Dragon (Wu xia)

Director: Peter Chan
Writer: Oi Wah Lam
Year: 2011
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang

★★★★☆

The Edinburgh International Film Festival’s creative director, Chris Fujiwara, has encouraged audiences to step out of their comfort zone and experience something different, which is precisely what I did with Dragon. Martial arts films are not normally high on my to-watch list, and I would be hard pressed to remember the last one I actually saw. However, I am certainly glad I gave this one a shot. Dragon is the hugely successful Chinese director Peter Chan’s first venture into the wu xia genre, but it is a real treat. With a narrative as intense as the set pieces, it is an intriguing thriller about two men seeking redemption from their past.

They are brought together when the seemingly ordinary paper worker, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), fights and kills two ruthless armed robbers, who make an assault on the shop he happens to be in. When it emerges that one of the bandits was a trained killer and one of the most dangerous men in China, an intuitive detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), becomes suspicious of the idyllic village’s new hero.

Dragon Wu Xia Donnie Yen

The first fight scene is entertaining in itself, but is taken to an extra level when it is meticulously reconstructed in Xu’s mind. The action is replayed, with added focus at the crucial moments, and embellished with Xu’s analysis. Deducing that Liu must have used qi energy and advanced fighting techniques, Xu exposes the ruse that he simply got lucky. Chan uses a range of visual effects, particularly to add precise detail to the development of internal wounds, a technique which remains effective throughout the film.

Once Xu has confirmed there is more to Liu than meets the eye, the psychological conflict between the two men can begin. Xu’s character offers a unique perspective on the action, and Kaneshiro gives a measured performance, showing a studious exterior which harbors an intense passion. Tortured by the memory of setting a young criminal free early in his career, only for him to return home and poison his parents, Xu makes law the highest principle in life, placing it above all humanity. He is determined to bring Liu to justice, long before he discovers the extent of his violent past.

Liu is also a complex character, determined to live an ordinary life but evidently hiding something terrible. Dragon’s opening scene depicts him dining with his family in a tranquil home, and it is so genuine a moment that his sincere desire for reform cannot initially be doubted. However, as word of his whereabouts spreads, Liu’s resolve is sternly tested and he is forced to directly confront the demons of his past.

Chan is able to seamlessly blend genres, combining elements from drama, action and detective films, and this also serve to make a formal point within Dragon itself. We are presented with a world in transition — the old methods of existence are beginning to be superseded as new technologies ensure material prosperity in rural areas. There is a conflict between the scientific and the natural, the part and the whole, which is exemplified in the two central characters. Tradition, spirituality and man’s connection with nature are all challenged as the film develops, adding thematic depth to an exceptionally entertaining film.

Dragon’s consistently arresting narrative is backed up by strong performances, spectacular visuals, intense action sequences and beautiful cinematography, making it an exhilarating ride.

Rob Dickie

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher
Writer: Steven Zaillian, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgård

★★☆☆☆

Admittedly, I have never understood the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel was dubbed sensationally as Sweden’s answer to War and Peace,to which it bears absolutely no resemblance, and, even withstanding such hyperbole, was a supreme disappointment. It is a readable thriller but is deeply flawed stylistically and structurally. I was not interested enough to read the sequels, or to see the 2009 Swedish adaptation.

However, the first trailer for David Fincher’s American version was tantalising, with its super slick editing and darkly foreboding imagery, backed by the glorious cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who were responsible for the film’s score, and featuring Karen O on vocals. The song is used again during the opening credits, which are instantly energising and get the adrenaline flowing, much as the trailer did. They look like an oily corruption of a James Bond title sequence. Unfortunately, despite not having technically started, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is never as good again.

It will make your skin crawl more than once, but the overall effect is numbing.

Following the opening titles, we are introduced to the parallel storylines of the two main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), who has just lost a high profile libel case against a leading industrialist, and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), who is struggling with the financial restrictions and sexual abuse of a state-appointed guardian (Yorick van Wageningen). Salander is a very modern heroine, a brilliant hacker with intriguing psychological issues, goth-punk styling and sexual ambivalence to boot – the fantastist core of the Millennium Trilogy. Mara looks the part and gives the well established character an ice-cold edge.

Blomkvist is comparatively uninteresting, necessarily so to create a sense of balance. He is not particularly likeable, has no qualms about sleeping with married women and, at the beginning of the film, has largely brought about his own downfall. Craig is perfectly suited to play him, bland enough to allow other characters to take centre stage, but charismatic when he needs to be. He is also the only actor not to bother with a Swedish accent, barring a few incomprehensible lines, which is a curiosity rather than a problem. When promised a solution to the professional and financial problems brought about by his court case, Blomkvist accepts a proposal from an ageing but wealthy businessman, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), to try and solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s murder. As if to taunt him, the killer continues to send Henrik pressed wild flowers on his birthday, just as his niece did when she was alive.

The film follows the plot of the novel exactly, with the exception of a pragmatic change to the ending. However, this a problem rather than a virtue. The central mystery is uninteresting and its solution unsurprising. It relies heavily on coincidence and good fortune, to the extent that the investigative work is merely a sideshow leading to an undeveloped tangent. Various members of the Vanger family are introduced at the beginning but few are relevant to the plot and only one is a credible suspect; most get less screen time than Blomkvist’s stray cat. As in the novel, the tacked-on ending is wholly unnecessary; it eliminates any sense of climax, and extends an already lengthy runtime.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lacks the necessary mystery to work as one, but only sporadically tries to be anything else. It should have been the hard and fast feel-bad movie the trailer promised, but it ends up as little more than a processional reformulation of the source material. Its strengths lie in exploitation; the brutal encounter between Salander and her guardian is difficult to watch but sickeningly powerful, while the sequence in which the murderer is identified is darkly comic and extremely good fun. Even these scenes, excellent though they are, are marred by a discomforting contrast in tone. And in comparison, the bulk of the film is either too serious or too restrained. Loyalty to the novel is a problem; adaptation allows leeway for changes, and if Fincher genuinely wanted to achieve anything, he should have insisted on them. The film is more polished than the novel, but suffers from many of the same problems.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not exactly a franchise in need of reinvigorating but, under Fincher’s direction, this still feels like a missed opportunity. It is technically accomplished in almost every sense, notably the cinematography, the acting and the score, but it lacks imagination, ambition and emotion. It is not gritty enough, or bold enough. At least it produced an exceptional song.

Rob Dickie

The Skin I Live In

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar, Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet

★★★★★

Note: All my reviews contain spoilers. Most of the time they are insignificant. This is an exception. If you haven’t seen the film, go and see it. Note the number of stars; it will be worth it. Then come back and read.

It should go without saying that Pedro Almodóvar is a bold director, but The Skin I Live In could well be his boldest film yet. The central character, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is a brilliant cosmetic surgeon who experiments on a beautiful woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), he keeps imprisoned in his house.

Almodóvar and his central character are both aesthetes, so it is not surprising that this film is an aesthetic triumph. Robert collects and lavishly displays works of art in his house, and, like other great artists, is obsessed with the idea of human perfection. Michaelangelo saw sculpture as the ideal means to reproduce this perfection; Robert has the means to sculpt humans themselves. He moulds Vera into the object of his desire, giving her a perfect figure and his dead wife’s face. Almodóvar and his cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine, are masterful at creating the shots to match this artistic obsession. Dead bodies are sprawled in Caravaggian poses, with rippling muscles and pools of deep red blood. The film has a decadent beauty; there is much of Oscar Wilde in it, and not just in the opium pipe.

The Skin I Live In

Vera also produces sculpture, but hers are grotesque modern forms growing out of the clay. She represents both perfection and deformity – it is a matter of perception – but, to herself, she is clearly the latter. Her room, unlike the rest of the house, is bare and cold. It is a modernist cube, a prison, decorated by her writing on the wall. It is also a gallery, designed to display her beauty to Robert through his cameras. She quite naturally takes up those poses familiar to art. Stylistically, her room also resembles the operating theatre; she is defined by her modifications. She wears a one piece black latex suit, a mask; these obscure her identity, her external value, her beauty.

Almodóvar has great style, but to focus only on the style here would be missing the point. Superficiality is punished brutally in the film. What lies beneath the skin has never been so significant. The character of Zeca (Roberto Álamo) identifies himself through a birthmark and mistakes Vera for Robert’s dead wife because they have the same face. Vicente (Jan Cornet) sees a pretty girl remove her cardigan and shoes and assumes she wants to have sex with him. Both commit rapes based on these misjudgements. Finally, Robert allows himself to be deceived by Vera’s face, her skin, ignoring, or forgetting, what lies beneath it.

Vera is the only character who, because of who she is, cannot be superficial. She becomes a character of great depth; through suffering, through yoga, through sculpture, she is forced inwards and learns the meaning of identity and what lies at the core of her being. She is transformed; she grows.

So who is Vera? Almodóvar is a master of non-linear narrative, and he uses the technique to great effect to obscure, and then to reveal her identity. The realisation of what is truly going on comes gradually. An apparent subplot becomes the very foundation of the film and the effect is staggering. A shocking story appears to reach its climax before Almodóvar pulls the rug from under our feet, forcing us to question everything that has gone before. There is no grand reveal, the details come slowly. Almodóvar lets us realise for ourselves and the twist is all the more shocking for it.

Vicente raped Robert’s daughter, out of naivety rather than malice, which drove her to insanity and suicide. Robert kidnapped Vicente and gradually transformed him into a woman, into Vera. Prior to this flashback, Robert rescued Vera as she was being raped by Zeca, and freed her from her room. They made a pact to live together as equals, as lovers. The last shot we were shown was them sharing a bed.

Almodóvar’s insistence on moral ambiguity is what makes The Skin I Live In a great film. Motivation is everything. The basics are there, but specific details are difficult to extract. At what stage did Robert see Vera as anything more than an experiment? When did he decide to give her his dead wife’s face, and why? It is inconceivable that he imagined they would end up sharing a bed together from the beginning, but it is equally inconceivable that it had not crossed his mind until the end. As for the ending, at what stage did Vera decide to kill Robert? Did she attempt to forget who she was in order to keep her vow to him? It is certainly hinted at. Did she abhor Robert himself, or the identity he had given her, or did she simply lament the loss of the one he had taken away? Did she consider him to be a monster? Banderas, incidentally, is monstrous, precisely because he refuses to play the monster. His character is dangerous, obsessive, arrogant, but as Vera approaches him holding the gun that will kill him, he asks her, with a straight face, if she is joking. You might say he had a lot of nerve asking her that. It is also a kind of innocence.

The final scene is strangely touching given what has come before. Vera returns to her mother’s shop where she, as Vicente, used to work. She explains to her former colleague, a lesbian she had fallen for, what happened to her. She then tells her mother who she really is and breaks down into tears. The screen fades to black. This is an affirmation of identity, a fundamental identity, not a history, an appearance, a gender, but a soul. At heart Vera will always be Vicente, and whatever that represents. However, Almodóvar does not make the ending straightforward. The tone is not one of regret. It is hinted that Vera may get the girl, and, in doing so, achieve something Vicente never could. She is already a much stronger character than he ever was. There may yet be a Hollywood ending in store. Almodóvar does not go so far as to suggest it. To portray it would be tantamount to vindication. That would be too bold.

Rob Dickie

Super 8

Director: J.J. Abrams
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Year: 2011
Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

★★★☆☆

Director J.J. Abrams has described Super 8 as a homage to the films his producer, Steven Spielberg, made back in the 1980s. He succeeds in creating that kind of mood. The influence of those films is obvious; we immediately recognise the suburbs, the kids riding everywhere on bicycles, the old-fashioned sense of adventure. Nostalgia is a big part of the film but Abrams doesn’t overdo it, with the exception of a few too many lens flares.

Super 8 revolves around a group of children making a zombie movie, clearly influenced by the Romero classics they are not supposed to have seen. They are inventive and determined young filmmakers, writing and rewriting scenes on notepaper, recruiting an older actress from school and sneaking out late at night to film the perfect scene. The children are endearing as a group; they appear childish in ways that modern children often do not. The relationship that develops between the central character, Joe (Joel Courtney), and Alice (Elle Fanning, who follows up Somewhere with another impressive performance) is very sweet and never overbearing.

Joel Courtney

Super 8 is best when it focuses on childhood innocence and innovation

While filming a late night scene, the children witness a train crash and it is clear that there is more to it than meets the eye. The crash is a superb action sequence; the train is tossed elastically in the air carriage by carriage. There is a dramatic contrast between light and dark, a trick that is repeated later on in another visually excellent scene that sees the military begin to destroy the suburb. After the train crash, a great sense of mystery develops; Joe takes a strange metallic cube as a souvenir, the town’s dogs simultaneously retreat to a ten mile radius, and the military presence increases. The cause of the mayhem is an extra-terrestrial monster, a powerful, spidery creature that was secretly being transported on the train.

The atmosphere is perfect and the story appears to be developing nicely, but, towards the end, Super 8 begins to falter. The monster is better left in the shadows and ends up looking like a weird cross between the creatures in Alien and Avatar. Its lair appears to have been produced entirely for aesthetic effect rather than being an appropriate fit for the rest of the film. The ending generally appears rushed and the final confrontation is so innocuous, it may as well not have happened at all. I was pleased to see the homemade zombie film included in the credits. If it hadn’t been, it may have been easier to forget why I enjoyed Super 8 so much in the first place.

It’s a film that does the little things well. It could have easily been an exercise in empty nostalgia, but the writing and characterisation are too strong to allow that to happen. The best scene sees Joe apply makeup to Alice’s face. She gives him her best zombie impersonation and he ends up with fake blood on his neck. It’s a very tangible moment, one that seems every bit as significant as any disaster going on around them. And it’s that kind of scene that legitimises Super 8 as an excellent film in its own right, rather than one that depends solely on its connection to Spielberg’s past achievements.

Rob Dickie

The Orphanage (El orfanato)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Year: 2007
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

★★★☆☆

The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo del Toro and is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature film. Thematically, it recalls del Toro’s own work, combining elements of childhood fantasy with material trauma. It is set in an unlikely orphanage, a grand old house complete with a stretch of immaculate beach, a disused lighthouse and a dark, mysterious cave. The central character, Laura (Belén Rueda), lived there as a girl, and has returned as an adult, along with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), to reopen it.

Ostensibly, The Orphanage is a ghost story. Simón, known for having imaginary friends, begins to play with orphaned ghosts from the past, leading them back into the house with a trail of seashells. The ghosts then take something precious from Simón, a set of coins, and lead him on a treasure hunt to find them, as well as to discover a secret that his parents have been keeping from him. The treasure hunt is the signature of the ghosts, a combination of malevolence and innocent play.

The Orphanage’s ghostly children look sinister, but how much substance do they have?

Starting with an unsettling scene, in which a group of handicapped orphans are welcomed to the house with a masquerade party, the ghosts become a more practical threat. They attack Laura and lock her in the bathroom, while Simón disappears as if into the air. Everything is set up perfectly, but, after this, the film begins to lose its way.

Briefly, it moves out of the orphanage, which is a misjudgement. The setting was never claustrophobic per se, but its removed atmosphere was vital to the film’s effect. An important plot development is made, which reveals the orphanage’s dark history, but this could perhaps have been made differently. There is also a scene in which a medium explores the building, which again is not at all bad, but is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film.

However, the main issue I have with The Orphanage is that, in the end, it shies away from being a ghost story at all, instead going down the route of psychological misdirection. This might have worked if the ghost storyline had been less effectively set up, or had an element of doubt. But the ghost story is what makes the film effective and doing away with it destroys the illusion. Taking the narrative as a embodiment of Laura’s psychological deterioration complicates rather than clarifies matters, and leaves the plot open to all kinds of questions. In my mind, the plot that is eventually implied makes very little sense at all. It is also detrimental to the emotional core of the film.

The Orphanage is at its best when at its most dramatic. It is a dark and atmospheric film, which makes good use of the setting and the childish imagination as a source of suspense. But, it falters towards the end, and ultimately becomes a frustrating experience, which should have been more fulfilling.

Rob Dickie