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Posts Tagged ‘Stellan Skarsgard’

It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

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If you were to saunter into the offices of any major movie studio and request $80 million to engage the cream of international talent so that they might make a lavish two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie about sexual violence against women, featuring all manner of graphic content and centring on a protagonist who is a) bisexual and b) possibly insane, you would most probably find yourself rapidly expelled from the same offices very shortly afterwards, possibly not even via the door. Unless, of course, said movie had a built-in audience, due to it being an adaptation of a massively popular novel by one of the most bankable names in modern literature. Some say he was a journalist who investigated and campaigned against the extreme right. Others say that he spent time in his youth training African women to use grenade launchers. All we know is, he’s called the Stieg (Larsson).

Yes, it’s David Fincher’s value-for-money adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – one of those books which everyone seemed to be reading just a couple of years ago. I, whether fortunately or not, am one of the eight people in western Europe not to have done so, nor have I seen the Swedish movie version of this story. So at least this review will be unpolluted by outside influences, for a change.

Set in Hollywood Sweden (i.e. everyone speaks English – this produces some very strange and intrusive effects, such as when the print on a cheque is in Swedish but the script in English), Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading investigative journalist who’s facing a career crisis after a lawsuit goes against him. He is thrown a lifeline when elderly tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) retains his services, ostensibly to write his biography but really to investigate the vanishing of his niece decades earlier. The Vanger clan are a prickly and deeply dysfunctional group, with more than one former Nazi sympathiser amongst them, but – rather to his surprise – Blomkvist makes progress. Wanting to corroborate his findings, he retains the services of a superbly efficient investigator the Vangers have previously used to run a background check on him.

She is Lisbeth Salander (Mara Rooney), a striking and uncompromising figure: androgynous, fiercely self-contained, heavily tattooed and pierced (she is the title character). The events of a traumatic childhood have left her emotionally aloof, and also the ward of the state. Nevertheless she leaps at the chance to assisting in hunting down a serial killer who preys on women, not realising the danger that she and Blomkvist may be placing themselves in.

First things first – judged by any reasonable standard, this is an excellent thriller. The distinctly Bond-esque title sequence with accompanying rock song may create entirely the wrong set of associations for the audience, but it soon becomes clear that this is a more thoughtful and measured kind of film. Indeed, there’s almost something of Agatha Christie in the set-up of the central mystery plot. Said plot is satisfyingly convoluted and clever, and the movie never insulted my intelligence – if anything, it insulted my stupidity in that a few small points whizzed past a little too swiftly for me to keep track of them! This did not spoil the overall experience, though.

Beyond this, though, the film has a peculiarly sprawling structure. It’s quite a long way into what’s a long movie before Craig and Rooney team up (the chemistry between them is excellent and both give terrific performances), and prior to this it’s a little unclear what the significance of the Salander character is.

This is particularly the case given that the thread about Blomkvist and the Vangers is, initially at least, rather genteel. The scenes with Salander, on the other hand, frequently plunge into graphic unpleasantness with virtually no warning. This is why this movie has been slapped with a box-office-unfriendly 18 rating in the UK, and deservedly so. They are not pleasant to watch: there is considerable sexual violence and other explicit abuse. I could feel the atmosphere in the auditorium change the first time one began, and shift again whenever one seemed to be in the offing.

Then again, if people find scenes of rape and abuse shocking, that’s surely only for the best? A friend who saw the film said he could have done without them – but interestingly, he didn’t come out and say they were gratuitous. They absolutely aren’t – to me they’re central to the theme of this film, which is the effects of sexual violence on both the perpetrators and the victims. Given the devaluation of violent crime in so many movies and TV shows (victims blown away by the score in CSI, hunting killers treated as a jolly, jokey game in Midsummer Murders), the extreme nature of some sequences in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo serves to make clear exactly the character of the offences the film is dealing with. I found parts of this film difficult to watch, it’s true – but that’s as it should be, in a civilised society. I thought this was a brave and commendable choice on the part of the film-makers.

David Fincher’s direction is fluent, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is deft (and even shot through with dark humour in places), and all the performances are accomplished: Rooney and Craig particularly so, while a rather good Stellan Skarsgard pops up to fly the thesping flag for the home team. (Nearly everyone else is British or American – accents are rather variable.)

What really surprised me was how much of a European sensibility this film managed to retain – in its careful pace, its refusal to provide the obvious set-pieces one would expect in a Hollywood thriller, and most of all in its closing stages. With what’s been presented as its central plotline apparently resolved, the film nevertheless proceeds for quite a long time, dealing with various other subplots. Salander, who has grown in significance throughout the story, is suddenly unequivocally the main character and the film is now about her on a more personal level. It’s a little jarring, especially when the story then suddenly concludes, without presenting any easy answers and in a dismayingly downbeat fashion given what’s preceded it.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine another conclusion to a very solidly-made film with a distinct flavour and toughness of its own. Lots of little bits of it resemble other things to some degree or other – but taken as a whole, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a unique experience, and a high quality movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s only that fact that stops me from giving it a very strong and unreserved recommendation.

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