thing), and their friends and family. As we follow the ups and downs through the four seasons, 'Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Winter’ flash up on screen to show the changes and handily indicate how far along the film is. This gives a sense of structure to proceedings and each season includes different events and themes. Spring introduces us to the main characters, shows them at work and their interactions with each other, most are light-hearted and hopeful. Summer of course means a BBQ, which brings the characters together at Tom and Gerri’s. Autumn is the start of a new relationship for one of the characters, and the cause of a rift. Winter takes Tom and Gerri up north for a funeral, a family member comes to stay and it is hoped old wounds will at last start to heal.

Tom and Gerri are the heart and soul of Another Year. Although they are nearing old age, they haven’t lost the love and affection that has kept them together for most of their lives and they are very kind and compassionate towards each other. They seem to be the lucky ones in this film full of unlucky people. They have a great relationship with their son, Joe, who is a good-humoured and warm character. As all Mothers do, Gerri often questions him about marriage. At the beginning of the year he reveals that another of his friends is getting married and he seems worried that he won’t find anyone. But he brings bubbly Katie home in the Autumn to meet his parents and they seem to get on really well.

There are a number of supporting characters in Another Year who offer a contrast to Tom and Gerri’s happily married family life. Most notable of these is Mary (played by Lesley Manville), Gerri’s friend from work. She lives alone in a flat, drinks and smokes too much and often makes a fool of herself. She has clearly had a miserable life and is scared of a future filled with loneliness. Manville does a great job expressing her character’s sadness and desperation. Imelda Staunton’s short appearance in this film is also very memorable. She plays Janet, a depressed insomniac who doesn’t want to talk about her problems. A tragic and upsetting character, she visits Gerri for counselling and then is forgotten about, leaving the audience with many unanswered questions about her well-being and her purpose.

With performances that stay with you long after you’ve finished watching, Mike Leigh’s Another Year isn’t exactly an enjoyable film, but his clever observations and the emotional resonance he creates have a profound effect, making this one of his most successful achievements.

Pictures from CFF 2010

OK, so I'm finally getting around to posting reviews of some of the films I saw at the Cornwall Film Festival earlier this month. I had a great time in Falmouth, really enjoyed my first film festival, and I hope to go to many more in the future! Here's a few pictures of where it took place:

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Book / Movie comparison: A Scanner Darkly (Philip K. Dick blogathon)

A Scanner Darkly is the most accurate film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story that I have seen so far. Many of the scenes have seemingly been copied straight from the book. However, in creating a more faithful adaptation, director Richard Linklater has distanced his film from mainstream audiences. Unlike other directors who have transformed Dick’s works into movies, like Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), who modified his stories to fit their personal vision, created their own worlds and made his material more accessible to a wider audience, Linklater hasn’t altered the story at all.

“Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost perpetually, he deliberately deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person, defeating him from inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all.” (Page 147).

There are a number of extra moments in the book, which the film obviously didn’t have enough time to add in. Barris researches mushrooms and tries to sell some as hallucinogens, which may be fatally toxic. During the road trip, Arctor pays a visit to Kimberley Hawkins, an individual he hasn’t seen in a while, to check up on her. These aren’t in the film but aren’t vitally important and have no real bearing on the story.

An interesting device used in the novel is interspersing events with other unrelated facts, dialogue or moments from the past. When Fred meets with the two medical deputies, the dialogue is combined with memories they remind him of and medical articles about the mind. This shows the muddled up nature of his brain, affected by drug use and paranoia. There are also moments in the book when the text is interspersed with lines of German that aren’t explained and seem completely random. When Fred views some of these moments back on one of the Holo-Scanners he uses for surveillance on his house, he hears Arctor reciting, partly in German. This is a very remarkable method used by the author. At first it is quite baffling, as we witness events from Arctor’s point of view and there is no explanation for the lines of German that seem totally out of place. Then when we are with Fred viewing the events back, we realise what they signified. It represents how strange and incomprehensible things are, the mindset of the characters, and why we can’t even believe that what we are reading is what truly happened. It makes reading A Scanner Darkly a very interesting and unique experience.

The fact that it is very successful as an adaptation seems to have caused it to be unsuccessful in terms of attracting a large audience. This suggests that Philip K. Dick’s works are not readily welcomed by mainstream viewers in their pure, undiluted form.

Review: A Scanner Darkly (Philip K. Dick blogathon)

Fred (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover narcotics agent. He is also Bob Arctor, who lives with his drug-addled friends, all under the influence of Substance D - a highly addictive and dangerous drug, also known as ‘Death’. This film explores the implications of drug taking and portrays events in a wonderfully hypnotic and hallucinatory way.

Underneath his scramble suit (an outfit that allows his identity to remain secret because it projects millions of different images of various people’s body parts so that he never looks like the same person) Fred carries out his work unnoticed. Things get very confusing and difficult for him when he is asked to spy on Arctor and his friends in the hope of finding out the identity of a big drug supplier. He is ordered to run surveillance on his house, which he shares with Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). There is also the matter of the dodgy corporation ‘New Path’, which promotes Fred’s work and sponsors the conference he addresses. It has an exclusive, lucrative contract with the government to supply detox and rehabilitation services. But its real involvement with Substance D is not all too clear.

On top of a very complicated relationship with drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and Barris turning informant on Arctor, there is also suspicion that Arctor has become too addicted to Substance D, causing his brain to be impaired. We’re viewing most of these events from his point of view, but are we seeing a true account, or is this all the creation of an unravelling mind?

Undoubtedly one of the main selling points is the unique ‘look’ of the film. Director Richard Linklater utilized the talents of animator Bob Sabiston, who also worked on his previous film Waking Life. Sabiston used the visually striking technique called ‘rotoscoping’ whereby live action performances are transformed into animated ones by tracing each frame of film. Linklater is the first director to use digital rotoscoping to create an entire feature film. This technique is a great visual metaphor for the paranoia and detachment prevalent in the film. The cartoon-like veneer is very relevant for characters questioning reality and gives us a view into their drug-addled, hazy outlook on life.

If in doubt, poke it with a stick
One downside to the remarkable animation is that it is sometimes too eye-catching for its own good. Occasionally you may find yourself distracted by the visuals and realise that you haven’t been fully focused on following the complex narrative of the film, which might leave you a little lost.

All in all, A Scanner Darkly is a funny, intriguing film, full of twists and turns. Due to its complicated nature, it may not be appreciated by mainstream audiences looking for a bit of light relief. At times, it isn’t involving enough and fails to fully capture the viewer’s emotions. But its themes of identity, of what is real and what is not, and the film’s mesmerising graphics ensure a memorable experience.


Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Saturday Screen Shot #15

Shot from the Screen: Hard Target

Screenshot: Boudreaux (Van Damme) punching a snake!

Shot from the Scene: Grabbing a rattlesnake just as it is about to bite his female companion, Boudreaux punches it in the head, rendering it unconscious. He then bites off its tail and leaves it as a booby trap for the hunters on their trail. One triggers the trap and the very angry snake is launched at him, striking with its deadly poisonous fangs. A unique and classic Van Damme moment. You may have seen him kickboxing on many occasions, but you don't often see him PUNCHING A SNAKE!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Saturday Screen Shot #14

Shot from the Screen: The Mummy

Screenshot: Librarian Evelyn Carnahan assesses the damage she has caused

Shot from the Scene: At the start of The Mummy, it's hard to believe Evelyn will transform into a strong, sexy, confident action woman. Trying to replace a book on a high shelf, she wobbles on her ladder before falling into one of the bookcases. This then causes a domino effect and they fall into each other, knocking over all of the bookcases in the entire library...oops! I love this dishevelled look as she stands in shock at what has just happened

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