Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

 Floating somewhere between a horror film and a thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo centres on two main characters; freelance journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and brilliantly talented outcast hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). At the start of the film Mikael, who has just been disgraced in a libel case, is asked by elderly businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to write his biography; however, this is really only a pretext so that Blomkvist can look into the forty-year-old disappearance of Vanger's niece Harriet (Moa Garpendal) whom he suspects was murdered by a member of his sprawling and discordant family.

After enjoying considerable success with last year's The Social Network, David Fincher looks set to continue to enthrall cinemagoers with his particular cool brand of fast-paced investigative filmmaking. While his films are all great stand-alone pieces, each with unique features, they are all stamped with the Fincher style. Investigative is a word which pops up again and again with regard to Fincher; he seems drawn to films which present a puzzle, mysteries needing to be solved, and true stories needing to be told (such as Zodiac and The Social Network). In the future it is probable he will be referred to as an auteur, but for now he is simply the go-to director for cool complex thrillers with a dark and unusual bite to them.

Music is also a key feature of many of Fincher's films (he started out directing music videos) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is no exception. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won an Oscar for their work on The Social Network, here reprise their role as original composers, furnishing Dragon Tattoo with a harsh, industrial soundtrack which listens like a darker and less forgiving version of their earlier oscar winning work (it seems likely that they will receive another nomination in 2012).

In fact, most things about Dragon Tattoo are a little darker than the work Fincher has been delivering of late, but it was clear that the director of murderous beauties like Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac would not long be satisfied with such subdued films as The Social Network (and the less said about Benjamin Button the better). Dragon Tattoo is a return to Fincher's favoured 'real life' horror cinema. It is the English language version of Stieg Larsson's bestselling Swedish novel, the first in his Millennium Trilogy (The books have also been made into very successful Swedish films, part of the reason why they are now being remade in English). Larsson wrote the trilogy in his spare time, and died of a heart attack in 2004 with all three still unpublished.

When the book was first published in Swedish it was titled 'Men Who Hate Women', and watching the film it's easy to see why. While never gory, Dragon Tattoo is certainly unflinching in its portrayal of violence; it has an 18 certificate and, despite all the snow it features, is not a good choice for your 2011 Christmas movie (stick with Happy Feet 2 for that one). This film is always uncompromising and never dull; an exciting investigative thriller, masterfully executed by all involved. Room has been left for the sequels, but whether these will be in the hands of Fincher or another director remains to be seen.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment and is on general release in the UK.

Monday, 12 December 2011

How To Study Film: Part Six


In Part Five we discussed at length the first of the three types of Film Studies Phony; the Namedropper. In Part Six we will look at the remaining two offenders; the Illiterate and the Downright Idiot.

The Illiterate has either been completely misinformed about what studying Film involves, or is just as lazy as Hell. Just because you're undertaking a course of study which mainly involves films does not mean that you're off the hook as far as reading is concerned. Don't get me wrong; the best thing you can do to learn more about films is to watch them, but it's good to have some sort of context in which to place what you're seeing, and reading books/articles about Film can give you that. Students who think they can sail through a Film course without reading a single book, article or academic essay need to pull their heads out of the clouds. If you're looking into studying Film as an easy escape from all that bullshit reading you had to do when you were younger, I'd look elsewhere. There's still a fair amount of reading, and an even fairer amount of bullshit. But I promise you, if you're really into your Film, you will find most of the stuff you have to read so interesting you'll actually be disappointed when you get to the end.

While the Namedropper is the most common and dangerous Phony, and the Illiterate is the most lazy (but harmless), the Downright Idiot is without a doubt the most exasperating. They will seem completely incapable of discerning between what is good and what is bad, what is intelligent and what is pretentious, or what is funny and what is just plain stupid. They are the easiest to spot out of the Film Studies Phonies because they are the ones who will very quickly make you want to tie them to a chair, tape their eyelids to their foreheads and have them sit through all seven and a half hours of Bela Tarr's Satantango (in my experience they keep struggling up until about hour three, at which point they become catatonic, before moving onto hysterics in hour six). If you've never heard of Satantango, have a look at the video below. It's the opening scene, albeit with added musical accompaniment. It's the scene that Tarr opens the movie with. And it's all downhill from there, boys and girls.

Watching a lot of films is very much like going to school; you can learn an enormous amount just from sitting back and letting all the information the filmmaker throws at you find some way into your brain, as long as you vary your intake a bit and don't get stuck in just the junk food aisle or the gourmet restaurant. You can't really be an idiot and a film geek at the same time; the two things just don't go together. Films can teach you anything; how to work a record player, the history of French Revolution, umpteen other world conflicts - however, never attempt to learn how to develop a photograph from a film, because I have yet to see one in which it is done correctly.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't study Film if you're think you're not as clever as everybody else, because trust me, watching a shitload of movies is basically akin to swallowing the Encyclopedia Britannica. I'm just saying that for some people, Film Studies is a closed DVD. If the subject doesn't click with you, you shouldn't be studying it, or you might find yourself tied to a chair watching a load of cows wander around Hungary. You're probably cut out for something else, maybe something that's considered useful by the rest of the world, like Business. If so, lucky you.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Review: Another Earth

Mike Cahill's Another Earth is the latest in this year's influx of subtle, cosmically-based semi-Sci-Fi films (which has also included Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter). Another Earth does exactly what it says on the tin; intelligent teenager Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote with Cahill) celebrates her acceptance to MIT on the same night that a new Earth-like planet is discovered. While drunkenly looking upwards to catch a glimpse of Earth 2, she crashes head on into the car of John Burroughs (William Mapother, who you will remember as that creepy guy Ethan from Lost), putting him into a coma and killing his wife and son. After spending four years in jail, Rhoda re-emerges into a world where the sky is dominated by the approaching Earth 2, and takes a job as a janitor in her old school. Later, she discovers the identity of the man whose family she inadvertently killed, and after losing her nerve when she goes to apologise, ends up as his housekeeper.

While all this is going on, a startling discovery is made; Earth 2 is not just an Earth-like planet, but is in fact an almost exact carbon copy of our own planet, including the same countries, cities, and people. In other words, this film isn't just about Another Earth, it's also about Another You. Of course, this discovery immediately throws up all sorts of existential and philosophical quandaries, not the least of which is what, if you ever met the other you, would you say to each other? Rhoda is thrown in at the deep end after winning a flight to Earth 2, and must make the decision to go (into the relative unknown) or to stay (in her dead end job with her guilty conscience).

Another Earth has not been wowing the critics, but perhaps this is just because of its unfortunately timed release; with an epic existential planetary masterpiece in the shape of Melancholia orbiting onto the scene just a few months before, unfair comparisons have been made and Another Earth has been found wanting. It's true that the core story of Another Earth is a little formulaic (a character makes one haunting mistake before getting in too deep with the victim of that mistake), but the performances, from Marling especially, are wonderfully subdued and convincing. Plus, the film is shot in an intriguingly fragmented way through the use of different filming styles, giving the viewer a subjective impression of protagonist Rhoda's feelings and thought processes.

However, the most interesting things about Another Earth are the concepts behind it, both philosophical and psychological. Clearly the sudden appearance of another large life-supporting planet in our solar system, were it to happen in real life, would have catastrophic consequences - but, interestingly, the story of Another Earth bypasses this completely (unlike Melancholia) in favour of a psychodramatic exploration of emotions. There's no sense of impending doom here; only wonderment and cautious hope. While this film is by no means a masterpiece, it is pleasantly upbeat and thought-provoking, and does not deserve to get lost in the considerable shadow of Melancholia.

Another Earth is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment and is currently on general release in the UK.

Monday, 5 December 2011

How To Study Film: Part Five


A Film Studies Phony is a tricky thing to spot, especially since there are often very many of them. These are students who really don't give a crap about what they're studying, who are just along for the ride or trying to look cool (studying Film really can make you seem cool, even if you're just a geek with a halfway decent DVD collection). The Film Studies Phony can be split into three different types; The Namedropper, the Illiterate and the Downright Idiot. In this post, we will be dealing with the most widespread, most dangerous, and most difficult to identify of the three; the Namedropper.

The Namedropper is the most difficult of the three to identify because at first they just sound a pretty intelligent person who knows their film. It can sometimes take quite a while for you to realise that they are just parroting a load of theory they've read in the text book of the moment. I call them Namedroppers because that's basically all they do - you can bullshit your way through anything as long as you can use the words 'Godard' and 'Nouvelle Vague' in the same sentence and make it sound convincing.

Here are some tips for quick spotting of the Namedropper; the earlier you identify them the easier they are to deal with. If you give them any credit at all it tends to go to their heads and make them even worse than they already are.

Number One - Directors. There are certain directors it is always perfectly acceptable to bring into the conversation in order to make a point. Some of these guys you just can't go wrong with. Saying that you like Tarantino, or Godard, or Hitchcock, is the cinematic equivalent of saying you like the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. Who the hell's going to argue with you? Of course, there's nothing wrong with big, classic auteur directors, but using them as the safe option when you can't think of anything to say can get real old real fast. Getting stuck in that pattern is the fastest, surest route to becoming a Namedropper, and also the easiest way to identify them.

Number Two - Limited Repertoire. Along with getting hung up on certain directors, Namedroppers often have very closely defined parameters to their knowledge. While they seem to know everything about a particular 'cult' director, when pressed they will know pretty much nothing about anything else. You will get very bored of hearing them wax lyrical about their extensive knowledge of Tarantino's foot fetish, but when it comes down to actually knowing something useful they will draw a blank. There's no point to talking about feet in Tarantino films if you can't elaborate on the reasons for them being there. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the video below. The guy really does love feet.

Number Three - They just come off like an asshole. There are arrogant, pretentious, asshole students in every subject - it's more to do with human nature than any particular area of study - but in a subject like Film there seems to be an unfair excess of them, and considering that this is not a subject in which one is required to be an asshole to get ahead, it really doesn't do you any favours. Coming into a lecture or a seminar with a face like you're chewing a slice of lemon and then very loudly discoursing on your misplaced assumption that you know it all already (and what's more, you know it better than anybody else who knows it too) would be very ill advised. In fact, it is often a complete mystery why any Namedropper is bothering to study Film at all, seeing as they are obviously already even more cinematically clued-up than Andre Bazin.

(We will be examining the Illiterate and the Downright Idiot in the next post of How To Study Film)

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Review: Snowtown

Based on the true story of John Bunting, Australia's most prolific serial killer, Justin Kurzel's Snowtown is a tense psychological horror film that at times verges on being unwatchable. The central perspective of the film belongs to teenage Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway); after he and his younger brothers are molested by a neighbour, their mother is befriended by local vigilante John. John succeeds in intimidating said neighbour into leaving town, using such subtle techniques as getting the boys to daub graffiti onto his windows with ice cream, and leaving the rotted, mutilated bodies of animals on his porch (where the Italians say it with a horse's head, the Australians say it with kangaroos).

John takes the submissive Jamie under his wing, slowly introducing him to a violent world of serial 'punishment' murder; on the hitlist at first are local perverts, gay men and drug addicts, but Bunting and his accomplices descend quickly into targeting the weak, and anyone who gets in their way. Known in Australia as the 'bodies in barrels' case, the Snowtown killings eventually totalled eleven; that may not sound like much when compared to the kill totals of some US serial killers (John Wayne Gacy had 33 confirmed murders, while Ted Bundy had 29, and they were both acting alone), but the Snowtown victims were subjected to hours of brutal torture, plus they were forced to record fake 'I'm leaving town, don't worry about me' messages to their families before finally being finished off.

Snowtown could so easily have been just another 'torture porn' horror flick, but writer/director Kurzel has made the story into a gritty, realistic, and excruciatingly harrowing piece of cinema which should by rights be remembered as one of the best films ever to come out of Australia. For too long Australia has been seen by the rest of the world as a technicolour paradise written and directed entirely by Baz Luhrmann; Snowtown quietly rips the glitzy, campy veneer to shreds, as if to say 'sorry folks, we're not all ballroom dancers, drag queens or wise-cracking farmhands with corks on our hats.'

Although Snowtown is very far from being torture porn, it is most certainly violent to an extreme degree. Most of the murders are offscreen because protagonist Jamie, through whom we witness the action, does not get directly involved with them for some time. However, when Jamie finally does start taking matters into his own hands, the film gets far more explicit; the murder of his older half brother Troy, for example, has been described in Sight and Sound by James Bell as being '...among the most distressing murder scenes ever filmed. It sears itself onto the memory.'

In the same article in the December 2011 issue of Sight and Sound, Kurzel expressed his own views on the murder scene, and screen violence in general: 'I've always admired visceral films, where you're not sitting back watching the violence with a compass...When I experience or see violence in the real world, there is no compass - it's incredibly disorienting and claustrophobic, and that's something I wanted that moment to be for Jamie and the audience. Too often I watch films where there's no value to the violence. You're not seeing the cause and effect of what's happening. The scene is interesting because it's both suggestive and explicit - which are both interesting ways to tackle violence. You're asking yourself, how long do I want to keep watching this?'

For some, the answer is not long at all; quite a few people walked hurriedly out of the screening I attended during this scene, and I have read internet accounts by people who found themselves unable to continue watching. The interesting thing about the 'walk-out factor' in Snowtown is that people weren't leaving because they found themselves disgusted by what they were seeing, but because they simply found it to be unwatchable. Unlike your average teen slasher movie, this film treats its violent scenes with respect and truth; the violence here isn't repulsive or uncalled for, it's raw and penetrating. The people that walk out of Snowtown are not the same people that walk out of Final Destination 5.

Snowtown is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment, and is currently on general release in the UK, although you might have to hunt around a bit to find a screening.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: Take Shelter

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has created a brilliantly understated film in Take Shelter. Thirty-something husband and father Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins to have horrific nightmares and hallucinations concerning an oncoming apocalyptic storm. Take Shelter hinges on whether these are actual visions of the future, or the onset of mental illness in Curtis (whose mother was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when in her thirties). Risking his already precarious finances, he decides to renovate an old storm shelter in his backyard so as to be ready for what he thinks he knows is coming. Curtis, an average, kind, American working man with family and money worries, is ably played by Shannon, who taps perfectly into the mixture of pride, love, doubt and awkward embarassment that you'd expect to see in an Average Joe who suddenly has strange, prophet-like symptoms thrust upon him.

For it's that question which really drives this film; is Curtis a schizophrenic, a prophet, or a schizophrenic prophet? Take Shelter seethes with repression, but is not itself repressed. The spectre of the oncoming storm is out there for all to see; shots of boiling grey clouds, deafening cracks of thunder and lightning, strange oily rain, and flocks of atmospherically addled birds abound - but, only Curtis (and, of course, the viewer) can see or hear them. However, this isn't your average 'is he crazy or isn't he' flick; Curtis is clearly a sane man doing what any sane man would do when confronted with the unavoidable evidence of impending disaster. The viewers, while sceptical as to whether the storm actually is coming, are always onside with Curtis, while his family and friends grow colder and more alienated (although his wife (Jessica Chastain) is remarkably understanding and supportive once he comes clean).

The act of hearing is paramount where this film is concerned; the music and sound perform the task of building tension well, but it's the spaces between the sounds which are the most interesting, almost creating vacuums within the film, as though Curtis is already standing within the eye of his own personal storm. This is intensified by the fact that Curtis' daughter Hannah is deaf, and in a way, we seem to hear the film through Hannah as well as Curtis; silence is a sound in its own right.

There has been a recent influx of this sort of film; an exploration of our own personal demons through the occurrence of a grand, naturalistic event. Von Trier explored depression though the arrival of a dangerous new planet in Melancholia, and in Another Earth, in which an almost identical planet appears in our solar system (a planet containing another you), Mike Cahill explores guilt and existential angst. In Take Shelter Nichols takes an uncomfortably close look at mental illness, manifesting itself as gathering stormclouds (but not just any stormclouds - armageddon heralding stormclouds). Perhaps it's a reflection on our times that so many of these films are appearing now, when there is unrest and concern for the future worldwide.

Take Shelter is on general release in the UK and is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment.

Top Ten: Falls From a Great Height (in Movies)

The great cinematic trope of 'People Falling Off Things' has long been one of the most memorable and well loved aspects of film. Ever wondered what the top ten greatest movies in which people fall (or indeed jump) off things are? Well, wonder no more.

10. King Kong, 1933

In the rather heartbreaking final scene of the original King Kong, Kong tries to take refuge at the pinnacle of the Empire State building before being shot at by the nasty little humans until he finally succumbs. We see an amazing wide shot as his huge body twists and crumples its way from the top of the skyscraper all the way down to the concrete below where, one assumes, a mammoth operation will soon be underway to scrape his gargantuan carcass off the highway so that the New Yorkers can get on about their business.

9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969

"What's the matter with you?"
"I can't swim!"
"What are ya, crazy? The fall'll probably kill ya!"

Lucky for Butch and Sundance, the fall doesn't kill them. After being cornered at the edge of a ravine, and faced with being arrested, killed, or starved out, they pick the risky route of jumping off the edge of the cliff into the water below. And so, one of cinema's most iconic images (that of Robert Redford and Paul Newman jumping to their probable deaths) was born.

8. Touching the Void, 2003

A nail-biting drama-mentary based on the true story of two young climbers. In the mid-eighties, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to reach the summit of Siule Grande in Peru. After Joe slid off the edge of a precipice, Simon was forced to cut the rope that connected them to save his own life (rather than have both of them plummet to their deaths). Joe, who already had a broken leg from a previous accident, fell 150 feet into a crevasse, but was miraculously saved by a thick ledge of crusted snow. He managed to crawl out of the crevasse, and in three days, without food or water, made his way back to camp to meet up with Simon (who had naturally assumed he was dead).

7. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000

In Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there is a lot of talk about a legendary mountain which grants wishes, but there's a catch; you have to jump off the thing first. It's still all good though; apparently you float on forever in perfect happiness, knowing that your wish has been granted. At the end of the film, Ziyi Zhang decides to put the legend to the test, and floats off with a grin on her face as the credits roll.

6. The Fugitive, 1993

Who could forget The Fugitive, a wonderful piece of trash starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Ford plays Richard Kimble, a doctor who is in jail for killing his wife, when a lucky bus crash sets him loose, so he can try to prove his innocence even as Tommy Lee Jones tries to track him down. He is, of course, innocent - The Fugitive is the film which has given rise to the classic get-out excuse, 'A one-armed man did it!' The film is also famous for the ridiculous scene in which Ford jumps off a dam to escape Tommy Lee Jones. There's willing suspension of disbelief, and then there's downright bullshitting; by rights, Dr Kimble should have gone to a watery grave and the one-armed man should have lived to kill another day. But, this is Hollywood, and Harrison Ford will never die; he has danced in the blue flame.

5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984

For our next great fall, we have to return to Harrison Ford; in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indie (accompanied by Short Round and that squeaky blonde who is improbably named 'Willie') jumps out of a crashing plane in a rubber dinghy, which then slides down the side of a mountain, off the edge of a cliff, and down into a raging river. This would kill off any normal human being, apart from those who happen to be in the majestic company of the magical Harrison Ford, a man who has jumped off a dam, jumped out of a crashing plane, survived a nuclear blast by shutting himself inside a fridge, and of course drunk from the Holy Grail. Like I said; the day that Harrison Ford dies is the day that the Earth cracks open like an egg and all of time and space crumble to dust.

4. The Omen, 1976

If there's one movie (or series of movies) in which spectacular deaths abound, it's The Omen. The particular one I'm referring to here is when Lee Remick, (already in hospital due to her devil-son Damian pushing her over a balcony) crashes out of a window and plummets fifteen storeys while shrieking fit to bust, before going through the roof of an ambulance, landing grotesquely on the bed and gazing into the camera with her cold dead eyes. Yeah, that's a good one.

3. Basil, the Great Mouse Detective, 1986

This one's my personal favourite. Basil, the Great Mouse Detective is sadly one of the more forgotten great Disney movies of the eighties. The brilliant climactic punch up between Basil and the evil Rattigan (wonderfully voiced by Vincent Price) takes place on the ticking hands of London's Big Ben. Eventually the two rodents are flung out into space, both dropping like stones into the London fog. While Rattigan is crushed into catfood on the cobbles below, Basil (who is of course based on Sherlock Holmes) ingeniously pedals his way back to the heights of the clock tower using a handy propellor he happened to rip from Rattigan's airship.

2. Vertigo, 1958

Hitchcock's Vertigo, probably one of the greatest films of all time, is full of people falling off things; a cop falls off a roof in the first five minutes, Kim Novak throws herself into San Francisco Bay not long after that. But, the greatest of them all has to be the double-whammy of Novak throwing herself out of the same belltower twice in a row. The first time, she doesn't throw herself out at all, it's simply a clever ruse to further a murder plot. The second time, she really does go for it; however, it's a little unclear whether she did it on purpose, unable to bear the guilt of having deceived poor Jimmy Stewart, or if she was simply terrified by the sight of a nun coming up the stairs to find them, and slipped to her doom.  My money's on the nun.

1. Die Hard, 1988

No great list of 'People Falling Off Things' would be complete without good old Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, thrown out of the Nakatomi building by Bruce Willis (as John McClane). Dashing as ever in his John Phillips suit and in a shower of sparkling glass, he indulges in a long leisurely fall finished off with a nice round thump at the end of it. His brother Jeremy Irons comes back to avenge him (in Die Hard: With a Vengeance) but Bruce is able to deftly dispose of him too. Where are the parents that raised these two psycho terrorists? Will they show up toting AK-47s in Die Hard 5? If so, maybe Bruce, now in his fifties, can still muster up the strength put on his white vest and chuck them off something high.