Archive | December, 2011

War Horse

29 Dec

Title: War Horse
Year: 2011
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston
MPAA Rating: PG-13, intense sequences of war violence
Runtime: 146 min
IMDb Rating: 7.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Metacritic: 72

 

The Oscar nomination ballots were mailed out to members of the Academy just a couple of days ago, and in the big race people are saying that it’s going to come down to a fight between this film, The Artist, and The Descendants, with the French black-and-white film having the edge. I’d have no problem with either The Artist or The Descendants taking it, I’ve given them both perfect grades, they currently sit as my fourth and seventh favorite films of the year, respectively, they’re both pretty damn masterful. War Horse, I’m kind of disappointed to say, isn’t a perfect film. It is, however, still damn great.

The film obviously had huge expectations, it started out as the front-runner for every awards race simply based on the pedigree: It has Steven Spielberg, a director beloved by the Academy who already has three Oscars (2 for directing, for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and the other for producing the latter), and it has him directing a film that will make you cry no matter what, a film about war, and a film about men. By which I mean, it has every single thing a Best Picture needs to walk away with the top trophy. However, coming in with such huge expectations always means the only place to go is down. That’s not why I don’t think War Horse isn’t perfect, since it never seemed like my personal cup of tea so I wasn’t holding it to such high standards, it’s just that I loved bits of it, and others didn’t do it for me. When the film was a down-and-dirty war epic, I loved it, some of the best minutes of film of the whole year done by the guy that does them best. But the lighter side to it, the family side just didn’t do it for me, even though I cried during much of it. I cried, yes, and you will, too, the score by John Williams is too emotionally manipulative to leave a dry eye in the room.

Plus, this is Steven Spielberg, people. Nobody, and I mean nobody, does this kind of stuff better than him, Saving Private Ryan‘s opening is still the definitive scene of wartime, the close-ups he makes on people’s faces to tug at your heartstrings always work, the guy is a master filmmaker for a reason, one of the greatest there’s ever been, for some people arguably the greatest. The control he has over his craft, the incredible level of artistry present in every single frame of this film is a thing of beauty. And in War Horse you have Mr. Spielberg playing at being John Ford a little bit (another thing that will make Oscar drool for this), showing us a film that’s not as edgy a look at war as Saving Private Ryan, but one that reflects stuff we’ve seen before, and displays it with an unfaltering sense of sincerity, which brings forth a lot of hugely sentimental moments, some of them quite earned, others not so much, but it still hits home in all the ways you might imagine with such a legend behind the director’s chair.

I think every person that really loves movies will love War Horse because of that, because it’s so reminiscent of those great films of a half-century ago, with hugely enchanting colors and emotions made to swell up even more behind such a powerful score by Mr. Williams, a five-time Oscar winner and loyal collaborator of Mr. Spielberg’s. This is such a Spielberg film, you have to be happy just to have this guy back, I mean I saw The Adventures of Tintin, his foray into motion-capture technology, two days ago, and it was an incredible film (I gave it an A-) and had a lot of his Raiders of the Lost Ark days, but this is a Spielberg film where tears abound and in which, amidst all the war going around, you know the man will always give you the happiest ending possible to make you smile at the end. And then you’ll cry a little more.

Even if you’re like me and this isn’t a perfect movie to you, you can’t deny that this one works like gangbusters. It works seeing a director like Steven Spielberg kind of paying homage to many directors that came before him, giving us an epic and uplifting film that will appeal to every single demographic, a film that’s not afraid about wearing a lot of heart on its sleeve, a film that’s well acted by a really dependable ensemble, and a film that technically is a supreme achievement by everybody involved. War Horse works, people, don’t try to deny it, no one can tell you what to feel and how to feel like Steven Spielberg can.

The movie is based on both a children’s book and a stage production that’s been hugely successful and renowned for how it acts out the horses from some really well-used puppets. And as it opens we’re in a small family farm in Devon, where Jeremy Irvine’s lead character, Albert, lives with his dad, a nice type of drunk, but drunk nevertheless, and mom, who’s just lovely, played by Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, respectively. And there’s a horse auction going on, in which the father sees a really handsome horse, and manages to outbid his landowner, Lyons, played by David Thewlis, to whom he owes money for it, going back home to his wife’s shock that he has spend all of the rent money for a thoroughbred when what they needed was a cheap plow horse. Albert, however, forms an immediate bond with the horse, Joey, and trains him to put on a collar and plow the fields. Until one day, as World War I breaks out, his father, drunk again, sells the horse to the Army, Albert making a promise that he would see his equine friend again someday.

We then get to see what it was like for Joey during wartime, what it was like for him and the other horses thrown into a horrible kind of chaos, confused and scared, as Steven Spielberg gives us some scenes that do act like the savage scenes in Saving Private Ryan as far as the intensity they present on-screen, but that still feel very family-friendly. The shots Mr. Spielberg gives us as we follow Joey’s journey are truly something, showing us that when there’s a war going on these animals are seen as weapons that must be used, and showing us how the horses respond to this, not knowing what’s going on, running wild outside the trenches, going through barbed wire. Of course no real horses were actually hurt in these scenes, but when you’re seeing it take place you hurt profoundly for Joey and his friends, it’s a pretty damn agonizing view, incredibly realized by the only director that could do it like that.

Like I said, I loved these bits, the war bits, they were spectacular, amongst the best scenes Mr. Spielberg has ever given us, which is saying quite a bit, but it also means that Joey, and not Albert, is the one that’s carrying the narrative thread with him, and he’s a horse, and as many unbelievable things as Mr. Spielberg does with him here, there’s only so much a horse can do. But still, there’s no denying the emotion here, some will have a hard time giving into such huge amounts of sappiness, I can relate because I was there for a second, but then I realized that this was too much a majestic film not to give myself to it. So I could handle that emotion, I could handle the boy speaking clichés to his horse with a straight face, and you should too, because the pay-off by Mr. Spielberg is more than worth it.

War Horse isn’t my Best Picture winner, it’s only just a Top 40 film of the year for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy winner of that prize come Oscar night. Sure, I liked The Artist and The Descendants much more amongst its competition, but the stuff this film does is unbelievable, I fault this film because it wasn’t perfect, because I wanted a superior Spielberg, because I wanted just a tad less saccharine, more restraint; but mid-level Spielberg is still a beauty to behold, the war scenes are amazing, and the emotions it brings to the surface are outstanding. That really should be more than enough, it’s a film that’s just perfectly flawed.

Grade: A-

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World

29 Dec

Title: Spy Kids: All the Time in the World
Year: 2011
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rowan Blanchard, Mason Cook, Jessica Alba, Joel McHale, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Jeremy Piven, Ricky Gervais, Danny Trejo
MPAA Rating: PG, mild action and rude humor
Runtime: 89 min
IMDb Rating: 3.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 23%
Metacritic: 37

 

I love the first Spy Kids movie, I remember seeing it when I was about ten years-old and loving it, and I’ve watched it a couple times since and it holds, it’s just a remarkable piece of really fun entertainment. The second one, while not as awesome, still is hugely entertaining. Then came the third one, which killed the streak, and just looked like an annoying video-game playing on a big screen, but at the same time held some of the charm. Those three films were all done in consecutive years, from 2001 to 2003, and considering how tepid the critical reception was to the third one, it seemed as though that was it, Robert Rodriguez would make that his kiddie trilogy and call it a day. Not so fast, though, eight years later he decides to dust off the franchise, give it another go, make a fourth one, try to reboot it with new characters. And I think it’s a safe bet there won’t be a fifth entry in this franchise, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World is just a pretty bad movie.

The plot is just way boring, and the jokes with which it’s filled are just truly bad, most of them being about farts or poop, which are the signs that this film was only ever concerned with keeping the attention of those below the age of six. The first film was just so, so vivid and had so much style, with Robert Rodriguez delivering family-friendly entertainment that not only the kids would get a kick out of, and in this one it’s as though he was just done with all and wanted to make a buck; all of his films have a kind of homey charm to them, since he makes them pretty much on his own without much studio nuissance, and while that in the past translated to him just being free and inspired, this time around since he seemed bored, that meant a lot of boring poop jokes. And, if you’ll please pardon the horrible pun, it stinks.

This is, simply put, a movie that normally would have gone straight to DVD, not boring anyone with a theatrical release, even though it made nearly $75 million there, more than enough to cover its $27 million budget (it was released back in mid-August). The parents to the spies this time around aren’t Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas, but instead Jessica Alba and Joel McHale. And look, Jessica Alba may be pretty (though she’s just okay to me) but Carla Gugino’s way better in that kind of role. And as much as I may love Joel McHale (bring Community back, NBC!) there was nothing remotely fresh about what he brought to the screen here. Which is kind of what this whole thing feels like, a cheap, knock-off version of the glory days in which this actually was one of the funnest kid-oriented franchises around. Now it’s just an ordinary run-of-the-mill kind of kid flick, scatological jokes included. And if you think I’m mentioning too often that there are poop jokes, I’m only doing it because the film spends even more time throwing them at us (sometimes literally, with a flying diaper).

My problem with Jessica Alba is that 99% of the time she’s just horribly miscast, the only times I’ve liked her in a role have been in Mr. Rodriguez’s Sin City where she played sweet Nancy Callahan and in James Cameron’s Dark Angel TV series which ran for two seasons on Fox and got her a Golden Globe nomination for playing Max Guevara, the show’s lead. Anyways, she’s still miscast here as pregnant superspy, who has two stepchildren unaware of her secret life, as well as a husband who hosts a show about catching spies for a living but also has no idea about her real identity, which makes him either super in love or quite dumb, you take your pick. But then we meet the supervillain who wants to take away all the time from the world, appropriately named The Timekeeper, played by Jeremy Piven, and then Alexa Vega, the original female spy kid now a top operative, comes along and asks the stepchildren to become the new spy kids. Oh, and there’s also a talking dob/robot thingie voiced by Ricky Gervais. Yawn.

It’s just all bad. I mean Ms. Vega as well as Daryl Sabara, her male counterpart on the original films, look just seriously awful trying to act as elite adult operatives. The new kids, while somewhat charming, are just way off and we don’t care about them. Ms. Alba and Mr. McHale, like I said, don’t have anything on Ms. Gugino and Mr. Banders. Ricky Gervais has a couple of funny lines as the dog, but you’re too busy thinking that this is below him. Jeremy Piven tries his best to show some kinetic energy to get this going, but it’s never enough. And Danny Trejo has a cameo here as Uncle Machete from the original films, and while that’s amusing, it’ll mostly make you wish Alan Cumming was back as Fegan Floop or Steve Buscemi as Romero.

I just really disliked what was done with a franchise I once quite liked with this fourth entry. The dumb dialogue, the poop jokes, the horrible puns The Timekeeper makes, nothing here works. What the villain of this film says in this film goes kind of like, “you have to go forward in time and not look back”, or something cliché like that. And, clichés aside, it would have been hearty advice for Mr. Rodriguez to take himself and apply onto this film that shouldn’t have been made in the first place, no matter how much fun it obviously was to come back and play in his favorite kiddie toybox (there’s even a scene in which props from the past three films are shown). Just, please, Mr. Rodriguez, for your next project focus on a second Sin City and not a fifth Spy Kids.

Grade: C-

We Bought a Zoo

28 Dec

Title: We Bought a Zoo
Year: 2011
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writers: Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus MacFadyen, Patrick Fugit, J.B. Smoove, Peter Riegert
MPAA Rating: PG, language and some thematic elements
Runtime: 124 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 61%
Metacritic: 58

 

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thoroughly disappointed by We Bought a Zoo. Okay, maybe not thoroughly disappointed, but disappointed, certainly. Cameron Crowe is the guy that made Almost Famous, one of my ten or twenty favorite films of all-time, not to mention he’s also the guy that gave us Jerry Maguire and Say Anything. However, in 2005 he did Elizabethtown, a film most remember nowadays for being the one that made critic Nathan Rabin coin the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character, which is just as well because the film was quite forgettable, a step down for such a great director. It seemed as though the critical and commercial failure of that film did a number on Cameron Crowe, taking a long six years off. He returned this year with Pearl Jam Twenty, a great documentary about a band he loves so much (I gave it an A-), but this was the one that mattered. And while it’s a very good film, it’s not great, and that to me, considering I waited six years for it, is a disappointment.

The thing that made this one a disappointment is that it was just overly-sentimental, and shamelessly so, not in a nuanced way that Cameron Crowe is so incredible at, but in a way that was just too schmaltzy, not hiding the fact that it wanted to tug your heartstrings that just didn’t do it for me. An even bigger pity considering that Matt Damon actually does a pretty wonderful job in the lead role, getting us to really sympathize with his story and really grounding the whole film with his presence alone. It’s because of him, such a fine actor, that this film works as well as it does, making the film truly funny and sweet no matter the incredulous amount of corniness surrounding it. Maybe I wanted a new Almost Famous, a perfect film, but what we got is a director bouncing back from a previous failure (though personally I thought Elizabethtown was okay), showing he still has impeccable taste and feeling, even if he goes a bit overboard with it in this one.

The film tells the truly extraordinary real-life story of Benjamin Mee, though with some creative alterations, a recenlty-widowed single father with two kids in tow who one day decides to move his family, to get a fresh start, and relocates them to a zoo they’ll now call home, and, alongside his family and a series of new friends, he starts the work of getting the zoo back to how it was in its glory days. Few directors are as unapologetically romantic as Mr. Crowe, whether it’s the boombox blasting ‘In Your Eyes’ or telling a girl she completes you, this guy is a genius at making romantic quotes because he never shies away from such an open sincerity, and We Bought a Zoo has that romantic vibe to it as well, it’s just that instead of it being between two people, it’s between a whole entire family, extended friends and recently-purchased animals included.

This may not be Almost Famous or Jerry Maguire, true enough, but just take a look at that cast, it’s incredibly likable and you can be damn sure they’ll make for good company for a couple of hours, not to mention that Mr. Crowe makes actors he directs be great (he’s the reason why the words “Academy Award winner” go before the name of Cuba Gooding Jr.). As the film opens we see Mr. Damon, who seems truly sincere every time he’s on screen, quitting his job at the L.A. Times with a confidence and easiness that just doesn’t ring true in this economic climate, but still, he just goes ahead and quits his job, not wondering for a second how he’s going to provide for his children or anything like that, just selling his house and buying a new house with a great view, and lions and tigers and a zookeeper that’s played by Scarlett Johansson, Kelly, who of course is single.

You can probably know how much of the film is going to turn out. The zoo starts getting repaired bit by bit, we get to see Patrick Fugit as an employee which will be a treat to Almost Famous fans, we get to see Thomas Haden Church who’s always delightful, and we get to see Elle Fanning, a young actress who’s on the road to greatness, play Lily, a cousin of Kelly’s who’ll of course be paired up with Dylan, the fourteen year-old sulking son of Benjamin. And he was my biggest problem with this film, the role of Dylan, because Mr. Crowe pays a lot of attention to the tension that starts building between him and his father, and instead of us finding the heart that’s in the rest of the movie there, it ends up feeling as though Dylan is just a typical moaning adolescent and not a kid grieving over the death of his mom.

As many clichés as We Bought a Zoo may have, of which there are some, this is still a winning film. Everything is just beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto (the cinematographer of choice of Alejandro González Iñárritu and an Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain) and the performances by absolutely everyone are really great here. Especially that of Mr. Damon, a man who brings this kind of sweet touch to the role, never once over-selling a single scene with a co-star, acting on pure honest instinct that’s just great to see. I thought We Bought a Zoo was a disappointment, that’s true, but that’s because I was expecting a pretty much perfect film. It may have been off-base to expect so much after a six year absence, and at the very least We Bought a Zoo is a film that approaches that greatness, comes close to it, doesn’t achieve it because it’s just too much of a saccharine ride, but it still has a handful of excellent performances that show us why Mr. Crowe is a director unlike any other, unafraid to go to that place of raw sentimentality. Here’s for not having to wait an extra six years.

Grade: B+

The Smurfs

28 Dec

Title: The Smurfs
Year: 2011
Director: Raja Gosnell
Writers: J. David Stem, David N. Weiss, Jay Scherick and David Ronn, with a story by Mr. Stem and Mr. Weiss, based on the characters by Peyo
Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Hank Azaria, Sofia Vergara, Tim Gunn, Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry, Fred Armisen, Alan Cumming, Anton Yelchin, George Lopez, Jeff Foxworthy, Paul Reubens, Gary Basaraba, John Oliver, Kenan Thompson, B.J. Novak
MPAA Rating: PG, some mild rude humor and action
Runtime: 103 min
IMDb Rating: 5.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 23%
Metacritic: 30

This is me trying to catch up with some of the films I didn’t get to see when they first came out, and the first one I’m giving a go is one that came out some five-months ago, the CGI/live-action mash-up that was The Smurfs movie, which I didn’t see then mostly because it looked like it was going to be a rather considerable waste of time, no matter how much I loved the people in front of the camera and the cartoon series it spawned from. And, unfortunately, I was exactly right; the cast, both the live-action actors and the ones providing the voice work, truly do their best to make this one worth it, but the fact is that it’s just such a silly, infantile movie that not even them can do anything to make it anything resembling decent.

I know this one’s obviously aimed at very little kids, so calling it infantile may be unfair criticism because that’s kind of what it was going for, but what I mean is that even for kiddie fare, The Smurfs doesn’t even try, aiming at the most dumb kind of jokes, some of them involving poop, and going overboard with using the word “smurf” in order to create some kind of wordplay or double entendres that don’t work in the first place and are just overused here, all of that while some shameless product placement goes along. There’s nothing in this film we haven’t seen before, it’s like this film got every little stunt from the playbook of the Alvin and the Chipmunks films, or the Garfield films or this year’s Hop and threw them all together, trying to make it seem as though they were doing something new. But it’s obviously the stuff they’re giving us is nothing original, not to mention that the films they choose to recycle material from weren’t very good in the first place.

I would normally say The Smurfs is a good film if you’ve got a kid in tow and want to pop in a DVD to chill out for a while. But I don’t even think that’s the case here, I don’t think many kids will love the repeated use of “What the smurf?” as an example of that “clever” wordplay; the endless puns that don’t work once, and grown-ups certainly will grow tired fast, watching Neil Patrick Harris, an awesome actor by all accounts, trying his best to salvage this whole thing but failing at it. What kids may like is that the titular characters of this film are kind of like them in many ways, all super curious, all hyper, finding their way in a world full of adults who walk tall amongst them and get mad for every little mayhem they cause. So yes, maybe kids will get a kick out of it for those reasons, maybe, I’m still unsure, but trust me when I say adults will find this a horrible experience, watching many little blue creatures acting like a bunch of small children on red bull, praying to god the kids they’re seeing the movie with won’t get inspired to go all frantic once the film ends.

These little guys first came to life over a half-century ago, creations by a Belgian comic book artist called Peyo; of course they then got bigger and bigger, getting their own Saturday morning TV show, becoming part of the cultural lexicon, each little Smurf having a name and a trait that defined them (Brainy Smurf, Clumsy Smurf, Jokey Smurf, you get the gist), people loved them because they were just a sweet-natured, innocent kind of fun. Which is why I think this film fails. I thought director Raja Gosnell just missed the mark incredibly when trying to get that innocence to come through, instead the whole thing’s kind of a mess, which may be wouldn’t be such a surprise considering this is the guy that gave us both Scooby-Doo live-action films and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

The film starts up in the kind of Smurf village we remember, though done in CGI that makes it look far less enchanting, with our little blue friends doing their daily routine, living and loving life as they try to escape the sorcerer Gargamel and his cat Azrael. Gargamel, by the way, is played by Hank Azaria who I love but who really goes way too over-the-top here, probably hoping all that make-up will make him unrecognizable. The thing is that all of a sudden a portal opens up and the Smurfs are suddenly in Central Park and try to enlist Mr. Harris’ character, a marketing VP for a cosmetics firm, and his pregnant wife, played by Glee’s Jayma Mays, to help them get back home. It’s impossible to maintain the innocence that made us love these characters when a film is so busy with product placement and celebrity cameos and pop-culture references.

This is a bad film, and it sucks because I loved the source material and I love many of the actors involved here. And to see Mr. Harris and Ms. Mays try their all to be earnest and try to sell this product, or to see Mr. Azaria tackle on the role of Gargamel so badly, and many great actors doing voices that go to waste (Alan Cumming for crying out loud!), is truly quite sad. If you loved the Saturday morning cartoon, avoid this one, watching the Smurfs do rap a version of ‘Walk this Way’ with allusions to how hot Smurfette is (she’s voiced by Katy Perry, natch) will make it impossible for you to look at them the same way again.

Grade: C-

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

27 Dec

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Year: 2011
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larsson
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Goran Visnjic, Embeth Davidtz, Elodie Yung
MPAA Rating: R, brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language
Runtime: 158 min
IMDb Rating: 8.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Metacritic: 71

 

Yes, last year the Swedish adaptation of the hugely popular Stieg Larsson novel came out, and it was seriously great (I ranked it as my thirty-fifth favorite film of 2010, giving it an A-), and it had a breakout performance from Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth Salander (which I ranked as my tenth favorite by a leading actress in 2010). So, of course people will say that it’s unnecessary to get a new adaptation only a year later. Well, I won’t say if thinking that was wrong or right; all I’ll say is that by the second you walk out of this American adaptation you’ll realize that this is a masterpiece, surpassing whatever great expectations were set by the original film, and finding in Rooney Mara the perfect actress to tackle on the role of Lisbeth Salander, no matter how great Ms. Rapace was a year ago. This is David Fincher proving to us why he’s one of the Top 3 directors working today, following last year’s masterpiece The Social Network (my second favorite film of 2010), with this one; going from hackers in Harvard to hackers in Sweden, but that doesn’t have any other similarities, the cold of Sweden making the cold of Cambridge seem like child’s play, and crafting a film that’s over two-and-a-half hours and that’s unapologetically brutal and yet so, so captivating. This is genius stuff, one of the very best films of the years hands down.

A lot was said for months about the search for the perfect actress to play Lisbeth Salander. And rightfully so, the role was hugely demanding, had just been played extremely well by Noomi Rapace just a year before, and, in the hands of the wrong actress, would make the movie crumble down. So pretty much every great young actress in Hollywood tried out for the role: Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart, Ellen Page, Mia Wasikowska, Evan Rachel Wood, you name it. Natalie Portman was supposedly offered the role but declined due to exhaustion from all the Black Swan craziness, unable to throw herself into such an intense role for the second year in a row. Jennifer Lawrence’s name was also thrown around, one of the brightest young actresses, but ultimately she was said to be too tall for the role. Scarlett Johansson was also considered, but Mr. Fincher considered her too sexy to play this role of a recluse hacker with a really weird kind of sex appeal.

All of their losses are our gain, as Mr. Fincher pushed and pushed for Rooney Mara, a girl who had appeared in The Social Network in a small but pivotal role, as Erica Albright, the girl you see in the opening scene at the bar telling Mark Zuckerberg he’s an asshole, effectively causing him to create Facebook out of spite towards her. She was made to audition time and time again, and finally won the role. And the stuff she brings to the table is such an incredible level of commitment that you can’t imagine any of the other prospective actresses would have brought, she’s fireworks in this film, and it would be an insult if she didn’t get an Oscar nomination (though she actually probably won’t).

I get why some people would argue against remaking a film that just a year ago did such a great job at capturing a story that, being written by a Swede and set in Sweden, was pretty much all their own. But people, take a look at what’s at the bottom of this story and you’ll realize why it needed to be told on a wider canvas, with a bigger budget, for a broader audience, with one of the most masterful eyes in cinema directing. This is a story about a female heroine, a different kind of heroine, for sure, but one that, in her quest of being an avenger against men who exact hatred towards other women, is a heroine that’s revolutionary and incredibly relevant, and a heroine we haven’t seen in films yet and that really gets to you in this one.

Because Lisbeth Salander is a truly unique character. To have a hero in this kind of film that isn’t a white male of middle age guy (because as great as Daniel Craig is as Mikael Blomkvist, this is Lisbeth’s film and story) is truly something special, a thin white girl with a petite frame and a style full of black clothing and piercings, that suggests either a hardcore goth or an S&M enthusiast. And the stuff Ms. Mara does with her is awe-inspiring, showing her unbelievable intelligence just as well as she hides her emotional scars, her eyes intently focussed underneath the strands of jet black hair that fall down her face. It’s an unbelievable character and a spell-binding performance, able to seduce you just as perfectly as she’s able to intimidate you, a woman who plays by her own set of rules, trusting no one but herself.

Screenwriter Steve Zaillian made a few changes to the story, that much is true, but this is a great writer and it still follows the story pretty close by and is quite similar to its Swedish counterpart, but from those changes and the subtle alterations made by Mr. Fincher, the film starts feeling different, becoming its own, different beast. From the minute the opening credits start rolling along David Fincher will have grabbed you by the throat and won’t let go for one hundred and fifty-eight minutes; it opens with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Karen O that plays through a series of really piercing images that will set the tone for the rest of the film. That opening sequence is a thing of brilliance, and the whole score throughout the entire movie is pretty much revolutionary, the stuff that Mr. Reznor and Mr. Ross brought to the table, and that won them an Oscar last year for The Social Network, being intensified tenfold for what they bring to this film; much like in last year’s masterpiece, the score here is just as big a part of the storytelling as any other variable.

The mystery story is obviously there, with Christopher Plummer, delivering his second great performance of the year which will help him sow up even further that well-deserved Oscar for Beginners, starring as Henrik Vanger, an old millionaire, patriarch of a powerful family that lives far off from the mainland, obsessed with finding out how his adored niece died four decades ago. The body of the niece, Harriet, was never found, and no trace to suggest she’s still alive and well somewhere else were uncovered either, so theories start forming in the mind of the old man, and later in that of Mikael Blomkvist whom he hires to help him out, and who then brings Lisbeth onto the case, theories that point the fingers at the people who were there that day all those years ago, most of them members of the Vanger family tree themselves.

As far as that goes, then yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery murder kind of film, and alongside Se7en and Zodiac you could say Mr. Fincher has crafted a masterful trilogy of murder investigation movies, giving you information like crazy and expertly showing the investigations, carefully allowing everything to set into your mind. But when Salander is on screen this film transcends that label, and becomes about the women who fought back against those men that hated them, Lisbeth being their Joan of Ark. The murder stuff is an incredible backdrop to which to set all of this to, but, like I said, this is Lisbeth’s story we care about here. It’s amazing to see an American film made by a studio that pays so much attention to a strong female character, one that’s so in control of her own sexuality no matter how vulnerable she may appear at times.

David Fincher understood all of this, he knew this was her story, he knew Stieg Larsson wrote the books because when he was fifteen he witnessed a brutal gang rape of a woman and never got over the fact that he did not help the girl, Mr. Fincher didn’t forget the fact that the original title for the book is Men Who Hate Women. So in return he fought for who he thought was right for Lisbeth, Ms. Mara, an actresses audiences don’t know and who may not seem desirable enough for many (though she seriously is, but that’s not the discussion here), and he gave her the role of a lifetime, he gave her a big-budget, huge running-time, R-rated movie for her to shine in. And she paid off his trust in her by delivering a performance that will stay with you for quite some time well after the film ends.

This film is perfect, I don’t care what any of its critics may say, it’s just insanely perfect frame by frame. And I can’t wait to watch it a second time, and a third, and a seventh; because, like any other truly great director, David Fincher’s films are ones you should spend quite some time getting into, breathing in every shot, studying them, there’s a reason why he’s famous for asking for close to a hundred takes for many scenes; he wants every little small detail to be just right. As amazing as Rooney Mara is in the role, kudos also have to paid to the rest of her cast members, Mr. Plummer like I said is terrific, and Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and a slew of other truly tremendous actors give their all to flesh out a number of really memorable characters to support Lisbeth’s story. And then there’s Daniel Craig, who plays the role of Mikael Blomkvist different than Michael Nyqvist did in the original film, something which may be expected considering the guy’s James Bond, but he also plays it perfectly, allowing for a sweetness to come organically towards a girl he starts caring for quite a lot, but knowing to always keep his distance, not to scare her off.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, may seem like a movie about a complex man helping out another man. But in reality it’s the story about a girl, and about avenging the death of another girl, and David Fincher knows that. He’s crafted yet another absolutely perfect film with this one, taking hold of a wildly successful novel that had already spawned a very great film and out-doing them all. Yes, the rape scene shown here is seriously brutal. Yes, you won’t be able to listen to Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ the same way again. Those are all things that are strong to see, brutally shown, but the way Mr. Fincher opts to show them is just a thing of beauty only someone as good as him can achieve, a master storyteller. And then there’s Rooney Mara, about whom I’ve already said quite a bit, and about whom the rest will be for you to discover. Trust me, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A+

The Adventures of Tintin

27 Dec

Title: The Adventures of Tintin
Year: 2011
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, based on the comic books by Hergé
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Tony Curran, Toby Jones
MPAA Rating: PG, adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking
Runtime: 107 min
IMDb Rating: 7.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Metacritic: 67

I knew I would really like The Adventures of Tintin. After all, it was Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest ever, doing his first animated film, in motion-capture, with the help of Andy Serkis, the pioneer of the technology and who already delivered one of the best performances of the year as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a mo-cap creation. The screenplay was written by three guys that make my geeky heart pump, Steven Moffat (he of Doctor Who and Sherlock), Edgar Wright (he of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Joe Cornish (he of this year’s Attack the Block, which I gave an A to). And it was based on the Hergé comics I devoured as a child and which I remember really fondly.

The result? Well, it’s a pretty damn exceptional film, with Steven Spielberg taking a lot pages from his own playbook, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, to really deliver a hugely entertaining film, an action adventure thrill ride with some sequences that will make your jaw hit the floor for the sheer awesomeness they evoke and just how insanely well-made they are, this film becoming the second example of the year of how just how effective motion-capture can be if used by the right hands. And obviously, few hands are as trustworthy as Steven Spielberg’s, even if he’s the analog guy, he really seems to have been reinvigorated by this new technology that allowed him to create some shots physics would have maybe made too difficult to shoot regularly. This is Steven Spielberg feeling like a kid in a new playbox, the one of motion-capture, and one in which he can run free and do pretty much whatever he wants, it’s no wonder then that his creative juices were flowing at such high levels.

It’s not just the action, though, Mr. Spielberg is still super careful with the characters and pays great attention to the small details, and of course he’s joined by John Williams, his longtime composer who hadn’t produced a score since Mr. Spielberg’s fourth Indiana Jones film three years ago, and that comes back this year with this thrill ride and the much more old-school, emotional, epic War Horse that Mr. Spielberg premiered in the same week as this film (and which I’m hoping I’ll get to see really soon). And look, I won’t lie, motion-capture still is kind of creepy, it still sits in a really uneasy place between animation and live-action that it’s sort of still carving out for itself, but this isn’t The Polar Express creepy, this is much more refined animation, and in the hands of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, who closely produced, supervised the post and would helm a potential sequel (with him co-directing with Mr. Spielberg a tentative third), and who of course employed mo-cap in his Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong (thus the employment of Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis here), the technology really goes to new places in which you don’t get distracted by it but instead get engulfed by the world it presents.

Because it really is incredibly hard not to be sucked in by Steven Spielberg presenting an action adventure film featuring action scenes in motorcycles, at sea, on air, on really awesome locations and featuring some badass villains. And as someone that grew up with Tintin as a kid, it was just brilliant to see his stories on the big screen as acted and voiced by Jamie Bell, even though something about the animation on the character made him seem younger than he probably should have. The animation, however, is done perfectly well on Snowy, the incredibly awesome and loyal dog that always accompanies Tintin on all his adventures, he pretty much walks away with the whole film. Also around, of course, are Captain Haddock as played by Andy Serkis, and Thomson and Thompson, the two nearly-identical detectives that usually are on the same cases as Tintin, and who are here played, thanks to a genius casting choice, by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

The approach Mr. Spielberg took with the mo-cap technology in re-creating these classic characters is truly ambitious and it really paid off. I was admittedly kind of scared at first, after all these were characters that were so awesome because of how simple the drawings of Hergé seemed on the page, they were truly 2D creations. And yet, the animations are so awesomely done that, while the characters obviously look far more human than they did in the comics, they maintain every little bit of the feel the characters had when I read them, and that’s what they were ultimately all about. Further enhancing the experience is the fact that 3D on the hands of someone like Steven Spielberg is used not as a cheap gimmick, but as a true way to enhance our overall experience of the world we’re thrown into.

As we follow Tintin and Captain Haddock on the search for a sunken ship once commanded by Haddock’s ancestor, and their encounters with the film’s antagonist, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine, played by Daniel Craig (who had worked with Mr. Spielberg before on Munich), we’re taken on a rollercoaster ride full of explosions and chases and seriously fun characters played and voiced by a truly incredible cast. It’s impossible not to love The Adventures of Tintin, even if you’re not familiar with the character, even if you think you don’t like motion-capture, this film is tremendous, a seriously smart family-friendly film that will honestly be enjoyed by every member of the family. After a three year absence (or six if you, like me, would rather believe the fourth Indy film didn’t happen) Steven Spielberg is back, reinvigorated by a new technology he employs to create some mind-bending sequences reminiscent of his best work in the action adventure genre.

Grade: A-

Carnage

27 Dec

Title: Carnage
Year: 2011
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski and Yasmine Reza, based on the play by Ms. Reza
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
MPAA Rating: R, language
Runtime: 79 min
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Metacritic: 57

 

When I first heard there was an adaptation of Yasmine Reza’s play God of Carnage in the works, set to be directed by Roman Polanski and with a cast of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, I was pretty much blown away, I expected a truly impeccable film to come out from that. After all, the play won the Tony for Best Play in 2009 (when the cast of the original Broadway production was Marcia Gay Harden, who won a Tony herself, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels), and was just super critically lauded. And the people that came on board to make it a film were all insanely talented, all of them except John C. Reilly being Oscar winners, and Mr. Reilly himself being a past nominee and one of the most versatile actors working today for my money, being able to nail both dramatic and comedic roles, which would be key for a film like this.

And yet, as amazing as the talent assembled and source material were, Carnage just didn’t soar to the heights I expected and wanted it to. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the direction by Mr. Polanski is incredibly assured in the making of a film that centers on the interactions of just four people, and all four of these actors are incredible, Ms. Winslet and Ms. Foster especially, but it just doesn’t get through, the story isn’t as gripping as it probably was on stage, losing quite a lot of its funnybone and sheer impact, and even though its well-made and well-acted, I started wishing that maybe this director and actors would have teamed up in another, better project.

I still liked it quite a lot, and watching Mr. Polanski make a film that’s this short, just eighty minutes long, working at such a fast pace with a limited amount of actors in a limited space, is bound to deliver the goods. It’s just that the goods it delivers aren’t exactly consistent, the film starts off brilliantly, the first half hour or so is truly impeccable, but then it kind of falters a bit and goes off the rails by the end. But I think we should focus more on the positive side of things, like how fun it is seeing someone like Roman Polanski staying true to the limitations provided by a play as far as time and space goes, spending eighty minutes in an apartment in Brooklyn where two couples are spending an evening of bickering. Most films would have tried to expand the time, would have tried to get the characters the play establishes onto other locations that the broader field of films allow in comparison to the stage. But Roman Polanski shows confidence in making a faithful adaptation of the material he got, writing the script himself alongside Ms. Reza.

The play is about the human condition, an exploration of what happens when those required social niceties to keep society running smoothly come crumbling down and the nastier side of us is allowed to be seen. Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play one couple, while Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play the other one, and it’s from them, two couples of middle-aged, white people, that we get to see what happens when the walls of politeness come down. What makes them come down is a schoolyard incident between both of their sons, which makes the two couples come together to talk it over, and evolves into a full-on carnage, like the title suggests, every one of them showing what’s so wrong with them and, maybe, with some of us too.

If spending time with these two couples was claustrophobic on stage, forcing you to see these ugly things, though presented to you in quite a funny way, then it’s even more so in film. As not only are you stuck in one apartment, which was really neatly designed by Dean Tavoularis the seventy-nine year-old production designer who worked on all three The Godfather films as well as Apocalypse Now, but you also have the addition of close-ups on the faces of these people to amp up the sense of claustrophobia, courtesy of cinematographer Pawel Edelman, an Oscar-nominee for his work on Mr. Polanski’s The Pianist. That sort of style works well to milk to these characters obsessions with appearances and provide a really bleak comedy that Mr. Polanski and his cast feel at home in.

Penelope and Michael, the characters of Ms. Foster and Mr. Reilly host this meeting, the parents of the injured boy. She’s tightly-wound, over-parenting her son; he seems kind of easy-going, but also rather dumb in comparison to the very bright Penelope, which of course works all that much better when you have the cerebral Ms. Foster and Mr. Reilly who’s played Dale Doback. The parents of the guy that did the beating are a more refined couple, Alan and Nancy, he a successful lawyer; she an investment broker. They obviously get together because, as they say, they’re all grown-ups, rational people, so they meet together happily, ready to quickly resolve a silly little dispute their kids had because, well, because they’re kids. Not so fast.

Things quickly start heating up, and faults of each of them start coming to the surface, faults of their marriage, each of them bubbling up because of the behavior they, the grown-ups, start exhibiting. Mr. Waltz is good at playing Alan, a guy who looks bored throughout and can’t even pretend to care about what his son did, more occupied with a business transaction that has him picking up the phone at the worst of times without care about what’s transpiring in the apartment. The first bits of Carnage work truly well, as the tension starts building up, differences of class and character start superimposing themselves between these four people who realize they just can’t stand each other. The process of watching those niceties go out the window is terrific fun, as the conversation about their kids turns into one about so many other things, but as soon as the process is done with and the third act kicks in with the niceties all gone and everyone involved, especially Mr. Foster, amping up their energy by a notch or two, it just got too messy for me to enjoy just as much, as well-acted a craziness as it may have been.

Grade: B+