Monday, January 16, 2012

the skin i live in

Like the birthday kid at a swimming party, you’re thrown in in the deep end of this head-scratching psychological thriller and left to flail about helplessly for about the first half hour before someone throws you a flotation device, but even then, it’s maybe the equivalent of three ping-pong balls rather than a lifejacket. What this does have at the start is a brylcreemed Robert Ledgard (Antionio Banderas), craniofacial plastic surgeon extraordinaire who lives in a sprawling Spanish estate; Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), a beautiful woman who wanders around a sparsely furnished room wearing nothing but a body stocking; and a house full of servants who seem totally at ease with the fact that Robert has a woman locked in a room in his house. Why she is there, why Robert has video cameras in her room that feed into his wall-sized television and why Marilia (Marisa Paredes)—his longtime housekeeper—is so complicit in the captivity so badly is the soul of the story, told back and forth in time from the death of Robert’s wife up to the present (actually the future, as it’s set in February 2012.)

I wouldn’t dare spoiler anything for you, but be assured the horror of the story—and you will be horrified—has little to do with the new, resilient skin that Robert is experimenting with and more to do with the horrendous acts people commit. If you aren’t in a position to deal with sexual assault on film, stay far away from this one. Not only are the scenes convincingly awful, as the experience must be, but the confusion surrounding them can make for an uncomfortable viewing. I’m loathe to say more and ruin the movie, which held countless surprises, but there you have it. It touches on a few sex/gender issues as well, which Pedro Almodovar has done in the past. Having a director out there game to try some new stuff is great, but I guess I feel a little out of my depth in commenting too much on it.

So, onto things I know! I know I generally love Antonio but found him completely alarming in this film; I know that the acting was amazing from everyone. Almodovar is adept at getting nuances out of actors who get offered Western roles that aren’t quite as meaty (Penelope Cruz, for example, is excellent in Volver but more popular in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, where everyone is required to be melodramatic) so seeing Banderas in a role where he wasn’t likeable was hard—because usually he’s so lovely in them—but also impressive. The choppy narrative style was an interesting route to take and, luckily, fell on the side of compelling instead of annoying (though I probably annoyed everyone around me by whispering my confusion at Chris every five minutes.) It was a very narrowly landscaped film—we get a feel for Ledgard’s home but not the environment around it, and only a few other settings, which means it doesn’t feel particularly Spanish (apart from the fact that it’s in Spanish and subtitled) and instead feels appropriately claustrophobic.

It’s a confronting, engaging, revenge-driven flick filled with relationships you’re continually unsure of. Who do you hate? Where does the right of revenge end? Why do people ask rhetorical questions anyway? Well, perhaps I’ll stop and just rate it something high like eight out of ten tiger stripes.

As requested by the lovely Afsana

Monday, January 9, 2012


The ten-minute introduction to the movie Hugo, before the title card even reminds you what you’re at the cinema to see, is an absolute popcorn-gobbling delight of special effects. As we follow the titular hero through the labyrinthine pathways that make up the landscape of his home—living behind the walls at a Parisian train station—we pass through cogs and pendulums and down slides and up rickety stairs, all merging seamlessly together to create an entirely new and beautiful world. Seeing this in 3D is even more incredible, and is an immediate way to engage your audience so that they’re staring slack-jawed with glee within moments.

The world of young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) himself is not so lovely. It’s 1931, and, orphaned after the death of his clockmaker father (Jude Law) in a museum fire and sent to live with his alcoholic uncle, his life goes from quiet contentment to ruination. Unable to go to school, running the station’s clocks is his only job, but one he must do perfectly in case anyone notices that as the movie begins, he is now alone, his uncle having abandoned him. Apart from the clocks, Hugo spends his time tending to a broken automaton his father found in a museum, trying to find parts for it—or to steal them from the station’s toymaker, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) out of view of the orphan-catching Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). After an altercation with Georges that sees him lose his father’s notebook, a precious memento that also holds the clues to fixing the writing-robot that is his father’s only legacy, he thinks all is doomed. But wait! Because it’s an adventure story (and a self-referential one at that), an effervescent girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, adorable) is waiting in the wings to befriend him, even though her guardian is Georges himself. And between them, they may just hold the not entirely metaphorical key to everyone’s angst—Hugo’s emotional and mechanical problems, and the secret her godfather has been keeping for years.

Hugo is a love letter to cinema itself: not only in its visuals, but in the subject matter and in the characters themselves. Hugo’s father adored cinema and took his son to films, whereas Georges has never let Isabelle see a movie in her life. There is a glorious line to make all movie-lovers sigh, as Hugo tells Isabelle about the first time his father had seen a movie: “He said it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.” The history of film is touched on as well, as the first one shown—a train pulling into a station—causes the entire audience to shriek and run as the train barrels towards the camera. Connected to it all is cinematic genius Georges Melies, whom you might remember from a particularly referenced and adored film scene where the moon cops a rocket to the eye. Any movie about movies is one that floats my boat, and this is lovingly rendered in every way, where the recreations of hundred-year-old special effects still have the power to amaze, and the loss of film can cause the loss of much more personally.

Quirky French touches abound, as the station’s other occupants—flower-seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer), the object of the Station Inspector’s awkward affections; cafe owner Madame Emile (Frances de la Tour, one of three Harry Potter actors in the film—she played the French giantess); and newspaperman Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths, second Potter-person, Uncle Vernon) dance around each other and create a lightness and sweetness that the movie’s occasionally sad moments need. Moretz is a delight as an enthusiastic counterpart to Butterfield’s quiet grimness, and Cohen does a wonderful job making the initially dastardly Inspector a sympathetic character (it does take a while to warm to the man, though. What kind of jerk throws orphans in a cage?)

However I couldn’t really bond with Hugo himself, a character with a genuinely sorrowful backstory but who in Butterfield was unable to sell me on any of his emotions or the reasoning behind some of his actions. Sadly, this made him one of the least interesting characters in the movie for me. Papa Georges’ backstory, while interesting and visually entrancing, is not quite enough payoff for the build-up surrounding it—so I enjoyed the movie but still left the theatre feeling slightly unfulfilled. I do recall feeling the same way when I read the book as well: that I was hoping for a dramatic reveal and was underwhelmed. Characters frequently did the frustrating trope where they don’t explain their actions, choosing silence over logical discussion and making the movie stretch out into devastation when it could have been remedied by a nice chat over a cup of tea.

But it’s still a fun film, and kudos to director Martin Scorsese for doing to 3D what the mechanically brilliant young Hugo does to a mechanical mouse—injecting it with something new and wonderful. I give it eight out of twelve o’clock.

In Australia, Hugo is released January 12.

Monday, January 2, 2012

the girl with the dragon tattoo

David Fincher: he’s great, isn’t he? The Social Network was one of my favourite movies of recent years and he also made this little-known flick called Fight Club that you can’t mention in a sentence without everyone in the vicinity falling over themselves to sputter out their adoration of. He’s a talented director who knows how to craft addictive movies with an original edge.

So why, oh lord why, did he choose to remake Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish film that was perfectly capable of telling the story already? Why did he waste months and years of his precious filmmaker time to give everyone a third outing of the Millennium Trilogy? 30 million people worldwide have read the books; the first film made over a hundred million smackers. This is not some obscure gem that needed a fresh facelift: it’s all tremendously modern and already available in literary and film formats. So the question is: what did Fincher hope to achieve with his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and did he succeed? He claims that it is a completely different film from the Swedish version, but it’s not, of course. When they both work off the same source material, a dense brick of a novel with elaborate backgrounds for each character and incident, they are going to hit the same beats. Yes, it is different, because someone different directed it and the actors are different. Yes, it’s different because everyone speaks in English with Swedish accents (though they read Swedish-language newspapers.) But honestly, apart from a small change in the ending, it is the same film told the same way, and you’ll feel exactly the same by the end as you would at the end of the Swedish version. (That is: paranoid about government agencies, horrified by all men and never able to have sex again.)

It’s hard to see past that to judge the film on its own merits. Of course, it’s wonderfully cast: Rooney Mara captured the damaged (and thin) look wonderfully to be computer hacker/ward of the state Lisbeth Salander; Daniel Craig is the perfect age to be disgraced but excellent investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist; and Christopher Plummer is expansively patriarchal as Henrik Vanger, the wealthy industrialist who inadvertently brings the two together to solve a forty-year-old crime: the loss of his beloved niece. It’s not all Agatha Christie innocence, however: you will be disturbed, by the outcome and also by many scenes disturbing in both sexual and non-sexual gore (Lisbeth’s relationship with her new guardian Bjurman—Yorick van Wageningen—is especially something you’ll want to cover your eyes for.) The growing friendship between youthful Salander and craggy Blomkvist is convincing and enjoyable to witness; the peripheral characters are portrayed just about as you’d imagine them. On a visual level, Fincher perhaps overtakes Oplev purely because where Oplev sees the place he lives and conveys it in a natural way, Fincher sees it from our non-Swedish perspective, revealing the white, icy beauty and Ikea-white angles of homes and buildings. His intro, also, is quite mind-blowing, as a soft, tender tinkly piano barrels into a tar and sweat-soaked Karen O intro as Mara and Craig sex things up in an edgy, oiled-up way along with an eagle, a snake, and some raunchy flowers. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor score the whole flick with requisite rage and gentleness.

Lisbeth’s use of Google and Wikipedia to track someone down seems to undermine her enormous talent in the hacking field; the Swedish accents sometimes slip; I felt that despite the epic running time—nearly three hours—Lisbeth’s storyline was not given enough time; during a Eureka moment for Blomkvist he makes such a ridiculous show of taking off his glasses in mute shock it seemed like a cliché in what is otherwise a very cliché-free movie; and in frustratingly Hollywood way of thinking, female Rooney is given countless crotch shots and appears fully naked frequently while male Blomkvist (who is polyamorous and hardly a prude) reveals his chest and the barest hint of butt-crack.

Still, these facts don’t at all ruin the film. Fincher’s use of actors in their natural, often makeup-free state is commendable (and something I enjoyed about the first movie trilogy); the long running time doesn’t mean the movie drags—it’s enthralling from start to finish; Mara’s Salander, like Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version, is an absolute treat of a character, scarred from a lifetime of people screwing her over but with a raspy charm all her own: wearing a t-shirt saying “Fuck you you fucking fuck”, explaining Blomkvist’s background to the man who has hired her: “Sometimes he performs cunnilingus. Not often enough in my opinion”—she really is amazing and is the new style of heroine everyone says she is. It passes the Bechdel Test (barely) and, in Sweden, is called Men who Hate Women, so the women are smart and not underwritten.

By all means, go see it if you’re unable to see the Swedish version—it’s a well-crafted film telling a wholly interesting and grotesque family crime story. But without it showing me anything new about the story (which admittedly, I have possibly overdosed on), it is still a vaguely pointless exercise. Because of this, and my clear ragey bias about it, I’m not going to give this movie a rating. See it for yourselves and let me know what you think.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is out January 12.