Monday, November 29, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden)

Sequels are always burdened with the difficult task of living up to the reputation of their predecessor. And in most cases, not even this mean feat is good enough, as most audience members expect an actual improvement on the previous franchise entry. With this strict criteria in mind, it saddens me to admit that 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' (The second film in the Millennium Trilogy) has more than a few problems.

The films most prominent flaw is a basic one, namely that nothing really new is brought to the table, except the logical continuation of the trilogy's interesting storyline, which this time around delves deep into the protagonist's past, resulting in a revealing character study that drives the film to its exciting and riveting conclusion. While the story does have a lot of appeal, it does seem a bit watered-down in comparison to its predecessor, mainly because much of the series' novelty value has now started to wear off.

Still, the story remains the series' greatest achievement, as director Daniel Alfredson does an astounding job (maybe a bit better than the previous director, Niels Arden Oplev) in condensing a huge amount of facts into a tight, well presented package. The sub-plot of sex trafficking is well realized, giving audience members more than enough to chew on as they try to unravel the plot.

"One particular fright came so unexpected that it resulted in me exclaiming a tiny scream - something that hasn't happened to me in years... No, really, I'm quite hardcore."

The ensemble cast also seem better utilized this time around, supporting the movie's line of tension with honest performances that accentuate the dark storyline. Some familiar faces once again join the fray, but there are also a few new characters (like a lesbian boxer and Frankenstein-like baddy) that help to imbue the cast with a sense of freshness. Overall, the acting is superb, as the cast help to keep one in 'the moment of things' till the end credits starts rolling. 

While the sequel has less scares, the few that made the cut really do a brilliant job at giving you a proper jolt in your seat. One particular fright came so unexpected that it resulted in me exclaiming a tiny scream - something that hasn't happened to me in years (No, really, I'm quite hardcore). These scares however take a definite backseat to the movie's dramatic scenes and heated confrontations, probably even more so than in the previous instalment.

To be blunt, The girl who played with fire just doesn't have the same sense of  'innovation' as the first Millennium film, resulting in the franchise acquiring the traits of a mini-series, making one wonder if this isn't merely a very well packaged Hallmark Crime series. This, is not meant as an insult, but merely a warning for those expecting a Hollywood blockbuster, something the Millennium series is definitely not. Those that do however enjoy a solid plot, good acting and a proper dosage of dark will find the movie entertaining all the way.

Small references to American culture are even more ironic in the light of the upcoming remake of the series by American director, David Fincher (Zodiac, The Social network)


* It is recommended  that you watch the first entry of the series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) before giving this film a try. Many crucial story elements are only explained in the first film. Not knowing these particulars will surely affect your experience of the film. Click here for my full review of the first film: http://www.meerkatburrow.com/2010/10/showing-at-numetro-man-som-hatar.html


Rating: 3-and-a-half Meerkat Tails

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)

As one of those modernists that hasn't read one of the Potter books (Or many other books for that matter), It's always been nice to be totally surprised by each new film, something that definitely increases my appreciation for every part of Harry's tale. I found the previous Potter movie (The half-blood prince) extremely disappointing, which should explain why I was totally dumbstruck by how magnificent the Deathly Hallows Part 1 was – by far my favourite segment of the young wizard's story till date.

Even though this is the third Potter movie under director David Yates' belt, it immediately feels noticeably different to any of the previous entries of the franchise. The biggest reason for this is purely because the plot takes a radical turn, as the main trio of Hermione, Ron and Harry find themselves on the road, far away from the comforting walls of Hogwarts as well as their dearest friends. For most of the movie, the trio is utterly alone and without direction – things that were all present in previous Potter films, but never to such a ruthless, striking degree as it is here.

This results in a terribly dark adventure, filled with a substantial amount of dread, suspense and a fine strand of hopelessness, gradually spun by Yates as the story starts to unfold. As I was not aware of this heavy plot change beforehand, I was taken completely by surprise, as I watched the Potter franchise cleverly reinvent itself. One can go as far as to reclassify the movie from a fantasy adventure to a fantasy/suspense thriller.

"This results in a terribly dark adventure, filled with a substantial amount of dread, suspense and a fine strand of hopelessness, gradually spun by Yates as the story starts to unfold."

The best thing about this shift is that it makes complete sense when one considers what the trio has been through (and probably still have to face). I’ve always felt that the previous Potter movies downplayed the dark happenings to a considerable extent, probably due to the PG rating – this is not the case with Deathly Hallows part 1.

But do not threat, the movie is far from being a emo-fest (a pitfall very prominent in the Twilight series of films), as the scenes of hard-hitting drama are accompanied by a fair share of humour, even though these segments are far less than Potter fans are used to. In a strange turn, Ron (Rupert Grin) is no longer the main source of jokes, as Hermione (Emma Watson) serves up the best laughs this time – poking fun directly at her habit of thinking things through to the smallest of details, as a type of motive throughout the movie.

The rest of the ensemble cast are as strong as ever, as the baddies get the first proper chance to really stretch their dramatic muscles. Helena Bonham Carter gets the most screen time of the dark gang, playing her role with an overabundance of terror and diabolic intent, as she has throughout the series. Daniel Radcliffe (aka The chosen one) however steals the show, with some astounding performances in various heavy scenes, proving how the series has helped him developed into a very capable actor.

I was also impressed by the movie’s glorious action sequences, which feel a bit less ‘grand’ this time around, but a heck more realistic, complementing the drastic change in scenery. Don’t get me wrong, the Deathly Hallows is as creative visually as always, it’s just a bit less ‘pretty’. A short animated insert is beautifully rendered and while it might seem a bit out of place, works great to calm one’s senses for a brief while.

With all this praise, also comes the confession that the movie is not perfect: Yates timing isn’t always spot-on, as some parts of the movie start to drag, whilst others blast passed quicker than a Golden Snitch. The movie has also rightfully been criticised for its very open-ended ending, as the viewer gets confronted with the credits as soon as the plot finally starts to get momentum. This works great as a way of getting one excited for the last movie, but this installment does suffer from it, nonetheless.

While Deathly Hallows seems a bit flawed, its minor imperfections are overshadowed by the striking and daring shift, a change that Yates handles with utmost skill. Potter’s latest journey has some emotionally cumbersome moments, but the rewards are simply spectacular for those willing to bare its weight.

Highlights:

1. When the trio is out of choices, they jump right into the lion’s mouth (i.e. the ministry of magic). This leads to some hilarious, but suspenseful encounters that will leave you gasping for air.

2. A touching scene between Potter and Hermione is as moving as it is disheartening, as the friends realize they have nowhere left to turn. 

 Be warned: Things get very bloody in the latest Potter movie.

Rating: 4-and-a-half Meerkat Tails (subtract half-a-tail if you're not a Potter fanatic)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Karate kid 2010 (Jaden Smith)

Directed by Harald Zwart (the dude who cursed us with silly films like 'Pink panther 2' and 'Agent Cody Banks'), the latest take on this over-used plot cliché (A youngling that gets bullied by those stronger becomes a professional ninja within a few months in order to defend himself) is worse than you would imagine.

The inexperienced Jaden Smith, Son of Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith, takes the viewer with him on a ridiculously predictable ride, complete with some very fake-looking action sequences and lifeless, irritating characters that don't do much to try and save this 'should-not-have-been' cash cow.

"It might have been a better idea to have given Chan a stunt double for scenes where he wasn't handing out karate chops.."

Jackie Chan must receive special mention for his unconvincing attempt at begin dramatic, as Director Zwart clearly miscasts him as the sensei (aka Mr Miyagi). It might have been a better idea to have given Chan a stunt double for scenes where he wasn't handing out karate chops, as drama is clearly not his forte. The cast is further filled-up with a long list of Asian nobodies, many of whom verge on the edge of inaudibility, which isn't down-played by their strange facial expressions.

What makes the movie even more unbearable, is the clear signs of amateur direction (probably a result of all the 'support' from mommy and daddy on the set - Will and Jada-Pinkett are listed as 'co-directors' of the film). What's even more strange is the movie's experimentally long runtime for a kid's movie, as if Will and Jada-Pinkett wanted to make sure their little boy gets enough screen time to give his career a proper kick start. (Ironically, I suspect they might just have ended it before it started). 

The only group of people that I can actually imagine enjoying this movie is devoted fans of the karate kid franchise. But even Karate kid devotees should find the film's lack of emotional depth, humour and excitement a bit disheartening. 
Don't let Nostalgia get the best of you... this is B-grade film-making.

Highlight/Lowlight: A humorous scene with Jackie Chan trying to destroy a motor vehicle he worked weeks on to repair, suddenly becomes very 'touching', as he explains the nonsensical logic behind this weird ritual of his.

Rating: 1 Meerkat Tail

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mnet Sunday night movie: Knowing

I was convinced (before 'knowing' who the director was) that this was yet another failed attempt by M. Night Shyamalan ('Signs', 'The happening', 'Lady in the water', 'The Village' etc.). I had all the typical trademarks one had come to expect from the man: A seemingly interesting premise and good start, followed by a downward spiral into absurdity and irrelevance. To my sheer amazement, Knowing was actually directed by Australian, Alex Proyas ('I, Robot' and 'The Crow'). After finally forgiving myself for mistaking someone for Shyamalan (wouldn't intentionally do this to my worst enemy) it was much easier to look at the movie more objectively:

As mentioned, Knowing starts out extremely promising, as the mood for this dark sci-fi/suspense horror is set with utmost skill by means of decent camera work and a nicely varied and impressive score. At a certain point, the movie actually reminded me of the cult favourite Donnie Darko, as the movie's 'quiet' scenes create a thick layer of eeriness that seems to get more intense as the movie progresses.

The characters (well, most of them at least) also seem surprisingly interesting, with Nicholas Cage as a modern pessimist/father figure and a refreshingly excellent debut performance by child actor, Chandler Canterbury. The only really bothersome performance was from Rose Byrne ('Troy', 'The dead girl', 'Wicker park') who just seems to be horribly miscast as a mother with some serious mommy issues.

"A seemingly interesting premise and good start, followed by a downward spiral into absurdity and irrelevance."

The movie also benefits from some awe-inspiring action sequences (probably some of the best I've seen since Children of Men), giving the movie a great sense of balance in-between the heavily dramatic character-driven scenes.

Sadly, some time close to the halfway mark , all of this turns horribly sour, due to the lack of a believable and enthralling plot, as the viewer is forced to digest a unoriginal and almost laughably holey storyline that sucks the movie dry of any credibility. This a really pity when one considers what the movie had going for it... begging the question: Did someone take the time to actually read the script before direction started? One thing's for sure, Ryne Douglas Pearson (Screenwriter) should stick to writing books, seriously.

Either way, Knowing is a failed, but commendable attempt and even though it becomes very silly very quickly, the first 45 minutes is enjoyable enough to make one sit through the terrible second half. And I honestly do think it's a much better film than most of the rubbish that Shyamalan has tried to bore his audiences with. I look forward to seeing what Proyas does with his rendition of "The Silver surfer", due for release in 2012.

Highlight: When four planes mysteriously crash land, Cage finds himself enveloped in the ensuing chaos: A visually striking scene, that leaves quite an imprint on one's senses.

Lowlight: A weirdly out-of-place scene at a petrol station is just too silly for words, resulting in a ridiculous scene that announces the movie's descent into B-grade doom.

Nicholas Cage - the only man that can make a train smash look like a fashion shoot. Bravo

Rating: 2 Meerkat Tails

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Look & Listen DVD: Shutter Island

The 'mental institution psycho thriller' has been done numerous times, but it seems as though Scorsese has managed to inject the genre with a great sense of freshness.

The beautiful cinematography jumps right off the screen, with blood and guts flowing as eloquently as would a red evening dress during an intimate night out with a loved one.

DiCaprio's intense performance should be commended, with Ruffalo as well as Kingsley doing solid jobs themselves. What's interesting about this movie is that the plot seems to take a backseat, as the exploration of DiCaprio's struggles to come to grips with his nightmares becomes increasingly deep and revealing as the movie progresses.

"The beautiful cinematography  jumps right off the screen, with blood and guts flowing as eloquently as would a red evening dress during an intimate night out with a loved one."

Shutter Island is therefore much more of a character study than it is a true thriller/horror, something that the numerous scenes of long-winded dialogue manage to accentuate perfectly. Not much of a popcorn movie - go see it when your in the mood for someone that requires a bit of brain scrambling.

Highlight: Scorsese puts a considerable amount of effort into the movie's visual impression, resulting in some powerful flashback scenes between DiCaprio and his former love.

Time to let go Leo, seriously.
Rating: 4-and-a-half Meerkat Tails

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nu metro/Ster Kinekor: Life as we know it

The romantic comedy drama is gradually spiralling down into a pit of irrelevance. While that might seem like a bit of a exaggeration, it does seem plausible when one considers the genre's latest cash cows like Bounty hunter, Ugly truth and a long list of other horribly sub par entries. This decrease in quality (in a genre that isn't known for its greatness) is part due to a lack of original screenplays as well as the use of unimaginative, superficial characters (the type Gerald Butler seems to have become a poster boy for). 

It is for these reasons alone that I was pleasantly surprised by 'Life as we know it', one of the genre's latest entries, starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. Even though the movie doesn't save the genre, it does settle for an interesting diversion from the obvious rom-com plot, as it deals with the touchy subject of death, as Director Greg Berlanti uses this simple, but quite risky premise as the foundation for this romantic night out. 

"her obvious lack of chemistry with male lead, Josh Duhamel works surprisingly well on screen."

While you might be hard to convince, it manages to work quite well, giving the movie a sense of honesty and relevance not present in most of its modern counterparts. Even though Katherine Heigl once again plays the same stereotyped bookworm, undersexed character she's known for, her obvious lack of chemistry with male lead, Josh Duhamel works surprisingly well on screen. Josh Duhamel (Win a date with Tod Hamilton) is believable as a typical alpha male, without coming across as an over-stereotyped caveman - a rare rom-com achievement that the movie should be applaud for. 

The movie also benefits from its soft approach to humour,complementing the film's more serious subject matter - making it easy for one to reflect on the situations depicted, as you watch the film become more and more predictable (an unpreventable genre staple?). The movie's ensemble cast is also surprisingly funny, helping to lighten the mood in-between some very dark and depressing scenes.

While 'Life as we know it' is by no means revolutionary, I do want to believe that it can be regarded as a tiny flicker of hope that the rom-com genre could improve. Sue me for being optimistic.

Not convinced that the death of a loved one can work as the premise for a rom-com? I had my doubts as well...

Rating: 2-and-a-half Meerkat Tails

Thursday, November 4, 2010

NuMetro Pre-release: The Social Network

David Fincher, the mastermind behind films like Panic Room, Fight Club and Zodiac (one of my all-time favourites) has definitely hit the jackpot with this modern gem that explores the controversy behind how the biggest revelation in communication (arguably, since the telephone) came to be. 

Skilled in the art of condensing a huge amount of facts in a tight package, Fincher (with the help of Aaron Sorkin’s awesome screenplay) creates a surprisingly interesting modern take on the classic legal drama, mixing it up with an important lesson in business ethics, student antics and a mini study in social alienation.

A powerful ensemble cast will serve for most of the movie’s mainstream ‘likes’: Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, Adventureland, The squid and the whale) is so well imagined that is hard not to get infuriated by his condescending nature, but at the same time admire his dedication, insight and obvious intellect (even though he struggles to get ‘poked’ by the ladies). 

Andre Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) serves as the most prominent force of friction with the film’s anti-hero, effectively becoming the posterboy for the modern BF as he struggles to understand his friend’s cold and greedy nature. Justin Timberlake plays a very similar character as in Alpha dog and other past ventures, raising suspicions in concern to how flexible he is as a film actor. Rashida Jones finally gets her big break, as a type of ‘beta version’ for a love connection in-between all the business disputes.

The perfect movie, right? Well, no. Not exactly...


Add to this great cast the following: A conservative, but well-timed, hard-hitting musical score and a few good laughs. The perfect movie, right?

Well, no. Not exactly: The only thing that ‘The social network’ does lack is a clear, resonating emotional core. As fun as it is to see the plot unravel in its clever way, the movie is devoid of almost any sense of emotional connection, a crucial element of the drama genre, ultimately resulting in this cinematic gem’s greatest crack. While I understand this might have been intentional (illustrating how the internet has resulted in a type of emotional dullness), it does result in a sense of flatness that makes the experience feel like more of a documentary instead of a  fully-imagined film experience. 

Fincher’s simplistic filming style only serves to accentuate this emotional shortcoming, creating a strange sense of fleetingness, as one soon forgets huge chunks of the film (even though you remember it as a great film overall) before you even make it out of the theatre.

To put it simply, The social network is one app short of a complete Facebook page.(Just had to throw that in here, sorry)

Highlight: Mark’s realisation that his best friend has cheated him out of their partnership leads to a heated confrontation: A beautifully acted scene that pushes the character to his limits, resulting in the movie’s most intense moment (one of very few).

A generous amount of screen time is devoted to scenes with people looking at screens. Riveting stuff.

Rating: 3-and-a-half Meerkat Tails

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Mnet Monday night Drama: Disgrace

One thing about Disgrace (an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s book) is sure: By no means is it an easy watch. It gives a shockingly real glimpse of the dark reality of the current state of affairs of both rural and urban South Africa – a reality that should strike frighteningly close to home to those willing to face the film's interesting debates about sexual dominance, interracial tension and uncontrollable lust, to name but a few.

Interwoven with these themes one will find a riveting character study in the form of a flawed Cape Town professor (played with immense skill by John Malkovich) who finds himself unable to come to terms with his daughter's total willingness to accept her dire circumstances – a fact that becomes very ironic when one considers his own shortcomings and wrongdoings, which he is very well aware of.

The rest of the ensemble cast also contributes greatly to the movie’s emotional resonance, as they all play their characters with conviction and sensitivity to the context of the movie. Special mention must go to Eriq Ebouaney (Kingdom of Heaven, Hitman) for his spot-on depiction of a rural farm worker who serves for much of the movie’s best scenes, as he quietly contributes to the protagonist’s sense of helplessness to change his daughter’s circumstances.

The movie also benefits from some amazing cinematography, giving the rural landscapes of the Eastern Cape a chilling, cold feel even though the movie takes place during the summer months. This, along with other small touches serves as a testament  to the lengths that Director Steve Jacobs (Beethoven, Robo Cop 3)  must have gone to in order to properly research South Africa as the setting for this dark masterpiece.

'Disgrace' is as infuriating as it is revealing, making it a bitter pill that many South Africans won't want to swallow - this is however the greatest compliment one can give this thought provoking film. 

Highlight: Near the end of the movie, Malkovich once again helps out his veterinarian friend with her daily duty of putting out homeless dogs. This time however, his willingness to help signifies a dramatic change in his disposition – he has accepted his and his daughter’s fate.


Welcome to South Africa, John. You're lucky you made it out alive!


Rating: 4-and-a-half Meerkat Tails