Thursday 18 November 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest review (

When we last saw Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she was recovering in a beaten and bloodied pile, having barely survived being buried alive and shot in the head by her father and her nine-foot, man-machine half-brother who can feel no pain. Not exactly a typical family reunion, then, but as we know from Lisbeth’s backstory, which has gradually become the focus of the Millennium trilogy over the course of the first two films, such treatment is like a walk in the park compared to the various ways in which men have used and abused her over her relatively short life so far.

So ended The Girl Who Played with Fire, a second instalment that felt very much like a necessarily exposition-heavy middle segment that was paving the way for a killer third part that would tie together the various story strands in a thrilling finale. At least that was the hope. Unfortunately the reality is that returning director Daniel Alfredson’s closing chapter is easily the weakest and least satisfying of the three films, lacking significant thrills and criminally denying one of the best characters in recent cinema the final flourish she deserves.

Alfredson’s first mistake is to begin immediately where the last film left off, meaning Lisbeth spends the first hour of the story lying in a hospital bed while Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, dour and stony-faced as ever), investigative journalist and Lisbeth’s one-time lover, tries to get to the bottom of the shady political goings-on that Lisbeth seems somehow wrapped up in. As with much of the film’s content, this may have made for riveting reading – certainly, the books’ colossal sales suggest the trilogy’s late author Stieg Larsson was doing something right – but onscreen it makes for lots of talk about… well, it’s quite hard to say what. This is the other major problem with Hornet’s Nest; rather than bringing the themes and plots of the first two films into a coherent and compelling conclusion, Alfredson delivers scene after scene of exposition-heavy conversations, and still he fails to make it clear just how Lisbeth’s life and general mistreatment by men connects to the wider political corruption story of the trilogy.

The film gains focus considerably when Lisbeth is brought to trial, in full gothed-up, Mohican-tastic glory, to answer the various charges against her. But even this section, which should be the high point of the series, lacks excitement, and depends on the replaying of the unforgettable sexual assault footage from the first film for its most powerful moment.

It is particularly disappointing that Alfredson drops the ball so significantly in this trilogy’s conclusion, as Larsson’s overt aims, to call out misogynistic men who presume they can control and subdue women, deserve a more defiant final shout. Similarly, the character of Lisbeth Salander is such a brilliant and compelling creation, and Rapace’s stunning performance so consistently perfect, that she deserves a more glorious cinematic final curtain than the few fleeting moments wielding a nail-gun that this film permits her.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is released on 26th November. This review first published on

The American review (The List, Issue 671)

Photographer-turned film director Anton Corbijn follows his haunting debut, the Ian Curtis biopic Control, with a film that moves him onto a bigger cinematic stage (thanks to its leading man George Clooney) while simultaneously allowing him to delve into more personal thematic territory. The American confirms Corbijn as a confident and uniquely gifted filmmaker, but be warned, it is an intentionally slow-moving film, featuring Clooney’s most defiantly subdued performance to date.

The story, adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, involves Jack (Clooney), an ageing gunsmith forced to go into hiding when an attempt is made on his life. He holes up in Castelvecchio, a beautiful historic Italian village, and there develops tentative connections with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido), both of whom provoke him to consider the value of his life up to this point. Meanwhile, Jack becomes increasingly aware that his pursuers are closing in and time is running out.

The scenario will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a western, but the simplicity is intentional; Corbijn is interested in the ways in which simple surfaces, including the beautiful surfaces of this film, relate to deeper realities. He continually draws attention to Jack’s physical routines – from his constant gum-chewing to the literal routine of having sex – to question whether the routine is an end in itself, or if it must find meaning at a deeper level; a human connection that goes beyond physicality or a spiritual one that allows physical routines to come to rest.

The American is released on 26th November. This review first published in The List magazine.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Peeping Tom review (

Universally reviled by critics on its release in 1960, the film that destroyed director Michael Powell’s career has experienced something of a reappraisal in the 50 years that have passed since then; so much so that it’s received the 50th anniversary digital restoration treatment and is getting a nationwide cinema release this week, followed by a debut appearance on blu-ray, featuring all the extras from the 2007 Special Edition dvd.

Watching Peeping Tom in 2010, it’s not difficult to understand why the film caused such uproar on its original release, but it is also clear that the voices of condemnation were wrong. The film is an incredibly perceptive work, exceptionally well-crafted, both technically and thematically, and still shocking and disturbing today. It’s not an easy film to watch, and perhaps not one that many people will want to add to their collection, but it is still essential viewing for anyone interested in the unique power of cinema.

In an opening scene that takes no prisoners and sets out Powell’s intentions very clearly, we see the main character Mark (Carl Boehm) picking up a prostitute in a shady London street, going home with her and then murdering her in cold blood. We know that this is a premeditated act, as Mark is filming the whole thing; we see it all unfold through the viewfinder of his handheld cine-camera. Powell gives us no choice but to identify with the killer, and in so doing forces us to acknowledge our compulsion to watch what we are presented with, even as it repulses us.

We soon learn that by day Mark is a quietly-spoken camera operator in a large film studio, and he makes extra money taking pornographic photos in the evenings, for a local newsagent to sell under the counter. He seems completely alone in the world, but we get an insight into his profoundly disturbed worldview through the attempts of his neighbour Helen (Anna Massey) to get to know him. Mark is taken with Helen, and allows her into his life, inviting her to see the cavernous studio where he spends hours developing and watching his films, but being careful not to give away the extremes of his murderous lifestyle.

Powell’s willingness to look so unflinchingly at the dark side of films and the act of filmmaking (for surely that’s what this is all about) is quite incredible. It is as if he was thinking about the joyous cinematic magic he had previously worked (in The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, for example), and felt compelled to portray the uncomfortable flipside. Every element in Peeping Tom points to a damaging, dehumanising tendency at the heart of movies, from the foregrounding of pornography to Mark’s distressingly sensual relationship with his camera – the only physical contact he seems comfortable with – to the way in which the camera is involved in Mark’s murders.

The ironic thing about this films vilification in 1960 is that it happened at the same time that another very similarly-themed film – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – was playing to packed houses on a nightly basis. While Hitchcock’s masterpiece is unquestionably the more mainstream and formally groundbreaking of the two films, it’s arguable that Peeping Tom is the more thematically profound and insightful work. Just don’t expect to feel good after watching it.


Peeping Tom is released in selected cinemas from 19th Nov, and the blu-ray edition is out on 22nd November. This review first published on

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Carlos review (Single-disc movie Blu-Ray edition)

This 165-minute ‘movie’ version of Olivier Assayas’s 5-hour made-for-TV trilogy is impressive in many ways but, perhaps predictably, feels somewhat incomplete. In the interview that accompanies the film on this blu-ray, the director talks about his desire to reconstruct a full picture of the career of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal, claiming that without the complete context his life doesn’t make sense. It seems strange then, in light of that comment, that this shorter version of the film not only exists but has been given a much higher profile UK release than the full trilogy (it’s the only version I was offered for review). So while Edgar Ramirez’s performance as Carlos is never less than completely convincing, the film doesn’t get under the skin of the character, and in the second half in particular it becomes a blur of locations and conversations that, ironically, suffer from a lack of clear context.

It’s very likely that the full-length version offers more substantial reflections on the questions about revolutionary behaviour that this film only glancingly touches on: what is revolution, and what is it worth? As it stands, the most valuable thing about this cut of Carlos is that it clearly demonstrates Assayas’s brilliant filmmaking ability. He is stylish, confident and hugely ambitious, and the sustained action centrepiece of the film – a hostage-taking raid at the 1975 OPEC conference – is thrillingly realised. But if you want some insight on what causes a man like Carlos to do the things he did, seek out the ‘trilogy’ cut.

Carlos is out on dvd and blu-ray now, in movie and trilogy editions.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Let Me In & Due Date reviews (Radio Scotland Movie Cafe)

I reviewed two new releases on this week's Movie Cafe on Radio Scotland with host Janice Forsyth. First up was Let Me In, the US remake of 2008 Swedish cult hit Let The Right One In, and in my opinion it's much better than any of us had reason to hope for.

A little later in the show I gave my verdict on Due Date, the new road-movie comedy from The Hangover director Todd Philips, starring Robert Downey Jr and The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis (try saying that with a mouthful of Jelly Babies). Is it going to be as big a hit as the aforementioned blockbuster? Have a listen at the link below to hear my take:

Click here to listen to the show or download on BBC iPlayer

Due Date and Let Me In are both released in cinemas tomorrow