Film #27: The Guard (2011)

Directed by: James Michael McDonagh
Language: English and a little bit of Gaelic
Length: 96 minutes
Watched on: 3 September

I went to see this film pretty much on a whim and wasn’t disappointed. It’s basically a black comedy set in Ireland about a police officer who doesn’t give a shit. It’s inevitable that it’ll be compared to “In Bruges”, with which it shares an actor – also, both are about Irish people and their directors are brothers. But I think “In Bruges” wins somehow, possibly just because it’s even more tragic at the end.

This film captures the boredom of small town life in the arse end of Ireland rather well – and best of all, does it without being a boring film, like so many auteurish pieces before it. The plot is pretty much that Don Cheadle’s character, an FBI agent, is after some drug smugglers on the coast, and Brendan Gleeson is enlisted to help him. And, of course, Gleeson’s character is probably the most uncouth and racist on the entire police force.

Other scenes in the movie are pretty predictable but funny, such as Cheadle trying to get an answer out of village residents who refuse to speak English, and coming back to a Gleeson who proceeds to ask him very matter-of-factly whether it’s true that black folks can’t swim.

It’s quite a slow buildup overall, but with plenty of laughs, and there are a couple of cool action sequences in it, almost surprisingly. Well worth catching if you get the chance, anyway.


Millennium Trilogy 2 & 3

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden)
Book #18
written by: Stieg Larsson
released in: 2006
original language: Swedish
length: 569 pages
finished reading on: 22 August
Film #26
directed by: Daniel Alfredson
released in: 2009
language: Swedish
length: 124 minutes
watched on: 23 August
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)
Book #19
written by: Stieg Larsson
released in: 2007
original language: Swedish
length: 743 pages
finished reading on: 6 September
Film #28
directed by: Daniel Alfredson
released in: 2009
language: Swedish
length: 140 minutes
watched on: 12 September

Millennium is the second long trilogy I’ve managed to eat my way through this year (the first was the Red Mars trilogy)… these are incredibly engrossing books. I’m reviewing these two books (and their corresponding films) together mainly because they fit together as a coherent tale, while the first book stood very much alone.

The tale gets a lot more involved specifically with our heroine Lisbeth Salander than the first book (the first book concentrated a lot more than these did on the male protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, who is pretty much based directly on the author himself), and aspects of her past and private lives. It opens, first of all, with a creepy fragment of what we can only assume is paedophilic sexual abuse, upon a victim that is probably Salander – its context will be returned to later in the book. Then it goes into a slightly surreal sequence where Salander is trapped in a hurricane in Grenada, of all places; she falls in love with a teenage boy and carries out a bit of vigilantism against a man she hears abusing his wife. The entire sequence, which was simply cut out of the film, doesn’t really do much to further the plot; it seems to serve the purpose of developing her character, but not much more than that. It’s somewhat symptomatic of Larsson’s writing: while generally good, it’s very bulky and padded, and could do with a bit of ruthless editing to cut out the parts that aren’t needed. I think it could have easily cut this section out and got the ball rolling a lot quicker than it did.

The plot of the second book is great: we get a mystery hook early on in the book, and implicate a major character in a crime, and this basically draws out the plot of the rest of the book, and the whole of the third one, as things are later brought to trial. The ancilliary mysteries about Salander’s past life then open up, and we’re led on a hunt for an enigmatic man named Zala, and get to see people kicking ass.

It wasn’t so obvious, however, where the third book was headed. The plot was mainly drawn out surrounding a court case, and there were whole pages that I felt like skipping because they were talking about Swedish constitutional law and parts of modern Swedish political history that I’m simply not familiar with – unlike the other books, the volume of such insider information gets so great that the translators actually included a glossary of names at the back of the book. Like the first two books, it gets going eventually, as we discover a conspiracy, hinted about in the second book, and a B-plot where the character of Erika Berger is harrassed and stalked.

It can’t have been that bad, though, because the third book was significantly longer than the second, and I finished it in about half the time. I think this may have simply been because I was already in my stride by that point.

There are a couple of general points I do quite want to bring out. The first point actually applies to all three books, and I forgot to mention it for the first book in my previous review. Basically, Larsson has a habit of inserting real things, and real brands, and occasionally real people, into his work. I just have to say I find this strange. It sort of lends credence to the work, reminding you that it’s set in the real world, but then you worry that he’s been paid by these brands to put them in his book, which I doubt (of course, that probably is true in the case of the films!).

But the other thing it does, and I’m reminded of when Hergé put Tintin in brown jeans when he wrote Tintin and the Picaros in the 1970s, is to date the work terribly. When you have a named brand, you get a certain level of technology. Salander loves to use her state-of-the-art Powerbook, but as any Apple afficionado will tell you, the latest model is the Macbook, and Powerbooks are hopelessly out-of-date. Books can’t keep up with technology, essentially. The film updates some of the technology and makes it up-to-date and simpler, sometimes. A very complicated subplot in the book where Blomkvist wants to get a hospital-ridden Salander communicating with him online – involving a smuggled Palm handheld computer, a mobile phone to connect it to the internet and about five different accomplices – could be simplified in the film to one accomplice, the doctor who comes and secretly hands Salander a Blackberry (I have to say, I found it a bit comedic).

There’s also a weird part where he writes the apparently not fictional at all boxer Paulo Roberto into the second book. Roberto even comes and plays himself in the film. It’s kind of mystifying to me why Larsson did this… I have read that he essentially wrote for pleasure and didn’t necessarily plan to have his books published, so it’s maybe simply that he couldn’t be bothered thinking up a fictional boxer, as one would normally do in such circumstances.

My second point that I wanted to muse on for a few seconds was that Blomkvist and Salander hardly speak at all during these books. She’s all in a huff with him because of some trumped-up reason, and they end up only communicating via online methods, where they’re just snarky with each other, and actually meeting, in both books, only right at the end. I can kind of understand it a bit better for the second book, but the interaction between the two characters was one of the best parts about the first book, I felt, and I was sort of expecting, via some sort of narrative causality, that they would actually spend time together during the third book.

The last point is that in exactly the same way as the first book, the third book seems to wrap up all of its plot points almost as an afterthought, and it suffers somewhat from ending fatigue. In particular, there was one important character, Niedermann, whose story Larsson really must have forgotten to sort out, because he only returns in an epilogue.

As for the films, they’re cool. I still think Noomi Rapace is utterly brilliant as Salander. But they’re a little bit short, and the third one, especially, really has to get out the hedge trimmers, and all that’s left is pretty much the bare minimum – and yet even then there are some confusing changes to bits of the plot, such as Niedermann tracking Salander to her hospital and becoming the big bad of the film (his story is more effectively interspersed in the film, rather than showing up only at the end as an afterthought, as I mentioned). Evidently, an extended edition of each was also shown on Swedish TV as a miniseries, although even then it’s not exactly long enough to fit everything in. But, as with the first book, I definitely enjoyed the enhanced experience of watching it straight after reading the book, because that way I can remember more effectively what’s been missed out and what hasn’t.

Anyway, overall, I’d say I enjoyed the second book more than the third, but both were equally engrossing. If they suffer any problems, they’re probably also present in the first book, or I’ve outlined them here. I’d definitely recommend them.

Stuff I saw in the Festival

A quick roundup of things I saw in this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Two months too late as usual, but here we go…

1. Andy Zaltzman (16/8/11)
Andy Zaltzman is a funny man. But as a political satirist, he suffers the insurmountable problem that topicality can change at any moment, and, to his own admission (while he pointed pointedly at his mocked up “Certified Satirist” award in an attempt to excuse any bad joke that came up), he had had a bit of trouble when the riots in London started a week or so after he’d arrived in Edinburgh, and he had to rewrite half his show to accommodate it. Tellingly, half the jokes were repeats of ones he’d already told on his podcast The Bugle. Anyway, it was great to see him live again, and a barrage of bad dog-themed puns by someone with experience is always much more preferable to seeing newspaper headliners attempting them. It was also the best thing I saw in the festival (spoiler alert).

2. Jay Foreman (18/8/11)
Jay Foreman is losing his touch, I feel. As his show is one of those odd blends of music and comedy, he is tied down somewhat by the expectation that he will perform his old stuff as well as new stuff and his comedy can suffer for that. His theme was something to do with “the Future”, which was basically him moaning about how he’s getting older. Fittingly, his song The Procrastinator has had the lyrics changed to “Who remembers MSN?!” rather than “Don’t go on MSN!” And there was a lovely moment near the start when he sang the first song at breakneck speed when someone walked in late, in order to get them up to speed. He must have been practising at that. Enjoyable, anyway. Perhaps not worth the price tag.

3. “The Truth Explained in Doodles” (18/8/11)
Free stuff is very hit-and-miss sometimes. This particular show, jointly run by a man of diminuitive stature and a young “guest star” comedian, very much had the air of comedians trying to find their feet and find out what works. The short guy (who did actually start riffing about his height later on in the show – I actually thought it’d have been better if he’d kept it as some kind of elephant in the room) started with a really awkward dance thing that didn’t make any sense, and then the main part of the show was conducted via some kind of powerpoint or flash video – I think it was the second, in which case it was very nicely programmed and well thought-out. But there weren’t really any doodles, just cartoony animals that popped up occasionally. As for the other guy, he talked about how embarrassing it is to get caught wanking by your mum, if I remember correctly. He got more laughs, but it felt insanely awkward and inappropriate on certain levels.

4. “International Gay Sampler” (24/8/11)
I actually only got to see half of this, because we had tickets to something else, but the two comedians that I saw – one from Canada and one from the north of England somewhere – were very good and had us in stitches. I kinda regret having to leave… as free stuff goes, this was particularly good.

5. 4 Poofs and a Piano (24/8/11)
I, well, didn’t really enjoy this. I felt strangely outside of its target market, because I swear most of the audience were straight women, and the guys were flirting with presumably-straight guys in the audience to try and make them feel uncomfortable. It had a certain charm, but in general it was just a bit naff – I think that’s the best way I can put it. And that’s partly why I regret leaving the other show to run over to this one. Never mind, though.

6. The Sexual Awakening of Peter Mayo (25/8/11)
We were lied to about this show – it wasn’t half price and there weren’t any free lollipops. Thieving bastards. Shouldn’t have bothered, really… it was an OK but very studenty theatre production with three actors, and halfway through I started to need a pee really, really badly, which distracted me. It’s basically about a character, who clearly takes after Moss from The IT Crowd, finding his sexual prowess and going to orgies, or something like that. The other two characters were originally presented as together and sexually confident, and by the end of it, it turns out through a very simplistic dramatic irony that they’re the ones who don’t really have it together and are hiding behind smokescreens. The play had a nice visual style to it; there was a box made of electric lights around the stage, and the characters would step out of it to “pause” the play and make a soliloquy or some kind of exposition. It was an effectively told, simple story, but I could take it or leave it, at the end of the day.

Books #16 & 17: Moomin volumes 1 & 5

Finished on: 25 July and 15 August respectively.

I already wrote about Moomin volume 3 a few months back. To be honest, I don’t really have much to add about these volumes that hasn’t been said about volume 3.

I picked 1 and 5 rather randomly, possibly just by virtue of them being on the shelves in the library; they’re both cool for different reasons: volume 1 is of course the sort of genesis of Moomin. In the first story he doesn’t actually have parents, for instance. Volume 5 contained only stories that I hadn’t seen adapted to the TV series (unlike volume 3), which was also cool.

Its newspaper comic origins are still painfully obvious, however, with the storyline often taking an abrupt turn, and suspense generally not kept up for very long. In the second story, Moomin starts fretting about not having any parents, and sure enough, only about 4 strips later, two middle aged Moomins show up to take care of him – only 4 strips after that, they realise that they are actually his long-lost parents. I just found it slightly contrived and strange.

Anyway, it’s cool. I like the little patterns that emerge, like each story starting with a shot of Moomin’s big fat bum. Also, I’ve seen books 2 and 4 in the library, so I should probably check them out while I’m still in Edinburgh…

Film #25: Arrietty (2010)

aka: 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)
director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
language: Japanese
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 13 Aug

Studio Ghibli’s latest is an adaptation of the children’s story The Borrowers, which I think I read as a child, but I have no recollection of its story or really anything specific about it other than the fact that it’s about a family of tiny Lilliputians who hide out under the floorboards. I can no longer remember the specifics, but the main character Arrietty is accidentally spotted by a boy living in their house, who she ends up making friends with.

It’s pretty much standard Ghibli fare. It’s got all the basic archetypes: strong, independent female lead, male love interest, evil witch-like character. There’s very little I can really criticise it on other than this fact; it’s just not that original in terms of the other stories that Ghibli has produced. I think this was Yonebayashi’s first bash at being a director, so it’s quite possible that he was given something relatively typical of the kinds of films Ghibli produces, in order to ease him into the work or something.

Basically, I enjoyed it, but I much prefer some of Ghibli’s earlier work. But whenever I see the title, I start mentally singing the French (well, apparently it’s Quebecois, but it’s certainly in French) song Alouette, gentil alouette, perhaps with the heroine’s name substituted for the word ‘alouette’ (skylark, I believe). For that alone I find it annoying. It was a good film, however; I shouldn’t let my weird malapropisms put me off so.

Anyway, it’s come to my attention that I’m getting hits because people are doing a google search for “tintin” and coming across the very first post on this blog about the 1960s live action film (but with a rant thrown in about my negative anticipation of the new film). I’ve just watched the film today… so I should probably have a blog post up about it in, oh, two months or so. It should be a good impetus to get through my backlog, really.

Film #24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

director: David Yates
language: English
length: 130 minutes
watched on: 7 Aug

Apparently nightclubs in Edinburgh all open till 5am during August. Festival’s gotta be good for something, at least. Harry Potter comes into it because I trundled down to the local cinema one Sunday afternoon having been out until half 4 or something the night before. So ridiculously late. Anyway, the local cinema has leather fucking sofas instead of rubbishy chairs, and is particularly spacious, and doesn’t cost anything more than the bigger chains. And thus all was well, and I was able to veg out in front of the final installment of everyone’s favourite wizard. The 8th film, ironically. Kinda like Voldemort’s soul…

Basically, I do think is a big issue around the fact that they decided, in the world’s most rubbishly-disguised ploy for money, to split the final book into two films (the official excuse was to fit more of the material into the film). I think both films suffer as a result. Now, the book isn’t the best of the 7, and we’ll come to that, but it follows the most basic of basic narrative structures: build-up, then climax. Here we now have one film which is all build-up, and one film which is all climax. Part 1 does manage to end on a nice cliffhanger, but it’s not a decent climax – and it’s mostly them being broody in a tent. Part 2 ends up being almost completely centred around the one battle. It begins with a relatively feeble amount of build-up, as most of the emotional scenes between the characters have already happened in Part 1.

But anyway, whatever this film is, it’s hard to make it anything better than its source material… which is, well, not that great. My mind might just be clouded slightly by that god-damn epilogue – it is, after all, the note that the book leaves you on – but the whole ending isn’t really that satisfying to begin with, and I think the story suffers by leaving its original setting of Hogwarts right up until the end – the splitting of the films into 2 does mitigate this effect somewhat, however, as the second film now spends much more time in Hogwarts than the equivalent from the book. The whole thing about the Deathly Hallows (which have been more sensibly renamed relics in basically every other language – what the hell is a hallow?) was confusing to begin with, and not translated very well into the film medium in my opinion.

I think the battle between Harry and Voldemort was extended compared to the book… I certainly don’t remember Voldemort grabbing Harry in the book as he does in the film (see the still above), and I’m fairly sure Harry didn’t spout some cheesy homoerotic line at Voldemort right before they plunge… together… off a tall… tower…

As for Snape’s subplot, a lot of people have pointed it out, and it’s a fairly trivial and obvious error: if you spend the entire film series pointing out that Harry “has his mother’s eyes” – and the line is repeated moments before the offending scene – you don’t then cut almost directly from Daniel Radcliffe with bright blue eyes to the young Lily Potter with very dark brown eyes. It’s as if they couldn’t even be bothered. Or is it meant to be some kind of postmodern commentary on the fact that neither of them actually have green eyes?

That said, the awesome quotient was high, and I do remember Professor McGonagall kicking ass on more than one occasion. So I can’t fault it for that. And it was enjoyable. And I can’t wait until it comes out on DVD so that I can watch it as a marathon with any willing participants.

The fact that this movie was released in two parts, while I’m still musing over the subject, actually calls into question why they didn’t do the same with some of the other movies. Or make them all into a mini-series. I mean they could have filmed buckets of extra material in order to create an extended edition or something. Maybe that’s the next money-grabbing plan…

Oh yeah, another musing: why is it not OK (“unforgivable”, indeed) to use the Avada Kedavra curse, yet it’s OK for Julie Andrews to explode Helena Bonham Carter into thousands of little butterflies after delivering her immortal line? The end result is the same, after all: dead witch. I’ll just leave that one there…

Anyway, so that’s the end of the film series… I know I’ll probably anger a lot of hardcore fans by saying this, but my favourite (of both the book and film series) is definitely the 3rd one, Prisoner of Azkaban. I hear a lot of fans complaining that it’s the least true to the book, and while I agree that it makes a few gaping plotholes, it’s the best directed and the most cinematic of all the movies. And of course it has the best source material, which helps somewhat. I’m not so much of a fan of the first two movies, which seem to keep in line with the books better, but have shite scenery and are probably slightly too kids’ movie for my liking.

I suppose I’ll have to find some other way to appease my occasional Harry Potter appetite now… I can’t find the earlier books at all, even though I quite want to read them again. I could always rewatch one of the films. I’ve been reading various articles online about it all, anyway, and I did recently find out that there is a sequel to A Very Potter Musical (which was brilliant and hilarious), although it’s very long. I’ll get around to it eventually!