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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Your mission, Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), should you choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the tired old IMF team and, when no-one is looking, take the mickey out of the whole thing. Should this fail, the secretary and her boss will deny all knowledge of you. Presumably because the offer came with rather more zeros on the end of it than our Simon has previously enjoyed, he accepted. For this, we should all be profoundly grateful. What might otherwise have been a rather tedious enterprise (yes, he also played Scotty in the reboot of Star Trek) now has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments to make us all feel better about spending 133 minutes in the presence of Tom Cruise who, let’s face it, can be rather tiresome.

Tom Cruise goes for a walk in the Dubai park

 

At this point, I need to say a few words about Brad Bird whose name appears as the director of the whole shooting-match. This man has cut his creative teeth in comedy, being part of the creative team at Pixar that brought us Toy Story 3 and Up. More importantly, he has years of experience on The Simpsons. This is not to say Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is played entirely for laughs. That would rather run counter to the spirit of the MI brand which is supposedly high-octane, adrenalin-pumping action throughout. But even when the camera is on Tom Cruise, there’s a faintly irreverent tendency to play with expectations and make us smile just before he does something spectacular or there are explosions to get us back on track. This allowed a rather hackneyed plot to get through to the end with only a few boring moments.

Jeremy Renner showing his good profile

 

So here we go again with the megalomanic who thinks it would be a salutary lesson for humanity to provoke the superpowers into exchanging a few nuclear warheads. He starts the ball rolling by blowing up a part of the Kremlin and then gets into the more serious business of launching a nuclear strike at Seattle. The only thing standing between us and nuclear armageddon is the rump of the IMF. That’s Benji Dunn on his first real mission after qualifying for fieldwork, Jane (Paula Patton) who’s aggressively physical but an emotional wreck after her previous field boss was assassinated, and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who’s also somewhat emotionally suspect given his last outing in the field left the woman he was supposed to protect dead.

 

In the best traditions of Mission Impossible, we start with a little backstory on Jane and then get into the rescue of Ethan Hunt from a Russian jail. They then have a few hours to infiltrate the Kremlin to steal information about the megalomaniac who’s only known by his code name. This is the usual excuse for Tom Cruise to walk through all the security checks as a Russian General and then break into the archives where the information is supposed to be stored. There’s a nice use of technology with Simon Pegg alongside to ensure it doesn’t always work properly and, with five minutes too much added value, the Kremlin blows up. In total, I estimate the whole film could benefit from being cut by between fifteen and twenty minutes. The MI production team just can’t resist adding just a little bit more to most sequences when less would have been better.

Paula Patton gets ready to beat up a Bollywood star

 

It’s the same when we get to Dubai. The action sequences on the outside of the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building and a spectacular hotel — are jaw-dropping. There’s a wonderful sense of depth to the way this has been filmed and, as one never happy with heights, this is a tense moment for me. But, with the joke about the malfunctioning technology wearing thin, it’s all plotted as excuses for Tom Cruise to climb up and come down rather quicker, for there be be a cunning and more reliable use of technology until it gives them away, and then fights and chases. But for the location shots, this is generic thriller filler with the MI twist. The big fight at the end in the automated carpark is also tedious as we intercut with different team members trying to beat the odds as the missile flies towards Seattle. I feel very sorry for Michael Nyqvist as the villain. He was probably added in the hope it would boost the international box office takings after his success in Stieg Larsson’s “Girl” movies as Mikael Blomkvist, but he gets no real screen time to establish himself as a credible character. It could have been played by anyone and, in the fight sequences, probably was a stunt double most of the time.

Simon Pegg without the dilithium crystals in view

 

Taking a broader view, this would have been significantly improved by more discipline in the cutting room. Given what we are left with, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is one of the better thrillers of the year if only because it’s not taking itself too seriously. Although I can’t see it justifying more films in the franchise, it’s markedly better than the last two MIs and worth seeing assuming you like Hollywood-style, somewhat brainless adventure stuff. As a final thought, there’s a rather nice element running through this which I will not spoil but which does show a slightly more human side to the otherwise mechanical Ethan Hunt.

 

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)

October 26, 2010 12 comments

In the written form of story-telling, you can shift the point of point to give a different perspective on the emerging narrative. This is more difficult in the cinema. That’s what makes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest slightly different to the preceding two in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but no less engrossing.

Some thirty years ago, a friend of mine did quite a lot of business in Sweden and I always remember him saying, “If you want anything done, you have to form a committee.” I don’t know whether the same decision-making philosophy applies today, but he described Swedish society as being co-operative in spirit with more people admitted to stakeholder roles.

The best way to think about this trilogy is to see it as two separate narrative arcs. The “girl” starts off defending her mother from an abusive father, ends up punished in a mental hospital, and then released on licence into a corrupt Guardianship system. The journalist has had an eventful life investigating the rich and famous, is the joint founder of a high-profile and respected journal, and continues his pursuit of justice.

This makes the trilogy all about pace and scale. In the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the journalist sets off in classical detective story format. From his point of view, we see the investigation develop. This is small-scale and limited by what he can find. Initially, his progress is slow until the girl makes it a team effort. Then the pace picks up as they begin to see beyond the immediate and glimpse the bigger picture. By the end of the film, we have some real insight into the journalist and observe the girl without being given enough information to understand her. This is reflected in the descriptive title to the film. This is “as she is”.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a title in the past tense. We are immediately referred back to the original defensive act as the context for the current action. This switches the frame of the film from a genre-specific detective format to that of a psychological thriller where we begin to see why the girl has been victimised. This means we step back from the more intimate story between the journalist and the girl, and now see them as players in a bigger game.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is also a title in the past tense and a reference back to the same attack on her father, now given fresh impetus from her new attempt to kill him. The frame for the narrative is completely expanded to include the state. If there’s one basic truth about governments, it’s that one journalist cannot investigate and prosecute high-ranking civil servants or politicians. Only a state has the authority to look at itself and decide whether anything should be done. Although there’s a wonderful mythology surrounding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s contribution to the downfall of President Nixon, there was a continuing investigation, initially FBI-based, looking for a link between the Watergate break-in and the re-election campaign committee. Our fictional journalist is no better than the real-world equivalents and can do nothing more than hitch his wagon to the Swedish Prime Minister’s task force. He stops being the “hero” in the Hollywood sense of the word, and becomes a cog in the machine. He joins the committee to get things done.

The girl has a different role to play. In a patriarchal society, there are penalties for attacking your father. It matters not whether this is in defence of your mother or yourself, you will be put on trial. Thus, the girl must be seen as the victim both personally, because she has been seriously injured, and legally, because the courts are to be used to lock her away again in “the” mental hospital. That’s why it’s such a pleasing touch when she asserts her individuality by dressing in high style for her court appearances. She will not be intimidated.

As a drama produced by Yellow Bird, this is a flat, ensemble piece with everyone pitching in to get a successful resolution. The other journalists at the Millennium find key information, the journalist’s sister is the girl’s lawyer. Even Plague gets a featuring moment or two in finally hacking the corrupt psychiatrist’s laptop. There are new players on the side of “right” and, of course, it must all be resolved with the girl released from custody.

The moment at the end between the journalist and the girl is touching and hits exactly the right note. In this concluding film, Noomi Rapace is a largely silent presence. It’s a nicely judged performance as she works her way back to health and then endures the trial. Michael Nyqvist continues as the dogged investigator although, as in the first film, he is forced to fight for his life. Yet again, he is saved by a woman. This is as it should be in a film about patriarchalism. A few words must be said about Anders Ahlbom as the venal and perverted psychiatrist and Lena Endre as the brave co-founder of Millennium and the journalist’s lover. In an ensemble film where everyone must work for the good of the team, they produced particularly clever performances. Ahlbom is the epitome of cunning, never overconfident and sufficiently aware to understand when it’s better to say nothing. Endre rises magnificently to the thankless role. She must be intimidated as the co-founder of Millennium and jealous of the girl who seems to be seducing her man away. It could have been the worst kind of hysteria, but it was muted and sensitive.

I have two reservations about the end-product. The first is that, with everyone spying on everyone else, it’s difficult at times to know which side we are seeing. The second is more serious. The Niedermann thread is completely wasted. He should have been caught at the end of the second film. In this episode, his only function is to interrupt the development of the major plot themes, surviving to allow the girl an opportunity to show she is back on form. In reality, all the post-trial excitement does is delay the meeting we want to see with the journalist. A more subtle way to demonstrate her recovery should have been found.

This is a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the first two. It’s genuinely engrossing and produces a highly satisfying resolution to the girl’s narrative arc with a senior agent of the Swedish government giving evidence for her in the trial. There’s no better way for a state to acknowledge its past mistakes. But, if you have not seen the first two, do not go and see this. You will be thoroughly confused.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)

September 21, 2010 1 comment

In a sense, a film needs a plot. There has to be something coherent to put on the screen. It should be entertaining. For those who prefer intelligence, it should offer food for thought. But without characters we can understand, respect and care about, there’s no point to the plot. There are only images on the screen with us indifferent as to the fate of those depicted in them.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was the man’s film. He was the reporter threatened with jail and so available to undertake the investigation. She was playing catch-up. In the end, it was a partnership of equals. Sex was on her terms. They remained friends when she walked away. He was humble enough to be able to accept the fact that she saved his life. She could be with a man and not think of him as an enemy.

The sequel is a film about a woman. There’s a man who believes he is her friend, but he is now the one playing catch-up. The title is interesting and revealing. It names her as The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden. As a twelve-year old, she defended her mother by setting fire to her abusive father. She is all grown up now and the film starts with our heroine returning to Sweden after a year’s meaningless travel abroad, finding reasons to spend her ill-gotten gains. We see snapshots of her living out of suitcases. Later we see inside the apartment she buys in Sweden. It’s mostly empty. The refrigerator is bare. Eating is a functional thing you do to stay alive. She may have acquired wealth, but it has not changed her as a person. Literally and metaphorically, she lives hand-to-mouth. Material possessions are of little interest to her unless they serve a specific purpose. All she needs is a place to sleep, anonymous clothes to wear and the floor to store them on. This expensive flat has windows looking out into the world she must periodically enter. She feels safer inside looking out, but is supremely confident when out. Someone who knows her, thinks of her as invincible. Indeed, that’s how she thinks of herself. Except, of course, someone more invincible can overwhelm her. When this happens, she never gives up. She just carries on as if nothing untoward has happened.

Early on in the film, her employer from the first film complains that she treats those she knows as disposable. People are only there for her convenience, to be spoken to or helped as she feels appropriate. He wonders how someone can be so walled-off from the world. He says this as an outsider and without rancour, accepting her for who she is. There’s no need for him actually to ask how she relates to those whom she might call her friends. Apart from her first legal Guardian and a girl for sex, she has no friends.

Because she is who she is, she finds herself a target. As it’s explained to her, “It’s just business.” But through this involvement, she gets a second chance at revenge for what happened to her mother. In other films, we would no doubt lose sympathy for someone who decides to act out the impulse. Taking both films together, however, the cumulative horror in her life gives us understanding. The simple vulnerability and honesty of her defuses the issue. This is not sensationalised in Hollywood style with vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. This is an abused woman who fights to reclaim who she is as a person. Nevertheless, we should note that she immediately responds with graphic violence to her rape and, at the end of the first film, she takes vicarious revenge, destroying the wealthy tycoon who was able to imprison her man for an alleged defamation. We can therefore see a kind of inspirational righteousness in her. She seeks justice, not only for herself, but also for those she has some feelings for. Towards the end of this film, she takes the unprecedented step of sending her man an e-mail acknowledging him as a friend. The first sign that a woman who has suffered so much abuse at the hands of men may be able to trust one of that breed again.

This is a film in which people who are hit, stay hit. It does not glorify violence. Instead it shows brutality for what it is and what it does to people. Take it as being a part of the film’s integrity. The story blends detection with a more thrillerish approach. This is detection as self-defence, aiming to identify the source of the threat and eliminate it before “it” eliminates the heroine. More importantly, it starts to give us a better view of the extent of the conspiracy that has victimised the girl-now-woman. Although there’s one obvious “bad guy”, he’s not working alone. Swedish society is implicated and it will take a few brave souls to root out the corruption and see justice done.

This film is stunningly good, in many ways rather better than the first. Although, when I think about it, the second draws its strength from the first. If you saw the second as a stand-alone, you would struggle to understand it. Once again, the cast proves sensational. Michael Nyqvist is playing the “hero” in a wonderfully understated way, while Noomi Rapace continues to star as the eponymous “girl”. In every way, she carries the film. Indeed, seeing the structure of this film and how the primary characters relate to each other, makes Hollywood’s decision to remake the Millennium Trilogy even more bizarre. When you cast a sex symbol like Daniel Craig into the leading male role, how can he fail to see, let alone touch, the girl until the last few frames? Although the hero does have sex with the editor of the magazine where he works, I doubt this opportunity to see Craig without his shirt will be enough to satisfy Hollywood and Craig’s fans. I fear there will be major surgery to distort the plot into a star-vehicle. Unfortunately, Stieg Larsson is no longer around to defend the novels he wrote — the trilogy being published posthumously. When so much money is at stake, the needs of bankers outweigh any artistic hopes that might lurk in the consciences of the author’s heirs who sold the rights.

Back in the Swedish film industry where character is everything, events are left nicely poised for the third. Fortunately, the trilogy is playing as a single season so I only have a few weeks to wait to see how it all works out.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)

August 18, 2010 4 comments

Neutrality is a most curious convention in International Law. When all about you are fighting, one country stands aloof and refuses to support any of the “sides”. The curiousness lies not so much in the wish to avoid fighting — the risk of casualties both in the armed forces and the civilian population would deter all rational governments from involvement — but in the willingness of the actual combatants to respect the assertion of neutrality and not allow the theatre of war to stray over the relevant borders. So Sweden managed to remain relatively uninvolved in WWII. There was significant trade, significant volumes of money moved through the banking system, some Swedes fought in the German army. Some even worked as guards in Treblinka. The degree of collaboration is one of those unexplored pieces of history. More modern Swedish governments prefer to remember heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Hungarian jews by issuing them with Swedish passports, carefully reconstructing history in the schools and media generally to divert attention from the inconvenient truth.

One of the more illuminating lines in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor is that everyone has secrets, even countries. Given that the plot surrounds a family whose wealth was undoubtedly enhanced through collaboration with the Nazis, we are immediately pitched into a classic murder mystery from the Golden Age with the political ideology of Aryanism to the fore. Only a limited number of people could have “done it” because, at the relevant time, all the key players were trapped on an island by a serious traffic accident. But there are two elements that lift this from a mundane Agatha Christie plot into a work for modern sensibilities. The first is that it plays with the nature of history and the power of the modern eye to interpret and reinterpret the signs from the past. In this, it’s clearly following in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose with its deconstructionist and semiotic undertones. The ability to manipulate images and to excavate the past for even the most trivial of pieces of paper are the keys to all understanding. The second decision of note is to take an unflinching look at misogyny. I cannot remember a film in recent years that exposes all the prejudices and abuses that lie mostly hidden under the surface of most modern societies. Perhaps from a poor understanding of Scandinavia, I had always thought Sweden was a relatively civilised country. Sadly, if this film is in any way representative of reality, it seems just as venal and corrupt as the rest of the world when it comes to the treatment of women.

In this, the pivotal character is the eponymous girl, played with outstanding suppressed violence, by Noomi Rapace. It’s an intensely demanding role and, in the wrong hands, it would have completely changed the character of the film, probably condemning it to the direct-to-video route to oblivion. As it is, her performance is one of the most memorable I can recall in the last decade. She has been abused at every point during her life, yet she manages to retain integrity and a brutal kind of honesty. In the end, she gives as good as she gets. Playing her foil is Michael Nyqvist as a journalist paid to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of a girl some forty years ago. Nyqvist is passive and understated but, because of his honesty and empathy, he is able to bridge the gap with Rapace’s character. Apart they are interesting. Together they become an unstoppable force for truth. Unlike Sweden itself which played a game of neutrality during WWI, this film takes no prisoners when it comes to confronting the abuse of women in Swedish society.

Almost without exception, every character is beautifully played from the obsessed industrialist who pays the journalist to find the murderer, to Peter Andersson’s extraordinarily corrupt Guardian responsible managing the dragon girl’s money while she is out of mental hospital on licence, to Björn Granath as the determined local police officer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with the current stars of Swedish film and television, but the entire cast of “unknowns” emerge as fresh and talented. One further cast member must be mentioned. The scenery of the island and key locations are stunningly beautiful, if somewhat bleak, a factor that plays against the emerging horror of the investigation and surrounding events.

I am disturbed by stories that the film is to be reshot for American audiences. Apparently, Daniel Craig is lined up to play the journalist. Frankly, I think this is a supreme insult to the director and cast of the Swedish original produced by Yellow Bird. I cannot conceive of any sanitised script with a cast of stars coming remotely close to being as good. Having James Bond in the remake is ludicrous casting against type and can only be explained by Hollywood’s lack of faith in the quality of the story. You can just imagine the producers in a smoke-filled room, “We need a star to carry this movie — unknowns would condemn our remake to the arthouse circuit.” In truth, the only reasons for this offensive decision are the extreme parochialism of America that, for the most part, is hostile to any culture other than what it claims as its own. And the inability of the audience to read the subtitles. Let’s face it, the desperation of US distributors cannot be better illustrated than by the rerecording of the voice tracks for Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animations. There has been no worse butchery in recent years than cutting out the sensitive vocal performances of the Japanese casts in favour of Hollywood stars. I shall be watching the other two Swedish films in this Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I will not be queuing to watch the Hollywood remakes.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

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