Friday, 30 December 2011


Many reviewers and much of the literature cite David Cronenberg's Videodrome. I must confess I'm not sure why. I appreciate that the film is nearly 30 years old, but it has little to offer with an incoherent story line, hammy acting and the ability to seamlessly co-locate Toronto and Pittsburgh! What it does offer is an exploration of the 'what if' variety: What if watching TV changes your perception of reality?. What if the very act of watching and the subject you are viewing are able to change your brain so that hallucinations blur reality and what is being watched becomes real? The film also makes real the sleaziness of cable TV companies and their search for salacious material to expand their audience numbers. It has nothing to say about creativity, art or morality in a constructive way.

The film is Debbie Harry's full feature debut at about the time her group Blondie were 'riding high' in the charts. I hope that much of the story was told with an ironic slant - why else would one of the main characters be called Brian O'Blivion? The special effects are laughably of their time but owe more to Saturday morning kids TV than anything more serious.

The film does provide a look into the world of BDSM (more here) and snuff movies (and here) and this  provides the initial interest for the main character Max (James Woods) and is certainly what turns his girlfriend Nicki (Harry) on. However, it only ever serves as a hook and there is a real sense in which the film fails to explore and examine this kind of perverse cinema. I wish there had been a Director's commentary on the disc.

At least I can now say I've watched the film so that when it crops up in another review somewhere I'll know what they are talking about. To be honest - I'm not sure of it's merit beyond that. I know it's a genre of film that isn't my natural habitat and in watching Videodrome this feeling has only been reinforced. To be fair, other reviewers have said that you need multiple viewings to begin unlocking it's hidden treasures. I'm afraid that with so many unwatched and more worthy films on the shelf, I may simply not get around to it. I'll give it 5/10.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Followers of this blog will know that I rated the original Swedish TV movie 9/10 when I reviewed it last year. I have also blogged with scepticism about this Hollywood remake for those who don't do sub-titles. I wasn't expecting much but I was prepared to part with my cash and watched it this afternoon. I couldn't have been more wrong in my expectations! This film is mesmerising.

Any review is bound start by making comparisons with the earlier film. The new film is 6 minutes longer - but is so much more evenly paced that the 2 hours 38 minutes simply flew by. David Fincher chooses to place the emphasis on different aspects of the story and plot devices seem less contrived and much more natural. From the opening sequences and soundtrack you are treated to a visual and aural feast with bigger vistas and a more expansive view of Sweden. The sexual violence is every bit as graphic and not for the feint-hearted. I appreciate the 2009 version was made for TV and therefore direct comparisons are unfair.

The main two characters will of course come under greatest scrutiny. Both are acted with great sensitivity and wholly believable. However, for me, Daniel Craig is the less convincing of the two in the lead role of Mikael Blomkvist - too un-Swedish if that makes any sense, too smooth and cosmopolitan. Rooney Mara's Salander is different from Noomi Rapace's portrayal but every bit as engaging and if anything even more human. We literally see a lot more of Mara than we did of Rapace and this newer version seems to have much more active libido! Mara's Salander gives visual clues to the emotional battles that rage inside her and delivers a more accesible yet at the same still alien heroine. It will be interesting to see how the characters develop in the sequels which must already be in pre-production.

The storyline is pretty much the same as the first film except this time around we see more of Salander's original guardian - Palmgren and her new guardian (Bjurman) is frighteningly more like the average guy next door. In terms of the story we also see a significant role for Blomkvist's daughter whom I don't recall much at in the first film and less of a role for Erika Berger as Blomkvist's co-editor and long-term love interest. Overall, this version has more of a feel of a moral crusade than the 2009 version. The way in which the story develops is more convincing and at the end it is easier to make sense of what Salander does to Wennerstrom to bring him down. The change to the ending is a disappointment - perhaps they ran out of budget for trip to Australia?

This is still a brutal film. It's good to remember that Larsson's original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women as that is the unifying central theme and the hook that allows Blomkvist to get Salander onboard with the project. If you loved the books or have only seen the 2009 movie - you'll love this one. This one gets the same 9/10. Great cinema.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

If you liked the first film, the much anticipated second instalment from Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law will enthral you. It's more of the same - an insane genius for good in Holmes and for evil in Moriarty, the faithful Dr Watson and his charming new bride, big settings, fast action and implausible plot lines - then it  it wouldn't be Sherlock Holmes without them. We also see Noomi Rapace in action - her first big screen outing since Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium Trilogy - as a gypsy girl Madam Simza Heron and we see perhaps a bit too much of Stephen Fry as Holme's brother! Overall this film delivers what you would expect: non-stop action, interesting CGI effects (it's good to see 'bullet time' visuals continuing to evolve and develop), a Victorian London you can almost smell and elemental logic leading to deductions that only seem remotely possible in hind-sight.

The story begins in London and moves to Paris and then Heilbronn before ending in Switzerland at the famed Reichenbach Falls - which although spectacular don't resemble the real version very much at all! As Moriarty attempts to get rich through procuring armament producers whilst simultaneously goading the European powers into war, Holmes is always one step ahead. The central thread gives us Holmes attempting to reunite Madam Simza Heron with her brother Rene whilst simultaneously protecting the newly-weds from the vengeful and completely unscrupulous Moriarty.

The morality of the story is fairly blunt and leaves little room for manoeuvre. Holmes is right and Moriarty is wrong. However, within how the story is told, there is plenty of latitude to explore the moral tolerances that Holmes allows himself to exploit in pursuit of the greater good - a kind of Utilitarian approach to ethics. There are lots of shootings, knifings and explosions and the body count mounts as the film unwinds. It amazes me that the the central characters are able to leave a trail of bodies, destruction and mayhem in their wake without so much as attracting even a casual enquiry from the law enforcement agencies!

Despite the improbable outcome the story leaves the door open for Sherlock Holmes 3 - or does it? you'll have to go and watch it to find out for yourself. Good holiday-time viewing with fine acting, great sets and conceptualisation. If you are looking for something to do one afternoon or evening go and see this film - there were all of six of us watching in Screen 2 at my nearest multiplex last night! I'll give it 7.5/10.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Donnie Darko

I know this film has been around for a decade and the odd bunny rabbit appears ubiquitously in the racks of  DVD stores, but I hadn't seen this until last night. I always thought I was missing something. I had been, but not what I thought I'd been missing!

My first problem with this film is - what kind of a film is it? IMDb lists it as Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi - yes it contains all of these elements but the way in which they are put together and the story is paced, make it hard to make too much sense of the whole. A lot of the images and narrative have more a film noir feel about them. I sense that this film is so mysterious that it fails to deliver the potential it promises. Some elements of the story are not explained at all whilst others spoon feed you their meaning. The whole thing has an incoherence about it. IMDb reviews give it a score of 8.2 whilst Rotten Tomatoes gives it 85%. Well, not the first time I will call as I saw it and not be rating it as highly.

That said, not all is lost. there are some fine acting performances - particularly from the Gyllenhaals who play brother and sister and especially from Jake in the lead role. There is a spirited cameo from Patrick Swayze and a strong and nuanced performance from Jena Malone who plays Donnie's girlfriend, Gretchen. Some of the special effects are bit more X-files than anything more serious. The ending of the film works well on the level of sacrificial love, but quite how the outcome is actually achieved is unclear. Who is Frank the rabbit? How is donnie able to shoot him and roll back time? Why did he choose pain and grief for his family in restoring Gretchen to vitality?

The question about how real Frank is and what exactly is Donnie's state of mind are not addressed adequately. If his visions of the rabbit with the metallic head were simply that, then Donnie's psychosis would have better treated in a hospital than through hypnotherapy. Each time the therapist got somewhere important she had to end the session as she couldn't cope. Were his visions caused or treated by his medication? For all of Donnie's 'issues' he seemed to be otherwise well-adjusted as he navigated the choppy waters of High School. His care for the bullied and marginalised, and his courage to call hypocrisy for what it was are commendable character traits in a teenager.

Overall there are too many spurious plot deviations and the inability of the way the story unfolds to hang together means this film, for me, has some serious shortcomings. I can see that it may well be extremely popular for a teen/young adult audience but I'm not at all sure it has a lot to offer the rest of us. I'm going to give it 6/10 and I'm glad I can move the jolly rabbit off the shelf of films to watch and consign him to the library!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Some interesting books

Now I'm back from my holiday I can report I didn't watch any films but I have been doing some reading and would commend these three for your consideration.

Into the Dark - Craig Detweiler

This is a wonderfully accessible and well written book that invites the reader to journey hopefully into the dark in the hope of finding out more about themselves, others and God. Although this is a PhD thesis and a substantial work of theology, it is nevertheless a good read! The fact that Detweiler draws on such a wealth of theological sources means that this book is earthed in a series of big ideas that underpin his developing arguments.

Detweiler discusses the notions of special (Scripture) and general (everything else) revelation as means by which God may reveal himself to his creation. Detweiler holds that films present channels that make manifest God in a multiplicity of ways - if only we have eyes to see. On the back of this, Detweiler develops the idea promoted by John Wesley of prevenient grace.

The book is worth its cover price alone for the analysis of Spirited Away which to the Western viewer is as delightful as it is baffling. Many other films come in for close scrutiny as idea after idea is unpacked. The book climaxes with a wonderful exploration of the LOTR trilogy.

Don't be put off this book by the fact that it is a doctoral thesis and a work of theology. It is firmly embedded in popular culture and easy to get on with. The title comes from a 'Death Cab for Cutie' song of the same title which picks up on the song's enquiring agnosticism and offers a leap of faith into the dark that will reward.

The Good the Bad and the Multiplex - Mark Kermode

The marmite man of cinema. If you like the good Doctor, you'll love this book. There is very little in it that is new but he goes into greater detail about why multiplexes are bad news, why we should lament the demise of the projectionist, why 3D is useless and why Americans cannot cope with subtitles.

It is written in his usual gushing style and is an easy read. He illustrates his points with lots of anecdotes and stories which open up his ideas with great insight and humour.

It does what it says on the tin - go for it.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy 
- Eric Bronson, William Irwin.

This is an amazing book - I've read most of it in a couple of days. The book features a series of essays from well informed academics and commentators that explore the world of Stieg Larsson and the characters and ideas that feature in his Millenium trilogy.

The book begins in ancient Greece with a good dose of Aristotle and takes us on a tour which includes a feminist reading of Lisbeth Salander, a debate on the ethics of revenge, an exploration of Larsson's research into Nazi and right-wing activity in Sweden and across Europe and the vital question - why does Kalle Blomkvist drink all that coffee?

This book really opens up the trilogy in an invigorating and stimulating way and helps to set its fictional context firmly in the real world. I've just received the expanded 4 disc blu-ray set for my birthday and now look forward to watching them with greater anticipation. I'm not so excited by the Hollywood version due out over the holiday season!

Back to watching movies as soon as I can.