Sunday 18 December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18, 158 mins)
Director: David Fincher
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Though it would be nice to think that this English language remake of the hit Swedish thriller has been made for any reason other than financial, with over 60 million books sold there’s a very sizable audience out there of people who couldn’t be bothered to read subtitles when the original trilogy was released in cinemas last year, so that plainly isn’t the case.

The basics are identical, so it’s in the details that the justification of whether or not this ought to exist lies. The addition of demented title credits that play out like an oil-slicked Bond sequence to a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song is an interesting start.

It even retains the Swedish setting, which throws up the daft situation of having Swedish characters being played by Americans, Canadians, Swedes and Brits, speaking to each other in English with Swedish accents, expect star Daniel Craig, who more or less stays English.

Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist for the acclaimed Millennium magazine (which lent its name to the title of Stieg Larsson’s original trilogy of books), who is tasked by an elderly, and very wealthy, businessman (Christopher Plummer) to look into the mystery surrounding his niece, who was murdered on the family’s private island 40 years before.

He believes someone in the family killed her but no one has ever been convicted, and he would like one more investigation of the events while he’s still around. But Blomkvist was only hired after a report by investigator and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) confirmed he was right for the job.

Lisbeth has her own problems; with her guardian gravely ill and her finances held in trust, she is brutally assaulted by the man controlling her money. By the time she and Mikael come together, with Lisbeth as his research assistant, we know exactly what she’s capable of.

Like the Swedish version, it’s all about the sensational character of Salander, an avenging punk angel brought to life in a startling performance by the relatively unknown Mara. Craig, so often solid but boring, is very good too, straight talking but not physically intimidating or able, which lends him some vulnerability.

A quietly insistent score twists the tension of what is, in the main, a talky affair, as Mikael interviews a sprawling collection of shady family members on the search for clues. As he does so, it takes on the dimensions of a classic murder mystery, full of files, photos and puzzle solving, ground that director David Fincher has been over before in his meticulous Zodiac.

It gets its point across without hanging about, though you could also never accuse it of rattling along, not with that running time. Yet it’s never dry or dull, done with enough grit and visual style to ensure it holds the attention. It’s on a more ambitious scale than its forebear, and though a little less scuzzily graphic than first time round, no punches are pulled.

In the credit column is a streamlining of all the Millennium shenanigans, meaning we don’t have to sit through a lot of office politics or the fact that Mikael is due to go to prison. But like the original film, it’s guilty of trundling on way too long once it seems to have peaked, and there’s also a curious switch in the timeline in the latter stages that dampens the impact of Lisbeth’s characterisation.

And if you’ve seen the original you’ll know every bend on the road, meaning this lands somewhere between workable and pointless. Though it’s the same film, it’s still a fine one, and you can probably add a star if you haven’t seen the Swedish version.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows review

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12A/PG-13, 128 mins)
Director: Guy Ritchie
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Surprising for all the right reasons, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes brought Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth to a whole new generation of fans, and cemented the comeback of Robert Downey Jr. as a smooth-talking, all-brawling Holmes.

It was more than enough of a financial success to beget this sequel, one that more or less replicates the first movie in terms of spotty and sporadic enjoyment to accompany its storytelling inadequacies.

Downey Jr. returns as Holmes, as does Jude Law as his associate Dr. Watson, and their banter and interplay remains the heart of the piece, with Holmes less than happy about Watson’s impending marriage, although this does develop into a rather wet and distracting subplot.

But the big news here is the appearance of Professor James Moriarty, arch-enemy to Holmes, who was merely seen in shadows in the first film. Played with a cool detachment by Jared Harris, it’s the scheme of the so-called Napoleon of Crime that drives a convoluted plot.

Set in 1891, there’s anarchy across Europe, and a series of bombings that Holmes, consulting detective, martial arts expert and amateur alchemist, is trying to get to the bottom of. Rachel McAdams pops up ever so briefly, reprising her role as the treacherous Irene Adler, working for Moriarty not entirely of her own choice.

But she’s soon replaced by the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swede Noomi Rapace, given a rather thankless role as a fortune teller roped into the whole business thanks to the involvement of her brother with Moriarty’s plans.

It’s here the film takes a bit of time to settle into its main story, rounding up all the supporting players including Stephen Fry, who puts in an appearance, essentially as Stephen Fry, playing Holmes’ brother Mycroft.

There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of logic or flow to the mechanics of the plot, more a sense that certain characters need to be in a certain place, and then the next sequence can begin. The result is disorganised, yet consistently fun enough almost to overlook the weaknesses.

Holmes soon has his first brief meeting with Moriarty, one which provides a promise of great machinations to come, so it’s a shame they only have a couple more opportunities to play their intellectual chess game that ultimately becomes a literal one.

Holmes thrives on having a nemesis in Moriarty worthy of him and their scenes together are when they're both at their most interesting, when the game is afoot. Moriarty is seemingly always a step ahead, with an early reference to Reichenbach Falls tipping off Holmes fans as to where it all might be heading.

And yet their mutual antagonism fails to sizzle quite as much as may have been hoped, with Moriarty never quite as dangerous and menacing as he ought to be, and the actual details of his plan to start a major Europe-wide war little more than window dressing.

The rest is robust fights that too often descend into shootouts, but with so much fisticuffs and gunplay it leaves little time for any real sleuthing, surely the driving force behind why Holmes exists at all. Still, the meticulous pre-planning of everything that will transpire when he’s about to pull off one of his ingenious plans is still something to marvel at.

Also worth marvelling at is a level of production value that amazingly makes this look even better than the already gorgeous first movie did, albeit a shade darker and grimier. Though it’s a shame almost all of it takes place outside of London, it remains firmly rooted in a late Victorian aesthetic, yet with a modern sheen that steers clear of steam-punk anachronism.

Director Guy Ritchie once again plays out the fights in super slow motion, a highly stylised approach that renders the movie exciting because it’s boisterous and noisy, not because it’s especially imaginative or clever. And, crucially, it lacks that that one intricate sequence that isn’t just a lot of bang-bang.

It’s not disappointing then by most standards, just likely to leave a nagging sense that it could, and should, all be so much better.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked review

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (U, 87 mins)
Director: Mike Mitchell
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Alvin and his brothers Theodore and Simon are computer generated rock star chipmunks whose two movie outings thus far have set box office tills worldwide ringing to the tune of $800m, all the while offering barely a moment’s entertainment. This inevitable second sequel sees them, along with their ‘dad’ Dave (Jason Lee) and girl group the Chipettes on a cruise ship, where what Dave has planned as a relaxing vacation turns into a nightmare thanks to Alvin being more mischievous than ever. A hang-gliding stunt ends up with them lost at sea, where sadly they don’t drown but end up on a desert island where sadly they're not eaten by foxes. Once again, an actual plot is not on the minds of the filmmakers, though the island setting does keep it focussed and there is real threat and stakes. Still, there are many inexplicable elements, with once again the Chipettes voiced by Anna Faris and Christina Applegate when they could be anyone, and really the film is just mostly a tired parade of dance routines and cover songs. There’s no faulting the CGI used to realise the rodents, and there are a couple of nice Cast Away gags, but largely it’s pratfalls and pop culture references, and to say it’s an improvement on the brain-piercing atrocity that was the second Alvin movie, The Squeakquel, is damning with very faint praise indeed.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

New Year’s Eve review

New Year’s Eve (12A/PG-13, 118 mins)
Director: Garry Marshall
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

An in-concept only follow up to Valentine’s Day, this hideous romantic comedy tracks what appears to be several thousand different characters on a New York New Year’s Eve, taking in births, deaths and marriages, with many of them orbiting Jon Bon Jovi’s rock star, due to play a gig at Times Square where most of them end up gathering. Returning players such as Jessica Biel and Ashton Kutcher take on entirely different characters from those in Valentine’s Day, while the likes of Robert De Niro, Halle Berry and Sarah Jessica Parker get roped into feeble situations constructed with the most flat and uninspired direction and acting imaginable. With an alarming dearth of laughs when it’s not being cloying and obvious, it soon progresses from just being bad to active incompetence, made with a complete lack of care and attention. The only remotely tolerable thread involves Zac Efron helping out Michelle Pfeiffer’s dowdy office worker, but they're forced too frequently to make way for the rest of a catastrophe that makes Valentine’s Day look like His Girl Friday.