Film #277: Bad Education (2004)

aka: La mala educación
director: Pedro Almodóvar
language: Spanish and a bit of Latin
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 24 March 2017

This was my first Almodóvar film way back when, and still my favourite. It’s probably my fourth time watching it, but the last time was a whopping nine years ago. As such, I could only have given a very simple outline of the plot before watching it. I’d forgotten exactly how the main twist turns out.

There are so many layers to this movie. It starts with a film producer reading a script given to him: the first film within the film, which follows two transgender characters trying to blackmail the Catholic priest principal of their former school. But there’s also a story within the story, as it flashes back to the characters’ childhood – their abuse by the priests, and their own sexual awakening to each other (in a cinema, which is perhaps the only known example of a film within a film within a film within a film?).

It’s many stories rolled into one, but it stays coherent, and has a strong anti-establishment message. It has a compelling mystery at the centre of it that unfolds slowly. It’s super gay, too (although I remember some of my university friends complaining that my tastes were too predictable in this regard – to which I say they had too much internalized homophobia and I hope they’ve changed). And perhaps its greatest appeal is seeing Gael Garcia Bernal in drag – but he basically plays three different characters during the movie too, a very diverse role (and not even in his native accent, apparently).

I hadn’t noticed before that when the film switches to the story within the story, the frame also shortens from the wider cinescope ratio to a smaller frame, signifying when we’re switching from one story to another. It did this similarly to The Grand Budapest Hotel, but not quite to the same degree.

I also talked about stories within stories recently with Magpie Murders, and I think this film is a much higher calibre of such a story, not to diminish that book too much.

So I like this movie a lot. It still has power to shock and amuse almost ten years later, which can’t be said for many movies. How about you? What’s your favourite Almodóvar film?


Film #273: King Cobra (2016)

director: Justin Kelly
language: English
length: 92 minutes
watched on: 9 March 2017

I heard about this film late last year and was instantly intrigued – it’s about the gay porn industry, and specifically Brent Corrigan, gay porn’s poster boy for the past twelve years. It’s based on the young porn star’s life as a teenager getting into the porn industry, and then the drama that ensues.

Brent Corrigan’s name will probably be familiar to most gay readers, I think – I guess it’s funny that I don’t think any straight porn stars have the same level of fame. The real Corrigan has since branched out to real acting under his real name, Sean Paul Lockhart – he was in Judas Kiss, for example, which I watched a few years ago.

As seems to be par for the course with biopics (viz. Tickled and a few others), Lockhart has publicly denounced this film and called it exploitative and misrepresentative of the gay porn industry. No doubt, but it’s a fun interpretation of a book written about the Brent Corrigan saga.

The climax (spoilers, by the way!) deals with the eventual murder of Christian Slater’s character, the producer who’d worked with Corrigan and claimed copyright on the name Brent Corrigan, by two rival producers, James Franco’s character and his young lover – who were trying to get Corrigan to work for them. This much is apparently true, although the aftermath was rushed in the film and the real Lockhart has complained about this section in particular.

The other main point in the film is the relatively well-known fact that Lockhart was only 17 when he made his first couple of movies, making the movies illegal child pornography. The fallout from this also seems to be true-to-life.

The film is sexy, and it has a nice colour palette, with a lot of pink and red – it almost reminded me of Pink Narcissus, although that might be too high praise for it. It looks very polished, too, and I thought it was fun to watch. Christian Slater’s and James Franco’s characters are suitably creepy, although the real Lockhart has complained about this too. I noticed they were trying to really go for the mid-2000s as a period, so it was funny to see the amount of flip-phones being used, and the old-style websites. It’s funny that we’re already at the point that we can stereotype that era.

But it’s also exploitative, often treating sex as a joke, and it doesn’t know how to balance tone. James Franco is probably partly culpable here – I find his attitude towards the gay community in general to be exploitative (and there’s an argument to be made that this is his vehicle more than anyone else’s). It’s usually quite funny and playful, but will throw a character’s history of sexual abuse in your face at a moment’s notice. It’s also weird sometimes – as if to try and raise the glamour level of porn, the main characters are constantly discussing porn loudly in expensive restaurants, to the point where it got annoying and unrealistic. Don’t these people have offices?

Also, while I did enjoy the colourfulness and the set design in general, I think the director still has some way to go with editing and cinematography. I remember one long take of one particular conversation, that cut halfway through to shot-reverse shot style, and I was jolted out of watching it. I think he still hasn’t found his own style, not quite.

There’s also the issue of the ending, which is rushed. I wanted to see more of the fallout from the murder, but it was framed as the climax here. There’s also a comment from Corrigan working as a porn producer right at the end, which echoes directly a comment made by Christian Slater, suggesting he’s no better than the creep who came before him.

Basically, it has a lot of issues and it is pretty amateurish, but it was fun to watch. That’s the best way to describe it, I think.

Films #219-226: Boys on Film X (Short film series)

bof10Watched on: 7 Aug, 10 Aug, 12 Aug 2016
Total length: 133 minutes

I ordered this DVD online after I had enjoyed another installment of this series. As I think I’ve ranted before, the selection of gay-themed stuff is a bit thin on the ground in Japan, and while this is a UK-produced series, I always get a bit disappointed when Amazon at home has a better selection of books and DVDs than the Japanese one. Anyway, this was available for import, and not too expensive, so I went for it.

Just like the other DVD, I watched it over a few days, but not consecutively. It’s easy to dip in and out like that, with these series. As with the other one, the production values of all the movies are generally high, and the cinematography is generally very ‘filmic’. But the quality of the movies varies a lot. One in particular stood out to me a lot for various reasons, and I could probably write an essay about my feelings on that one alone. I’m going to try and avoid writing too much, though.

As for overall impressions, I think the quality has gotten better compared to the last DVD I watched, and for my birthday I requested my mum to send over some more of these DVDs – which you can just buy in the store back home. Man, that kind of thing is making me homesick.

Here’s something about each film:

Watched on 7 August:
corpsperduFilm #219: Headlong (2012)
aka: Corps perdu
director: Lukas Dhont
language: French and a bit of English
length: 17 minutes

This film is about a young guy on a trip to a foreign city to compete in a dancing competition. It’s the same guy who was in North Sea, Texas, still pretty young when he made this – about 16. He’s obviously lonely, and it seems he can’t speak French to the locals (I took the city to be Brussels on account of it being a Belgian production, but it wasn’t clear – I didn’t know Brussels had a skyscraper district – and nor was it clear where the guy was supposed to be from). A guy breaks into his hotel room, running from the police. The young guy ends up following him, obviously infatuated. They go clubbing together and run around the city.

It shows the guy breaking out of his shell, which was nice, and it was a very atmospheric film. I liked the display of youth – sometimes I feel I missed out on some of the stuff like this at the age of 16. But it was pretty exploitative, about as much as you can get with an underage protagonist. He spent most of the movie with his top off, and there’s a scene when he’s alone with nothing else to do and decides to shave his dick. The ending is nicely ambiguous, though.

asfdhFilm #220: A Stable for Disabled Horses (2012)
director: Fabio Youniss
language: English and some Norwegian
length: 13 minutes

This film was about awkwardness, as far as I can tell, right from the beginning of the film. A Norwegian guy will soon leave the UK, and his British friend invites him round for a leaving party – it turns out it’s just the two of them, and the British guy wants to find a moment to confess his love. Eventually it gets too awkward for the Norwegian guy and he leaves – but at the end he comes back in a gesture of goodwill. It’s pretty low budget – obvious when your movie is shot in black-and-white.

There is comedy in this movie, but not the kind that I’m generally a fan of – it’s way too awkward. The guy in it is apparently a comedian, though, so he does pull it off well, and there is realism in there too. I felt sorry for the characters too – he sounds like he’s put up with a lot of homophobia, and so on. But in any case, this wasn’t the strongest film of the lot.

lgbcidFilm #221: Little Gay Boy, Christ Is Dead (2012)
directors: Antony Hickling & Amaury Grisel
languages: French and English
length: 30 minutes

I could tell by the thumbnail on the DVD that I probably wouldn’t like this movie, and ultimately I was right. It’s about BDSM sex and is very explicit. I could probably write a whole essay on just this one about why I don’t like it and don’t agree with its messages. I don’t think I want to write too much here, though. Suffice to say it’s inciteful and it dances along the boundary of acceptability.

It’s about a boy going around Paris doing odd jobs, but at each step along the way he’s abused by one person or another – including what seems to be his own mother. Certain words and phrases are often repeated – while abusing him, people keep calling him a faggot or some other homophobic insult. At first I thought it might be a dream, and these are his secret desires, or that he’s part of some kind of sex ring, but I think it’s just straight-up him being abused by strangers. It’s ambiguous.

It doesn’t make a lot of narrative sense – it jumps from one incident to the other, and they’re clumsily introduced. A scene where he’s abused by a black dominatrix comes out of nowhere – he literally bumps into her on the street and it cuts to him being spanked. But perhaps that means it really is a dream.

There is also a guy in body paint doing a kind of interpretive dance, and this frankly didn’t work, and was kind of annoying whenever the film cut to that. It didn’t add anything to the film. The soundtrack was a bit screechy at these points, too.

There’s also a lot of Christ imagery – the boy’s initials are J.C., and his submission to the “gods” of gay fetish sex at the end of the movie directly relates him to the famous messiah, through the imagery the film uses. I also found this kind of comparison annoying. Of course, the title includes the phrase “Christ is dead”, but it’s stylized with a cross in place of the T and lined up to read “LGBT is dead”, another point that offended me somewhat. Perhaps it’s saying that we should abandon such labels, but at the same time I felt attacked.

It’s just… the film made me feel angry. Like really angry (both directly at it, but also the homophobia depicted reminded me that my place in society can be volatile). And I think that’s exactly what it was meant to do. Does that mean it was successful?

Watched on 10 August
villageFilm #222: Boys Village (2011)
director: Till Kleinert
language: English
length: 23 minutes

This was a horror-esque film about an abandoned kids’ camp somewhere in Wales. My impression was it was due to be finally torn down, and the filmmakers got permission to film something there before it wasn’t there anymore.

The story is of a ghost boy (spoiler alert, sorry) who stalks around the camp making little dolls to amuse himself. He’s waiting for his parents to pick him up, apparently. Some teenagers come onto the camp, and the boy starts watching them, obviously infatuated. It comes to a head when he gets jealous of one of the teenagers’ girlfriend and manages to scare her off – then watches the guy masturbating. They end up in a spooky basement that even the ghost boy normally avoids. Invisible, he steals a kiss, but this causes the guy to fall back through a wall in shock and die.

It’s creepy and the atmosphere fits very well. I enjoyed it enough. A bit weird with the age of the protagonist, though – he’s only about 12.

blindersFilm #223: Blinders (2011)
director: Jacob Brown
language: English
length: 8 minutes

This extra-short film seemed more like the germ of an idea than a full movie. It depicts a boy and a girl in a club, and they both catch the eye of another boy, waifish and delicate. The blurb on the DVD cover and on IMDB awkwardly says “a creature of a boy”. Ew.

The movie flits from one scene to the next, with big time jumps, so suddenly it cuts to them naked together (there’s a lot of naked flesh and dangling genitals). I got confused by the movie as I felt like I’d missed something. As usual with these movies, the imagery was nice and it was well shot. I think I’d like this if it was longer.

teenslikephilFilm #224: Teens Like Phil (2012)
directors: Dominic Haxton & David Rosler
language: English
length: 19 minutes

This is a teen movie about guys in high school. They apparently had a fling, but one has turned homophobic against the other. It’s kind of a depressing movie and deals with things like suicide and homophobic violence, but it handles the subject matter fairly well.

I did find there were a lot of possibly magical realism elements and weirdness going on, though, with people dancing round open fires and running riot in the streets, and this didn’t sit well with me. I think it took away from the graver tone of the serious elements.

Overall basically this one didn’t stand out for me, and I found it unimpressive compared to the rest.

Watched on 12 August
inflatable-swampFilm #225: Inflatable Swamp (2010)
director: William Feroldi
language: English
length: 13 minutes

This is about a guy who has a lot of casual sex, and he apparently asks his hookups to bring a helium balloon with them – after they leave he writes a pithy summary of the hookup on the side, such as ‘6″, average sucker’. He has a bathroom full of these balloons (how he can stop the helium from leaking I’d like to know!). The balloons are pretty inconsequential, as I’ve seen this trope before with other objects, like in the movie Weekend, where the main character likes to interview his hookups on a recorder, but they seem to show that the guy shares no real attachment with his hookups.

Then there’s a new hookup, but the guy gets hypoglycaemic during sex, and the main character has to find him some chocolate cake to bring him back to life, as it were. It ends with the movie’s only line, asking what the guy’s name is (the rest is silent). Like a punchline. I got impatient with this movie – I don’t like this implicit suggestion that casual sex is emotionless or unworthy.

Also, the film’s blurb (again, it’s the same on IMDB or on the DVD cover) is completely different from the film I watched. It says “With the arrival of Luke, a new man in his life, he finds a way to reconcile pleasures of the flesh with the new aroused imperatives of the heart” – I didn’t see the slightest bit of imperatives of the heart in this movie.

Yeah-Kowalski-ss2-krkFilm #226: Yeah Kowalski! (2013)
director: Evan Roberts
language: English
length: 10 minutes

This was a nice one to end on. The movie is about middle school kids in small town America, and I’m really glad to see how far things have come, in the 12 or so years between when I was 13 and when this movie was made. I’m really glad that it’s possible to have openly gay young teenagers in the modern world, and it makes me wish I wish I hadn’t spent most of my teen years fretting over my sexuality.

The premise is that the main character is worried that he’s not hitting puberty fast enough and that he has no armpit hair. He wants to impress his crush, the obviously gay kid in the class. In a thoroughly embarrassing scene, he takes hair that his dad shaved off, and glues it to his armpits. I thought it was a dream at first, but apparently the character actually goes through with it. I just thought it was a bit ridiculous. But it captures the anxiety that a lot of us go through during our teen years quite well.

So the main conceit of the film is hard to buy, but I liked the characters’ interactions, the bright colour design of this movie, and the light-hearted tone, especially after some of the much heavier films on this DVD. I have a favourite line, said by the main characters best friend, “hoes before homos!” – I googled the phrase but it doesn’t seem to be a real thing. I vote we should make it one.

Film #216: I Want Your Love (2012)

i-want-your-lovedirector: Travis Mathews
language: English
length: 68 minutes
watched on: 28 July 2016

The box of this movie proudly proclaims that it’s “bringing gay sex back on film” – it was one of a few that I bought during one of my recent trips back to the UK in 2015, and took a shamefully long time to get around to watching. No way I could find such things here, but that’s a rant for another time, and one that I’ve already had before, indeed.

It means this quite literally, as it, like such films as Shortbus or 9 Songs before it, features explicit sex. “Is it porn?” people ask. Yes and no, I’d say. Fortunately, the BBFC seems to say “no”, and it’s on general release in the UK, rated 18 instead of R18. It was certainly produced by a porn company. It was evidently workshopped in a similar way to Shortbus, with the actors helping to shape their characters.

It’s about a guy in San Francisco who is going to leave for the sticks somewhere, perhaps his hometown in the Midwest. It follows him and his group of friends, mostly other gay males, as they explore their emotions through sex with each other.

The characters are all spot-on, in my opinion, and I could see aspects of myself in each of them. The acting is not always great, but the movie weathers the inconsistencies well.

It’s quite a claustrophobic movie – it seems to have been shot on the cheap mostly within San Francisco townhouses, and a lot of the movie and acting is in close-up. This had merits – it fostered a more intimate atmosphere, and allowed certain actors a chance to shine – but mostly I wished it would back away from the characters a bit and show the full picture more.

Mainly, to be honest, I’ll remember this movie for how rooted it is in a certain sociopolitical clime. It’s very 2012. The main character is moving back to Ohio or Indiana for economic reasons – it’s now too expensive to live in San Francisco and too difficult to find a job there. The fashion sense, too – there are a lot of ironic hipster beards, and the main character among many others is quite unkempt, with five-day old stubble and tatty clothing. Like another gay movie I watched recently, In Bloom, these things root it in the early part of this decade, post-collapse in 2009.

For some people, the explicit sex is reason enough to watch it; for others, this might be a reason to avoid it. I liked it, and certainly at only 68 minutes it’s not a big time commitment like so many modern movies. Just don’t watch it with your family.

Film #51: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

20120507-012258.jpgDirected by: David Fincher
Language: English with some background Swedish
Length: 158 minutes
Watched on: 15 Feb 2012

Having spent my first few weeks in Japan seeing the posters for this film everywhere I decided that I would go to see it at the cinema. There are a couple of things that are worth noting about Japanese cinemas. Firstly, as with this particular film, the Japanese seem to get films months after we do; I think in the UK it was out before Christmas, yet I went to see it in February. Secondly, just going by the exchange rate, they’re really expensive at ¥1800, which is like £16. I keep telling myself I have to stop converting, especially now that I’m being paid in yen, but it’s difficult to stop when the conversion is as easy as lopping off two zeroes from the yen price and rounding down a little. Anyway, they also get really busy; the cinema was packed when I went.

I have written at length about the Millennium trilogy books and the Swedish films before. To summarise, I liked them, and they were the last proper page-turning books that I read. And I love Noomi Rapace as Salander.

So I was a bit put out when I heard that they were remaking it to put it in the English language for a “wider audience”. Oh, for heaven’s sakes… people are idiots. I also had a bit of trepidation because I’m not much of a fan of Daniel Craig and I couldn’t see how Rooney Mara could live up to Rapace’s performance (plus she looked silly on the posters).

Of course, some of my fears were perfectly reasonable. For example, the language thing becomes a logical inconsistency because the main dialogue is in English but background noises and signs are in Swedish, as you’d expect for a film set in Sweden. You get some actors putting on Swedish accents (Mara affects some kind of Poirot-esque speech by greeting people in a very Swedish way), while others, like Craig, don’t even try.

Comparing it to the Swedish version, the main difference between the two is undoubtedly budget; because the Swedish film was a TV project, it shows sometimes. This film starts with a completely unnecessary flashy CGI credit sequence and goes from there. Yet some of the sets look like they could have been lifted straight out of the Swedish film, as if they’ve actually just gone and used the same locations… at which point I just turn around and think, “why did they bother making it, in that case?”

As for the rapist (oops, spoiler!), I felt he looked a lot more threatening in the Swedish movie; here he comes across as rather jolly and avuncular at first, and only threatening later once you realize that’s what he’s going to do. Perhaps that’s a good point to be made there, that rapists could look like anything, and perhaps someone might find it even more shocking if someone who doesn’t “look threatening” turns out to be threatening, but this is a movie we’re watching, and generally, movies have a sort of visual convention of how people are presented, and it just comes across as jarring when that’s broken.

But all that aside, Rooney Mara’s performance as Salander was truly formidable, and she really sank into the role. I’m not sure I’d say she brought anything new to the role, but I think she’s a really competent actress, especially considering that the only other thing I’ve seen her in is as a preppy love interest in the film about Mark Zuckerberg, and how completely and utterly different she looks and acts in each film. As I mentioned, she affects some kind of Poirot speak at a few points during the movie – she’ll greet or thank people in Swedish – but it was done just subtly enough that it really made me believe that she was actually a Swedish woman who just happened to be speaking English for the sake of the movie. And that can only be a good thing.

Other than that, there are only a few minor differences here and there between this film and the original one; in the end probably not enough to justify making it, despite the good performances. Perhaps this film is more true to the book in some ways – for instance, Salander doesn’t give herself away to Blomkvist as she did in the Swedish film. And one particular part near the climax is more coherently executed. But as with the original movie, the postclimactic ending is poorly executed, although this is a consequence of the book’s Return of the King Ending Syndrome. As I mentioned in my previous review, this was one of the worst things about the book itself too, although it’s easier to get away with it in a book than it is in a film.

Anyway, I still really enjoyed the film, as it’s ultimately an engrossing story, whatever form it’s in. And I suppose if it does accomplish the goal of getting more people aware of the story, then that’s good (most Japanese that I’ve talked to haven’t heard of the Swedish movie, but have heard of this one). But I think anglophones need to quit with the whining about subtitles. After all, I watched this film in a cinema packed with Japanese people, and they didn’t seem to have any trouble with the subtitles.

Oh yeah, I’ve just remembered the other annoying thing that the Japanese do with films… the sex scene was pixellated. I bet it wasn’t even explicit. It’s rather funny, then, that the rape scene actually left less to the imagination with this cut of the film…

Film #28: Protect Me from What I Want (2009)

directed by: Dominic Leclerc
language: English
length: 14 minutes
watched on: 4 September

A short gay-themed film that I watched one day last month, which rather impressed me in a couple of ways. It’s the right length to show an encounter and nothing more, and leave you wanting, and in many ways the storyline is heartbreaking – a young Muslim boy hooks up with another boy on a council estate in Leeds but leaves when he can’t reconcile himself with it.

The acting’s alright, but could have been better, and as I said, the film leaves with a desire for more – although as I reckon that’s its purpose, it seems to have served it well. Overall, like this review to mirror it, short and sweet.

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.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Book #15
written by: Stieg Larsson
released in: 2005
original language: Swedish
length: 533 pages
finished reading on: 22 July
Film #22
directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
released in: 2009
language: Swedish
length: 152 minutes
watched on: 23 July

aka: Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women”)

Thought I might try a new layout for this one, seeing as otherwise there’s masses of white space. So the astute among you may notice that I finished reading this book and watched the film adaptation the day after. And the even more astute might then infer that this means that I quite liked the thing. And yeah, it’d be fair to say you’re right. I’ll concentrate on the book first, though.

No, actually, I’ll concentrate on that damn title, which is the biggest amount of bile that I’ll fling at the thing so I may as well get it over early. I don’t fucking blame the author’s widow for hating the fact that the title of the book was changed from the rather imposing “Men who hate women”, which one can only say is unambiguous as to its subject matter, to the infernal English title, which I can only describe as wishy-washy, and liable, importantly, to get mixed up with The Girl with the Pearl Earring – which is a painting and a Colin Firth film… and rather not like this one. So you’ve got people like me at one end, avoiding it because they don’t like that sort of stuff, and you’ve got Colin Firth fans at the other, probably, thinking they’ll get some kind of -ahem- romance. Yeah, right. Basically, I had to be bought the book for Christmas and have it sit on my shelf for six months before I bothered to actually try it. Where am I going with this rant again? Oh yeah, the title of a work is important, people!

I can’t really see why they changed it. It seems to upgrade Lisbeth Salander to unambiguous heroine character rather than one of two main protagonists in this book – and I’d argue that the other one, Mikael Blomkvist, gets a much bigger role in the first book. It upgrades an aspect of her description to something much more important-seeming; in the book it’s a small dragon, and one of many tattoos, while in the film, possibly to keep better with the adopted title, it becomes a veritable work of art covering her back. I can possibly see where they got the idea for the title, because the Swedish title of the sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire really does translate literally as just that, and themed naming seems to be popular with publishers for some very annoying reason (for another international look at this, the German versions are Verblendung, Verdammnis and Vergebung – fucked if I know what they mean, but they’re obviously named on a theme). Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself massively. Back to the first book…

So it’s a crime novel set in Sweden. A crime novel which paints a very realistic world around itself, presumably a portrait of a sadistic Sweden that Larsson knew; rather different, perhaps, from other portrayals of the country, such as Pippi Longstocking or Abba…

Now, if the original title doesn’t give it away (of course, English speakers don’t get that luxury), the statistics about violence against women in Sweden printed before each chapter will probably give you a bit of a sense of foreboding. Yep, it’s a violent book alright, and it comes to a head with a particularly gruesome scene in which our heroine is raped about halfway through the book – although if you didn’t know that already, you’re probably living under a rock or something. She manages to pull a level in badassity in the subsequent scene in which she makes the sadistic bastard pay, however.

That was really the moment that the book really gripped me and wouldn’t let me put it down. Before that, it had been building up very slowly; when Blomkvist was told that he was to investigate the murder and disappearance of the niece of the obsessive businessman Vanger, I knew it was probably going to get good, but I didn’t quite know how much, and it still hadn’t gripped me properly. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but what with all the hype about it, you’d expect to be gripped on page 1, but it wasn’t like that for me; it was more like page 200 – still half the book to go, but it could have come earlier.

The plot itself is a reasonably standard closed-group crime-scene affair; anyone who could have committed the crime was by a fairly contrived coincidence on the island of Hedeby on the day that it was committed, and because there was a festival, there was plenty of photographic evidence, which is scoured over in detail in the book. Mainly I view it as a contrivance (an exciting contrivance, nonetheless) to bring together the characters of Blomkvist and Salander and get them copulating. And to explore some issues like violence against women and touch on the issue of trafficking of prostitutes (expounded on in greater detail in the sequel), without seeming too preachy, something that the book does very well.

Salander’s own backstory provides plenty of room to explore similar issues – there is of course the scene where she’s “taken advantage of”, but despite the book not giving away very much about her backstory (again, expounded upon in book two), it does paint a picture of a young women very much let down by society and placed into the care of bad men. Evidently, Larsson witnessed a rape of a girl as a teenager, and a lot of the book, and the way he writes Salander, is about his guilt that he never did anything about it.

As for the other characters, I thought they were all brilliant. I loved the way that little details about the background of Salander’s boss Armansky, a fairly minor character, were described fully and without abbreviation. It was things like that that really made the book come alive for me. But, and it’s a fairly big but, there were masses and masses of characters, and I’m a great fan of keeping things simple. This was perhaps compounded by the fact that half of the characters in this book were Vangers. They could be called by their first names, but it did start getting confusing after a while. Helpfully, however, a family tree was provided at the beginning of the book. At the same time, it was only a few characters like Armansky who got a full lowdown by the book, and some other names, particularly of Blomkvist’s colleagues, were mentioned once and then brought back up in more detail many chapters later, leaving me going “who?” a couple of times.

The structure of the book was in parts, which seemed to work for the most part, but the narrative kind of breaks down towards the end, because the main storyline is finished, but there are still loose ends from the beginning of the book to tie up – a story for the magazine that Blomkvist needed to write and Salander was to research for him. It makes for interesting reading, and it was nice to focus on Blomkvist’s magazine Millennium, which had been in the sidelines for most of the book and becomes more important again in the sequel, and it wouldn’t have fit into the second book, but it makes the book suffer from a massive case of Lord of the Rings-style ending fatigue. It’s kind of as if Larsson had forgotten about the plot elements he introduced in the first few chapters and had gone back to them last minute to tie them up again, when he could have just left them out and it’d have worked OK.

Now, the other thing I’m going to complain about in the book’s case is the translation. Apart from the title change, it gets sloppy in places. Presumably to try and create a sense of Swedish atmosphere, it never translates any names out of Swedish. So you get lines such as “at Svenska bork bork bork, the Swedish national television station” rather than just “at the Swedish national television station”. Perhaps it can’t be avoided – in this particular example, it probably had to introduce the acronym or something, which is fair enough. But it manages to wildly fuck up at various other points, like using “Goteborg” instead of the Swedish “Göteborg” or traditional English “Gothenburg”, or in one particularly infuriating example, “the village had a road running through the centre of it, which was naturally called __”, __ being what I presume is the Swedish word for “Main St” or something. I think the translators need to sit back and remind themselves that they have this job to do because we don’t understand Swedish.

Anyway, aside from the assorted complaints, brilliant book which should be read by everyone. Now onto the film… I’ll try and keep it short!

As I mentioned earlier, I watched this straight after reading the book, so I got a fairly good impression of all the bits they’d cut out – quite a lot, with a dense book like this. Essentially, it was pared down to the basic plot of the murder mystery and the various plotlines involving Salander; the fact that Blomkvist goes to prison, which is a big deal in the book, and the epilogue section where they tie up all the loose ends, and his magazine job and lover Erika Berger, are now mere footnotes. They still solve the mystery, but by a less convoluted route.

I thought they did a very good job, all things considered. The book is dense, but not nearly as dense as the later ones. Noomi Rapace is pretty much perfect as Salander – she carries herself in exactly the right way and has that petite look which is appropriate for the character, while Blomkvist’s actor is evidently a very famous man in Sweden and gets all the major acting jobs like this one – and he’s quite deserving of it, too.

The details beyond that would be nitpicking and it’s been a while since I watched the movie, so I can’t add much more than that. However, I will say that I did get very pissed off at it when it gave away what was essentially a spoiler for the second book near the end. It is a spoiler, about Salander’s mercilessly hidden backstory, that gets revealed fairly early in the second book, but a spoiler nonetheless. Grr.

But again, worth watching, and worth reading. Definitely worth it.

Film #21: 9 Dead Gay Guys (2002)

directed by: Lab Ky Mo
language: English
length: 80 minutes
watched on: 14 July

Apparently this movie was universally panned by critics when it was released. I quite liked it, although I thought the acting was a bit terrible, and the premise was a bit naff (probably the best word for it), and the production values were a bit low. I certainly wasn’t offended by it, which I think was a criticism regularly levelled at it.

The characters, which is ultimately the aspect which this film is going to prop itself up with, were funny, I thought (if badly acted a lot of the time), although it is true that every single one of them is one crude stereotype or another. The DVD extras say that they were all based on a weird story that the director was told by mates in the pub… not sure how much of that I believe, but I think some of the ideas in there are quite funny, like the “discreet” Jewish guy who loves massive cock, or the Indian taxi driver with a foreskin problem (his nickname is Knobcheese), desperate for a blowjob that he’ll never get.

The premise is just a bit silly; it’s basically two Irish guys prostituting themselves to gay guys for a bit of easy cash, leading into a convoluted gambit plot involving the Jewish guy’s legendary money. A lot of it’s very predictable, of course, even aside from the obvious hint given away in the title of the movie – like one of the guys coming to a “realisation of his own” halfway through the movie. Essentially, it’s a movie that should be taken light-heartedly, because if you take it too seriously, you’ll probably just get angry at how stereotypical and awful it can be. I’d say, take it or leave it. Quite funny but not hilarious.

Film #15: Just Friends? (2009)

aka: Chingusai? / 친구사이?
directed by: Kim Jho Kwang-Soo
length: 29 minutes
language: Korean
watched on: 24/Jun

An interesting short gay film… unlike many other films out there, it doesn’t waste any time on much build-up or anything like that and gets fairly straight to the point, since it’s only half an hour long, but it gets its fair share of angst in there alright.

Basically, the main character visits his boyfriend in the army; they go home but run into his mother, who insists that the “friend” stay for tea; there’s a storm or something, so he can’t go home and must stay the night in the same bed as the mother and son; they start to have sex the next morning while the mother is out but then she walks in on them; then angst angst goddamn bloody angst and stereotypical vapid nonsense. Maybe I’m just privileged having never really had trouble with being gay, but I understand that this film was quite controversial in Korea, and it certainly highlights some challenges that gay guys face there… and yet I don’t really get it. It doesn’t speak to me in the same way that it probably would to a young gay guy in Korea watching it. And thus I kind of can see it’s important, but for me it was just a bit rubbish.

Acting was as wooden as a stick, too. Cute guys, though, shame it wasn’t a porno and they didn’t actually go through with the sexy bit.

Anyway, at half an hour it’s not like I wasted my life on it. Interesting look at Korean attitudes towards gays, anyway – ie they don’t seem to be much fond of them.