Saturday 22 May 2010

Monday Night Film Club roundup - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not for the squeamish), and more

It's been a while since the last monday night film club. Actually, there've been a couple that I haven't got round to writing up until now. What prompted me to do so was our first outing in over a month, for some not very light Swedish cinema.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I've been wanting to read Stieg Larsson's much talked about thriller for a little while now, in large part because it's been so much talked about and fairly well reviewed. I had hoped to get that done before seeing the film - I prefer to do things that way round - but in the end it was not to be.

While I was expecting some serious crime, I don't think I was ready for quite how gruesome a tale the viewer gets. Now, true enough, I probably wind up looking away from the screen more than most, but even so, the graphic scenes, particularly of sexual violence, are extremely unpleasant and difficult and troubling viewing. That said, they don't feel gratuitous either and they fit oddly well with the book's rather more appropriate Swedish title Men Who Hate Women, which really is what the story is about, rather than just a description of the title character.

The story weaves a complicated web of political intrigue as journalist Mikael Blomkvist, disgraced after losing a libel suit brought by a dishonest industrialist who has managed to set him up, is called in by Henrik Vanger, head of a wealthy industrial dynasty, to clear up the disappearance of his niece 40 years ago. He is assisted by the brilliant, dysfunctional, headstrong and traumatised young hacker Lisbeth Salander, the girl of the title.

It's stunningly shot. Some scenes, particularly as the main characters criss-cross the beautiful, and beautifully captured, Swedish landscape, call to mind Christopher Nolan's Insomnia.  A nicely atmospheric score helps.

There's just one problem. At some level it's very hard to ignore the feeling that this is a not particularly impressive thriller very well filmed. Without giving it away, many aspects of the plot are cliched to say the least. Yes, the story is rife with intrigue, corruption, and the like, but this isn't the intricate genius of a Sherlock Holmes story; beneath all the dressing this is actually a pretty simple, if rather nasty, story. When the resolution to the mystery finally comes, it is a little puzzling that this billionaire businessman, with all the resources he has at his disposal, hasn't been able to locate a solution in forty years. In many respects this is a standard closed room mystery. In places it is rather too quickly told as well. The ending especially feels like a lot of plot needed to be fitted into not too much space. The strong performances from the leads (Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace) don't always completely shake the feeling that we've seen this tale of the odd couple, thrown together to solve a crime, a few times before.

None of which is to say that it isn't well worth seeing; it is. It leaves me wanting to read the book and looking forward to the remaining films (which I gather have already aired in Sweden so are doubtless not too far off here). Yet it doesn't quite seem to justify the hype that surrounds the books. The film is in Swedish with subtitles, but as is often the case, you quickly stop noticing.

A Prophet

Which brings us neatly to another foreign language film, this time the French Un prophète, which we saw a few months back and which I've not got round to reviewing. The short version would run something like, if you're a fan of gangster movies or prison movies (or, ideally, both, since this is both), you may very well enjoy it. With the exception of The Shawshank Redemption, I'm not especially, which is probably why I didn't think too much of it.

Tahar Rahim plays Malik, the titular prophet. Sent to prison for a never detailed, but presumably relatively minor offence, the film charts his spiral deeper into the world of crime while at the same time educating himself. It fits to talk about it at the same time as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo since it is also fairly gruesome in places, such as early on when Malik is pressured to murder a fellow inmate. The murdered inmate then haunts his mind intermittently for the rest of the film, at times conferring a degree of prophesy. However, since the most said prophesy ever seems to amount to is a prediction of who will win a basketball game in the prison yard and that a car will crash into a deer with no especially great consequences, one wonders exactly what the point is.

Generally, though, writer and director Jacques Audiard tells his story in an almost documentary style, with conversation at times monosyllabic. He also tells it pretty slowly. It isn't boring per se, but since I personally couldn't care less about any of the characters, it isn't exactly compelling.

Then comes the ending. I won't spoil it, but things get tied up extremely suddenly, in a manner that jars slightly with the whole style of the film. They also get tied up in a manner that isn't at all clear. There's a big confrontation, but I can't understand how on earth it has the consequences that it does.

In short, I wouldn't hurry to see it.

Crazy Heart

Which bring us onto the final film I want to discuss in this post. Crazy Heart is one of those films where you watch the trailer and can't help wondering if you've seen the whole film.

Washed up, alcoholic country singer Bad Blake (an oscar winning performance by Jeff Bridges) tours the most minor venues imaginable, such as the glamour of a bowling alley, while failing to write any new songs. Fortunately he soon runs into young single mother and music journalist Maggie Gyllenhaal. And, well, you can pretty well see exactly where it goes from here.

In the film's defence, it doesn't chose to go down the nauseatingly cliched route you might expect, but it's still fairly predictable. The performances are generally strong, and the likes of Robert Duvall are always watchable, no matter how minor their part. Colin Farrell is on hand as Tommy Sweet, Blake's form protege who has now eclipsed him in fame, if not talent, and whose songs Blake is reduced to writing.

What of Bridges himself? I'm bound to say I can't see anything especially remarkable in his performance. He's good - but winning an oscar ought to require something extra special and I don't see that.

It's a diverting enough film, and has a nice often catchy soundtrack, but it is hardly a must see.

Which brings me all up to date with Monday night film club. Hopefully there'll be another before too long, and hopefully it will be reviewed rather more promptly.

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